NATIVE AMERICANS MET ORTHODOXY
CANADA OF MY HEART
CANADA: THE PASSING OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN MOHAWK’S CHIEF FRANK NATAWE (1927-2000)
The path of the Native American Mohawk’s Chief Frank Natawe
led him to the bosom of Orthodoxy
Dr. John (Yanni) Hadjinikolaou
Rate Professor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada
in the magazine Synaxis
“The passing of a Mohawk Native American”
Here is the story of Frank Natawe an American Native Mohawk’s Chief (1927-2000) who lived and died as an Orthodox Christian (Eastern Orthodox Church), at the same time defending his tribe’s tradition. He even began translating the words of the most holy ceremony of Orthodoxy into his own people’s language.
AMERICA OF MY HEART
Saturday night. Very few lights were on. In the Russian Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Vespers have just started. The shadowy silhouettes of the few faithful who were attending the service became more defined, as the candles were lit, one by one, in the candle stand. The iconostasis of the altar was very imposing; it was something that was carved by experienced craftsmen at the beginning of the century…….
It was my second time at Vespers, years ago… The words of the prayer “mirthful light” in Slavonic gave one a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Everything seemed to be in prayer at that moment; for the day that passed and the day that was to come. After the madness of the day, this refuge of thankfulness actually calmed the wild beasts of the mind….
In the dim, half-light I could discern a few of the profiles there: an old Russian lady with her grandchild, a tall, skinny, middle-aged man, a young girl around fifteen, a young family with their two children… and suddenly, my attention was caught by a figure near the large window. Directly below it, I made out a silhouette that was completely different to all the others. It was a fifty-year old Native American with vivid, characteristic features, and his long hair tied back in a ponytail that reached his waist. My gaze stopped upon him… What a strange figure in here… I imagined he was just a visitor.
At the end of the service, I couldn’t fight the urge. I approached him, eager to meet him.
–Yannis, I said to him in English. Welcome..
– Vladimir, he replied.
– I’m Greek. And you? I asked him.
– So am I, he replied.
I was stunned…. That was the last thing I expected to hear!
– Do you speak Greek? I asked.
He paused to think for a moment, then quoted in Greek:
– «In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God, and God was the Logos».
Just as he finished saying this phrase, he burst into laughter. I was lost for words…
– I am Mohawk Native American, he said sharply. But somehow, I also feel Russian and Greek and Serbian and Romanian, because…. I’m Orthodox…..
A glimmer appeared in his eye, as it did in my heart…
This was how Vladimir and I met. His real name was Frank Natawe, before becoming Orthodox and being baptized as Vladimir. I so craved to hear his life story – both out of curiosity as well as genuine interest..
Much later, we became friends. We shared many conversations and walks together, especially in his Mohawk village. He showed me paths and manners totally unknown to us white folks. And always simply and unpretentiously. With no trace of arrogance. When I was with him, I always had a strong sensation of tuition, and whenever I admitted this to him, he always said that all beautiful things are mutual….
That first period has become unforgettable, when I was swept away by my youthful enthusiasm and kept asking him difficult questions. He would always calmly reply:
– I don’t know – will you tell me?
Once, when I was fed up with hearing “I don’t know”, I begged him to tell me something, so, he showed some pity and said:
– Well, if you insist, I will tell you, after I ask my friend first.
He sprang up and then lay down on the ground, placing his ear to the earth.
– What are you doing? I asked.
– I am asking the earth, he said, and before I could recover from my surprise, he added somewhat hesitantly:
– Like Aliosha Karamazov.
I never again insisted on replies. I guess that with him, I was just living the surprise of a sudden lightning bolt that gives birth to gentle rain that nourishes the earth…
It has been some time now, that Vladimir has left us. His passing away – along with his will and testament – overwhelmed me. Now that the feeling of his presence – instead of fading into oblivion – appears before me every now and then, I thought I should record on paper all of his incidents, images, memories, words and expressions, in order to sketch a portrait of his presence amongst us… hopefully so that my ear will also perceive… the tumultuous silence of the mother earth of Vladimir – Karamazov to me…
He was born in the Native American reservation of Caughnawaga, just outside Montreal, where he lived all his life, to the day he died. His village numbers 5.000 Native Americans today. It was built by the government, next to the river, and houses the greater part of the Native Americans of that area. The Native Americans, as the only true indigenous people of America, along with the Eskimos, enjoy special privileges and treatment, due to the fact that they had ceded vast areas of their “mother earth” -as they call it- to their white brothers.
These privileges – such as not needing a passport yet enjoying state welfare – are sometimes interpreted as an intentional attempt by whites to keep the Native Americans uneducated – something that is observed extensively. The percentage of alcoholism is very high. The struggle for survival –as a group- is their daily concern, along with the preservation of their traditions, which they are very proud of. They are governed in a unique way, which however may have much to teach “civilized” politics and social structures.
The supreme authority is the Confederation of all the Native Americans tribes. There is a respect towards all of the Native Americans tribes. There is a respect towards the chiefs and the elders, and the elderly women of each tribe, from generation to generation. Their love and respect for each other is the foundation of the Confederation.
In the village Caughnawaga there are basically three Native Americans tribes. The majority however are Mohawk. The village has existed since about 1600 and comprises the main center of the Mohawk tribe. The last generations are mostly involved with steel construction and building.
«Our village», Vladimir told me, «along with other Native Americans reservations was turned basically into a Roman Catholic protectorate in the 18th century. The Catholic missionaries had actually tried in every way to forcefully convert our entire community. Not with love, but with a noose around the neck. They trampled on centuries-old traditions and they used other ones as springboards for their own designs. Myself, to the age of 32, had kept to the trodden path. As my mother used to say – who was an elderly tribal leader of our tribe – “By day a roman catholic for the eyes of the world and by night a Native American, for the eyes of the soul.” But at that age of 32, I couldn’t tolerate that kind of restriction, that noose that I was wearing, so I revolted in my own way… I researched our roots, I learnt all of our native tongues, I studied at white men’s universities – which, for a Native American of my generation, was a very unusual thing. For years, they had me as a traveling lecturer of comparative linguistics. Quite often, I would dishonestly play the clown at their academic games, since to them I was a rare, exotic species of bird, with a different kind of plumage. I used to compare our words with their French or English equivalents; our habits with theirs. There were times that I felt as though they were observing me like archaeologists observe fossils. To me however, those meetings alone – those cultural meetings – regardless of the response, contained joy and grief together. My revolution was still thundering, because it was muted, like the tread of a rabbit… My mother – the pillar of our community – was to me a source of wisdom and immense pain. She was my…. Native American Zosimas….”
(He took a deep breath and continued …..)
«My path to the Orthodox Church was a “secret path”, as we say in our tongue. There came a time, that I became caught in her net, and ever since then, I have been treading very discreetly, carrying a very heavy crucifix. It happened to me through linguistics. It was always the subject that impressed me most. By taking linguistics courses, I became impressed when I happened to read the lives of saints Cyril and Methodius, who are known as the Apostles of the Slavs. I was especially intrigued by the Cyrillic alphabet and the pursuant Slavonic tongue. I asked my professor if there was any chance I could listen to Slavonc being spoken. He suggested that I should visit one of the Russian churches. I rang one of them, but I heard only the answering machine. I rang the next day, and a friendly voice informed me that Vespers were held at 7in the evening, and that Sunday Service was held at 10 in the morning. I asked if I could attend. He replied of course I could. I told him I wasn’t Russian, or Orthodox. He responded that the Orthodox Liturgy was not only for the Russians or only for the Orthodox, but for all people. So, I mustered some courage and went on a Saturday evening to listen to spoken Slavonic and to meet the priest, who had spoken so pleasantly. He was a priest-monk from Mavrovouni of Serbia. His name was father Anthony… He too has passed away now…. Well, anyway, the first Saturday that I attended Orthodox Vespers in the cathedral of saints Peter and Paul, I experienced something unprecedented. Looking at the icons, listening to the melodies, observing the penance bows and the prostrations, the fragrance of the incense wafting in the atmosphere, were all reminiscent of my having discovered the “secret path”…”
«You won’t believe it, but, every now and then, I can discern parallels between the Native American traditions and Orthodox tradition. Somewhere inside me, this discovery fulfilled my Native American ethos and supplemented it. At first, I felt I was floating among the clouds. During my first liturgy, I asked if I could stay on, after the benedictions for the catechumens… They said: you may. So I sat down, like a Native American dog! Ever since then, I began to go more frequently. At first, on Sundays only, then on Saturdays, and later on, during weekdays, whenever there were important feasts. It wasn’t much later, that I noticed confession was taking place in the evening, after Vespers. It was the period of Lent. At the end, they all asked for forgiveness from the priest. He placed his stole over their head and blessed them with the sign of the cross. I stood in line, but they said:
-You can’t, you’re not Orthodox. This is a holy Sacrament.
– But our entire life is a sacrament, I said.
I pondered again, and asked them:
– So, how can I become Orthodox?
– Talk it over with the priest, they suggested.
Not much time had passed by, when I decided I wanted to become Orthodox. On the day that it was to take place, there was a snowstorm that didn’t allow me to leave the village. It was postponed, for the feast of the Induction of the Theotokos. And that’s how it finally happened…. I was given the name Vladimir.
Much later, when reminiscing over my induction into the Orthodox Church, I drew out of my memories the imposing figure of a Serb priest, who had visited our village when I was young. His appearance and his manner had left a deep impression inside me. I remember my mother having commented that:
-Now there’s someone who isn’t making propaganda with his truth…”.
Quite some time had passed, when I decided to visit him again. This time, I went with two of my friends and a little car, equipped with tape recorders and microphones, and we departed one sunny morning for his village, Caughnawaga. He had suggested that we meet at the Native American’s radio station since he had been the radio commentator for several years, and had promised us walks and conversations in their territory.
We did find him at the radio station in the village, with headphones over his ears, reading the morning prayer in each and every Native American tongue. Then in French and English. Naturally his audience did not…detect him making the orthodox sign of the cross.
We waited respectfully until he had finished…. He removed the headphones and approached us… He was more talkative than usual, and somewhat cheerier.
– What would you like me to tell you? He asked warm-heartedly. And what could you ever want to learn from me?
– Tell us whatever you want, Gregory replied. Say, for instance, something about your people, your celebrations, your mission….
– You’re going too fast, he interrupted. One thing at a time.
– Well, my people…
It took him some time to formulate his reply. He was seated in an armchair, but found it was not comfortable for him… he abandoned it and sat down on the porch with us… he preferred to be on the same level with us…
«My people are simple, just like their food. The chief of the tribe is a man, but he is elected by the council of woman-elders of the tribe. All of our group rituals take place in the “long house”. This has two doors. The men enter through the eastern door and the women from the western one. It is a simple edifice, just like most of our rituals are. In our marriages, an integral part of the ritual is the blessing of the elders. During our funerals, for both men and women, when they are carried into the long house they enter through their separate doors, but the head of the deceased always faces the east. After nine days, we prepare the funeral meal, but without salt…”
He suddenly jumped up, because the record he had selected to be played over the radio had stuck. He put on another record, made an announcement, and came back to us…
«What were we talking about? Ah, yes! The rituals. I will show you the long house, before it gets too dark… Now, about our celebrations. The entire year is a celebration (he burst out laughing). We have the mid-winter festival (four days long); we have the snow festival, the first bloom festival, the first crop – which is the berry; the festival of plenteous harvest (thanksgiving), the threshing festival (4 days), the festival of surplus, of rain and of sowing, and the cycle starts all over again.. Something like an ecclesiastic calendar of our holy earth…”
He took another deep breath and continued:
«We don’t say much, nor do we eat much; We don’t get angry often, we love what was given to us and we continuously give thanks for the bounteous gifts…»
– Do you happen to have any tobacco? He asked me.
– No, I said.
– You know, we chew our tobacco – in other words, we eat it. We don’t smoke it. When you smoke it, it turns into air, whereas if you eat it, it becomes one with you, and you bless the earth that gave it to you… Now, what else did you ask me? Ah, yes! About my mission…..
«What can I say? My people got tired of the missionaries. They have been coming here for years, mostly to take rather than to give.. They never showed any interest in what we have. They just brought on the steamroller, they flattened everything, and then they embarked on their…. evangelical sowing.
But that Serb was different. He actually gave something, with his presence…he took nothing from us, except a piece of our heart. That was what I loved, when I later read about saint Herman of Alaska and the Orthodox missionaries amongst the Eskimos… it is impossible for the mind not to make comparisons…as hard as it may try…
I still remember that Jesuit, who told me to my face that he was instructed to teach spirituality. When he left our home, my mother shook her head in disapproval, saying: “we, my child are a spiritual people, while he, even if his Christ came to him, he would sit him down to preach at Him…”.
– Are there any other orthodox amongst the Native Americans? Gregory asked again.
– I have met an Orthodox Eskimo in Plattsburg and one more – a very tall Mis Mac. There may be others, who I’m not aware of. But in the Native American hospital we do have a couple of Serb doctors, the Moscovitches. Real gems of people; they have a special love for our world, and they offer all their assistance.”
Lesley looked him directly in the eyes.
– Tell us if you want about that story with the Native American masks [note: For the reader’s information, I will briefly report the events. The Canadian government decided to open a new museum in Western Canada, in the city of Calgary, where it would put on display amongst other exhibits a number of Native American masks, which it had borrowed in an ‘unorthodox’ manner from a long house, as folklore artifacts… This provoked the indignation of the Native Americans.]. It was in all the newspapers and they all mentioned your name. What happened exactly ?
Vladimir sat down, cross-legged, and after taking a few minutes to think, replied:
«To us, those masks are sacred. We always keep them in the dark, and we protect them with silk material. They represent the…holy personage that we are in search of. We find it in silence, in darkness, where we also find the light of our soul. Our soul is never displayed in exhibitions, or in artificial lighting… Those who organized the exhibition have lost every sense of what is sacred, and that is why they strive to “gently” remove it from our souls also…. We love the earth, because it knows how to keep silent and be fruitful. We have learnt to humbly love it and to honor it.. It is something like Orthodoxy’s Holy Mother….since you like parallels. But, I have said too much… Let’s get up now, and I will show you my village…”
We got into the little car, and I sat in the driver’s seat. Vladimir was the co-driver. He began to show us all the landmarks:
«Here in the center of the village you can see the catholic church. It is dedicated to saint Kateri Tekekwitha, an Native American woman whom the priest proclaimed a saint. We keep her bones in this church, which perform miracles. This is a pilgrimage for the laity. Her life is as beautiful as a fairytale… To me, she was a fool in Christ… She was a grace-filled fool.. She would roll over in the snow, to purify her heart… My fellow villagers –who became Catholics- are not particularly fond of catholic propaganda, but they do show reverence to their saint; it was their pressure on the Vatican that brought on her beatification… Next to the church, there is a small museum. In there, you will find a map of the confederation, that describes in detail all of the Native American tribes, the symbols, the numbers, the places they originated from, their historical course, their languages…. Everything has become a part of the….. museum… Now turn right, here…. This is our Cultural Center. Above it, is the radio station where we met…. That is where I broadcast from… Now, during the Triodion, and afterwards, during Lent, I play a lot of western spiritual music and little by little, I include some Orthodox innuendos, but only just enough as to not be provocative. Native American spiritual music is not permitted over the radio. It is only for the “long house”. The cultural center is financially supported by the white government. The powers outside, of the “civilized” world, want to help us, but only on paper; in actual fact, they want to drown us, to humiliate us, to exhaust us – not so much us, as our souls and whatever we carry. They want to turn us into masks for museums, clowns at parties, research for archaeologists… They haven’t taken a whiff of, nor do they suspect what kind of….tobacco we prefer.”
He burst into laughter. I nearly lost control of the steering wheel…I continued to drive on, following his instructions – left- right – straight ahead etc….Until, at a bend in the road, we saw a modern but very unusually shaped structure..
«This is our school, Grade School and High School. It has a good program, I like it. It is truly Native American. Apart from the classic subjects of “white” education, we have many other lessons that are most probably unfamiliar to the whites. We don’t call them “customs” or “culture”, but “Native American ways”, “Native American paths” (the sounds of the earth), Native American dances, Native American songs and cries (like an ancient drama), Native American law, and other things. The grounds surrounding the school are sacred. We also have a “dark room”, but not for photographs… it is for the making of the….mask inside us”
– Now go straight ahead, eastward. Continue, until you find the highway. Two-three kilometers from there…
«This here is our Hospital. It is a new building and is a new idea for us. A beneficial one, I hope. It was built in 1985. Before that, we had our own medicine men, or we resorted to the white man’s hospitals. But.. they were difficult.. Most of their staff was unaccustomed to our way; it was difficult for them to look after our old folk. They have to be in our shoes, in order to understand… Many try. Besides, you can tell apart those who truly love and who can be discerned from the usual professionals….”
Vladimir N. was the chief of his tribe; he was their spiritual leader. It was he who recited at their funerals and their weddings – he was something like a priest for them. In the evening, he would sit cross-legged in the “long house”, listening to his people’s problems and solving them with the advice he offered. He had a judge’s role, which was one of their most powerful traditions. He was a poet and a translator, and also a philosopher. He knew their problems better than anyone else; he also knew the strict laws that governed their tribes. Those who denied their ancestral principles and became Christians were allowed to remain in the village, but were not given any office. They would have to leave the council of the wise, the elders; they would “lose their destiny” as they described it … in their own special kind of way, they would be disowned. All of this may not be of much significance for an ordinary Native American, but for a chief……
No-one in the village ever found out –until the day he died- that their chief was an Orthodox Christian. And Vladimir –who was F. to them- lived and worked with them, for them, with the ever-present fear that they might find out. He had to be perpetually moderate, careful, flexible, otherwise his image would have been smashed inside them. He was in charge of the radio station for years, and he also worked at their cultural Center. He was considered an authority on subjects of tradition, and was unimaginably touched, whenever he found “parallels” –as he called them- in Orthodox tradition. He shared many of his experiences with us, because he couldn’t share them with his own people. What a heavy crucifix to bear….
Whenever I would see him coming out of the inner sanctum of the little orthodox church of the Sign of the Theotokos –which held services in English and French- dressed as an altar-boy and holding the candle in front of priests and bishops, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of heart that old Native American wolf had inside him, who persistently said “God knows”. And he would forever be prostrating himself on the ground, so that God would give him enlightenment to govern his people through tempests and ordeals, and to give him the strength to hold up the heavy load that was given to him, right to the end.
The years passed. Every friend that visited us in Montreal had to make the imperative trip to the Native American village and to meet Vladimir. And many of them told me that they had recorded their own experiences there.
One morning, I received a phone call in Montreal, telling me that Vladimir had passed away in his village. The question that arose in my mind was: who was going to bury him, what was to become of him? He had however left a specific, written instruction for all the rituals to be done in the Native American tradition in the “long house” and for an Orthodox priest to read benedictions over him. Naturally, the Native Americans had no idea what he meant by “an Orthodox priest”, but he had left a few telephone numbers too.
They did actually phone, and an Orthodox priest went and recited the funeral service before they carried Vladimir into the long house.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the ritual in the long house, but a mutual friend who attended the funeral conveyed the details to me.
Two days after the funeral, that same friend, Michael, brought me the news, together with a package. He told me that he had attended the entire ritual. It was truly impressive. When they go to the long house, the Native Americans put on the outfits that befit their rank in the village. The ritual –which was of course in their own languages- had a particular form, much like the old, Byzantine type. At the end, the tribal chief’s testament was read out aloud, before all the tribe. In his will and testament, he mentioned where he left each of his belongings. Vladimir was 75 years old at the most. He had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He left something to every single member of his family. At one point, the Native American who was reading the will found some difficulty in reading a name – a non- Native American name- and, after grimacing a bit, he put on his glasses and pronounced the name, in a distorted kind of way: “Ya-nis Ha-ji-ni-ko-la-ou”. My friend Michael raised his hand and they gave him the package, which he in turn gave to me.
When I opened the package, I saw what was inside: it was a book, “The Divine Liturgy”, in Greek and in English, which I had given to him many years ago. Inside, on the first page, it said: “To Yanni”, and below that, in Greek: “Until we meet again – Vladimir N.”. I took this to be a very kind gesture on his behalf; he had in fact inserted those words before his final departure; perhaps because he had sensed that his death was near. He had written the words “Until we meet again” in Greek. Of course, the surprise did not end there; there was more to come. When I leafed through the book, I was astounded, my mouth gaping… He had translated the entire text of the liturgy into the Mohawk tongue, above the lines of the English text! Of course I can’t read Mohawk, but I am holding on to the book as a memento – this orthodox liturgy by Vladimir in Mohawk language – the entire Liturgy of Saint John the Chrysostom… If God bestows me the honor, I may publish it one day…
Contemporary stories like this one may sound like a fairytale, because our life seems equally fleeting. And yet, these stories are filled with a never-setting light; they are modern-day testimonies of that blessed “lunacy” – that yeast, which leavens all of the dough, from the tiny church atop an Aegean islet, to the distant Native American reservations of Canada.
Until we meet again, Vladimir….Karamazov….