I — Brief Iroquois Poem
La poesía ignorada y olvidada begins with a poem from the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) people, a once powerful Native American confederacy (made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples), that was mostly based in what is now central New York state in United States.
Zalamea provides this Spanish translation:
¡En la oscuridad esperamos!
¡Que vengan los oyentes
y nos ayuden en el viaje nocturno!
Ningún sol brilla ahora
ninguna estrella luce ahora.
Que vengan y nos muestren el camino,
pues la noche se ha hecho inamistosa.
Cierra sus párpados a la noche.
Nos ha olvidado la luna.
Y esperamos en la oscuridad.
Huston Smith’s book A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith in Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom (from 2006) reports this is an “initiation song” titled Darkness Song. The book also provides this English translation:
We wait in the darkness!
Come, all ye who listen,
Help in our night journey:
Now no sun is shining;
Now no star is glowing;
Come show us the pathway:
The night is not friendly:
She closes her eyelids;
The moon has forgot us,
We wait in the darkness.
It seems Iroquoian is a family of many languages, so there might be many different versions of this poem/prayer. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to find a version in either Mohawk or Cherokee (the only Iroquoian languages that are not severely endangered).
However, I did find a fascinating conversation in Smith’s book between himself and Douglas George-Kanentiio (a Mohawk-Iroquois) on the ritual importance of the Mohawk language, its threats and the efforts being made to preserve it.
You can read most of the conversation in the Google Books preview, but here is a small excerpt:
GEORGE: When I was born , there was virtually complete knowledge and fluency of the Mohawk language among the adult population. After the Second World War there was a move by the Iroquois to become wage earners. They were displaced from their aboriginal territories, especially the Mohawks. With the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and various other capital works projects by the state of New York and the U.S. federal government, our people were displaced from the land. When that happened the adult population realized that their children had to be prepared to earn a wage, whereas formerly we could exist by extracting natural resources from the land and the river. That was no longer the case. Their children had to be prepared to compete in a job market, in a capitalistic system. A conscious decision was made by the adult population that their children would be educated, instructed, and taught to think in the English language. The Mohawk language was by and large abandoned, and we experienced a great break among the generations, a break we are still feeling the effects of. You could almost say to a given year when that break happened. For us it has created a tremendous amount of internal trauma.
SMITH: So within one generation you have endured a slippage from virtually 100 percent knowledge of your language to 25 percent. My, oh, my, what a tragic loss for any period of time, but to think that it happened in one generation-
GEORGE: Yes, the estimate among the Mohawks is that fluent Mohawk speakers make up approximately one-quarter of our population. Among the Iroquois, we have the most Iroquois speakers existing in the Mohawk nation. In other Iroquois nations the situation is even graver than that in our communities.
Here is another part:
SMITH: I’ll put on my historian of religions cap for a moment. I’m thinking of a parallel in Islam. You mentioned that in your rituals the native language has to be used. So too in the Sala, the prayers, even though most Muslims do not know Arabic, those prayers must be said in Arabic, so everybody knows those. That’s the similarity. But the difference is that Muslims relate to the language as the language of the divine, of Allah, so the language brings them closer to God. Whereas for you your language is related to the elements of the Earth, and you cannot be effectively bonded, or thoroughly bonded, without that.
GEORGE: We are taught that language is essential in the spiritual world as well as the physical world. The Iroquois believe this is one of an infinite number of spiritual dimensions, and we are meant to extract certain lessons from our time on this Earth. When our time is completed, we are sent on a journey back to the Creator, and the shell of who we are returns to Mother Earth because it was a gift from Mother Earth. But the spirit-the spark of our being-goes on a journey back to the Creator escorted by our relatives.
Now, one of the reasons that the Iroquois are greatly apprehensive about the loss of our language is that when we make that transition, when we die on this level, our spirit goes to the next level of existence. We have to be greeted by our relatives, our ancestors, and if they can’t speak to us, if we don’t know their language, then we are going to be trapped between two worlds, and if that happens it is going to be a great despair for our people.
More from Ignored and Forgotten Poetry here.