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Akwesasne Women Singers - nhpeacenik
Akwesasne Women Singers

One of the highlights of this year's Lowell Folk Festival for me was the chance to hear "Kontiwennenhá:wi – Carriers of the Words", a women's singing ensemble from Akwesasne, the homeland of the Iroquois Federation or Haudenosaunee, which spans the border between New York state, Ontario and Quebec.  The star of the group was a woman named "Bear" who writes songs in English and Mohawk, based on visions she has while fasting on mountaintops. Some of the singing is used to tell the story of the People of the Longhouse and their constitution, The Great Law of Peace, which helped to inspire the (good parts of ) the US constitution. Other kinds of songs are harmonious chants used as music for social dancing. I was just blown away with Bear's lyrics to a song called "Rich Girl", where she describes her situation growing up as (it think she said) the youngest of 17 children on what we would call an impoverished reservation, but feeling genuinely rich because of the rich natural world and strong cultural grounding her family and heritage gave her. If you get a chance to hear these women sing and play their rattles and water-drum, drop what you are doing and listen!

Some of the performers are high-school-aged students at a Mohawk language immersion school, and others are mothers of families. If you can see the photograph above, that's Bear in the red dress in the middle.

The Folk Festival's biographical sketch for the group says:
 Singing is an important medicine of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) people, one of the Six
Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), and the wonderful women’s
singing ensemble Kontiwennenhá:wi uses this medicine both to benefit their community
and to share with outside audiences the beauty of their cultural traditions.
Kontiwennenhá:wi hail from Akwesasne, a Kanienkehaka Territory that straddles the St.
Lawrence River and incorporates portions of northern New York and southern Ontario.
In Akwesasne, as in other Kanienkehaka communities, women’s singing societies have
always functioned to help community members in time of need. When
Kontiwennenhá:wi performs outside of their community, they do not call themselves a
singing society, since that title is reserved for their work within their Territory and other
Haudenosaunee communities. However, regardless of the venue, they continue many of
the same functions: the funds their performances generate are always directed back
toward their community. While men and women sometimes have different singing
repertoires and their songs serve different functions, women always take care to learn the
men’s songs as well, so that the Mohawk way of life can be preserved even in times of
crisis. In the spirit of this traditional role, Kontiwennenhá:wi, the Carriers of the Words,
have embraced the “duty to help our language survive.… We believe that if our language
dies, so will we as a Nation. Without our language we will have no culture. We proudly
share our songs and teach children so that we may honor everything that is natural to us.
Through our songs we honor our Mother the Earth, our Grandmother the Moon, our
Grandparents from every generation, the teachers of the Mohawk language, the Great
Law of Peace, and more.”
The lead singers of Kontiwennenhá:wi are five women “born with the gift to create
songs” which speak to the people: Kenkiokoktha Theresa “Bear” SwampFox,
Katsitsionni Fox, Iawén:tas Nanticoke, Teioswate Cook, and Kaweienón:ni Margaret
Peters. The group’s powerful singing is accompanied with traditional percussion
instruments: deer horn rattles and a small water drum, whose sound symbolizes the
heartbeat of the people. Kontiwennenhá:wi performances also incorporate social dancing,
another of the Haudenosaunee’s medicines, which we are honored to have them share
with us at the Lowell Folk Festival.

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Current Music: Buffy Sainte-Marie "QuAppelle Valley, Saskatchewan"

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