Stirring the Ashes
By John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk
One of the biggest challenges for any people is broad participation in the issues that affect everyone. And when you stop and think about it, there is very little from the smallest ripples in a family to major calamities in a community that occurs without impacting others.
The notion of "mind your own business" or "let someone else handle it" has become commonplace in many cultures. As we observe the flaws of some of these other cultures and societies there are those among us that would like to think the Haudenosaunee lived in a utopian society where conflict and controversy could never find a home. We speak of "the good mind" as though our ancestors never had bad thoughts.
Of course, this was not the case. And a proper inspection of concepts captured in our language and our ceremonies make it clear that both were developed to provide the necessary lessons to avoid repeating the mistakes of those that came before us.
Their wisdom is demonstrated in the timeless metaphors drawn upon generation after generation, not only without losing their meanings but also actually gaining in significance as time goes on. "Fire" is an example of this.
A fire in its most basic form serves as a symbol for family. A fire provides warmth and protection. With its light wisdom and learning are provided and the soothing, almost hypnotic effect of dancing flames and glowing embers is something unmatched in nature.
But beyond the family, the fire represents a council. In fact, the fire is a symbol for our right of assembly. We refer to our process of deliberation as an issue being handed across and around the fire.
And while the fire and the tending of it is a significant part of ceremony, council and the very foundation of our "Longhouse," there are some very basic concepts associated with fire that are either missed, ignored or are interpreted far too narrowly.
Poets, songwriters, storytellers and holy men have crafted messages and sermons with images evoked from "stirring the ashes." But one of the most compelling and pragmatic cultural connections to this expression is neither spiritual nor loaded with spooky connotations.
As it was explained to me, one of the concepts captured in the act of stirring the ashes is specifically associated with inclusion and encouraging participation. The very act of stirring ashes and poking around in the almost dormant embers of a fire livens up those embers. By exposing them, those not quite extinguished embers are made to glow with their own fire and even those that seemed to have lost their fire can be re-ignited.
Many of our people are like those dormant or extinguished embers. While the hot flames flash and dazzle with flamboyant energy, many settle in to the quiet places allowing our fire to be fed primarily by the hottest coals among us. By settling into the ashes, we preserve our thoughts and opinions, protecting them from scrutiny. And in doing so we often believe we retain the right to criticize quietly, away from direct engagement.
The concept of stirring the ashes gives energy and life to those hiding from responsibility when their contribution to our fire is needed most. Stirring the ashes lights those up that may feel neglected as well as those that wish to be. It is a symbol for inclusion and participation. Yet as much sense as the image makes in this application, it is not widely held or shared.
I am extremely fortunate to have people around me that continue to share and explain these things. And because of these special relationships, my responsibility becomes to continue the conversations offered to me and to encourage this very concept of inclusion and participation above all else.
It is through these conversations that like-minded people gather and those that are compelled to action can genuinely know that their actions are either supported or condemned. We need not fear or ignore the darkened embers. We need to stir the ashes to find the latent sparks among us. There is no real consensus on any issue if the light of so many is left buried in the ash.
In the same way that we remove the dust with a seagull wing from the knowledge passed down from those that came before us, we stir the ashes of our fire to remove this dust from the knowledge quietly held right beside us.
For those of us strong in their — and our — convictions, we should welcome those voices rarely heard. And if they challenge us, then such a challenge should be seen as an opportunity to teach those who have not as yet been engaged or to learn from those waiting to become engaged.
A bed of hot coals is a strong foundation for a fire just waiting to flare. And that sea of glowing embers is far more powerful than any single match, torch or beacon.
We need participation far more than we need leadership. Strong leadership is only needed with weak-minded people.
The great men and women who came before us knew all this and that is why concepts and expressions such as "removing the dust" and "stirring the ashes" were specifically captured in our language and incorporated in our stories and ceremonies. These are not phrases coined for prayers to the sky world but rather concepts developed for teaching and avoiding the mistakes common to the nature of man on Earth.
– John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk, a national expert commentator on Native American issues, hosts two weekly radio programs — “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane,” ESPN Sports Radio WWKB-AM 1520 in Buffalo, N.Y., Sundays, www.and “First Voices Indigenous Radio,” WBAI-FM 99.5 in New York City, Thursdays, (“First Voices Indigenous Radio” programs are archived in perpetuity at
firstvoicesindigenousradio.org ). John is a frequent guest on WGRZ-TV’s (NBC/Buffalo) “2 Sides” and “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter” in Albany. John’s “Native Pride” blog can be found at www.letstalknativepride. blogspot.com. He also has a very active "Let's Talk Native...with John Kane" group page on Facebook.