Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen
Location: Akwesasne, Ontario
Andrew Thomas: My name is Andrew Thomas or TAOHYAGE:DO. That means ďscratch in the skyĒ and my nation is Oneida and I am of the Bear clan. My original territory is Six Nations. That is where my family comes from and I came here to live in Akwesasne territory a year and a half ago. Currently I work here at the Ronathahon:ni Cultural Centre as a cultural technician where I go into the schools from October to April and I teach culture to the children in the Mohawk core classrooms.
Franziska von Rosen: Can you tell me a little bit about how you learned about your culture, how you came to be a dancer and a drummer and singer?
AT: Well, I didnít really grow up on a reserve. I was born in Rochester, New York, and I didnít experience a First Nations reserve until I was about 6 or 7 years old. Being that I was kept so far from a traditional upbringing, when I actually did first go to the ceremonies and Longhouse I was unaware of what was going on. I didnít really know but my parents always encouraged me, saying this is your way, try to experiment; if you are willing, try to dance. Everybody has his own unique style. Sometimes thereís a specific dance step but just watch everyone else and develop your own style. So I guess it was about the fourth or fifth grade when I started getting it down and I started learning a lot of songs and different social dances.
FvR: In what kind of setting did you learn?
AT: I went to an immersion elementary school, the I. L. Thomas Gaweni:yo Elementary School. It is located on Six Nations. The classes that I was in was a 50/50 classroom, which means in the morning you get English and in the afternoon you get Native languages. Now the first language I grew up with was the Native language, Cayuga. So all the times at the dance shows, thatís the language I am using when Iím speaking about the dances. So in the different classrooms when I was attending there were certain times throughout the day where we could actually sing and listen to tapes or other singers would come in and then they would show us.
One thing one of the singers did was when all the guys would sit on the bench, in order to teach us how to keep beat, she brought in this long pole and she would set it on our legs and said you are going to hit your legs on the floor with every beat and you have to keep this pole on here until you can do it without it falling off. So you can imagine when you are six or eight years old and everyone with sticks falling everywhere, so it was a learning process to be able to learn how to specifically keep the beat to songs.
And when I say I like to encourage people, when I go into the classrooms, there are kids who have never seen this stuff before. I tell them, just kick your feet whenever you hear a drum beat. Everybody looks different when they are going to do it. You could model yourself after somebody or you can create your own style. Itís up to you because traditionally with our music and our dances the only person you should be trying to impress would be the Creator. Itís your way of giving thanks, so you shouldnít be worried about what anyone else thinks or whether anyone else is looking at you. Do whatever feels right with however your feet move and what makes you happy.
FvR: Thatís good teaching too! So thatís really how you got your start.
AT: Yes. I guess it would have started in school and I remember the first time I learned was in the fourth grade, but like every youth or child growing up, you get to that certain part of your life from seventh grade to ninth grade. I didnít want anything to do with it. You know itís not the cool thing to do. But when I got to high school I actually started to chat with the different communities and I got to see what they had. I guess it was a kind of awakening period because I had been taking for granted the opportunities that I had at Six Nations. I didnít think anything of it at the time, but as I go to these different communities and I see what they have in terms of singers, dancers, cultural teachers, and people who can carry on their ceremonies I felt Iím really fortunate here. So I should take advantage of it and that was why I started picking everything up again. In my early years it was social dances and social songs, but as I grew older and got to high school I started concentrating more on ceremonial things such as speeches, dances, songs, and learning how to do different medicines. I had a very good teacher with me
FvR: Do you want to mention your teacherís name?
AT: Yes, her name was Elva Jamieson. Sheís really knowledgeable in the medicines and the language as well so a lot of my teachings, even some of the stories I quoted earlier with the dances presented today, came from what I learned in her classroom.
FvR: Could you talk about your role as a dancer?
AT: Amongst our people there are two different kinds of songs. Thereís a ceremonial type of music and then thereís a traditional type of music like a Social. So the social dances are typically open to everyone and sometimes they can be held at the Longhouse. Sometimes they are held at different areas like gymnasiums, colleges, high schools, or elementary schools. I think itís once a month around here, each school gets its own social during a lunch hour or during their specific time during the day. Usually thereís four or five cultural technicians, and we all go there and it's our job to put on a Social. During the year with each different grade, I focus on teaching them a different set of songs. Now this year was my first full year I was with a school. So what Iím doing next year is give them each two or three specific songs to learn throughout the year so that when they have a social at the end of the year they can take care of it themselves and I can sit back and watch, and be proud of them being able to do this.
The ceremonial dancing time is when we are at the Longhouse, and they say your dancing there is always for the Creator. Then there is the social gathering, where you can powwow dance and where the main Haudenosaunee style dancing is Smoke Dance.
You asked before what goes through your mind as a dancer. If you are dancing in a Longhouse during ceremonies, you think about how Iím going to give thanks to the Creator for what he has put here and how we have been given the different songs. If youíre at a powwow or in competition dancing it shifts your whole mind and focus completely. You wonder which way do I move my arms and is it going to get the judgesí attention. Which judge is paying the most attention and which one seems to be looking at me the most. I can try to attract another judge by what I am going to do. What am I going to do to get the crowd to look at me. So itís different than when you are at your traditional Socials. That is just among friends and itís more about having fun. You know a lot of people are goofing off or whatever you can do to make people laugh, like the story I told earlier today about how we had Socials to pick up the moods of the hunters that were going out.
Back then, and I always teach this to the kids when I teach the social dances, is that if you are going to come to one of the dances in the gym, make sure you are going to dance. What you are there for symbolically is to pick up the spirits of the hunters, and thereís nothing fun about sitting with pouty lips on the side if you donít want to participate. Thatís why I tell them have fun and play on your own if you want, but keep it civilized, you know. I donít want them running across and wrestling with each other, but if they want to mock whatever type dance that they think is funny at the time or throw their arms in whatever direction, I encourage them to just do it some more.
FvR: Yes, humour is a big part of it. Are you a Smoke dancer?
AT: Yes, I Smoke dance, but as I said earlier in the presentation, it is not a dance that originated with our people. A lot of our songs do come from other dances. Now there are two different types of styles for Smoke Dance. There is the War Dance style. I was told that even when they do the War Dance, though, some of the slow songs come from the actual War Dance that our people do and some of them come from different dances like ĎShake the Bush.í
And some people even make them up. What I was told growing up is that the only time we do War Dance or actually sing War Songs is in ceremony. I know of a lot of elders who donít actually want to come and Smoke Dance because of what you are doing. They donít want to mock the spiritual side of things. Even growing up I was told you donít get a Mohawk with your hair because when they used to do that in the past it was what they used to symbolize going to war. It symbolized the bloodshed. Since our people were supposed to be a peaceful people weíre supposed to have put that [war] down, whereas in a Smoke dance competition, persons have war clubs and thatís what they are mocking.
Itís the balance, you know. Thereís people that want it to be strictly traditional and some of them do it just for fun and they do it to encourage each other, just to show off their dance steps. But even for the War Dance, I was told the only time you do it is at ceremony. I know some singers who wonít sing specific War Dance songs but they will sing slow songs. And a lot of the faster songs as well come from a Robin Dance or maybe a Fish Dance or a step dance.
Different people do War Slow Songs different ways. Thereís a movie called ďThe Longhouse PeopleĒ  starring Kieran Miller and a lot of the older people said if you want to learn a cool way to dance War Dance, watch that tape because thatís how to do it. Whereas now itís a lot of acting out that gets you noticed by the judges. Even in the different competitions, itís said that if you go to Schemitzun in Connecticut, where itís supposed to be the Super Bowl of powwows, what the judges look for there is flair. They want to see fancy, they want to see cartwheels and anything that will be attractive to the tourists. Whereas at the Powwow at Six Nations, the judges look for the more traditional style as it was explained in that video.
The first time I did the dance I asked how to dance the slow part, because it's very hard. It is not really a sustained beat every song. When I asked that they said you have to pretend youíre a hunter going out to war. You are hiding behind bushes, and getting ready to swing your axe or club. For the slow part, that is all I can explain.
For the fast part, I know a lot of persons say that the cynical people are really graceful on their feet and a lot of times at powwows they do end up winning. The [movement] is really light and when the women dance, itís even as I explained before [in the presentation]. Their dances always reflect the Sky Woman where the feet should never really leave the ground except in the Fish Dance style. So itís the same thing when women dance the Smoke Dance, it should not be a look-at-me type thing. It needs movement to reflect ďI want to be graceful and respectful.Ē It is more like the Womenís Traditional dancers. Itís not like the Fancy where they just watch your movements and see how you flow like water. For the [male Smoke dancers]itís just a Fish Dance or Moccasin Dance-style step. Basically itís just two beats with each foot.
FvR: And there are two sections, a slow part and a fast part in each Smoke Dance?
AT: Well, they always say the women donít dance the War Dance song, so in all the competitions a knowledgeable singer with a traditional background will know that he doesnít sing those slow songs for a woman. So they end up singing Women Shuffle Dance verses but for the men, sometimes thereís half slow, half fast, or slow and fast. I guess thatís where they distinguish how you are going to have the better dancer, because some people are better at slow then they are at fast, some people are better at fast than the slow. Some can mix it up. So Smoke Dance really is competition style dancing. What I said before, you know, itís kind of fabricated. It was not originally sent here by any specific messenger or animal or by the Creator himself. Itís kind of like anything goes.
FvR: They have become very popular, though?
FvR: So when you are dancing, do you have a favourite style of dancing? Is there some type that really moves you personally?
AT: I think I like to sing more then I like to dance, but even for the Welcome Dance presentation today, one thing I left out. It is the Little Persons, Dance and it originated as a medicine for our people. Even though I know a lot of elders who say you are not supposed to dance to that because itís a medicine song, I see [others] who are taught the same thing go out and do that for their dance shows. That is like my own perception of things.
My mother, my family, our society is matrilineal. My mother is Oneida; my father is Ojibwe [Anishinaabe] and I get to see a lot of his culture too. That is when I acknowledge that there is the balance of the West Coast as in his Ojibwe teachings. When I go to the ceremonies of his culture they concentrate a lot on the spiritual side; they do dance in the opposite direction [to that of the Haudenosaunee]. At powwows when they do their Grand Entry they go clockwise in their direction and I have always looked at that as though they have their own set of guidelines and we have ours. So it is for that Welcome Dance.
As I grew up I heard our people never had horses. When we did, they were just small. They were not riding horses and I guess when you look at different cultures even the West Coast, like I explained before, they have offered you [part of their culture] but one is supposed not to accept it right away, out of respect for the Creator and what he brought here. You donít want to be greedy and take it. You want to be humble about it and be sure that you are offering this to us and then you can accept it. A lot of times in our medicine fast they will do that. When you fast they offer you food, but you donít take it right away. You offer it to somebody else first because our people are always humble; take care of each other before taking care of yourself. So with those dances, that is the hardest dance for me, the Welcome Dance or the Horses Dance.
FvR: Why is dancing and singing important to you?
AT: Well, I always talk to the kids when I go into the schools that this isnít just the dancing part of it. This is the whole culture. I know a lot of the children donít necessarily believe in our traditional way of life or our culture other than to know the language. What I teach them is that you may not believe in this now and you may not believe in it in a future time, but I know for a lot of them this is the first time they have ever seen it. Hearing and learning about it to me [is important.] What I encourage them is that you know society teaches that everybody is equal. You know everybody has equal rights; everybody has the same right to do this. But what I also encourage them [to think about] is that for our people, even though we promote equality, we acknowledge there are different roles and responsibilities between men and women, between young people and old people. I guess people could be cooks and hunters and thatís why I said [in the introduction] of the Standing Quiver Dance, not everyone is a hunter but those hunters make sure everybody is fed. They realize not everybody has that job.
And when I teach them about this culture, you know you arenít the same as the people that live in Messina, or the people that live in Cornwall, or the people that live in Malone or Potsdam where a lot of these kids were born and grew up. I teach you are derived from the original people of this land and I say these are our stories. This is what makes you different. The majority of you that live here have a status card, a band card, or a Ďreví card. And this is what it means to have that. You know this is what makes you different from those people in Messina. This is what I am teaching you. This is what makes you Ďhoyahoyí Indian; this is what makes you Native. Otherwise the only thing that says that is a card.
What I teach them too is that Iím not saying almighty things. What I have to share with them might not be the absolute true way or the right way, but I can only share what I know because that was what I was taught growing up. Once you have that knowledge itís your responsibility to share it with people and thatís what I do for them. And that is true with the songs and dances.
So thatís why I do the song and dances because I say our people had messages that we were not supposed to be dependent on the Europeans, the white men to survive. Thatís how it is now because there are certain traditional teachings where they talk about whether they are talking about the Great Law or talking about the Code of Handsome Lake they say you canít live that way; itís too long ago. And I say if you as a person were able to completely survive by not depending on anything that was created or brought to you by a non-Native, you would be able to live that way. So many people need to turn on the radio when they get in the car; so many need to take the car to get somewhere because they canít walk; they need electricity; they need running water. There is so much stuff that they are dependent on and they say you canít live any other way because it is not possible. But remember that those messages tell you that you are a distinct people and you need to stick to your own and make sure you donít deny your culture before these children. Kids can get taken away by it.
So you've got to learn the ways to make sure your people survive, thatís what I tell them. This is the survival of your people in learning this. At least you can say if this happens to die out in your lifetime you can say that you saw it. Itís your decision whether or not you decide to take it on in the future and if you want to teach it. At least you know what it is like to be of the Haudenosaunee.
FvR: Thank you so much for this interesting interview.
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