OHERO:KON Youth Rites of Passage Program

OHERO:KON "Under the Husk"

By Honoring Nations

Honoring Nations 2015 Awardee

The teenage years are an exciting but challenging phase of life. For Native youth, racism and mixed messages about identity can make the transition to adulthood particularly fraught, and may even lead to risky or self-destructive behavior. Within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a groundbreaking initiative to restore rites of passage for youth has engaged the entire community. The Ohero:kon ceremonial rite guides youth through Mohawk practices and teachings in the modern context, strengthening their cultural knowledge, self-confidence, and leadership skills.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

A Loss of Connection

Located along the Saint Lawrence River, Akwesasne is home to approximately 13,000 Mohawks. The international border between the United States and Canada bisects Akwesasne lands, and the community shares a geography with two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec) and one US state (New York).

Within the community, there are two externally recognized governments—the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, recognized by the US government, and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, recognized by the Canadian government—and two longhouse (traditional) governments. Additionally, the Mohawk people are part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which has a rich presence throughout the region.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

Incompatibility between the robust governance institutions and the policies of the colonizing governments has led to intense and, at times, violent political polarization within the community. Because of these schisms, the Mohawk people have found it difficult to resolve or even address many pressing social and governmental issues.

These divisions had a particularly negative effect on the youth. In the face of racism, many teenagers reported feelings of shame, misunderstanding, and a lack of connection to their Haudenosaunee heritage. Because the breakdown of the matrilineal village system disrupted the traditional ways that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood, young people had few options for guidance during this crucial life stage. Truancy, addiction, teen pregnancy, and suicide were compromising both the health of young citizens and the future of the Confederacy.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

In responding to this crisis, early organizers (mothers) identified this political complexity as a crucial barrier to adolescent health and wellbeing.

Characterized by individual and group empowerment, Ohero:kon builds on the social ties of the Mohawk community and creates opportunities for synergy and balance. The program uses a purposeful, socially-constructed model of community-held governance to provide a safe space for creative self-expression, develop youth leadership, and grow the kinship network.

Ohero:kon "Under the Husk"Honoring Nations

New Rites of Passage

In 2005, searching for a way to address these problems, Bear Clan Mother Wakerakatste Louise Herne lead a group of seven boys in a fast on top of a mountain in nearby Kanesatake. From this modest beginning, Ohero:kon has developed into a seven-year, rite-of-passage initiative for all community youth.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”, Haudenosaunee Confederacy - 2015 Honoring Nations Award by Honoring Nations, The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic DevelopmentHonoring Nations

Ohero:kon, which means “Under the Husk” in the Mohawk language and refers to the layers of social and cultural protection of children, mentors participants in their transition to adulthood through programming informed by ancient ceremonies, rituals, and teachings.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

During the first four years of Ohero:kon, participants commit to a full day of activities and workshops every weekend from January to May. The curriculum covers a broad range of topics relevant to teenagers. Many are driven by the teens’ current interests, such as sexting and Internet exploitation.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”, From the collection of: Honoring Nations
Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”, From the collection of: Honoring Nations
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The Ohero:kon curriculum also puts special emphasis on the transmission of Mohawk language, culture, and teachings. For example, as a way to learn about their bodies and how to conduct themselves with respect in relation to one another, the youth prepare and grow Mother Earth Gardens, in which plantings of tobacco, strawberries, corn, beans, and squash represent the body of Sky Woman’s daughter.

Families are encouraged to work together to build fasting lodges, initiates are required to take part in sweat lodges, and young women are invited to attend full moon ceremonies.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

The youth also are encouraged to attend longhouse ceremonies. At the conclusion of these four years, the nieces and nephews undertake a ritual fast, from which they return by canoe to a community feast that celebrates their journey and accomplishments. The final three years of Ohero:kon are self-directed, with each participant working toward his or her personal goals.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

The community’s response to Ohero:kon has been overwhelmingly positive. While early cohorts were encouraged by parents and other adult relatives to attend, youth now hear about it from their peers or on social media and ask to join.

The program’s success is also evident in the ongoing engagement of past initiates, who are returning to assist with ceremonies, evaluation, and curriculum development. As one community member attested, “Ohero:kon is a continual series of answered prayers of generations of ancestors.”

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

The Power of Tradition

The revitalization of rites of passage is having a profound impact on the way youth experience adolescence. Ohero:kon strengthens sovereignty by laying the groundwork for today’s teens to move into leadership roles as adults.

Through these experiences, Ohero:kon youth gain the cultural knowledge and leadership skills they need to help build the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for generations to come.

Ohero:kon “Under the Husk”Honoring Nations

Bringing the Lessons Home

As cultural traditions are lost, Native youth often struggle to develop a strong identity. Ohero:kon addresses this concern by reviving ancient coming-of-age rituals, providing mentorship to youth through their formative years and adapting them to modern realities. Impressively, the program invites the entire community to become involved in the transfer of knowledge across generations.

Ohero:kon "Under the Husk"Honoring Nations

A nation has a responsibility to assist its youth transition into adulthood. By restoring traditional mentorship practices, youth have a safe structure to grow and develop. A nation's future rests in the success of its youth.

Credits: Story

Ohero:kon "Under the Husk" Rites of Passage
Haudenosaunee Confederacy

Text provided by:
The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
Honoring Nations Awards, 2015 https://hpaied.org/sites/default/files/publications/Ohero%20kon%20final%20(1).pdf

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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