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  • The Women Who Carry Words: Music, Mothers, and Language of Akwesasne

    Three women sitting on a stage, singing into microphones on stands.

    Singers Kahontihson (a.k.a. Elizabeth Nanticoke), (Theresa) Bear Fox, and Iawentas Nanticoke perform as Kontiwennenha:Wi in the National Museum of the American Indian’s Potomac Atrium at the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    Photo by Joshua Davis, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Kaieri Niionkwetake
    Kontiwennenha:Wi at the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (singing in Kanyen’kéha language with rattle)
    Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The song starts with a single hum. Soloist Bear Fox’s rounded tones feel warm and whole. As the women beside her join in, their voices raise vibrations that float above the diverse audience at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Their opening song, “Kaieri Niionkwetake,” calls upon their ancestors to protect their families and the families of the audience members.

    The singers traveled from their Akwesasne community in New York, Quebec, and Ontario to share the spirit of the Saint Lawrence River wetlands they live along and its rich ecological community of sweetgrass and black ash trees. Akwesasne is “the land where the partridge drums”; the native birds’ flapping wings serve as its namesake. The group, all women, perform with a kanatsiowi (pronounced: gaw-naw-joe-wee) drum, which brings those natural percussive elements of their home to the Rasmuson Theater in Washington, D.C. The words are sung in Kanyen’kéha (gaw-nyun-geh-ha), their Native language. Strung together, Bear Fox’s lyrics tell a story of gratitude for everything in creation, while the words’ existence in Kanyen’kéha resists a painful legacy of cultural erasure and assimilation.

    The women in the group, called Kontiwennenha:Wi (goon-dee-one-naw-ha-wee), or “The Women Who Carry Words,” belong to the Akwesasne community of the Kanienʼkehá:ka (gaw-nyun-geh-haw-gaw), “People of the Flint,” often known as Mohawk. They formed in 1996 as part of a singing society, which historically consisted exclusively of men. These groups devote much of their effort to community service; male groups tended to the lawns and woods of elders in their communities, for example. The Akwesasne women singers have aimed to serve their community by honoring loved ones at funeral services and by recording and selling CDs of their music to raise funds for their language immersion Freedom School.

    Three women sit on stage, flanked by orange banners from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
    Kontiwennenha:Wi performed nearly every day of the 2024 Festival, both inside the National Museum of the American Indian and on the National Mall.
    Photo by Joshua Davis, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The group’s goals are informed by their identity as Indigenous women: they attempt to honor Mother Earth, preserve their traditional language, and build unity among their people and respect for their culture.

    “I’ve known these women all their lives,” Kahontihson (a.k.a. Elizabeth Nanticoke) shares after introducing the other members of the group. There is (Theresa) Bear Fox, the leader of the group and Kahontihson’s “baby sister,” and Iawentas Nanticoke, Kahontihson’s daughter. As mothers themselves, Bear Fox and Kahontihson discuss the love and respect they have for Mother Earth.

    “It’s very important to honor our mother, the Earth,” Bear Fox says. “We go through a lot to make sure our kids are provided for. She does the same.” As a group of mothers and daughters and sisters, they recognize the importance of “bringing everybody’s voices together” in song, and their lyrics frequently include messages about the urgency needed in protecting Mother Earth.

    Mother Earth is also central to the rhythm, as the drums are meant to reflect her heartbeat. “For the women, it brings up our spirit. It’s our heartbeat,” Bear Fox says. The group does their own drumming, which frequently causes backlash. “When we travel, we hear that there are community men who discourage their women from using their drum,” she continues. “But we really don’t believe in that.”

    Kahontihson gives a glimpse into the origins of the criticism: “There used to be a high respect for women. When? I guess before we were colonized. What the colonizers brought with them was another wave where the men were the rulers, and that slowly seeped into who we were. But still, the traditional people hold on-to the values of the women. In our society, we’re the ones who take care of the waters and the land.” She emphasizes that taking care of the women in their society is part of taking care of their cultural traditions, ethos, and environment.

    Multiple women and girls holding hands, dancing as part of a circle.
    Women of all ages from the audience, along with singer Iawentas Nanticoke, dance in front of the stage, as Bear Fox and Iawentas’s mother, Kahontihson, sing in a display of intergenerational celebration.
    Photo by Joshua Davis, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Like many other Indigenous communities throughout the world, the Akwesasne tell a story of Sky Woman, a creation story of all things on Earth. In this story, a woman falls from the Sky World, where all humans and land organisms live. As she is lowered to the aquatic world that exists on Earth, she is rested atop a turtle’s back and plants seeds, resulting in the birth of Mother Earth as we know her.

    This story emphasizes the belief that everything in creation is important—and humans are no more or less important than any other beings. This belief, among many others, is what Kontiwennenha:Wi attempts to preserve and reinvigorate within Kanienʼkehá:ka communities. The words they sing are a critical part of cultural preservation, not just because of their meaning but also because of their mere existence today.

    As a part of the campaign led by the U.S. and Canadian governments to assimilate Indigenous peoples, Native children were forced into residential schools, where they were required to speak in English and abandon aspects of their culture. As a result, many people lost their Native languages. But enough Kanyen’kéha speakers retained and passed on the language to continue its use. Today, the Akwesasne community, particularly many members of Kontiwennenha:Wi, have found a family in their language immersion Freedom School, in clear defiance to the horrors their ancestors faced in residential schools.

    Iawentas, a group member and teacher, notes that song can be the best medium for Native language education. “It’s fun! They don’t even realize they’re speaking and learning the language,” she says. “It’s just a really beautiful thing when you ask them, ‘Okay, do you know what you just said?’ And then they’re so proud of themselves.”

    A woman wearing a black top and red floral print skirt links arms with a man wearing a red vest and headdress made of leaves and feathers.
    Iawentas Nanticoke and Raiwate Cook dance as part of Kontiwennenha:Wi’s performance in the Potomac Atrium. Shortly after, the group welcomed members of the audience to dance with them.
    Photo by Joshua Davis, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Bear Fox, though not fluent, prioritizes writing in Kanyen’kéha so that community members can “learn to give thanks in the language.” Her song “Ohenton Karihwatekwen Karenna” does just that, teaching listeners to give thanks to everything in creation: “We start with the people, the Mother Earth, the water, the fish, the berries, and all the way up to the sky.” And as the heartbeat of the drums accompanies their revived language, it is ever clear that the culture of the People of the Flint is alive.

    As Kontiwennenha:Wi prepared to leave their community to share their music and language with a global audience at the Folklife Festival, Bear Fox’s daughter sent her off with a message: “Go, Mama—raise those vibrations.”

    Naomi Skiles is a writing intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a senior at American University studying anthropology and creative writing and is passionate about human connection in and out of her studies.

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