When Onondaga Nation Clanmother Audrey Shenandoah-Gonwaiani passed into the spirit world on March 15 not only her family and community mourned but the entire Haudenosaunee Confederacy was cast into sorrow. For the past four decades she was a steady, reliable and dignified presence at Onondaga, ever ready to speak on behalf of the people while welcoming visitors to the capital and central fire of the world's first united nations.
As a clanmother (Iakoiane in the Mohawk dialect of the Iroquois language) Gonwaiani accepted the responsibilities as not only a clan leader but as a caretaker for the culture of her nation. She was selected as clan leader after being closely observed by her people. They saw in her compassion, dedication, humility, knowledge, patience and a deep respect for the traditions and customs which define Haudenosaunee life.
She was articulate in the Onondaga language, a skill which she shared with the Onondaga children for decades as a teacher at the Nation's school. Widely admired for her sense of humor and her unique ability to speak on behalf of her people before international forums, Gonwaiani became one of the most respected Native leaders of the past century.
Born and raised at Onondaga by her grandparents she was immersed in her heritage. She grew into a strong woman, giving birth to ten children and then see them establish their own families until she became the matriarch for dozens of descendants: grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren: all of whom were fortunate to be embraced by her unqualified affection.
A iakoniane has many tasks during her lifetime, all of which Gonwaiani accepted without compromise. She had the duty of nominating the leadership from within her clan; the male leader (roia:ne or "chief"), his assistant (raterontanonha) and the two faithkeepers (male: roterihonton, female: iakoterihonton) who serve as spiritual advisors for the roia:ne and iakoiane. Her selections were then reviewed by her clan before being sanctioned by the Nation Council. Her nominations were inevitably wise ones and brought about security and confidence to the Onondaga Nation.
The iakoiane had other duties. She was a peacemaker, serving as an arbitrator in disputes within the Nation. She oversaw the use of the Nation's natural resources as an extension of her relationship with mother earth. She was present at every one of the lunar rituals which mark the cycle of seasons among the Haudenosaunee. As a counsellor she provided instruction in the meaning and dynamics of each ceremony, as a spiritual leader she worked with the Nation to insure the ceremonies were carried on across the decades.
Yet even as Gonwaiani was called to the people's service she was a devoted mother. As her international stature grew, requiring her to travel to distant places on behalf of the Haudenosaunee she was always conscious of her personal family life first. She was a remarkable host for the many political gatherings at Onondaga, her presence as secretary for the Nation steady and reassuring.
When the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was established hundreds of years ago Skennenrahowi, the messenger, created the position of iakoiane as an extension of natural law. He determined that the women, the lifegivers for all humanity, must have specific powers and freedoms to realize their status as the heart and soul of all nations. The first clanmother was Jikonsaseh and from her came the model for all others right to the present day.
Just as Jikonsaseh (the Mother of Nations) was wise and loving so was Gonwaiani. And when Jikonsaseh was strong and determined in defense of the people so was Gonwaiani as she lived through the greatest changes in Haudenosaunee history. It was Gonwaiani's absolute conviction that the Haudenosaunee had teachings of utmost importance and in those instructions were the means by which human beings may survive on a changing earth. She lived those teachings every day of her life.
Now that her time on this earth, in this reality, has been completed with honor Gonwaiani has been released by her family, clan and nation to return to the sky world, where she will be met by her ancestors and escorted along the path of stars to the Creator's land. Her name is returned to the clan but her life's work will endure for as long as the waters flow from the sacred hills of the Onondaga.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne
Notes, was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Indian of the
American Indian and the author of "Iroquois on Fire" among other books. He may
be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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