Interviewer: Elma Miller
Location: Woodland Cultural Centre, Six Nations Reserve, Brantford, Ontario
Elma Miller: Would you please identify yourself and your position in the community?
Amos Key: My name is Amos Key. I have a 20-page curriculum vitae but I am not giving you that today. In relationship to your interest in the Mohawk language as having written a choral work using that language I am just going to give you some background as to where I come from.
At Six Nations here there has been a huge paradigm shift, socially and intellectually, and I think spiritually as well. It has to do with taking control of our own institutions, restructuring them and putting them out there, and letting people come and enjoy them again. A lot of our institutions, our cultural traits and the impact of our civilization are well documented. In the last 20 to 25 years this paradigm shift has occurred, even in identifying who we are. We do not say we are Indians any more. We talk about who we are in our language, our clan, in the Six Nations Territory. Our arts have shifted and who we are in spirit has changed. It has a lot to do with our institutions and building up new institutions. This huge shift I have seen in my own lifetime, even within the 25 year period that I have been working at the Woodland Cultural Centre. I consider myself very lucky to be working in this period even though you do wonder philosophically if everything might collapse. We have reclaimed and created new institutions that have allowed people to grow after the era of the residential school.
EM: They have to reclaim lost generations.
AK: Yes, and fight against marginalization. Education has done it and Christianity has wreaked such changes. We are fighting all of that and trying to find ways to overturn it. Here at the Woodland Cultural Centre that is what we have been trying to do. A major part of the change has been the establishment of an immersion bilingual school system, essentially a private school. That in itself changed the paradigm even though we had our critics and detractors within the community, and certainly politically outside as there were many hurdles put in our way to establish a bilingual system, including some persons of our own community who would say: “Oh, they are going to teach witchcraft.” They wanted to be part of Indian Affairs, and I even went through that too, thinking success was a swimming pool and a two-car garage. Anything that was First Nations, including my language, was just not ‘cool.’ The Longhouse was stripped away from us; it was not recognized.
EM: There was no respect for it.
AK: It was not even tolerated. It all went underground for the most part. Having obtained a set of skills from the university on how people organize, I could look back at my own community and say: “Oh my! What has happened there?” When non-Native people would come to the Woodland Cultural Centre and ask questions about various facets of the traditional lifestyle, I found that I had no answer. I was living in the Golden Horseshoe of the Niagara Peninsula and did not know everything about my own civilization. It became overwhelming at times, as one ought to be building one’s civilization, one’s nationalism within a greater nationalism, that of Canada. You have to accept your history, including all of the painful parts about the residential school system, but then go beyond that.
In my case I talked to elders in the [Cayuga] language about the situation in which I had grown up. Their ideas became interwoven with the tool of the wampum belt of two rows, or two boats going down the same stream. The two-row symbolism I then took to another level and asked myself how one could bridge that: to take your actions, the philosophy of the dominant society and at the same time bring your own [culture] back, and this seemed possible because of my Western education.
I think you have seen that Letter of 1921 that outlawed our meeting activities, signed by Duncan Campbell Scott who is supposed to be one of Canada’s cultural icons.
EM: Yes, and I have looked at [copies of] old treaties with the names of chiefs such as
the one with Étienne Brulé. Unfortunately, some of those were falling out of their frames at the Old Mill Restaurant and I brought it to the attention of the manager. These should be properly framed and placed in a prominent spot to show a respect for history.
AK: So yes, that is where I am coming from in relation to music and dance. The importance of dance is for socialization, and even the psychological side of dance. It is amazing what happens to your body when you are involved physically. It also affects the mind, as ultimately you want to get to euphoria through music and dance. What did that do for us traditionally, you start asking yourself. We had that, a civilization that allowed this to happen. There were medicine societies, music societies, healing societies, and they are still around today to help with psychosomatic illnesses, what have you. All of that is there. Those institutions, if you want to call it that, are alive. Our spiritual one is there with our music, our dance, and our ceremonies. It is alive and well and you do get to euphoria. Then you say, we need the language as well, as that is how you get to that level.
EM: The language you use also affects the way you think.
AK: Yes, if you have a ceremony in English, then that is the way you look at it, but if you use the traditional language you see much more beauty, as that was how it was conceived.
EM: If your own language is first and English comes second, your mindset opens up differently.
AK: Yes, that’s right. That’s the way I see it too. At universities in this country they tend to look at us as only having cultures, not civilizations. [In Western thought] we tend to look at cultures as very secularized, and compartmentalized. But I am saying we have a living civilization. In my work in language, there is a group of us in Ontario working towards the incorporation of a First Nations Language Commission based on civilizations. This is a new concept. We have more than a culture. If we talk about people as only having a culture, we miss the big picture.
EM: Are you putting that concept out into schools and other institutions?
AK: We have to do it for ourselves first as we have been so indoctrinated in thinking of ourselves as only having a culture and not a civilization. Civilization is a power word. We have to emphasize that we do have a philosophy, and we do have a spirit.
EM: A social structure.
AK: Yes. It is not just traits of culture, it is much more than that. I am lecturing at the University of Toronto next week. In Ontario we are looking at the “three bonding civilizations.” Again that is a new concept. We are creating our own manifesto as to who we are in this province. Our quality of life that we want to have will be based on civilization terminology. So we have three as founding civilizations: the Naskapo [Innu] People and Cree in the north; in the central region the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa); in the south the Longhouse people.
EM: That is brought out in Charles C. Mann's book "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus". He discusses how these peoples had sophisticated economies, ways of communicating and trading. Weapons were discussed but also language, written language, pottery, government and trade. There is a lot of proof that all of this was developed before 1491. Now in South America they are discovering civilizations that pre-date the Egyptian.
AK: I am encouraging some new thinking as I am looking at who I am. When you look at all of the parts of our civilization, we did not want for anything. We had our own governments, our own succession system for leadership, our own faith, our own medicine with herbs, and if it were psychosomatic we had our healing society. We had means to deal with anything. We also had a moral code of how to treat others, including our younger brothers coming across the ocean. This was all interrupted by the Europeans who came here and the church which did the dirty work of the governments. Our civilization believed that you were born without sin, but you might acquire it.
EM: In Zacharias Kunik's recent film "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen", Christianity is portrayed as a destructive force. What role would you assign to stories like that in your way of thinking?
AK: I try to be very diplomatic and when I speak I try to do it in a non-threatening way. Why, in this new century when Canada had the wonderful opportunity to name the first ever First Nation, Inuit, or Métis Governor-General did it not happen? I am just raising this as a point regarding the representation of the peoples that have been in this space called Canada since time immemorial. Why did not Canada ever sign the Declaration of Human Rights? Why does this not get into the press when there is a huge amount of ink spilled on the situation in Caledonia? If there is supposed to be this new policy, where is social justice? Not signing the Declaration of Human Rights is tied to the land claims situation. We have some 18,000 land claims that have the federal system all tied up in knots. The Oka crisis really shook the government in this country, but they still have not learned all of its lessons.
EM: When I was at Kahnawake talking to the elders there was discussion about those who lived inside the reserve and those who were outside. For them it did not make any difference as you are what you are wherever you reside. Is that a fair way to also address the issue that you have to have everybody in a place? Can you be yourself and not assimilate, if you are not living on a reserve?
AK: The land certainly ties you all together. We are doing a community plan right now. We are going down a path of certain anarchy and chaos as the land base here is not large enough to support the 20,000 people that we are. The facilitator is showing us the maps and everything is overrun. Even my dad’s property has been reduced so that it cannot support a family. The water system is crucial and we are on clay so that it is leaking all over. At one end of the reserve the gypsum plant went under the reserve. There is a big cavern there and no significant structure can be put there as it might collapse. If you go north of the reserve to Highway 403, look at how much prime land has been bought by developers. Caledonia is only one part of the overall situation.
EM: Because of the growing population of the First Nations this situation is becoming ever more urgent.
AK: Yes, and we have all of these bedroom communities springing up overnight. How can the Grand River support that? In the last ten years the Grand River has gone down three feet. Unless this region does something about water, another Walkerton situation is bound to happen. In these buildings behind us there is no sewage system. It is all leaking into the ground. They are trying to use septic tanks on insufficient space.
EM: So to bring us back to music and dance and language...
AK: When I look at our civilization it is so tied to the spiritual level as I have grown up in it. When I dance, for example, it is something inside me nourished along with the singing of my parents when I was a child. When I went to university I was shocked to find young men not dancing except when they go to a bar. We have a set of songs for planting and it is like a lullaby that women use. I grew up with that so it was natural to want to dance. Sadie Buck and I are cousins and our grandfather sang to us before the days of television. That was what we were surrounded with. He would sing in the living room and we would be dancing. Even my younger brother who does not dance much any more was right in there with us. That was where for me dance came in. Then when I started examining our civilization and asking the questions about what dance does, how it is utilized, you start to learn more; you read descriptions of euphoria and realize how it occurs in dance.
EM: Its healing properties are very powerful.
AK: Oh, yes. How can we build that more into the general realization that we have this powerful tool as part of our civilization? You start with education. Music and dance is part of their curricula every day. For me it is very exciting to see how it is a part of their everyday life in a similar fashion to what I experienced. That gives them a good base to prepare for when they are at a position of decision-making personally and in the community. Then you start to understand power words in your own language. It gives you a philosophy on life and how to manage in your home and in society. Along with that is the Creator watching what you are doing and wanting to hear the song, the drum, and the rattles.
EM: So this is true through the making of the regalia, the construction of any instrument?
AK: Yes, and in any ceremony. When I go to a Longhouse ceremony, it is like watching a tableau of our civilization, beginning with the Thanksgiving Address. We have four main events, like the cycle of Life. There is the Great Feather Dance which is the central event for Longhouse people. The music for this is very extensive, going on for some 25 minutes. You cannot help but reach euphoria and be one with the Creator because the endorphins are running in overdrive at that point. The music, rhythm, and vocals are all happening.
EM: The importance of an oral tradition really is the key here.
AK: Yes, it is. It all has a cadence, a rhythm expressed in the language. This expresses providence and shows those present the path that they need to follow.
EM: It is like fate.
AK: We are told that we are born through the Creator, not our parents, so we are there to find the path that we are supposed to follow.
EM: The concept of family is broader, more similar to community and much bigger [than in Western society].
AK: So as teachers in the immersion system we are packed with all of that knowledge if they have the language. With that the spirit of the music and the dance remains intact. But day to day it seems like a struggle and I sometimes wonder what I am doing. Then I think back at the situation 25 years ago, and realizing the paradigm shift, I understand that it is worthwhile. It is making a difference. I see a pride in our culture and our identity. Even our regalia has changed so much in the last twenty years. A lot of that is due to the Woodland Centre and training ourselves by doing research on older regalia, what is in museums and private collections.
I can remember distinctly in our house that our self-image when I was growing up included the big Sioux war-bonnet; my uncle wore one at ceremonies. Now we know about the kastowah [gustoweh]. Sure, the Sioux war-bonnet is beautiful, but it should not replace our own meaningful headgear. I can honestly say I have not seen a Sioux war-bonnet at a [Haudenosaunee] ceremony in more than ten years. Dresses have changed too because of available materials and the style. But the latter is often more closely based on [historically authentic] versions. This is also happening because now people realize they are doing it for the Creator, for the civilization, not for oneself. We are told in our ceremonies, such as the Great Feather Dance, even if you are incapacitated the people will move you to the bench where the songs are originating. Those singers are singing the Creator’s songs in his language as we are told in that ceremony. They are very ancient.
EM: Is it also because the language you use to address the Creator is different from what you use every day?
AK: Oh yes. In our language we have fourteen pronouns, many more than are found in English, some related to age levels.
EM: In part this would also be to make gender distinctions, as well as referring to aspects of Creation, would it not?
AK: Yes, we are doing research on that as some of those have been getting lost, such as the ones referring to particular clans, but also because of intermarriage. Even when we are called to ceremonies, references are made through specific relationships, plus the actions you must carry out to be prepared for the ritual.
EM: Is this all still in an oral tradition or is it now available in a written form?
AK: Here at the Woodland Centre we have a large collection in oral recorded and written documentation of the Longhouse people. We have been doing that since 1986. I remember meeting in this room with some elders who are now all gone. At the time they were reluctant to record. As part of my role in trying to impart how important it would be to have records of these old ceremonies I stressed the need for our civilization. I was much younger than they, just out of university, but they seemed to catch on to what I was trying to do. After the recording I can remember walking out of this room in a daze, because it had all been so powerful to hear this sacred material. It was a record of history and it was amazing that it happened in this place.
Now we can see that those aspects of our civilization are alive and well, including our music. To help support the airing of our music and our language I organized a radio station [CKRZ]. Other things have subsequently come along taking it to a new level, such as the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards and the Festival in Toronto. And regionally in Ontario I am planting the seeds to address our language needs and solidify where we are right now and not lose any more ground through our Anishinaabe-Mushkegowuk-Onkwehonwe Language [AMOL] Commission. Hopefully this will have influence in public policy and social justice so that we can have an equal place in this country, but it has to be organized.
EM: Yes, it is so important to have all of these tools incorporated and to have the advice from the elders because they are becoming fewer. Last year in Kahnawake the elders that I spent time with were all in their eighties. They are an inspiration for the language and they are so proud of their heritage. I just hope that I will be able to see them all again when I return next year as part of the Quebec Bridge Disaster Memorial. Some of them had relatives involved in that very important event in their history.
AK: Yes. What we have done here is that we have banked all of that work for the next generation. We have recorded the elders and now we have added on to that, the immersion school system, the radio station, the private school board, so we are reconstructing our civilization through our language. The spin-off is that the character traits of the individuals going through that system are just astounding. I can now speak openly about who I am but that was not possible until I was into my thirties. Some young people I have brought to our language commission meetings have blown these academics away. Members of other First Nations communities note their high confidence level, their ability in their own language, and knowing who they are as individuals.
If a community is given that opportunity we are seeing the fruits of it. We had to fight for it in this community because critics said they are not going to know what a fork is or be able to speak and write in English. We have been tracking our Grade 12 graduates, 98 percent of whom graduate. Of those, only one was subsequently on social assistance. We have the highest retention rate of any school board in Ontario. Of course, we have different levels, but we have some studying law, chemical engineering, statistics, medicine, for example. They are in all walks of life but at the same time filled with the spirit of the community, donning their regalia, and speaking the language. In just one generation we have seen this big change. If you allow a community to do that, then you are bilingual or even trilingual! I can say this now, but I sat once on a commission that was granted $50 million to look into bilingualism. A nice report was produced but it did not have any teeth and it just sits there.
EM: Yet funding for really good language projects is the bare minimum, if anything.
AK: Yes, in Ontario the amount for aboriginal language projects, not even programs, is less than $20,000 a year. Of course, funding for the arts is just as puny. We believe that we have a civilization of life that includes music and dance every day. That needs financial support as well. We have done it on a shoestring budget. Our school buildings are crumbling around us but we still have the spirit. We have K-to-12 language training. We do not have all of the accoutrements of the average school, but we somehow manage. [Maher] Arar is asking for an official apology and financial compensation. He is going to get it, but we have the same situation. In 1921 probably when the Six Nations Confederacy was at its height, Leroy General went to England to make our position known to the Crown and to the authorities in Geneva. The Canadian and Ontario governments exiled him. He had to come back to the United States hoping to find a way he could sneak back into Canada. His family had to go to see him at the Tuscarora reservation in New York State for three years until he died. Now is that not a very similar situation to Arar’s? I just find it amazing that we have not done anything earlier than this.
With the Caledonia situation there has been for some time a group of representatives from long-established families in Caledonia and some from Six Nations meeting on a regular basis. Jane Stewart has attended some meetings as well as Monique Bégin.
I consider myself a quasi-bureaucrat. I go briefcase in hand to Toronto to present our case with our demographics and our historical rights. However, it seems that mainly blank stares are the response. Why are other parties getting apologies and financial compensation from the public purse for situations which in my analysis do not come close to what my civilization has undergone? I think back to that situation in the 1920s and still find it difficult to believe that it happened to a descendant of the original persons of this physical space. I know I tend to be idealistic, but I am not a warmonger either. That is just the way it is. What is really unfortunate is that ninety per cent of the gains made in the last two decades have been through sit-ins and demonstrations. When you consider that is not the norm for Canadian history apart from the FLQ crisis and Oka, why can we not make our foundation of consultation and compromise work with regard to the First Peoples? You know the province has set up a whole communication program just to deal with Caledonia! Now there are rumours that they are setting up a communication centre in Brantford. It is not going to be solved overnight but it is certainly an interesting time in our history.
EM: It seems to me that there are many more speaking out for the rights of the First Peoples now, particularly immigrants. They have sympathy for your situation and can relate to a degree to what you are feeling.
AK: You are absolutely right. We do have a lot of supporters out there too. We need to think more like a state, develop our own banking system, have our own license plates, etc., as is the case on certain reservations in the United States. That would raise our consciousness just like we have been doing through music, dance and language. Santee Smith’s dance company, and Red Sky are just some of the wonderful aboriginal dance activities going on in Toronto. Here we have the Kanata Native Dance Theatre. That music has all evolved based on aboriginal materials and is accepted for presentations, as entertainment, and as music for relaxation. I personally can relax to Elton John, Diana Ross, or the Old Mush Singers, or the Whitefish Bay Singers. That is why we had to create the institutions here to make these available, particularly the music of other nations as well as our own to develop a sense of solidarity.
EM: I found it interesting to read the article on Kurath’s dance notation prepared for the Native Dance website.
AK: There was a person here not long ago looking at our Kurath collection. She was pointing out to me that when persons of other nations, Chinese, German or whatever, dance with us, they try to dance in eight and keep up with the drum beats. Even though the drum is going fast you actually move your body in four, not eight. And she asked if I were aware of that when I danced. I had not realized it but after that conversation, I took more careful note while dancing and realized that she was right. She said that it is important to listen to the melody and not try to match the beat of the drum. One must dance to the melody, not the rhythm. In our language we refer to changes of rhythm, slowing down for example or speeding up. When you are drumming you are “straightening out the song.”
Once I had the opportunity to present to the American Dance Therapy Association. They were meeting in Toronto and wanted to have a dance presentation from Six Nations as well as having me participate as a presenter. I asked them more about their interests and realized that their ideas were very close to our medicine society, getting well through movement. I went to one of their panels which was dealing with the issue of how to present themselves to counteract the perception that they were dealing with voodoo. That was a no-brainer for me, but it shows how deep in North American society rests a non-realization of the value of dance.
EM: For your civilization, there are the different aspects of dancing as entertainment, socializing, spiritual, and healing. Is that all practised here now?
AK: Yes. I have been initiated into the Eagle Dance Society. The Black Bear Society is active with all of the traditions of using blueberries, tobacco, etc. They use various rattles such as the large turtle ones. I cannot hold one as it is a taboo.
EM: You are of the Turtle Clan.
AK: Yes. My brother is involved with them though. When I listen to the songs it reminds me a great deal of the peyote songs [which are performed with rattle and water drum]. They are so haunting.
EM: Are you aware of possible cross-fertilization from other cultures such as the Navaho?
AK: Yes. Some of our songs that are used at the all-night wake sound similar to hand game songs.
EM: Your first language was Mohawk, was it not?
AK: No, it was Cayuga. The Longhouse language is primarily Cayuga now.
Returning to the dance presentation at the Dance Therapy Association held at the Sheraton in Toronto, I want to tell you about our dance presentation. We brought a big drum and we got so many people dancing that the banquet hall became too small and they spilled out into the corridors. It was amazing and they were fascinated that these kinds of activities remain a vital part of everyday life at Six Nations.
I was contracted by Canada Council to do a paper on Six Nations dancing. This is providing the basis for a new program encouraging aboriginal dance. Santee Smith is really showing what can be done by marrying aboriginal dance with contemporary dance.
EM: Yes, and Sadie [Buck] is doing that too in Bones.
AK: Yes, that is really a beautiful work, and how well the music creation worked with the movement! We are experimenting with our singers to take the music out of the normal context. It is really interesting and there was no formal background of notation with that music. Try things such as giving a line to play on the cello.
EM: In my experience of transcribing improvised music, I have found that players who read the transcriptions afterwards say that it’s impossible to play as a prepared piece. Improvisation is an art in itself.
AK: Yes indeed. I have always been drawn to the tenor sax. I learned how to play that instrument and the beauty of this place is that after 4 p.m. I can stay and practise if there is not another pressing matter. Over two years I concentrated on learning how to read music notation well, but I did not get to the improvisational stage as I had hoped.
I just wanted to play an instrument. We have not had music per se in the Six Nations school system for fifteen years. We have traditional music as that is part of our immersion system and linked to language training, but the English stream has not had music. We decided to start a core group with choral work. Last year they had auditions and there was a choral summer camp for two weeks. Most of the students were girls so it was basically a female choir. They had a concert at the end of the camp for parents and supporters. I thought that they would be singing standard choir repertoire. They sang one song like that, but the four others they did all had a First Nations rhythm. I found that really interesting.
We hired a person from the city to lead this and she was nervous that she might not be accepted but they all got along well. Because of that good experience we are trying to expand that aspect and we are going to incorporate reading of musical notation. Also the Hamilton opera company [Opera Ontario] is doing an opera on Joseph Brant.
EM: By Tomas Dusatko. How is that coming?
AK: They did the first workshop on it here in August. Unfortunately I had to go and speak on immersion at the time. I was supposed to do some counseling on the dance component. Like everyone else in this community my experience of opera is minimal except for having seen the Three Tenors and Beverly Sills on television. I find it really fascinating that Joseph has a life that could be portrayed in opera. Other members of the staff who were able to attend the workshop seemed to be very taken with the process. They are anxious to see what it will be like as a whole.
EM: The visual aspect is so important in opera. There is an opera, "Louis Riel" by Harry Somers, but it is an old work of 1967.
AK: In my lifetime I never thought that music and dance would have taken us to such places. Peter [Uffelmann] of Opera Ontario has told me that a number of other opera companies who have heard about this project are already asking if the Brant opera could be done as a workshop with their institution. Perhaps timing is just right to bring this about and maybe this production will even move on to Toronto.
EM: Yes, with a brand new opera house they should produce a new work. I know that a new opera is being done on Standing Bear, but someone should do one on Geronimo. Do you think that this opera project will contribute to a new pride in the community here?
AK: I think so. The opera text is all in Mohawk. Much has to be done in workshops yet and also to help the singers become accustomed to the language.
My hope for a legacy is to have a Performing Arts Centre for these dance and music projects. There is no First Nations Performing Arts Centre in this country. This is very important to bring recognition to the First Peoples of Canada. Our name for it now is TNT, standing for The Northern Thunder. We have it on the drawing board.
EM: It seems like the next logical step in this evolution. Where would it be?
AK: We are trying to figure out whether we have the proper space for it at Six Nations. We also want to have a somewhat neutral place too so non-Natives will feel welcome. If we can create something dynamic enough through matinees, we already have the museum here. So we would be a part of that. Phillip Silver, who has developed the Performing Arts Centre at York University, has taken an interest in our project and even came to look at our situation. He was very positive about the possibilities.
Earlier this year I accepted his invitation to view the whole Centre at York University. It is just amazing, with special venues devoted to theatre, music and dance. Going behind the scenes was so helpful for me and he was so generous with his time. What they are counseling us is to fundraise to get the building that we need and to be sure to put in things that can attract touring companies, commercial productions, etc. down the road. Do not think about types of productions first and then try to shoehorn them into the structure. We had initially considered a multi-purpose square room type of structure, but that would be too limiting on the types of productions possible, as many require some kind of stage. We also need something where the seats can collapse and there could be presentations in the round. I am hoping that Phillip would be willing to be on the board as an advisor.
A while ago I was asked to develop an arts program proposal for Oneida College. I did that but it did not go anywhere due to funding concerns. However, once they heard about the possibility of the Performing Arts Centre here they proposed that perhaps they could offer courses in those facilities and that would give us another important foundation. I have also approached Brock and McMaster Universities to see if a diploma type of program could be worked out with the theoretical courses they have on their books along with practical components here at the Centre. I got some seed money to try a trial program and even signed up eight students, but they wanted fifteen before handling it. Also I have worked through the Ontario Arts Council to try to get more openings so that our people can have more training outlets, particularly in music and arts management.
EM: Do you ever feel leery about putting your ideas and music out there with regard to appropriation taking place?
AK: No, I do not. I have heard some elders speaking about this too. In part it dates back to the situation when so many of our artifacts were taken away from us. Also many persons would turn up and ask for information about this and that. Then the person would go away without providing copies of their field notes or publications for our information. That happened so frequently that eventually persons refused to give any more. It was also so difficult to get data from institutions such as the Peabody, the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian or even our own Canadian Museum of Civilization.
That was then, but now with this new confidence, I am not threatened by that. I love to dance like when I was at Mardi Gras in the Virgin Islands. It is so infectious. I have been participating for eight years straight. The last figure in the parade to come down is the Indian group. It is their perception of who North American Indians are. I think some of my people would probably be offended by it and would consider it appropriation. But they are so passionate about it. When they found out I was one they wanted me to join them. The music is far from what we do here and then there is the glitter of the outfits with feathers or whatever they can find on the island, but the joy of those taking part, even the children! That is euphoria just like we obtain at a powwow or gathering. And are the movements ever provocative! I was not offended by that and I don’t think they were appropriating.
And then I have had the experience of working with Germans, music- and dance-wise as well as linguistics. I actually had a pen pal from Germany who was immersed in the Karl May books. He came over and visited us but I have since lost touch with him. Then there was this group that saw the website about the immersion school and they actually started fundraising for the school. They sent money and then they actually came to visit us some eight years ago. While they were here they asked if they could visit with the Old Mush Singers. We did not know they were singing social songs. A year later they came back better-equipped and I think they wanted to know if we felt that they were appropriating our materials. They attended one of our sings while here and we had a feast afterwards as we usually do. I offered to show them collections that we had of our social music. Also I sang songs for them such as the Friendship Dance and they were delighted to be able to record these. Finally they brought out this binder and they had transcribed all of the vocables and they could read it. We do not write our vocables down, but just concentrate on the melody and vocables from the sound of our language. Our social music is all with vocables. I was just so amazed by that, the passion that they had for this material. So that was one year and then in the wintertime they sent a CD, "The German Longhouse Singers in Honour of Our Friends from Six Nations". They sang the songs that they had learned from our performances. The next time they came my brother as a joke gave them a drum to perform a set of songs and they were so confident they took the drum and started leading it. I was amazed by the interaction with our group. And those [German] guys were so happy with themselves.
EM: I expect that would have been quite an experience for them, particularly in relationship to your matrilineal social structure while theirs would be so patrilineally based.
AK: Yes, the matrilineal organization is very important in understanding our music. Women in our society are considered closest to the Creator because they can give life. They are related to plant life. We have cycles of music just for women, very ceremonial. What has evolved are the Earth Songs. These are songs that we have created for our own amusement basically. The ceremonial songs came from the Creator but the Earth Songs are considered to have come from the earth through the fecundity of women. This development of a core of songs for women to dance in a social context are enskanye Ehsga: nye:gae:nase meaning “new songs.” They shuffle their feet in dancing to these songs.
We have these festivals of new music that we have composed. One will happen at Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks. Another will be held to coincide with the American Thanksgiving. There is one around the beginning of winter and another in the Spring at Easter-time. Iroquoian communities get to host those events. We have hosted quite a few as we have the most singing groups. Those German fellows came back again when they knew we were hosting one of these festivals in 1984. They sang with us on the Saturday when we rendered our new songs and nobody could hear any difference.
EM: That is a big compliment to them.
AK: We did not make a big thing of it because of our friendship and nobody knew the difference. They were so happy. Someone said: “Who are those guys? From what part of the reserve do they come?” We answered: “They are from Germany.” Imagine their exclamations! They stayed the whole evening and they danced. Now people are saying they should have been doing that all along anyway. They should have been dancing with us and perhaps the divisions that have arisen would not have occurred. That way they would have seen how non-threatening it is and understand the social aspect of the dancing. But because of the edict in 1921 the whole thing had to go underground. We have now gone full circle. That letter forbade gatherings and particularly the sloth that comes from dancing.
EM: Indian Affairs seemed to have the idea that dance was a waste of time.
AK: Yes, but our music and dance are not mutually exclusive. I think that is why non-Native societies have difficulty understanding our expressions as theirs are more compartmentalized. Our Singing Societies were connected to the Benevolent Society, what we call the state of being benevolent. I am searching for an English equivalent.
EM: To be generous?
AK: It is the Creator’s will that you should aspire to be like that. It is also a matter of keeping balanced. That is what the Singing Society has brought out. Before we lived in our contemporary separate dwellings, we had many things that had to be done outdoors, gathering wood, chucking corn and so on. We had bees to get that work done and particularly to help the elderly. The Singing Society was the nucleus of that. At the end of the day of work, they would sing. The Society evolved out of that to become much more organized. It was one of the big things to do. When I was young I would hang around with them, and we even had a kids' group, but it sort of died out. Many of the teenagers dropped away from it, but I was the black sheep and hung around with the men. I learned a lot from the men’s Singing Societies. That was a very important part of my education while at the same time attending high school and university. I have some old recordings of those men singing and those bring back such wonderful memories, as I can often remember the moment when the recording was done. Now all of those singers are gone, but I still have these memories.
To explain the origin of the Singing Societies I have chosen the English word “Benevolent” as in my mind it is the only word that comes close. However, a number of my compatriots do not like that term because of the National Benevolent Association connected with the Christian church. For me though, it is the only word that I can find that captures the essence of what the Singing Societies grew out of. It became the norm for Singing Societies to meet regularly on Saturdays, after a brunch given by the host. Then the singing would start around noon. We would sing seven songs, but even then some standardization was happening as there would be a debate that perhaps it should be cut down to five new songs. A lot of us cheated and would put seven in anyway. Some groups would only do five. Each one would probably be about a minute long. A session that we had in Syracuse a couple of years ago had twenty-four different groups, consisting of men, women, some with children. For the Social that went with that one at least 500 persons were dancing at once so it just shows how much this has grown over the past 25 years. It was just overwhelming!
The whole experience was so energizing and to think that the institution almost died out. It is alive and well now and hopefully it will never be allowed to die. All the singers are happy with the situation now and there is this friendly ongoing competition over the best melody.
EM: And this carries over into the dance, does it not?
AK: Yes. We have been lucky too because it is a recital of new songs. There is no sound system in there. Everybody who is recording these songs is sitting around the singing group. If you want to listen intently and not visit with your neighbour it is best to sit near the singing group. This whole energy thing is happening at that level even. If your melody is really inviting it is usually the older ladies who cannot control themselves any longer but have to get up and dance. Then the singers know that they have got the song. We are lucky because all of our singers have been able to do that. Classics are sung on these occasions too, and it is beautiful that the old songs are being carried on.
I learned a great deal from my late Uncle Hubert, Sadie [Buck]’s father and my uncle on the maternal side. He would do the Thanksgiving Address and he would do the history of benevolence, that we must not lose this aspect of balance. He would emphasize the Creator sent that to us, to have and live that state. That Address is often around fifteen minutes long and he would incorporate that into it. He was so eloquent, with wonderful cadence and even humour. He had an infectious laugh. I owe so much to him as he would encourage me and coach me privately to keep on doing what I was doing. One day he said to me: “You are going to look up and not be here.” I received so much from my family. My dad was a singer and a dancer. My parents always had dignity.
The only crazy thing that I know of that they did was to invent this Snake Dance. We do not have snakes. They created this dance and called it a Snake Dance. There are other civilizations that do have snakes and have dances to revere them and I have seen pictures of that. I think they adopted that notion, a case of appropriation perhaps! They created this dance and got a rubber snake. Now I cannot remember what music they sang for that but they adopted humourous stances as part of its presentation. All I can remember is the music changed suddenly at one point and he would pretend that the snake had bitten him and he would throw it out in the audience. It was a show-stopper! Then everyone would realize it was a rubber snake. In those days the women still wore only dresses. Of course it was mainly a male dance group then and they would try to throw this snake as if it would go up under a lady’s dress. With the seating used in those days, just bare benches, you either sat straight up, or you leaned back.
They invented this thing called a Cross Dance. In that they used a big ball. These were done for shows and much of that was based on the stereotypes such as fringed jackets. In my parents’ home I can remember they had one of those black velvet paintings of a stereotypical image of the Plains type of Indian. That was what I aspired to because at that time I did not know about kastowahs. In this paradigm shift that I talked about earlier we have gone full circle. We have left those stereotyped images to find and learn our own roots. We have a whole section in the Museum on kitsch —ash trays with tipis, banners, comics, car names.
EM: And football fans waving tomahawks!
AK: There is an exhibition on Paul Kane at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. They called me in as a consultant for that. He kept extensive diaries and it was fascinating to read his descriptions. Now they are making a DVD and that is very good. You can tell both sides of the story in a DVD because of the medium. They have verbatim quotations from his journal and how those compare to his published journal. You can see how someone has taken it and embellished it. The published book talks about the people he met that were scalping but that is not in the handwritten diaries. They have prepared a teaching manual to go along with the exhibition that discusses how fiction was created from supposedly autographical materials. Scalping did exist, but who taught whom? The argument is similar to the chicken and the egg. Did the English and the Dutch bring that practice here or was it already here?
EM: Why is it only one-way?
AK: Would a Toronto team be allowed to be called the Hockies? We do have the Black Hawks, and the Braves. Somehow it has become acceptable to call a sports team a Native name but something like Yellow Fever would never be used.
I can remember in my psychology course at Western that my professor was trying to teach the same thing when she showed a documentary in which the teacher separated the brown-eyed persons from the blue-eyed ones. The teacher says: “Today the children of the blue eyes can have recess because they are the sparkles and the ones with the brown eyes stay in to do extra work.” It is a powerful film. The teacher wanted to see the reactions of the children to seeing the blue-eyed ones playing sports. At noon she takes the shackles off the brown-eyed children. That was very risky but the teacher managed to pull it off to get her point across. It was great to see the smiles on the brown-eyed children’s faces.
EM: I can recall being so shocked when I first came across separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks.
AK: It was somewhat similar here, as I can remember my Uncle Hubert saying that they had to get a special card of permission before it was possible to go to Hamilton. I recall hearing about one of our reserve members working on a construction crew in mid-Ontario in the 1940s. They went to the one restaurant in a town for dinner. The owner told them all of you can be served here except for your Indian fellow. The boss of the crew said: “If you will not serve him, none of us will stay for dinner here.” In that case, the owner did get the point and in the end did not charge him for the dinner.
EM: Did you ever have a situation like that happen to you personally, as Sadie Buck did give me an example that she had experienced?
AK: No, I have not, but I was born in the States so I was four or five before coming here. I knew the language well even though that was in a non-Native community and my dad managed to farm. My mother was very welcome in that community and they would take her around to various places and then they would ask me to come with her so I could play with the other children. We had television in the 1950s, but there was no electricity on the reserve. We were not wanting for anything as my dad was raising cattle and pigs and lots of fruit. Coming to this reserve and seeing people so torn by modernization was traumatic to say the least. At that time we were persecuted for being Longhouse People by those who had become Christians.
In 1844 when this reserve was established it was set up by 'upper end' and 'down below'. Those were only designations for the geography of the [Grand] River, but they morphed into social distinctions. The ‘down below’ meant the Longhouse People. They then took on another meaning of being witchcraft people, knowing the language and being confederacy supporters. The ‘upper enders’ were the Christianized people, and they were the ones undermining the confederacy. It became a class system. I came into that and did not know what it was. I even had nightmares and particularly leading up to Labour Day as school was soon to begin again. The Central School was in the middle of the reserve. You realized after six weeks that they were not that bad, but fights would break out. It was not just me but my brothers and sister experienced that even as teenagers. Marginalization can happen in any society. The religious persecution was even worse, like being called ‘pagan,’ devil worshippers. In the early 1980s there were 19 denominations of Christian faith here. We had everything here, speaking in tongues, what have you.
I found this all very different. We had our music, our language, and the love was still there. Even when our meals were meagre, the love was still there, but the environment was certainly very different.
EM: I can recall the milkman and the junkman in my own lifetime.
AK: Yes, I often say in my presentations that in spite of the difficulties of adapting back to the reserve I do not regret any of my early experiences, such as getting milk from a milk can. Seeing how a community has evolved gives one a better understanding of the situation today.
EM: I can recall how one was marked just because of an accent in one’s language.
AK: Yes. That has changed in our lifetime and now because of the paradigm shift we can have both. That is healthy although I will admit there is still some dysfunctionality, but not the deep schisms of earlier days. At the August language conference held in Cornwall one speaker reiterated that one way of ensuring a lower rate of teen suicides among aboriginals is to give them cultural knowledge of their heritage. What better way to do that than through language, along with its important components of music and dance. It was great to hear him say that twice along with the admonition: “Do not let anyone distract you from that goal.”
EM: Yes, in so many parts of the world the disappearance of languages is being noted.
AK: Here we had some 500 speakers of Onondaga twenty years ago, but now it is less than a hundred. The best speakers are those in their sixties. I am not as fluent as my older sister. When I started here, I got my sister and brother both into teaching because I knew they could speak well. When they are using it all the time they are at another level.
We are looking into programs such as Mosaic to improve the level of language teaching. Certain people have an eloquence in using the language through shape and turn of phrase. What we are losing is the storytelling language practice. My dad could tell stories by the hour. A number of those have been captured on recording, but few can do that oral presentation any more. Spinning a yarn or telling a story would just come out without thinking about it. Now when I ask my brother to tell us about something, he has to stop and think before expressing his ideas. He is teaching the language, but that is not the same as speaking it all the time as we did when we were kids. I had a wonderful experience not long ago when an Ojibwe woman was speaking in her language to an assemblage of dancers. She told them that from where she was standing and looking out, it was like “flowers in a garden.” Now that is eloquence in a language! They are lucky to still have speakers who can turn a phrase like that. And they can compose music with that language.
EM: It all comes back to language.
AK: Yes, I call it oratory. When we have a gatekeeper at our ceremonies who can speak for twenty minutes or more in our high language it is so moving. You get to that level through attrition, as people are “going home”, as we call it when they go to meet their Creator. The people who are coming out of immersion are not doing that even though they have the confidence, something that I do not have along with the facility. I had a good education but I resent the fact that I was not able to have a bilingual education.
EM: Yet you have played a major role in bringing about this remarkable resurgence of the language.
AK: When I think of that, it is one of my 'eureka' moments. Somewhat similar was the experience I had when I went to the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Tom Hill, the then director of this Museum and his wife also went. There were some 35,000 of us from all of these different nations and we had this grand parade, many of us in our specific regalia. It was amazing, particularly as the representatives of each Nation present were announced.
EM: It must have been spectacular.
AK: My low points come when trying to deal with Indian Affairs. It is very difficult to get them to move any distance outside of the box. They cannot understand the importance of language for our well-being although we have loads of statistics to show it does work. There are very few immersion schools in Ontario at this point. I just hope they will not pit us against the English-stream schools in trying to find money.
Meanwhile, we are trying to do the best we can, but we have too few trying to do too much. Our elders are becoming less and less. The ones that do work with us are amazing. One gentleman is here at 8:30 in the morning to begin working with the children and explaining ceremonies. However, after he finishes the school day he has to fulfill private ceremonies for the community. Often he does not get home until 10:30 or so in the evening. An older gentleman cannot keep up that agenda for an unlimited period of time!
EM: Thank you so very much for your generosity in this interview.
* * *