Rachel Reeves

From 2016 Public Scholar, Loren Michael Mortimer

Niawen: Saying Thank You

For Mohawks, the importance of history begins with the Ohenten Kariwatekwen. While Ohenten Kariwatekwen translates into English as “The Thanksgiving Address,” the literal Mohawk rendering means “the thing we say before everything else.” When Mohawks recite this ancient greeting, they express gratitude to one another and the Creator. Mohawks start the Ohenten Kariwatekwen with an acknowledgement of the people and their history, “we who have gathered together are responsible that our cycle continues. We have been given the duty to live in harmony with one another and other living things. We give greetings that our people still share the knowledge of our culture and ceremonies and are able to pass it on.” As a historian and Mellon Public Scholar, an academic charged with community-based work, I took this as my mission statement as I set out to Akwesasne Mohawk Territory over the summer of 2016.


img_7089Akwesasne Mohawk Territory is a vibrant Native American community on both sides of the US-Canada Border, with history stretching back more than 10,000 years. Unlike reservation lands in the western part of the United States, which are held in trust by the federal government, Akwesasne remains sovereign, unconquered Mohawk territory. The community’s diverse ancestry, ranging from the pre-contact Laurentians and Mohawk to Onondagas, Oneidas, and Wabanakis, reflects the land’s long history as a site of Native survival and revitalization for indigenous peoples residing in the St. Lawrence River Valley. Akwesasne’s unique location on the US-Canada Border, its unique ecology owing to its location on the confluence of four rivers into the St. Lawrence, the historic treaty obligations which govern indigenous mobility through their territory as well as across the border, and its history of activism centered on protecting these rights initially attracted my attention as a scholar of early American borderlands. I had travelled to this land on previous research trips. However, the Mellon Public Scholars Program enabled me to do work in the service of this community, which used my academic training and abilities in a mutually supportive alliance between a public university like UC Davis and Akwesasne Mohawk Territory.


Initially, I wanted to do a digital mapping project that made indigenous territory legible to the thousands of non-natives who passed through the community every day, both at the international border crossing and on the and on the main highways that run through the territory. Community interaction and engagement transformed the broad contours of the project into a final product that would be useful to the community and aligned with their priorities. Through a partnership with the Akwesasne Cultural Center and the cross-border Akwesasne Cultural Tourism Working Group (ATWG), the project evolved into the Experience Akwesane Interactive Map, which weaves the digital humanities with culturally-based economic development priorities. Working with the Akwesasne Cultural Center enabled me to draw on the museum’s rich collections in order to integrate linguistic, oral history, and visual media into the map, while collaboration with a transnational initiative like the ATWG engaged local leaders, artists, elders, and historians participated in the crafting of our broader narrative for both native and non-native audiences. Like one of the beautifully handcrafted baskets made at Akwesasne, the map intertwines locally sourced knowledge and stories into a compelling spatial narrative.


Community mapping entailed more than writing blurbs and scanning archival images. On any given day, had to learn linguistic nuances in Mohawk place names and correct miniscule errors in my HTML code which added up to major technical headaches. Rudimentary web development made me grateful that I was a historian and not a computer engineer. In addition to new technical literacies, I had to pay close attention to culturally sensitive landscapes and find consensus among diverse community perspectives as to which places should be featured on the map. Akwesasne is sanctified land and much that sacred geography is not meant for outsiders. However, not all of my work required me to be hunched over a laptop fixing broken links and cross-referencing historical maps. Some of the most enjoyable elements of the project entailed going out with members of the community to take digital pictures of the locations on the map, some of which were accessible only by boat. Some of the most frustrating work involved formatting those pictures so that people could browse on laptops, tablets, and mobile devices—the optimal aspect ratio for a web based image was not something I had considered before coming to Akwesasne. Along the way, I was overwhelmed with the community’s generosity and hospitality. Over the course of my stay at Akwesasne, collaborators and hosts had become new friends. From sharing stories and hearty laughter to candid discussions about the challenges facing the community, I am grateful that I had the chance to build this map one relationship at a time.

Although the summer has come to an end, the Mellon Public Scholars program has helped me strengthen longer term alliance between UC Davis and Akwesanse Mohawk Territory in the spirit of Kaswhenta, the nearly four-hundred-year-old Two Row wampum belt articulating a treaty relationship predicated on allyship between Mohawks and non-natives. Each of us has our distinct, parallel roles to play as we move independently down the “river of peace.” The Experience Akwesasne Interactive Map forms a link in a relationship that aligns my formal academic scholarship with the needs and priorities of a community my research hopes to serve. The insights and perspectives borne out of community collaboration have already enriched my own dissertation research, which I hope in turn tells the larger story of indigenous power and permanence in ancestral territory that helps Akwesasronon navigate the challenges and opportunities posed by decolonization and self-determination in the twenty-first century and for the next seven generations. In presenting a visual and spatial history of Akweasne that enables visitors to navigate Akwesasne’s unique human, ecological, and political geographies, I hope this interactive map reflects the living history embodied Ohenten Kariwatekwen.