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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 23, 2006

Mohawk traditions
Tarbell brings ancestors into better light

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Mike Tarbell doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving the way most Americans do — with a once-a-year-feast where friends and family, reminiscent of the Pilgrims, gather together to show their thanks.

Tarbell is a Native American, a Mohawk, and he gives his thanks every day — every single day. They are the first words he says when he wakes up in the morning and the last words he says before he goes to sleep at night.

The words are part of an oral tradition. They roll off his tongue with ease but he does not spell them. Phonetically, they sound like: o-hundo-allega-dago.

"They are the words that come before all else," says Tarbell. "When I wake in the morning, I give thanks to all of creation...And those are the words I say before I close my eyes at night."

A fit and agile man, with finely chiseled features and graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, Tarbell chuckles a little at the thought of the first Thanksgiving. "Squanto came out of the woods, speaking good English...He had been shanghaied by an English whaler and, after two years, they let him jump ship and swim ashore," says Tarbell.

Tarbell himself has spanned two worlds. He remembers his upbringing, in the Syracuse area. "My dad is progressive," he said. His father was an iron worker. His mother, a member of the Turtle Clan, he described as "traditional."

"On Saturdays, I’d be with my mother, dancing to the drums. On Sunday, I’d be with my father, an altar boy in the Catholic church."

The Mohawk language was spoken in the home where Tarbell was raised, but not at school. "We couldn’t speak it on the school grounds," Tarbell said.

His father’s father had been sent away to school and when, as a boy, Tarbell would ask him about Mohawk traditions, he would say, "That’s in the past."

His mother’s father "couldn’t read a lick," he said, but was steeped in knowledge of his people’s tradition. His mother’s mother was a medicine woman.

"I was the little boy who went with her, carrying the burlap bag, filled with the healing herbs," he said. His mother’s parents told everything through stories. "For them," he said of his grandparents, "it was sit down and hear."

Tarbell works now at the Iroquois Museum in Howes Cave, teaching others about the Mohawk tradition. He’s taken what he learned as a child from his grandparents and supplemented it with copious research into the ancient past of America’s native peoples.

He teaches respect of his culture through song and dance and the history of his people through story.

Describing his upbringing, Tarbell said, "I was an unintended student. I was like a fly on the wall when the elders were talking. I never realized then what my grandparents were giving me for this moment."

Nurturing in the midst of war

Tarbell describes the museum as "a sanctuary" for him. "I was looking for a place to hide," said Tarbell. He went on to explain, "After Vietnam, it wasn’t a good time...The only place I felt I could find answers was in the stories my grandmother told the children."

Tarbell served in Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. During his second tour of duty, he was stationed in the mountains on the Cambodian border as a pathfinder.

It was there, on the other side of the world, in the middle of an ugly war, that, he says, he discovered himself. He describes meeting a woman who was living in the small village where he was stationed. She was half French and half Montegnard, a native people.

"She looked at me and said, ‘Who are you"’"

"I said, ‘Sergeant Tarbell.’

"We talked and I learned she was schooled in Paris, to be a nurse. Her mother was French. Her family was fighting against communist forces."

She asked again, "Who are you""

Tarbell replied that he was a military advisor with a scout team.

Then she phrased the question differently, "What are you"" she asked, gesturing with her fingertips underneath her eyes.

Tarbell, all these years later, mimics the gesture, highlighting his deep brown eyes, set above high cheekbones.

"I’m American Indian," he replied then.

"Ah, yes," she said, "an American aborigine." She then asked from what tribe.

"Mohawk," he answered.

"From upstate New York," said the woman immediately.

"I was trying to get away from all this," said Tarbell. "And here she was. It turned out that, in Paris, she had taken a course on the oppressed peoples of the world.

"‘You’re one of us,’ she said. They moved me into the village to protect me."

Tarbell said he felt completely at home there. "I was living in a longhouse — a longhouse on eight-foot stilts with teak floors....It was the most serene, nurturing time of my life in the middle of a war."

"A gift"

The experience, he said, re-awakened a sense of who he was. It was "the replanting of a seed" his grandparents had sown, "a seed to who I am," said Tarbell.

He teaches museum visitors about his heritage and goes to places like Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland, as he did last weekend, to reach a larger audience. He was scheduled to speak on Saturday about the Mohawks’ relationship with the turkey but, instead, he spoke with individuals about whatever interested them.

Timothy Albright, for example, who farms the land at Indian Ladder, has, over the years, found a number of arrowheads. Albright carefully notes where each artifact was found.

Tarbell, who makes his own arrows in the traditional way, with hand-carved arrowheads and feathers on the shaft, told Albright about the process and also shared some of the research he had done on ancient artifacts.

"I don’t go looking. Anything I find, I think of as a gift," said Tarbell.

He said the land that is now Indian Ladder Farms would have had no trees until 9,000 years ago. "It was too cold for trees; it was like the north slope of Alaska," said Tarbell.

Ancient hunters with thrusting spears worked in groups to kill mastodons and mammoth, he said. Lions, bigger than those now in Africa, roamed the tundra. The short-faced bear, which weighed 2,500 pounds and could run 35 miles per hour, was the largest predator on the North American continent.

Suddenly, a stone chip, once carved by an ancient hand for the point of a spear, had a story and a history to go with it.

Trees came later as the earth warmed, and the Iroquois eventually built their civilization. Hunting with bow and arrow was a great advance from the spear.

"I remember my grandfather showed me how it was made," Tarbell said of an arrow. "He said there’ll be no future in this."

Still, Tarbell has made his own future based on such traditional knowledge. "Since 9/11," he said, referring to the terrorists’ attacks, "people have had an interest in basics. They want to know how to start a fire."

Tarbell went on to quote Albert Einstein : "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

"My mother’s house"

"It’s a passion," he said of keeping his culture alive.

Tarbell teaches more than white people — descendants of European settlers and the immigrants who followed — about Native American traditions.

With so many being forced into boarding schools, he said, "We lost a lot of how we took care of things in the natural world."

So he shares his culture with other Native Americans who have lost touch with their roots.

"When I walked into the museum 14 years ago," Tarbell said, "I saw it was my mother’s house. Some of my own people come there because they are ignorant of their own culture....

"People lived here at one time under the Great Law of Peace," said Tarbell. "They lived with everything in creation, realizing everything here will survive and thrive without them."

He went on, about the Iroquois Confederacy, ultimately composed of six nations, "Mohawk was the first language of the confederacy. We were the first to accept the Great Law of Peace."

He described the law, which was oral rather than written, as "a natural law to take care of where you live...If you pollute the water, you will suffer. If you pollute the air, you will suffer."

The European tradition, he said, introduced the idea that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Ownership, as such, wasn’t part of the Iroquois tradition.

"In our world," he said, "there is the good and the contrary." Evil does not exist as it does in the European construct.

Tarbell has spent a great deal of time and effort researching Iroquois history. He says because the historians have largely been European settlers and their descendants, there has been much misrepresentation.

"We guess-timate today that 40 percent of the information is wrong...through misunderstanding," he said.

The very name his people call themselves, Kanienkehaka, has been translated incorrectly as "the people of the flint." The correct translation, he said, is "The people of the crystals, the people of the shards of light."

An enemy tribe, the Algonquin, gave his people the name Mohawk, or man-eater, a derogatory description of their ferocity. In much the same way, the Algonquin assigned the name Iroquois, meaning adder or snake, to the people of the Six Nations who themselves use the name Haudenosaunee.

A name is given to distinguish one people from any other, he said. The Mohawks, who lived in northeastern New York along the Mohawk and upper Hudson valleys, were known as "the people of the crystals," he said, because of the Herkimer diamonds. Those crystals, he said, are found "nowhere else on earth."

Translators, he said, looked at the word "Kanienkehaka" and saw it was a mineral stone, and so mistakenly came up with flint.

In Mohawk tradition, said Tarbell, "The crystal went in the medicine pouch — it cannot be pierced. It was carried that way around the neck, near the heart."

Tarbell says of his mission, "I’m destroying a stereotypical image that all we did was wait behind trees and club people....This was my charge from my clan mother: Bring our ancestors into a better light."

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