One of the most gratifying parts of Mohawk life are the collective rituals of thanksgiving sustained by the traditional people in a manner which were certainly be understood by our ancestors.
For many generations the Mohawk community at Akwesasne did not have an active longhouse since the people existed under the firm hand of the Catholic Church who, in league with the American and Canadian authories, made it impossible for such rituals to be openly practised. Belivers in the ancient ways were labelled as "pagans" who danced with the devil and were condemned to eternal
damnation if they dared to enter a longhouse.
Should an Akwesasne Mohawk desire to participate in the old ways they had to do so secretly far away from their homes at Onondaga, Seneca or on the Six Nations reserve near Hamilton, Ontario. If they returned home and were found out they could lose their homes, be stripped of their Native status and evicted from the reservation.
Not until the 1930's were the Mohawks sufficiently free to re-establish a longhouse but it had to be located on the "American" side of the reservation since the Canadian officials were not prepared to allow the return of paganism until a generation later. When I was a student in the elementary school at Akwesasne north of the border there were only a handful of longhouse children in
attendence with those classmates subject to ridicule and suspicion by their peers.
The freedom movements of the 1960's changed all that and it suddenly became "cool" to reject Christianity and adopt the longhouse way. It helped that Akwesasne had become the center of Native activism marked by the founding of the journal Akwesasne Notes and the touring group The White Roots of Peace, both sanctioned by the traditional Mohawk Nation Council as a way of bringing about a revolution in how the world perceived indigenous peoples.
The younger generation of Mohawks, those born after the Second World War, took to the longhouse like birds to the flight. They were hungry to learn more about the rituals and travelled to every Iroquois community to meet with the knowledge keepers, then bring back what they had found.
The Mohawks proved that because there had been a disruption in the rituals that did not mean they had died but the beauty and power of the ceremonies were such that they could be transplanted in fertile ground.
Since then, the Mohawk ceremonial calender if not only full but attracts thousands of participants annually. When the people enter the longhouse they see a new building raised by volunteers which, although it is the largest such building among the Iroquois, can be so full as to make it a challenge to find a seat.
The date of a specific ceremony is determined by a group of advisors to the Nation Council. These advisors are called "faithkeepers" with the duty of watching the movement of the moon, allignment of the stars and growth of the plants in determiing the right time for the people to gather at the longhouse. There are eighteen faithkeepers; one female and one male for each one of the nine chiefs.
The ceremonies begin with Midwinter; this is the Iroquois new year which begins five days after the first new moon following the winter solstice. In Euro-American terms, this means the actual ceremony may occur anytime between early January and the beginning of Febuary. The other rituals take place as the weather and plants dictate.
All Mohawk ceremonies are closed to non-Natives since there have been many instances of misunderstanding in the past. It is rather amazing the Iroquois as a whole have retained the essence of their indigenous spiritual beliefs given the intense acculturation pressures brought to bear against them by the salt water people.