Graduates of Ohero:kon
Last Sunday in Akwesasne in Mohawk Nation Territory, a group of young people completed their rites of passage through Ohero:kon [o-ho-lo-go], where they emerged from “under the husk”, as beautiful, self-actualized, respectable young adults.
Ohero:kon’s founder and leader, Louise Bear explains that the ceremony was given in the Original Creation Story, “It’s a story that happened in Skyworld. An uncle takes his sister’s children when he realized that they were children of destiny. He down-fended them [a spiritual form of seclusion] and set them aside from the rest, keeping them aside for the sole purpose that he knew that they were going to fulfill a prophecy. He put them under the husk, just as corn is-husked up. In our language we call corn ohe:ra, which means “it’s fully wrapped”. It’s not until that the corn is ripe that you begin to peel back the layers of husk to get to the regenerative seed. When our children hit puberty, we begin to pull back the layers, and equip them with knowledge about who they are. A big part of Ohero:kon is to offer them knowledge about their creation story so they can understand the genesis of our selves … and so that they can discover and identify themselves, so they know who they are, before they become influenced by other people.”
Ohero:kon Graduation Ceremony
Ohero:kon is not an easy process. It’s a four year commitment in which nieces and nephews will spend twenty weeks each weekend throughout the winter months to prepare themselves for adulthood- They will learn to build a fire using traditional sparked flint and dry wood; they will listen to advice from their elders where topics of conversations range from intergenerational trauma, traditional health and wellness practices, and how to foster healthy loving relationships; they will plant seeds and tend to traditional gardens of corn, beans and squash; they will make regalia, learn their traditional songs and practice their own indigenous languages; but maybe most importantly, they will learn their own strength and go on spiritual fasts in the woods. The first year they will spend a night on their own, the second year they spend two days and nights in the woods until eventually they will be ready in their fourth year to spend four days and four nights in the woods without food, drink or contact. The Aunties and Uncles will prepare them with incredible care, just as a farmer tends to his seeds - watering, singing, grooming and ensuring light - so will the Aunties and Uncles tend to their precious seedling nieces and nephews. They will help them choose their places in the woods, help them build their lodges, protect them with sacred tobacco, and while they fast, they will tend the fire and look to the tree people to watch over their beloved children.
Most of the preparations will commence at a place called Kaneni:io [gan-a-he-yo: good seed] or down the road at Tsionkwanatiio [joan-gwan-a-dee-yo]- beautiful facilities nestled along the Saint Lawrence river- and the spaces feel epic, think back to those beautiful scenes of hobbit land in the first Lord of The Rings and you will kind of get the mental picture: Rolling hills hug luscious bright green trees where massive fields of fresh grass and fertile gardens all seem to touch the sky. At one point, Kaneni:io was going to be the new site for The Freedom School, until funding wasn’t achieved, and development halted, leaving it a mostly-finished barn-like space full of sprouting seeds under uv light, braided corn hanging from every wall, and several workstations for gourd-painting, stick- carving, moccasin-making and corn-grinding. I understand that it still serves as a community space for the growing and nourishment of all kinds of things, including children. It’s an indigenous woman’s dream— They have a fireplace, a sweat lodge and traditional arbor in the back yard.
Of course Ohero:kon wasn’t realized overnight, it’s been developing organically over the last fourteen years. It was the vision brought to fruition by many, but one woman in particular, the one many call “Mama Bear”, but to others, she is also known as Louise Bear:
“The need for Ohero:kon came at a time when our community had a lot of social distress. The drugs and suicide were really bad. There was a lot of fatality. A lot of drownings, and a lot of car accidents.. I just decided that it was too sad, the grief was just too much, and it was just through the prayers of mothers wanting to do something different that we started Ohero:kon.”
Prior to developing the Ohero:kon, Louise had been performing puberty ceremonies for eight years. She says that these ceremonies have been happening in Haudenosaunee country for millennia, “In the story of our Peacemaker, there was time that he went wondering in the woods after the death of his daughters and he was so distraught that he went into seclusion in the woods, and it was at that time that he got the vision of how to do condolence ceremony. All the great prophets have resigned themselves to a mountain, the woods, or a river to learn. It was colonization and Christianity that made us think that seclusion wasn’t for us.”
Louise Mama Bear
Educator/filmmaker Katsitsionni Fox says that Ohero:kon was created as a change agent for Akwesasne, “It was something we could do for the youth to keep them away from drugs, teen pregnancy, self-harm, all those things that are going on in our communities. So she [Mama Bear] looked into our history to bring this back. She gathered knowledge keepers in the community. Some of it was common sense. Some of it came from people we know. Some of it came from dreams. Over the years some of it has changed.” She says that the youth that fully commit to the Ohero:kon will learn their purpose in life at a younger age, “There are more youth that are wanting to do it. And they don’t all make it through. Sometimes they will make it one year then they won’t come back. It’s the ones that are really invested that will stay for all four years. I think especially for the ones that finish, it really alters their path. It makes them find their purpose sooner. They don’t waste a lot of time. You know like when we were young - probably most of us wasted a lot of time. Experimenting. Because we didn’t look for that purpose… we didn’t know why we were put here. And Ohero:kon also brings them close together. Because they’re in ceremony together. It gets them more connected with each other and with the community.”
Once the fourth years come out of their fast, they look “shiny and new”. They glow with accomplishment and a radiance that is hard to describe. At their graduation ceremony, the fourth year nieces and nephews will share what they’ve learned with tribal leaders.
Mama Bear recalls one of her most memorable experience with a niece who “had a dream about the Thunder Beings. In her vision, or in her dream, she met the Thunder Beings and they told her their names in Mohawk language, and we were able to record that and revitalize those names, and now when we burn tobacco for the Thunder Beings in the spring and in the fall, we acknowledge those names.” Mama Bear adds that several of the nieces and nephews even brought back stories to encourage our people to return to traditional food systems.
One of the nephews this year shared his dream: he came out of his fast and went to the sacred fire and nobody was there, so he went to the cannary and found it also empty, and then he went to the longhouse and nobody was there either. He realized that all of the culture bearers were gone. He realized that he would have to carry the culture forward, that he was the last one and then he woke up. He is grateful to know that there were still culture bearers to guide him, grateful that he will be able to carry his culture forward.
Mama Bear says that Ohero:kon has become a “driving force to mobilize the community. It brought a lot of divisions in our communities together because we committed to work together for the love of our children. Ohero:kon reduced the crime rate. It reduced teen pregnancy. It reduced juvenile delinquency, but most importantly, it also returned a lot of young people back to our longhouses … and I think it’s kind of provided a lot of access and access to our culture. There were certain sectors of our community where they felt like they were on the outside looking in, and it gave them the option to be on the inside of our culture. I think it tore down a lot of stigma and walls that have been in our community for a long time”.
Keshodayquay Quinna Hamby, Tuscarora Nation
O:herokon is about planting seeds. Seeds of knowledge. Seeds of hope. Seeds that make leaders. Mama Bear elaborates, “I think one of the most crowning moments is when we see them come down the river in the white canoe, all dressed up in their buckskin, it’s almost like stepping back in history 1000 years to see how we once were. It connects us to our ancestral past.”
Or as my beautiful niece Quinna Hamby describes it, “It connected me to community. I know that my community will always forgive me. That I can go back to them. I know that I am traditional person, and even though I might be going away to college, I can always come home.”
To learn more about Ohero:kon or to donate to their cause, check out their Facebook page.
There is also a beautiful film you can watch by Katsitsionni Fox, check out here page.