Raeanne Oakes stood in front of Jennifer Lee’s wigwam, a single black braid resting on her left shoulder. She smiled as she watched two of her boys learn to make bark baskets at the Kanatsiohareke Strawberry Festival on Sunday.
Instructed by Lee, an artisan of Narragansett and Pequot descent, Daythan Benedict, 5 and Styles Benedict, 8, squatted on the grass and fingered thin strips of spruce root that were soaking in water and whittled away at a small piece of bark with a short knife.
“They’re learning their culture,” Oakes said. “I brought them just to learn.”
The family lives in The Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne territory, near Massena. Oakes remembers her grandmother making sweet grass baskets and was pleased that her small sons were being introduced to a similar craft.
“I want them to know the importance of it. I want them to learn things like this. … It’s important for them to carry it on,” she said.
Artisans, vendors and performers came together to bring awareness to Native American heritage at the 19th annual Strawberry Festival, which was held at the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community, a working farm situated on nearly 400 picturesque acres.
The community sits on what was the site of many Mohawk Bear Clan villages over the years, said volunteer Kay Olan of Saratoga Springs, who is of Mohawk ancestry. Over the years, the land has also held a trading post and homes for the indigent, orphans and the elderly. When the property came up for auction in 1993, the Kanatsiohareke Community purchased it.
“The idea for us was to come back to our traditional homeland and to re-establish a place where some of our families could come and live, and where we could work on the revitalization of indigenous languages, culture and spirituality,” she explained.
The community offers Mohawk language immersion classes, conferences, workshops, a lecture series and a cultural exchange program attended by students from universities throughout the country. The Strawberry Festival raises funds to keep the effort afloat.
“We invite people to come here and visit any time they want, no matter what their background is, to learn about our culture and make friends,” Olan said. “Many of our people come here at various points during the year just to see what it feels like to be in the home of their ancestors, and native and non-native people that come here say over and over that they feel a sense of peace when they come here.”
On Sunday, the community celebrated with traditional and contemporary music and dance, storytelling, traditional games, food and dancing.
Prayer of thanks
The festival began with a prayer of thanksgiving for the sun and the moon, the Earth and everything it houses. The words hit home with Pat Webb of Johnstown, who was admiring dresses and skirts at one of the booths.
“Mother Nature is here to take care of us and we’re here to take care of Mother Nature. Everything we need is here. We just need to take care of it and it will be provided for us if we just take care of the Earth, which we haven’t been doing,” she said.
The beauty of the Earth was showcased on the grounds of the community, where forest gave way to field, and a small stream flanked by tall trees rushed by.
White tents, where vendors sold handmade arts and crafts, stood out against a brilliant blue sky, and the smell of grilling food filled the air.
A traditional Haudenosaunee strawberry drink and strawberry shortcake were the signature beverage and food at the event.
“The strawberry is very important to us because we are instructed to give thanks every single day for all of the gifts that are given to us so that we can survive, and we acknowledge the strawberry in particular at this time of year because we consider it to be the leader of the berries, because it’s the first one to ripen and then we’re reassured when it ripens that the others will follow suit. When we eat it or when we drink it, the sweetness reminds us of the gift of life,” said Olan.
The strawberry is also considered to be medicinal, she noted.
“We call it the big medicine. It’s good for the heart,” she said.
Cameron Shegonee of Buffalo, who is of Seneca descent, said the refreshing strawberry drink, made from ripe berries, maple syrup, sugar and water, was one of the best he had ever tasted. Sitting on a hay bale in the shade, he was also enjoying a bowl of vegetable corn soup and some sweet potato fries before heading to the stage to play percussion for the band Tonemah.
“The thing I’ve noticed is everyone here is very smiley and friendly,” he said.
And that did seem to be true.
Evan Pritchard of Poughkeepsie, a descendant of the Mi’kmaq people, was smiling behind a table of his books about Algonquin culture. He was eager to share what he has learned through his work to preserve Algonquin history.
“Keep it simple, live wholeheartedly and close to the earth,” he advised. “Honor Mother Earth in everything you do.”