Voices from the Waterfall
Jenny Wonderling, of INSIDE + OUT had the beautiful honor of speaking with the team behind the 2023 Waterfall Unity Festival that runs July 28 – July 30 from 6pm – 10pm.
As it turns out, the potency of the story beneath the one about a weekend of fun has made this blog difficult to write and powerful to share. A simple interview one morning in July with the event’s organizers felt so moving, its message deeply urgent; not simple at all. On the surface, the weekend’s events are helping to raise much needed funds for a cultural center, language school, and housing so the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people can finally return to the Schoharie Valley and thrive.
This isn’t just about a dream of rematriation to an indigenous homeland, or first impressions about yet another awesome music festival. Sure the event’s organizers aim to offer an immersive experience for all ages including an exciting lineup of music, on-site berry picking, Haudenosaunee storytelling, food, crafts and workshops–and fun it will be! Guests will be invited to be a part of this alliance-building across cultures, all in one inspiration packed weekend through music, dance, story sharing, connecting with nature and, if inclined, lending a hand. The organizers have also generously made the ticket cost by suggested donation, so no one will be turned away for lack of funds, especially Haudenosaunee youth who are encouraged to enjoy the healing beauty of their traditional homelands for free.
The Quieter Truth
Meanwhile, there’s a deeper, long overdue truth finally emerging, and what a great honor to bear witness and perhaps even support what is rising. Hopeful and strong shoots of change have been planted, guided by the loving hands and courageous dreams of four wise women on a farm in West Fulton. Each shared stories of their painful realities without blame or ire. With such concise eloquence and an ability to speak from the heart, from and to the earth, they explained about how for decades, the Kanien’keha:Ke (Mohawk) people have been and continue to be exposed to PCBs and other chemicals on their Akwesasne Reservation. This is easily confirmed. According to srmt-nsn.gov and many other online sources, “The Mohawk Territory at Akwesasne is downstream of three Superfund sites that were placed on the National Priority List (NPL) in the early 1990s; Arconic (ALCOA) Grasse River, General Motors (RACER) and Reynolds Metals Superfund sites.” While traditionally a culture of fishermen and farmers, the Mohawk have been forced to live on sullied land where fish are deformed, the soils so contaminated that food cannot be grown. There are soaring rates of birth defects and cancer. To make matters worse, the boundaries of their territory straddles New York and Canada, making border crossings and interactions with government officials and police a necessary daily occurrence, exacerbating anxiety and depression.
Planting Seeds for a New Earth
If you are reading this, you probably already live in our lush and abundant Hudson Valley where things grow in plenitude, where free thought and uninhibited travel are celebrated and experienced. Maybe you’re even a parent who has had the good fortune to have and raise healthy children, or you are at least concerned about the future for all children? It can seem unthinkable for the well-being of others to be blatantly disrespected. Especially those who live in gratitude for our natural world, within a culture that honors that connection. The suffering of others because of injustice can feel overwhelming and provoke questions like: Where do we even start? How do we respond? How can we help?
Meet four courageous visionaries who are holding this prayer to actualize the return and thrival of the Mohawk people and the health of the earth.
Kawenniiosta Jock is Kanien’kehá:ka, under the title family of Orenrehrekó:wa Wolf Clan from Akwesasne. She’s a mother, activist, land protector, master seamstress, artist and lover of all creation. Kawenniiosta has helped develop traditional support, cultural teachings and language preservation within her community and is a Onkwehónwe full-spectrum doula. She says, “she is here to bring ancient knowledge and teachings back to restore the collective balance within her people and all humanity.” Kawenniiosta is an alumna of the Akwesasne Freedom School and is passionate about the restoration of her people’s way of life. She “carries a heart-felt desire to create a space of love and healing for each and every individual.”
INSIDE + OUT: Thankfully, most people currently residing in the Hudson Valley don’t know, in a visceral way, what it must feel like to have been forcibly displaced, to be told they cannot speak their language, practice their cultural ways, or to be given land that is knowingly putting them and their families in harm’s way because of environmental issues and more. Can you tell us what it feel like to know that your people were moved off ancestral land, and be displaced to a reservation? Please explain to those who may not understand why you feel there is an important need to return to the valley?
Kawenniiosta: Well, they moved our people from the valleys and up toward the Canadian borders and into so-called Canada. I just turned forty years old and all my life I’ve been living alongside industry and a super fund site. I remember being a little kid having to get my blood taken because they wanted to do testing on PCBs. I remember being a subject of those testings that were taking place, and I never really understood what it was. I didn’t know the magnitude of what I was living beside. It’s literally right next door. Not five miles down the road or ten miles down the road, like right next door.
Then there’s the ongoing genocide and assimilation of our people who are being heavily policed. They put us in an area where even when we just want to go to the grocery store or when we want to go visit our grandmother, our families, we have to check in. We have to check in with the US Border Agency and then when we want to come back, we have to go all the way past our homes into so-called Canada, check in with Canadian Border Services Agency. So we have to get permission just to turn around and come back to our homes. Just to get groceries, just to get gas and the basic necessities, we basically have to ask the US and so-called Canada, if we can do that. We have to answer questions like, “Well, how long are you going to be there? What are you doing? Where are you going?” And there’s all the other interrogation that we go through daily; we’re heavily policed.
It all really messes with your mental health. Every day, there’s a feeling of dread about leaving your home, because you don’t want to be interrogated, you don’t want to be racially profiled. That’s our everyday life here. Not only that, but we have not been able to plant food in the ground for years because of the amount of PCBs in our soils. And we used to depend on our waterways as we were fishermen, but we haven’t been able to eat our fish in a very long time. Our fish are so heavily polluted with PCBs they’re deformed and they have a lot of diseases and that was one of our main sources of sustenance. A lot of our communities are always under boil water advisories, still to this day. And in the past 15 years, a lot of the younger women have been having babies with a lot of birth defects. The cancer rate has skyrocketed. It’s been an ongoing genocide. Back on the reservation we’re constantly in survival mode 24/7.
So being back in my homelands now, being on the farm with my children, I have noticed how present I am; how I’m able to just be. Here my body has been able to decompress. If I pass a police officer on the road in a cop car, my anxiety is not high. I’m finally not afraid all the time of them pulling me over, whipping the car around and pulling me over and harassing me. So it’s been really, really healing, and raised our vibrations a lot in a short amount of time.
How long have you been there on the farm, Kawenniiosta?
Kawenniiosta: I would say a little over two and a half months.
There are currently more than 3000 people living on the Akwesasne Reservation. How many of your people are you hoping will move to the farm?
Kawenniiosta: I don’t have a number. I would say whoever is willing and has the courage to take that step because it is very hard to leave the reservation. It’s like an abusive relationship. We’re in an abusive relationship with Canada and the US, if you know what I mean. We’re governed by so many foreign entities that are not ours and a lot of us suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. A lot of us don’t leave our homes. A lot of us are suffering from severe depression and anxiety over it, so for the ones who can get out of that, I believe that they’ll be the ones coming to the valley.
What is your prayer for the Waterfall Unity Festival as an offering to the community? You are raising money for a language school and cultural center? Also please speak to the deeper intention…
Kawenniiosta: My intention is for our people to come home and to reconnect with the land in the valley and to reconnect with their ancestors. To be able to eat clean food; to be able to drink clean water. I understand that the air quality is not the best everywhere on this planet, but it’s a lot better here than it is on the reservation. It has just been a short amount of time for me but the experiences that I’ve had on the farm and on the land, reconnecting with my people. My intention is that my people are able to come home and experience the same things and to allow that connection to happen. I’m very confident that it will happen. It’s an act of resistance to the ongoing genocide of our people. It’s something that has to be done. We have to reclaim ourselves, reclaim our spirit, our whole entire being, for the sake of our children, and the next seven generations. That’s how we live our life. That’s what we’re taught; so that is my intention. I want to go back to our old ways of living and of being. I want everyone to know and remember that we are the land. You are the land, you are nature. You are the water. You are the soil.
Sandra Owén:nakon Deer-Standup is a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Kahnawa:ke (By The Rapids). She has been involved in land defense and political activism for sovereign rights for her people since she was 6 years old. A mother, wife, aunt, great-aunt and grandmother, Owén:nakon has taught elementary and early childhood education in the Kanien’keha language for over 20 years. She has been an educational administrator, curriculum writer and consultant; has published several published academic papers; and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation in education at McGill University.
INSIDE + OUT: Would you like to speak to the question of the deeper intention of the festival Sandra?
Sandra: I agree, that is exactly what our intention is– for our people to come home and to do the work as well. To shed–to shed ourselves, and also to bring ourselves that connection that Kawenniiosta is talking about through this new type of education. That’s what we’re calling it in an English term because it’s really hard to describe our education the way non-native people could understand it. We still have to use the word school or education but we’re breaking away from the hierarchical understanding and ideology of where non-Indigenous education came from. Colonialism has wiped out many, many cultures, including our own culture, our Haudenosaunee culture of the Six Nations. We’re practicing our culture, but the reality of it is, we’re not really living it. We’re not really living it because we’re not living the way we lived. We’re not living on the land, we’re not teaching our children from the land anymore.
I use this as an example: I’ve been asking people, “How did you learn about water?” As a teacher and parent myself, I didn’t teach my children about water by sitting them at a desk and giving them a sheet of paper and explaining about what water is. I learned about water myself, personally, by playing in water, by working with water, by drinking and using water, by throwing rocks in the water, by playing in and catching fish, and doing numerous things as a child in water. That’s how I learned about water. That’s how I learned a connection and respect for water. The learning just continues from there. That is the power of our earth and nature. There is so much to learn and there’s not a book on the planet that could say, “This is everything that the earth has to offer and that you could learn from her.”
The earth, she’s our mother. We come from her. Our culture tells us that this is where we come from. Our physical being was created through the manifestation of the physical earth. This is in our creation story. The female energy came down through Sky Woman and began that for us, and in time, to our creation, through evolution of the planet, and the whole of our Mother. Human beings were created here, but our essence comes from Sky Woman’s essence and that energy that came down. This is what our creation story tells us. All of that energy is now part of what people are looking at and saying, “Oh, quantum learning this; quantum that.” The reality of it is that this quantum, what people are trying to look for and trying to connect to is all within ourselves. And when we connect back to ourselves and to the land, where we come from, where our physical being comes from, connect to that spiritual being of our essence and of Sky Woman, this is where real learning takes place. This is where what you’re calling quantum knowledge is. As a vessel of a human being, we are connected to that quantum.
We are so distracted by AI and putting iPads in front of children to learn. This is where you are taking natural learning away from children. I went to school and I didn’t have that technology and I learned fine. But the things that I learned were not really adjacent to what my culture was showing me, what I was getting at home, so there was no connection in those days with education and with who I was as a native child. As an educator, I’ve been working my butt off for years to change that through and with the types of education systems that are in place. The work is like walking uphill though, while carrying all your children with you. The work is not easy because the system itself does not resonate with natural learning, with what the earth has to offer. And to teach through our language, that’s even more powerful because our language is very descriptive of the earth. Those things are not taught in the standard education systems. So this is also why we hold our intention to come home and bring our children.
Kawenniiosta’s children, the children that are living on the land now, they’re getting the best education that they can because they’re walking on the earth, they’re living on the earth, and they’re learning on the earth alongside the mother. So they are receiving what I perceive as our Mother Earth education. They’re being educated by our mother. Not only their own physical mother, but they’re being educated by our mother, the earth. And this is the importance of where our language fits in because our language describes and gives us the understanding of what nature is doing and what is taking place. Then when we internalize that this is our part of our growing–not only our physical and mental and emotional growing, it’s part of our spiritual growing. That is the whole connection as we are, as what we call ourselves: Onkwehonwe. (The original or first people.) We are the natural beings that were brought here through Sky Woman’s essence.
So that for me, that’s my intention, and like Kawenniiosta said, we are the seventh generation. We are, her and I and Liv, the three women that are on this call, we are part of that seventh generation that our ancestors talked about. They were waiting for us to come home. This is what is happening and taking place. So now that we’re working towards that, we need to work towards bringing all the Seven Generations. We were taught in our culture that what we do here, what we say, and the steps that we take today, are the things that we will manifest for ourselves and for our people, for those Seven Generations whose faces we have not yet seen. This is all over in our teachings, in our language: the faces that have yet to come. That is one of the translations: those faces of the children who have yet to come, and the spirit of those children that are coming.
I’ve only been involved in Waterfall Unity Alliance for over a year and everything has changed for me in my life. A lot of ups and downs, but it’s a good change. It opened my eyes to the dream that I’ve always had as an educator. Taught in the non-Indigenous education, I have always held the longing for my own language and for my own culture to be part of my education, and to be part of education. That was part of my goal as an educator. Like I said, in that non-native system, you’re forever struggling to bring that concept of who you are, and your culture and language into it because of the government criteria that these systems adopt and follow. So this has been the first year for this earth school that we’re developing. The universe is our teacher as it was for our ancestors. This is what we’re going back to for our next Seven Generations, to bring that back. If we bring our people home and they don’t have the culture and they don’t have the language, it’s going to be even more of a struggle. But to have that there in place while people are trying to make their way back home to our ancestral lands then we can say, “There’s a place for you, there’s a place for you to learn. There’s a place for you to come and heal.” We don’t have everything ready at this moment but this is our intention, to bring that back for people. And we’re going to work; we’re there to do that.
All of this is obviously so truly heart driven. Thank you so much for what you are doing, it feels so important. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Sandra: One more thing I’d like to say is that, the whole effort of this concert and the concert last year, the money that we’re trying to raise…it’s unfortunate that today that we really need money to help us sustain the physical part of the farm. Way back in the day, we didn’t need money to sustain. We just needed our people to come in and help and work the lands. So this is what we’re gearing all of this towards. But right now at the moment, the colonization is real and not everyone is open to seeing the freedom of what we are trying to do and offer. There’s so much fear that clouds over them because of colonization and believing, “If I leave the reservation, oh my God, I’m not going to survive; I’m not going to make it out there.” In general, that’s what people believe, and it’s very difficult for them to think about actually leaving the reservation. But boy, when people come there, they’re just drawn by the land and by their ancestors. They feel it. So that’s why we’re trying to get more people out there to come and feel it and be on the land, to not be so afraid. Though I understand why its fearful for individuals, including myself. But like I said, I’m working, and I’m trying to do my best to follow what I believe. Then meeting Kawenniiosta through women’s meetings, and then meeting Bethany through Kawenniiosta it was just like, “Oh, my God, this is incredible. This is what I have to be a part of, it just gravitated my heart there immediately.
How much money exactly would you really appreciate raising for the language school and cultural center through the Waterfall Unity Festival? Then we can try to envision even more than that for the houses and structures you also need so your people can have something to live in. Do you have an idea of the larger goal for funds too?
Sandra: At one point, I said, “We need a million dollars. I just blurted it out once at one meeting, but when we looked at our budget, we were like, “Wow, a million dollars would be spot on. We could get this, this, and make all of the plans happen that we were talking about.” But yes, housing is one of the big issues because when inviting people, you need somewhere for them to stay. So that’s been in our talk for a while too.
This may seem very naive but because there’s been so much exposure to environmental toxicity where the reservation is, does the government not have any financial responsibility? Is there a way of suing the government or the chemical company in order to get money that you could then invest in the land?
Kawenniiosta: Anytime that you take money from the government, there’s always strings attached. Nothing is ever free. We’re never free to do what we want if we take money from the government. And even our local governments on the reservation are the arm of the federal, state and provincial governments in the US and Canada. Those funds are allotted through them for what they believe are worthy programs and they only give money if they think you fit the criteria. Even within our own people on the reservation, there’s criteria you have to follow. Sometimes they behave even as aggressive or even more aggressive than the non-native government on the outside, because they’re so colonized by that government system. They even look at us as if many don’t fit the criteria, so then we’re not getting anything. Or if you apply for it, you have to jump through all of these hoops, and then they’re going to monitor when and what you’re going to do with the money. So that funding is a trade off for your culture, a trade off for your language. You have to give something up in order to get that funding.
There’s so much wisdom in what you’ve all been sharing and it feels there’s an urgency to get your message out. Back to the topic of education, that system as it is right now is not only failing your people, it’s failing everyone. Everyone has a disconnect from nature, and the system it’s perpetuating this disconnection. Do you have any intention of including people that are not Native American to go to school or be a part of your programs? Do you plan on offering any kind of workshops throughout the year that all people could come to and be in these conversations to help them and others to awaken to these things?
Kawenniiosta: Yes, definitely. Under what is known as our Kayanerenkó:wa or The Great Law of Peace… though I don’t like to say law…all people have a place to sit with us.
Sandra: All people have a place to sit within our space, and to sit within council, and to be invited into our families. That’s what that is.
Kawenniiosta: They just won’t have a voice. They won’t be a title holder. But they are able to come and share space with us and we are willing to teach them our ways, as long as they have respect for themselves, respect for their mother…our mother earth.
Bethany Yarrow sings music of power and praise. She is a song keeper, earth activist, and student of the spiritual traditions of the Americas. With a living prayer for unity at the heart of her music, she uses her voice to help protect the land & water and build community & collaborative solutions to address the existential threats of our time. Bethany is helping to spearhead these projects @ the Waterfall House and generously initiated the land back of 95 acres to the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people. She also happens to be the daughter of folk-pop legend Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary who will be once again playing at and supporting the effort of the festival.
Bethany: Perhaps Liv can share something as a youth member who is widening the scope of what’s happening, not just for the Kanien’kehá:ka but also for all the people of the Confederacy in the Haudenosaunee. This is a really unified effort right now of return and it’s coming together. So maybe Liz, you can say a few words about what this has meant to you to come home to this place and to the valley?
Liv Watyana’li:yo Bigtree, Turtle Clan is Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) and lives in Skóhare. She grew up in the Onondaga Reserve where she was raised by predominantly strong Onkwehonwe women. Having a background in visual art, she finished her first year of art school at Maryland Institute College of Art in 2021. Over the course of her high school career, she received numerous honors and titles, both nationally and regionally for her art. Her willingness to be open to guidance and her authenticity has taken her path away from colonial life. Decolonization, healing, and spirituality are all included in her personal work and what she intends to bring to Skóhare. She acts as Communications Specialist in the Waterfall Unity Alliance and is on the Board of Directors.
Liv: I think part of my role here has really just been learning and also to share that youth perspective. As someone who has grown up in the Onondaga Nation and seeing amongst my generation, those who are really struggling, there are those who do not wish to pursue a colonized way of life. By that I mean higher education. I am actually someone who did pursue a colonized way of life and had major scholarships coming my way. I went to a college prep school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I had the opportunity to pursue higher education and what I consider a colonized way of life, but it wasn’t fulfilling. That wasn’t true education to me, one that’s aligned with what Sandra was sharing earlier about education. The greatest education comes from our (earth) mother, it doesn’t come just from sitting inside buildings, creating things and speaking and sharing your truth, yet graded as if only parts of it are valid. This can be very harmful for all of humanity, and especially our people, because we are taught our principles, and though they’re not always lived and breathed, we are aware of the potential. So being in these colonized spaces, it’s not harmonious with our innate nature as Onkwehonwe (the original or first) beings. It’s not aligned with who we are as a people. With that being said, moving out here has happened after deciding to drop out of college and not knowing where to put myself. I also didn’t want to land in a colonial workspace.
Moving out here has really just been a major healing process, learning about our ways, being taught by these matriarchs on this call here. I have been learning how to reconnect and heal myself. Moving out here and being on this beautiful land has provided the space and the means to do that. I want more than anything to share that with my fellow youth because I know that as we continue to walk this path back to sovereignty and back to love, we are also continuing to walk on a planet that is actively healing herself. And she’s waiting for us to do so. She’s very, very sick at the moment, and she’s calling her children back. So I understand that our people and our ancestors are coming back onto this earth plane, and that all of the beings that are needed to be here are here. And I’m proud to know and to be walking this path with my two younger siblings who Kawenniiosta birthed herself. They really do carry and embody the teachings in ways that I’m just really grateful to learn from them. You have to be a really strong soul to choose to come to a dying planet and to come at a time of such change. Watching all of these babies come…you have to be really, really strong in your principles as a soul to choose to come during this very delicate, intricate and complicated time. So I just trust that all the things that are needed to be here are here. I want more than anything to empower my fellow youth from our home communities to come, and to embody the teachings and lessons that are offered here on this beautiful land.
I’m also doing what I can to heal myself. I understand from our principles that my role as a woman, as a part of this Confederacy and as a part of my people, is to not only provide children, to bring beings into this world as a divine feminine portal between two worlds… because that’s who we are as women…but to also ensure that I’m doing my own inner work and my healing. That way I can ensure that the children that I birth into this world do not carry the burdens that I had to, and that’s what true cycle breaking is. So doing the healing work that is that is necessary to ensure that the children that will be the future of the Turtle Clan, with friends, the future of the Oneida Nation, and the future of this land here, do not have to carry the burdens that we have to today, and that they don’t have to carry those karmic cycles and wounds that I had to because of those teachings that that have been lost. We are doing our best to bring them back and to heal, to really heal ourselves to the core, so that we can return to our high vibrational original instructions and way of life. So that’s really what this process of moving out here has taught me and shown me and I’m just here to learn from and do what I can to help. As a co creator of the community, the dream community that we’re creating here in Kanien’kehá:ka ancestral homeland.
Bethany: I am so glad everyone’s been able to connect in this way so that people can start to understand more deeply what’s happening here. We’re just about to start a land rematriation fund as well, where people can contribute because we’re starting to try to buy back land in the valley to rematriate and to manage, steward and create a bio regional sanctuary of food, water, wildlife and humans to come and return to a natural state of being and to be protected in a different way in this time of chaotic transformation. So there’s a lot that is moving through this and this is now really being stewarded on and shepherded by the women and by a Women’s Council to create a new place of healing and of birthing a new way of working together on this earth.
Sandra: Thank you New Earth! Yes, that’s what it’s called: the New Earth. This is what we are investing in and what we are projecting.
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