John Mohawk Sotsisowa, a Remembrance

Iroquois, Cultural Critic, Visionary – and Always a Trickster

John Mohawk

John Mohawk, Schumacher College, 1998, Image © Claus Biegert


It was hot, the end of May, and only a few thin rays of light filtered into the room through the drawn curtains. Like many of the houses located on the Seneca Reservation Cattaraugus south of Buffalo, his house was small and somewhat ramshackle. He sat by the window, his silvery voice possessing a melody all of its own, and at times his vast English vocabulary was nearly too difficult for me to follow. I was a young journalist. Shortly before had I taken my first real plunge into the world of Native Americans. The year was 1973 and I had been sent to the US by the German media to report on the background to the uprising at Wounded Knee. One thing led to another, everything steering me in his direction. How many times had I heard it: "You gotta' meet Johnny Mohawk!"

An outsider would have had a difficult time determining who was the interviewer, who the interviewee, for we both had so many questions. He was a philosopher, cultural critic and visionary. Sotsisowa was his Indian name, he possessed a sharp, analytical mind, and often what he said sounded prophetic, though it was actually the natural foresighted gist of his original mindset. He was a trickster, you could see that at once in the twinkle of his eyes, and his thoughts were often capped by a short blast of his inimitable laughter. At the end of the seventies he took over as editor-in-chief of the largest Indian newspaper, the Akwesasne Notes, published by the Akwesasne Mohawks. Over the years our routine evolved into me simply turning on the tape recorder and him discoursing at length upon whatever themes were occupying him. His thoughts often emerged from making comparisons between life as lived today and yesteryear, or by differentiating the cultural sways and perspectives of White and Native American societies. Whenever I published his words the echo was great.

Three statements stand out from the seventies tapes: "Wars of the future will be between those who are destroying nature, and those who are defending nature." "Green, the color of nature, will become a political color." "What you people call democracy doesn't work for us. For us the ruling majority trampling over a minority is not democratic." As a Seneca he always spoke from the point-of-view of the Haudenosaunee, the 800-year-old confederacy of the Iroquois (Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora). For the Haudenosaunee consensus is the ruling factor, clan mothers elect and dismiss chiefs, and every political action must follow the spirit of the Great Law of Peace, carefully weighing the possible effects on the well-being of the seven generations to come.

Now I listen inwardly to his voice and am greeted by a host of pictures from over the course of our 33 year-old friendship. One central memory is of the many evenings we cooked together, or sat down to a meal, or at least talked about food, for John was consummately interested in the world's vast culinary wealth. Once we talked for three evenings in a row about the cultural history of food preparation. That was in Owl's Head, deep in the woods of the Adirondacks, where the Akwesasne Notes editorial staff then had their offices.

From that hideaway John made a name for himself as a writer, and it was little wonder that the State University of New York in Buffalo soon made him a career offer. He wrote his doctorial thesis on the culture of the Haudenosaunee, advanced to associate professor of American studies and director of indigenous studies, and became known far and wide as an outstanding faculty member at the Center for the Americas. His lectures were legendary, I make no exaggeration. When John was unable to write he would grow restless, uneasy. His most popular work he wrote anonymously, "Basic Call to Consciousness" – the series of position papers that the Haudenosaunee delegation presented to the United Nations in Geneva in September of 1977. Because the collection relied heavily on the knowledge of many clan mothers and elders, John decided not to attach his name. Together with Oren Lyons from Onondaga he published, Exiles in the Land of the Free. Not until his third major outing into print, Utopian Legacies (Clear Light Publishers, 1999), did he take credit as author. From 1987 to 1995 John published the newspaper, Daybreak, and afterwards produced a long string of columns for both his website at www.prochpecyandsurvival.com, and for the newspaper, Indian Country Today. Twice – in 2000 and 2001 – on the strength of his journalistic accomplishment, he received the "Native American Journalism Association Best Historical Perspective of Indigenous People Award." Two renowned Native American institutions – Seventh Generation Fund and the Indian Law Resource Center – list John among their founding board members.

Not only was John prized for his scholarly expertise, but also, after his interventions at the armed conflicts at Raquete Point in Akwesasne (1981), and Oka in Quebec (1990), for his ability as a mediator and peacemaker. Both discords raged between Mohawks and the police: at Raquete Point the issue was sovereignty; at Oka, the threat to old grave sites by a golf course's expansion. In 1980 during the American Embassy Hostage crisis in Iran, John flew there as a member of a fact-finding committee. Michail Gorbatschow invited him to Moscow in 1990 to attend the World Conference on Human Survival as a member of the Native American delegation.

But such spectacular public adventures dare not eclipse the fact that John loved most of all to work on his lonesome – and not only at his writing desk, but also outdoors on the tractor. His study of indigenous seeds was primarily dedicated to unearthing those varieties of corn crops his forefathers had planted – and to successfully raise them himself. Together with his wife Yvonne Dion-Buffalo (who died in 2005), he founded the organizations, "Restorative Development Initiative" und "First Nations Development Institute".

Genuine thankfullness was written all over his face whenever he could locate a seed variety thought extinct. The last time this happened was in October 2006, at Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico, when a farmer of the Tohono Od'ham Nation in southern Arizona gave him a handful of small white beans – exactly the sort John had been seeking for years.

Now, together with Yvonne, he will hold out his protective hands over all those seed varieties the multinational seed corporations would like to see forever lost.

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus