The Mohawk Community, located about seven miles west of Fonda, New York, near the beautiful Mohawk River, was a peaceful, glorious place to spend a rest day. In the distance, we could see tree-covered hills. We were surrounded by pastures with horses and cows. Not far away was a spring with refreshing cold and very clear water.
We were made to feel very welcome by Tom and Alice Porter and by all of the other members of the community. I even had the opportunity to experience cleaning my laundry in the same way that people in previous generations cleaned theirs, by using a bucket and a washboard. People in previous generations must have been strong! That's much more work that merely throwing the clothes into a washing machine!
At the Mohawk Community, we enjoyed delicious traditional Mohawk foods, including corn soup, fry bread, and mush. I also went to the gift shop while I was there. I enjoyed looking at all of the beautiful crafts that were sold at this store, especially the clothing and jewelry. It was beautiful but, alas, a wee bit beyond my budget. I ended up by purchasing a newspaper that provided a history of the Iroquois Confederacy and a CD of traditional Mohawk music.
I also spent a good deal of time sitting with Alice Porter and her sister Ida Mae. It was interesting to listen to them converse with each other. On the walk, I had become accustomed to hearing people speak in a variety of foreign languages, especially Japanese. I found out that Alice and Ida Mae spoke to each other in Choctaw, a language spoken by approximately 10,000 persons. Most of them live in Oklahoma. Before the Choctaw were forcibly relocated in the 1830s, they lived in the American southeast.
On the morning that we were to leave the Mohawk Community, Tom Porter told us about himself and Alice.
"I'm working for the enemy," Tom said simply and gently. "I never wanted to. My leaders asked me to do it."
Tom is one of two chaplains for Native American inmates in the New York State prison system. The other chaplain is an Onondaga. In the past, Tom said, Indians in jail went to court to try to force the government to provide them with religous services. They pointed out that services were available in penal institutions for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but not for inmates who practiced traditional Native American religions. "They had no religious freedom," Tom said. The court mandated that the prisons provide religious services. Hence, Tom's job, providing Native American inmates with hope, support, and a connection to the Creator.
"No one has helped them. They cry. They are frustrated and angry," Tom said of the inmates. "We try to be their uncle, their grandfather. I don't see jail people. I see grandsons, nephews, and nieces. When they get out, a lot of them try to follow traditions."
In the prisons, Tom cooks traditional foods for ceremonies. He cooks corn into such dishes as bread, soup, and mush. The corn is considered sacred. "It came thousands of years ago," Tom said.
Tom can do this work now, traveling to 72 jails and prisons in New York State to tend to the spiritual needs of Native American inmates, because he is strong and healthy enough to do so. It wasn't always this way. Tom and Alice both live with diabetes. Alice was well on her way to going blind from cataracts. She could not have surgery because her diabetes was not under control.
Tom said that a woman named Amanda came to help Alice by teaching her how to change her diet.
"We ate a typical American diet. It was killing us," Tom said. He added that Amanda cried about Alice's plight. She then went to the cupboard and cleared out all of the food that she deemed unhealthy. Some of the food was brand new. It all ended up in the garbage can. Amanda cooked for Tom and Alice for one month. At the end of that time, their diabetes was well under control and Alice was able to have surgery for her blind eye. Three weeks later, the surgeon fixed Alice's other cataract. She can now see.
Tom told us that he was thankful for the dietary change that Amanda introduced that saved Alice's eyesight. He told us also about being thankful. He said that, when he was a small boy, he lived with his grandmother in a house that had no electricity. His grandmother, who spoke only Mohawk, used to get up early to cook the oatmeal. She asked Tom, when he awakened, if he thanked the creator. She told him that, while he was asleep, the creator came through the window and held him in his arms. The creator also hugged the cows and horses and the trees and everything on mother earth.
"He is our father and we are his children. We have a good father and a good mother earth. They are our parents and we must respect them. Say Nya-weh. Thank you. You are the one who made me. I send to you my thank you, greetings, compassion and love. Say it before you get out of bed," Tom related. He added that the rays of sunlight that come through the window are the fingers, hands, and arms of the creator.
"All that the creator wants is to be told thank you with love. He clears obstacles from the road," Tom said.
Tom added that his people have faced many obstacles. They have been colonized for ten generations. "It is the worst thing. It goes into your mind and your heart. You cannot distinguish real life stuff. We can't even help ourselves to eat healthy."
He said that he and others continue to share the message of the Iroqouis Confederacy to counter the violent message of the government and corporations. He told us to tell all people. Go back to your original teachings to find the truth. Do not kill each other. Share one another.
"We are older and tired," Tom said. "We still try to do what we can do. We go as far as our trail takes us. It's OK. We must leave something for our children and grandchildren. Right now, the children are being held by the big power. They have no time to listen to grandpa and grandma."
"We still have lots of work to do yet. America is changing and starting to act more like Mohawks, Lakotas, and Senecas.But they killed the teachers.
"Until America changes and sets a good example, the world will not change," Tom said.