Mohawk Nation’s great teacher passes into the Spirit World

Without Tehanetorens would Akwesasne exist?

By Doug George-Kanentio
News From Indian Country 12-08

On November 14 Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens, 98,  left this world to begin his journey along the stars back to the Creator’s land, a place of living light where we will be embraced by those who have gone on before.

His leaving means we will no longer have his counsel. His voice has been taken from us, we must make it through this life without his wisdom or his words of encouragement.

He was, without doubt, one of the great human beings of our history, a true onkwehonwe who fulfilled his duties with honour.

Tehanetorens adhered to the ancient Mohawk teaching which instructs us to leave our camp, our home, this life better than when we found it.

At the 214th anniversary of the Treaty of Canandaigua, the Haudenosaunee gathered at the treaty sight and renewed this contract and reminded ourselves of how the actions of our ancestors have a profound effect on our lives whether or not we elect to acknowledge this.

I was asked to speak before the assembly and strayed from the speech I had in mind to talk about Tehanetorens and how he took our history, which had been suppressed for many generations, and made it relevant. He gave our culture and traditions power. He showed us we need not walk in shame and that a single, committed man can forge a nation without becoming a politician.

Tehanetorens was of the Adirondacks in body and spirit. He left his Onchiota home to secure a teaching degree in Fredonia, New York, then took a job at Tuscarora. There he met the wonderful leader Clinton Rickard, a person who taught him about the greatness of our past. He came to Akwesasne at a time when our heritage was in peril.

He taught social studies at the St. Regis Mohawk School from 1936-1957. We had a language and a special way of cultivating the lands and waters among us but we did not have a longhouse as the traditional beliefs were effectively banned if not by statute then by those who were afraid of practices they deemed pagan.

Tehanetorens was part of that very small group which shook us awake when he helped build a longhouse and, after relearning the ceremonies, began to openly celebrate what had once been driven underground. As he recalled, the first ceremonies attracted only a few Akwesasnorens - one man sang and two danced. Remember this the next time Midwinter comes about and the longhouse is crowded almost to the rafters.


He did much more than this. He was the best teacher we have ever had in any of our schools. Besides the standard subjects he brought something else to the classroom, the power of pride. His students were not beaten into silence, belittled into shame or ruthlessly purged of their dignity. They looked backwards and began to uncover the amazing truth as to who they were as Mohawks.

Being Mohawk was good, a simple phrase at odds with the texts and standard teachings of the day.

From his classes at the Mohawk School came those amazing charts showing the Native contributions to the world, the majestic oratory of our past leaders, the genius of our politics. His students learned about Cannesatego’s call for the union of the colonies. They discovered that democracy was invented here and not in class restricted Europe. They found out that our ancestors were scientists, engineers, astronomers.

He formed the Akwesasne Mohawk Counsellor’s Organization and took his students to every site of historical importance in eastern North America. From Cherokee, North Carolina, to the Atlantic shores the Mohawk boys and girls took strength from what they saw and in turn encouraged other Natives to cast off the shackles of propaganda and rise as nations.

Without Tehanetorens there would not have been a White Roots of Peace, an Akwesasne Notes, CKON Radio, Indian Times, Freedom School or Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. There would be no land claims, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne would still be the St. Regis Band Council. Akwesasne as a place of power would not be, we would be calling ourselves the “St. Regis Indians.”

The new scholarship across America which is finally seeing us as we were, and are, would not have taken root had not Tehanetorens given those self-serving academics a good kick in their intellectual rear ends. He inspired students from everywhere.

And when his time as a teacher ended at Akwesasne he did not fade into the background but created a haven in Onchiota when he opened the Six Nations Museum over 50 years ago. That place is our mecca where we go to be renewed. For those of us who heard Tehanetorens’ words the power of what he said cannot be forgotten or ignored. He was passionate, angry at times and had the absolute right to call things as they were.

Tehanetorens deserves honours beyond counting yet he would never accept tribute while he was with us. I am at a loss as to the right way to pay him the homage he merits. But I will state this: he was the best human being I ever met.