Sunday November 11, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Jerry Thun der cloud McDonald recalled the first time he entered his clan’s longhouse when he was 12, following the death of his mother.

"It was like watching a moving picture show," he said of the dancing and singing. "I was very inspired to learn about the tribal history of our people."

On Saturday at the Berkshire Museum, he shared the history of the Mohawk Nation and the Six Nations Iroquois Con federacy through song, dance and storytelling.

McDonald is a member of the Wolf Clan and lives in the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, a tribal area along the banks of the St. Lawrence River that straddles upstate New York and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

The longhouse, the center of tribal activity at Akwesasne and elsewhere, is a place of "joy and inspiration" where McDonald learned "a great deal of respect," he said.

McDonald discussed the various traditional instruments used in Mohawk ceremonies, from the water drum, which as the name suggests is filled with water, to the big drum, a moose-hide-covered instrument you can feel in your chest when he beats out a rhythm.

McDonald also described how the Great Law of Peace, the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy -- a union of five tribes that some scientists believe dates back close to a thousand years, (a sixth tribe joined the confederation in the 18th century) -- helped inspire the Founding Fathers in their writing of the U.S. Constitution, including the ideas of checks and balances and the separation of powers. Several of the nation’s symbols, including the Eagle holding arrows (look for it on the back of the dollar bill) comes directly from the Iroquois tradition, according to McDonald.

The versatile singer, storyteller, dancer, choreographer, and actor, dressed in traditional costume, spoke for more than an hour to a rapt audience of about 30 people that ranged in age from the elderly to small children.

"I loved it," Laurie Foote, a Lenox resident said of the event. She said she was very interested in Native Amer ican culture and was also taken by McDonald’s personal story of how he came to be inspired by his people’s culture and history.

McDonald was also a so-called "Sky Walker," one of many Mohawk men who have worked in New York City doing skyscraper construction work, scampering along thin steel beams thousands of feet in the air. His last job was on the new Yankee Stadium, he said.

Saturday afternoon’s event, part of the Chief Konkapot Festival of Native American Culture and History, was presented in partnership with Healing Winds, a local Native American educational and cultural non-profit, and in conjunction with the exhibition Rethink! American Indian Art on display at the Museum now through Jan. 6.

Fidel Moreno, who cofounded Healing Winds with Susan Jameson, said it’s important to promote the idea that Native American people and culture are still vital and to share native ideas and teachings with others.

The festival continues today with a presentation by Larry Spotted Crow Mann, Nipmuck poet and author of "Tales from the Whispering Basket." He will be presenting Nipmuck stories, songs, and drum with the Quabbin Lake Singers at 1 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for children; museum members are $5 for adults, $3 for children. Children 3 and under are free, and tickets include museum admission.

For more info: www.berkshiremuseum.org, 413-443-7171 or www.healingwinds.net.