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One of Katsi Cooks projects is called American Indian Youth Running Strong. Check it out at www.indianyouth.org.



Iroquois Nation, Iroquois Tribe


Katsi Cook with her twins, Thomas and Phillip
After a short drive from Syracuse, New York, down to Ithaca, New York, Kevin and I arrived at the home of Katsi Cook and Jose Barreiro. Katsi and Jose, along with their five kids, are really good friends of my family. Katsi is a Mohawk Indian, so I was prepared for a good old Indian visit. When Indians get together, you can always count on wonderful conversation and many fascinating stories. Kevin and I were very excited when we arrived at Katsi and Jose's beautiful farm near the town of Ithaca!


The first night that we stayed, it rained really hard. We sat around Katsi's kitchen table and simply talked. For me it was very comforting to talk to an Indian woman about all the issues that were in my head. Kevin thought to himself, "I can definitely say that Katsi is a Gantowisa, which is Iroquoian for a woman who is working in her full capacity, or doing everything she can do." As we talked, Katsi's twin boys Thomas and Phillip, aged 10, sat with us and kept up with the conversation until their bedtime. It was fun and very interesting.

The next day, I woke up to the sun shining in my face. Katsi cooked breakfast as Kevin and I talked about plans for the day. After breakfast Katsi agreed to an interview with us! Katsi is especially qualified to talk to us about Indian customs because of her upbringing. She went to Catholic school as a child, but at the age of fifteen, she was adopted by a man called Joe Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell brought Katsi back to her Mohawk roots. From the age of fifteen, she lived in the longhouse, a traditional wooden Iroquois building. There, she started to learn about the ways of the Mohawk and the Iroquois. And she was about to hand these ways down to us! First, she showed us a couple of books for reference. Then she began to tell us story upon story. As she spoke, we realized that we had a profound amount of information to work with.

Katsi began by telling us about the Iroquois itself. The Iroquois is six different tribes that came together for peace. Led by a female chief, the six tribes formed a nation in Akwesasne. The tribes that came together were Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora. In these different tribes are several different clans (like the Bear Clan, Hawk Clan, and the Wolf Clan). They choose names of animals for their clan names because of the peaceful connection that they have with the animals and the surrounding environment. Katsi herself is part of the Wolf Clan.

You should know that the government founded by the Iroquois women is very similar to our American government. The Constitution has many of the same principals that the Iroquois have. Because the founders of American government thought that the way the Iroquois worked was very productive, they adopted many of the same ideas.

Iroquois Powwow, with women leading the way
Three of the most important things that we must know about the Iroquois women are that they are peaceful, thoughtful and very powerful. They were given huge responsibilities like planting, harvesting, and supervising all fieldwork. It is also important to know that the Iroquois society is matrilineal. This means that the family is associated through the mother. The opposite, patrilineal, means the family is associated through the father. Association has to do who makes final decisions for the family, who is considered to be the head and more importantly whether the child will receive the name of their mother or the father. Katsi's beautiful skin glows in the light as she half laughs telling us about this part of her culture. She knows that many Americans would not even be able to imagine having their mothers' last names. So, in their matrilineal society, Iroquois women have been the peacemakers and the leaders of the Iroquois nation. This means that they also have the responsibilities of name giving, appointing chiefs of the tribe, and even declaring war.

A clan-mother poster
As the heads of the family, the women also have many family responsibilities. Like many Iroquois women, Katsi is trained in the art of midwifery, which assists women in childbirth. Katsi, believes that childbirth is a very spiritual and ceremonial experience. It shows the beginning of the cycle of life.

Katsi herself is a midwife and she becomes very animated as she talks about this part of her culture. The biggest responsibility the women had, she tells us, was to continue the cycle of life. The cycle of life includes performing the traditional ceremonies every year, teaching those ceremonies to the youth, saying farewell to the dead, and welcoming the new life to the world. Every new baby was named by the clan mothers (who ran the longhouse).

Kevin was fascinated to learn that women also had the full responsibility to choose who would be the next chief. "At first it was difficult for me to work this out in my head," he said. "Then Katsi told me something that made it as clear as the blue sky above her house earlier that day. Women were responsible for raising the children. This job gave them the chance to look at the children and see how each of them behaved. Some children were more fair-minded, and showed more leadership than others. These were the children that the clan-mothers believed would probably be the best leaders when they became adults, and so the cycle of creation continued."

Without the continuation of this amazing cycle, the traditions, ceremonies, teachings, and responsibilities will not be carried on, and the culture will start to fade. And just as this culture is special, each and every one of you is very special in your own ways. And the women who continue the lifecycle are extremely important, too. Katsi is very scared that the next generation will not carry on this circle because she sees every generation drift farther away from the original teachings and culture. But most importantly, she sees the Iroquois drifting away from the sacred mother earth that we all walk on everyday. She tells us the story of Iotsitsisonh, who is also referred to as Mature Flowers, or Sky Woman. The legend tells of a tree being uprooted from the heavens, and sending Sky Woman hurling through the air down to earth. As she struggled to hold on, seeds, dirt and all the ingredients for life were caught underneath her fingernails. The end result is that we are blessed with different plants and vegetables to feed us, and keep us healthy. According to the story, Sky Woman was the first being to inhabit the earth. To this day her influence is felt and lived out by and through the Iroquoian people. Katsi believes that strong spirited women, like the Sky Woman, can play a key role in bringing the people back to this cycle.

Listening to Katsi speak made me realize the power that the Indian women have. When I say powerful I don't mean the kind of powers that the Power Rangers have. I mean the kind of power that is just automatically present. Think about a time when your mom told you to do something and you just did it with out even complaining or questioning it. That's the kind of power I mean. As she spoke with such dignity and strength, Kevin and I felt her strong Mohawk spirit. She made me proud to be Indian!

So as I leave you, I want you to remember the power that the Iroquois women hold. If you are a woman, be proud and strong because you can uphold your traditions and values. If you are man, show women respect because they are the givers of life, and the holders of many powerful spirits.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The mysterious ways of the secretive Pueblos
Rebecca - The wild and wacky world of Seminole Indian alligator wrestling
Neda - A ghost town turns into a whirling dervish dance festival
Irene - Take me to the river! Slippery salmons swimming upstream
Teddy - Whale hunting and the art of preserving traditions
Team - The first inhabitants of North America: A picture of a proud and strong people
Team - Tomorrow's leaders, today's American Indian youth