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LISTEN: Mohawk artist Susan Mullins Kwaronhia:wi on what Indigenous People’s day means to her

Susan Mullins Kwaronhia:wi teaching a class on playing the Native American drum
Susan Mullins
Susan Mullins Kwaronhia:wi teaching a class on playing the Native American drum.

Susan Mullins Kwaronhia:wi lives in Berea, Kentucky and works with students to pass down her ancestral traditions of music, art and dance.

Monday is Indigenous People’s Day. It’s a day of celebration of America’s first inhabitants and an acknowledgment of the history of displacement and violence.

Susan Mullins Kwaronhia:wi is a Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve in Canada.

She’s a folk artist who works with students to instill Native American traditions and values that she says she’s lucky to inherit from her ancestors, pass it down and preserve its significance in American history. She tells those stories through art, music and dance.

Mullins Kwaronhia:wi is the arts community representative on the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission board. She is also a Kentucky Colonel.

Mullins says, for her, it’s a day of healing and moving forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You're a storyteller and Indigenous People’s day tells a more positive and more accurate tale of Native Americans. You're now seeing more proclamations across the country, including President Biden's. What comes up for you when you see these institutional shifts?

You know, as a people, we weren't recognized in this country, we weren't granted citizenships, or were even allowed to vote. Even though we were here. In 1924, Congress didn't enact the Indian Citizenship Act law, stating that we had to be in the United States to be recognized. Born in the United States, obviously, we were born here. Even after this act passed, states still barred us from voting.

The government, and the people, the white people considered us members of an alien, uncivilized and unethical race. So with all of our trials and tribulations, we were accepted in around 1957, with just a few states still not allowing us. It was funny because we were the first people in this country, and the last to be recognized as citizens having a day representing Native Americans in this country we occupied when the Europeans arrived. Remember, we were here and still are, and I'm not complaining, I'm not angry. This is history. I love this country, and I will do everything I can to support it. The past is the past, but we can learn from it.

Music is such a vital part of your work in educating and passing down those traditions. You teach kids how to sing "Amazing Grace" in Seneca, also the song sung along the Trail of Tears you said. Tell me more about that.

My story was that I heard and like I say, I can't say that it's what really happened. But this is the story, I told that the ship that was carrying the slaves in the United States, the captain fell down and broke his legs. And the slaves brought him to his quarters. And everyday they would come and take care of him and feed him and clean him. They would be singing this song in their language. Well, the melody, he didn't understand what it was.

So he called an interpreter. And when the interpreter told him what the song was, when he got to the Americas, he set all those slaves free. So consequently, they mingled with the native tribes. Some of them went further, some of them started their own communities, but a lot of them stayed with the natives, and taught them that song too. Because that was they weren't hardship on the ship. And you know, because they were all chained up together with no place to go.,

So then it was told that this song also was sung on the Trail of Tears.

And you tell the story before you teach them the song. How have people reacted to that?

So when we sing that song, the first verse is always in a very nice, smooth way. But the second verse comes in because people started dying. And so that verse kind of gets you more emotional about it, and I feel bad because I do put that in there. When I'm singing, I almost sound like I'm crying at that verse. I saw one guy cry, you know, and I felt bad, but I just wanted to let them realize, what it was and what it was about.

How have you seen Kentucky evolve when it comes to acknowledging its Native American history?

When we started coming, they thought even up until that time, that there were no natives ever living here. They only came here to hunt because this was sacred land. They said, Oh, no, they just brought their dead here to bury them in the sacred land.

So you mean, our Mohawk people, the Iroquois people that lived in New York State and up in Canada, when somebody died, we pull them all the way down while they were rotting by horseback, which probably took about three or four weeks or five weeks or even a month to get here and then bury them here? No, we were here. And it has been proven now and as as the years went by, since I was here, it's being more accepted.

There is in Indigenous People's Day celebration Saturday from 1:00-5:00 p.m at Bellarmine University’s Cralle Theatre. 

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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