One of my most treasured possessions is a little round basket, made by my Great-grandmother Mary Leaf.
Just before she passed on, my grandmother’s gnarled hands gently placed a small egg shaped basket in my palm; a lone treasured basket woven by her mother, it’s sweetgrass and ash still fragrant after nearly 100 years in this circular form. Inside the basket is 8 whittled seeds, each blackened on one side. A Mohawk dice game made by her older brother just months before he drowned in the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River.
The game is called “Ateneha,” and this game is played for fun, to honor someone who has passed away, or to help settle family disagreements by putting decision-making into the hands of the Creator. The gentle ways of a peaceful people, settling disputes with seed games!!!
Somewhere in the passing of time, one of these little wooden pieces went missing, and my grandmother carved a replacement. If you look closely you will recognize the new addition, made from oak instead of the maple wood of the other 7 pieces. She loved this game, and I remember fondly the times when we sat around her kitchen table and played Ateneha. She would always make us speak in Mohawk when we played this old game. We would laugh and make sounds to scare the luck from the other players, while shouting “kahonta,” which means “to make all one color.” Maizie was the only one to get an all black “field”!! It is harder than you think!!
You play with seeds; corn kernels or shining beans as the prize. Beginning with 40 seeds, each player tries to get all the seeds. You get 10 pieces for all black, 20 for all white. And 2 if you have all but 2 white, and 4 if all but 2 black. Once the 40 in the middle are gone, then when someone wins, the payment must come from each of the others players winnings. Tonight, we used beans, an old heritage Mohawk variety called Skunk beans. They are shining gems, reminiscent of a starry sky.
These two precious heirlooms passed directly from the hands of our ancestors. I remind the children to speak softly and treasure these moments, knowing that if we have mindfulness, we can call in the spirits of those who came before.
When we plant these ancient seeds in the ground, or sing time-worn songs while shaking these wooden dice, we find power and sustenance in knowing that these seeds and dice have physically passed through the hands of our ancestors. They have been infused with laughter and tears, faith and hope of the new spring coming, reverence beyond imagining. Tapping into this collective memory, we draw nourishment from continuing to participate in the beautiful dance of life. What a privilege and honor it is to be alive in this time, and to be just one link the in timeless chain of seed and memory keepers.
Knowing the history, these ways, these games, these words could have easily been forgotten; yet they live on in the homes and longhouses of so many resilient Mohawk families and clans. Even when the words and songs were forbidden by the boarding schools and invading churches, they were tucked away in the hearts and minds of the good people, to weather over the assimilation storms.
These seeds that could have easily been left in jars and baskets on barn shelves to wither away, once the new foods and life-ways were so violently and sometimes insidiously forced upon our people. Instead, insightful elders tucked those seeds into kitchen shelves for safe-keeping; planting them in sheltered gardens, knowing they were more than food, they were honored relatives.
Tonight, we remind the children that they are the descendants of those survivors, and we plant the sacred seeds to honor all that they gave so that we might still have some of our ancient ways and seeds today.
This is the power of these familiar rituals in our home, blending together the sacred and the mundane; the magic and the earthly. Knowing that the ancient and touching seed songs arose out of the simple acts of sowing seeds; someone’s heart was captivated by the magic of seeds sprouting again and in that loving action, each and every seed we plant became a powerful prayer.
In the wise words of Robin Kimmerer, ” What else can you offer the Earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”
At times like these, time seems to stand still. We sit in circle at the grand loom of time, weaving past with present and future. We laugh, we sing, we remember, we look forward.
May this rain nourish all the seeds being sown in this time of the waxing moon…seeds of intention, seeds of leafy greens and peas that are pushing roots and shoots into moist and fertile earth, and seeds of memory and story coming alive in the minds and hearts of the children.
I will leave you with a blessing in the form of wise words from an honored ancestor, Peter Blue Cloud:
Sculpture in Soil;
What fire has blackened to sleeping
the earth her breath of new green now sings
and the flanks and belly of these hills’
are stroked by fingers roughened
in the sculpture of labor.
What seeds which slept so long in dreaming
the sun and soil have called to dance,
and winds that once were grey with ash
now sway the seedlings in their nests,
balanced on tiny probing feet.
The early summer children run about
on long and awkward legs of grace,
and trembling hooves of song are felt
by those who kneel to touch the soil
while placing seeds in furrows warm.
At evening’s campfire when stars appear
and crickets and frogs chorus the moon,
cast in shadows of dark granite,
I see the walking sculptures which guard the night,
and gentle our bodies to sleeping.