By Missy Elliott
Republished with permission from Two Row Times
AKWESASNE –Over 75 youth were put out from anywhere from 1-4 days to Fast in a rites of passage ceremony in Akwesasne called Oherokon “Under the Husk”.
I had the honour of attending this ceremony and witnessed for myself the power and the incredible impact it has on the youth, their families, and the community at large.
This rites of passage is a previously lost Haudenosaunee ceremony that Mohawk Bear clan mother Louise McDonald has “raised from under the husk” and shaped to fit the kids of today.
This ceremony has grown from 8 youth in 2006 to 75 youth in 8 years, with youth and their families coming from all over; Tyendinaga, Six Nations, Onondaga, Kahnawake, etc. In this ceremony, guided by their chosen uncles and aunties, boys and girls go through 20 weeks of teachings on our culture (ceremony, songs, wampum belts, values), traditional relationships, survival skills, etc. and complete 4 sweats before they start their fast.
This is a 4 year ceremony for the youth where in their first year they fast for one day and build up to their fourth year where they fast for four days in the woods. It may seem irresponsible or dangerous to the uneducated to put youth out in the woods without food and water for 1-4 days but these youth are in no case alone. The youth are surrounded by their aunties and uncles and community who are in near-by camps, along with many other security precautions.
The boys receive a headband made by their mother at dawn while she says her last words to him then we head to the fasting site. All of the women then take sticks of pine, dip it in the river and brush the boys off and sing them over to their uncles who are waiting for them. The mothers then hand their sons off to the uncles and they sing their Atonwas until they reach their Sweat lodge where the boys sweat.
Their uncles give them words of love and encouragement and they leave the sweat in silence, in ceremony to Fast. The night before the fast, girls are “given away” or “let go” by their fathers in a powerful and emotional exchange that words cannot possibly convey. The day of the fast, the girls “call in the grandmothers” of generations past, acknowledge them and look to the next generations of women coming.
We then take the girls to sweat and for first years, the mothers go in and tell their daughters their birth story. When the girls come out we veil them, cradle them and sing “owirá:’a” song to them while their mother says her last words to her before she fasts. Then we sing her to her lodge where she will fast, either in the field for first years, or in the woods for 2-4th years.
The ceremony concludes with a huge celebration when the Fasters returned on Sunday, some by foot, 4th years by canoe. Hundreds of people from their family and community gathered to celebrate these youth and what they had accomplished. Present was traditional leadership including faithkeepers, chiefs and clanmothers, and Arvol Lookinghorse of Lakota nation, some of whom spoke.
As the ceremonies finished we finally feasted the best food you could imagine – especially after 4 days of fasting. I left Akwesasne with a feeling of ecstasy, being so inspired, hopeful for the future, my spirit being lifted to the fullest. However, I also left Akwesasne with purpose, knowing the task at hand, that we need this ceremony in Six Nations.
Sure the ceremony may look much different here in Six Nations after we talk to our elders, but it is needed here more than anywhere. With how much our community and youth are affected by the issues of suicide, drugs, addiction, violence, bullying, unhealthy relationships, etc. it is apparent that we are in desperate need of a way to support and uplift not only the youth but the family as well.
Many of you have kids who are coming of age, their voices are changing, they are starting their “time”, all they want is their independence. However, this can be a time that is cherished, supported and celebrated by the entire community. A time that youth aren’t alone, but are guided through by their aunties and uncles and elders. We hear it time and time again that youth are searching for a door to their culture, connection to elders and thirsting for knowledge.
What are we doing to give this to them? To create strong nations we must create strong, healthy families, heal our people and lift up our youth. Not with words but in practice. I have witnessed this ceremony do this in Akwesasne. I have witnessed our future standing proud. Let us come together and do this for our youth, here, where we need it the most.