(Part 1 of a 2 part series)
The river spawning is so important to our people that we even have a social song for it. Men and women will dance to mimic the habits of the jacks and sows. First the jacks come in to scout the area for predators. What most call the walleye or pickerel lay their eggs after the pike, so there are already dangers lurking in the water.
Then they will go back to the deep, while the sows come in to drop the eggs before also returning to the deep. The jacks will then come back in to fertilize them. This process could last for 3-6 weeks depending on weather conditions.
On shore there will usually be a line of spears stuck in the ground, one for every person that will be doing a run. Any more than five and you could be waiting all night. The run is a rather slow walk upstream. Carrying a light, spear and a stringer full of fish makes it all that more interesting.
At times the current is so strong that it can send a 200 pound man flying down the river. It’s no walk on the beach as some may think. Onkwehonwe travel from all over to come to Kanienke:haka Territory to try their hand at spearing.
It wasn’t always so easy, though. What many people take for granted as a birthright was realized because the People of Tyendinaga fought for those rights not so long ago. Not just in the rivers of Shannonville, but away from the safety of home in Belleville, Napanee and Trenton. At times these spear-fishers even faced discrimination and persecution from community members, as well as fines from the reserve police.
In Tyendinaga in the 1990s the spawning of Skakaraksen had created a cultural awareness in the community unprecedented in times past. The elders said that for a long time they mainly harvested white fish, but then there was a return of the leader, Omha’a konwatikowanen. Skakaraksen nihosonoten. One bad eye is their name, and with razor sharp teeth and spiked fins, they are at the top of the food chain in these waters.
Sows dominate in size and can be longer than 2 feet. They say that in the old days the men would use torches at night to locate the fish in the turbulent waters. The eyes reflect the light fiercely, making it their only weakness to predators. Modified flashlights and homemade pronged spears are now the tools of choice, along with chest waders and a solid determination.
Confrontations on the shore were mainly brought on by, for lack of a better term, racist provocateurs. While the young warriors were pushing boundaries into occupied territory, a resurgence was going on back home in Shannonville.
The original expedition was brought on by four men teaching their sons how to feed their families. At that time, Shannonville was considered off the Territory. There were unoccupied homes left vacant in the small village of mostly Mohawks. What had started as a small fishing camp had turned into a full on sovereign occupation. The SWAT team was eventually called in to remove those residing in the vacant houses. The brave stand made by these few families lead to the checker boarding of the village and made every other house an Onkwehonwe dwelling.
Originally Tyendinaga was called Kenhteke. This is the birthplace of the Peacemaker, the most influential man that ever counseled with the Five Nations. It is the Holy Land amongst the Iroquoian People. That is the reason 23 families left Lachine by canoe to settle here.
Back on the shores of Kehnteke there is a camaraderie amongst the fishermen. Jumping in the river ahead of someone or shining lights in the water could lead to a wrestling match quickly. Most visitors don’t know the unwritten rules and can sometimes cause a commotion.
The best thing to do on arrival to a crowded spot is to introduce yourself if you are not already known. At times the Conservation Police will try to push their weight around, but know they have no jurisdiction over the Haudenosaunee. There is no limit but it is a common practice to share your catch with others, especially the elderly. Milking the fish into a bucket of water and placing it back in the river ensures the spawn is available for the coming generations.
Be sure not to let any blood from the puncture wound to enter the mixture as this prevents the fertilization process. An offering of Tobacco should always be given before the first harvest, but most do this when burying the waste products of the fish after they’ve been cleaned.
So if you find yourself in Kehnteke this season be sure to acknowledge the efforts and perseverance of those four men who fought for our fishing rights, and remember the saying “4, 40, or 400,” we’re going to be there.