by George Beaver
For the Haudenosaunee, both social dancing and the older sacred dances are aspects of prayer, as are the songs and chants accompanying the dances. Dancing and singing are inseparable; both are ways to communicate with the Creator. The Creator is pleased when people dance and sing for Him. It is a way to tell the Creator that we are happy and thankful for our good health and for this life He has given us. It is a way of giving thanks beyond mere words. Perhaps dancing to give thanks is older than language.
Sacred Songs and Dances
The Haudenosaunee have embedded these sacred beliefs in traditional ceremonies. Each ritual dance has several sacred songs. Three important sacred ceremonies are the Curing Dances, Sacred Society Dances and Sustenance Dances.
While the Curing and Sacred Society Dances are private, the Sustenance Dance is one of the most prominent Social Dances. Sustenance refers to the foods our Haudenosaunee ancestors gathered and ate over the centuries. The Sustenance Dances include the Corn Dance (Onehe odie:na), the Bean Dance (Osahe da odie:na) and the Squash Dance (Onyohsa odie:na). Corn, beans and squash were planted together in one “hill” and sustained each other: the bean vines climbed up the sturdy corn stalks and the wide squash leaves kept the weeds down and helped keep the “hill” moist after a rain. In this way, each of these three sisters helped each other grow and produce more sustenance for the Haudenosaunee. These three have always been important to our diet.
The Social Dances are uniquely ours. Although many of the 500 North American indigenous nations have not survived, “Indian” reserves or reservations hold powwows each summer. These celebrations have a proud history among many, but not all, First Nations. For example, most Northwest Coastal peoples feast, give speeches, honour people, sing and dance at community potlatches rather than the powwow, and the Haudenosaunee Social Dances as well are not suitable for powwows except as demonstration dances.
The Haudenosaunee, or Longhouse People, once lived in long bark houses. In the Mohawk Valley, south of Lake Ontario, anthropologists have unearthed the remains of a longhouse that was over 200 feet long. Longhouses were like apartment buildings with the living quarters built end to end.
We no longer live in Longhouses, so now the Haudenosaunee use shorter buildings. We still call these new buildings longhouses and use them as gathering places for traditional socials and various sacred ceremonies throughout the year. Non-traditional dances, such as square dancing, take place elsewhere.
On a snowy evening in December 2005, I attended a social at Six Nations Polytechnic, east of Ohsweken, Ontario.
These Six Nations Iroquois events include social dancing and traditional foods, such as corn soup. In Iroquoian culture, singing, drumming, and the steady clatter of rattles always accompany Social Dances.
The people organized this social to seek support for young people who were protesting to stop the town of Caledonia from expanding into Six Nations territory. The youth asked everyone at the social to sign their petition and support their protest in Caledonia the next day.
As yet, no one has settled Six Nations land claims in the Haldimand housing tract. Six months later, in May 2006, non-Native opponents turned violent, but the Confederacy has kept its resolve.
The Opening Address
The Caledonia protest social was not in a traditional longhouse, but I had to follow some formalities. After a hearty pot luck supper of vegetables, meat and gravy, a man the hosts had appointed previously stood up and began to address the people. He looked barely 20 years old but he began to recite the Ganohonyohk, or “Opening Address”, with great confidence. He spoke in Cayuga and used not a word of English.
The Ganohonyohk combined a speech, a thanksgiving address and a prayer which the Six Nations’ ancestors had developed many centuries ago. Some people refer to it as “the words that come before anything else.” Its purpose has always been to invoke a good attitude and to focus people on the reason for the gathering. To reach this frame of mind, the older generations often had to forget the details of what might have been a long, dangerous trip by canoe or foot. A close encounter with a bear, for example, or the capsizing of a canoe would be hard to forget. The modern Haudenosaunee might have to forget car troubles or other problems.
To this end, the Ganohonyohk aims to take people’s minds to a loftier level. A good way to achieve this is to remember all of the things for which we have to be thankful, so the soothing words of the first speaker served to symbolically “comb the twigs and leaves” out of the weary travelers’ hair.
The speaker at the social I was attending only spoke a few minutes, as the long version would have taken more than half an hour. The short version might begin this way: “We are happy and thankful to see this large gathering and to see each other in good health. We have traveled over dangerous roads and have arrived safely, so let that be in our minds.
“Now let us be thankful to our Mother, the Earth. We come from the Earth. The food we eat comes from the earth. When we die, our bodies will return to the earth, so let that be in our minds.
“Now we will be thankful and remember the many kinds of plants that cover the earth. Beautiful flowers make us happy, grasses feed the animals and medicine plants keep us healthy and well, so let that be in our minds.
“We will now remember and be thankful for the many kinds of berries and fruit that we use as food and medicine. In particular we remember the strawberries, so let that be in our minds.”
The list continues on in the Ganohonyohk until most things in the whole cosmos are mentioned. These include the great forces of nature such as the rain, the wind, the stars, the moon whom the Haudenosaunee have called our Grandmother, the sun that lights the earth, Skaniyadio (Handsome Lake), who retold the Creator’s good words, and the Four Heavenly Messengers. The final thanks go to our Creator (the Great Spirit) who lives in heaven and sends down His gifts to us here on earth.
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