Dawn Ieriho:kwats Avery, musician and composer

Dawn Ieriho:kwats Avery is a Grammy-nominated Mohawk musician and composer who holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology.  I was introduced to Dawn's music by Konwanonhsiyohstha Callie Hill, who gave me a copy of the CD from the Native Composer Project, a music initiative Dawn had directed in Tyendinaga in 2011. What I imagined to be a under an hour of listening on my journey along Highway 401 lasted the whole trip, and I’m very happy to say that some of Dawn’s beautiful music comprises the soundtrack to Raising the Words. I spoke with Dawn over FaceTime about the “native classical” community, the song Rohati:io, and the role language plays in her life and her work.

Chloë Ellingson: What has been your personal experience with the Mohawk language?

Dawn Ieriho:kwats Avery: My Indian name is Ieriho:kwats, and that means “she goes back to her roots,” like, digs into her roots to learn. I was not raised on a reserve, but I came back to my roots. In high school I started having these dreams, and I found out that some of the words were in Mohawk, but I didn’t know what they meant, so I started searching for a language immersion program, of which there were some for kids, like up in Akwesasne with the Freedom School, but there weren’t any, at the time, for adults. Tom Sakokwenionkwas Porter, who was a chief in Akwesasne and then founded a Mohawk community in New York, started a language immersion program, so years later I started taking language. Every summer I would go do this immersion program. That’s how my language learning started. A lot of us don’t speak, and there aren’t a lot of fluent speakers, although now it’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s really exciting in the Mohawk community. I think we have about 6000 speakers now, which is sort of amazing, because at one point the language was considered extinct. Learning the language to me, and to a lot of people, I think, it really helped me understand the worldview and the principles of being Mohawk in a way that I never could have understood if I didn’t have the vibration of the language and the meaning of the language. I’ll give you an example. When you ask “how are you?” we really say “do you carry with you a lot of peace?”, like “are you peaceful today?” So it’s “skennenkò:wa ken,” and if you say “no, I’m not peaceful,” then it would be my responsibility to help that person find peace or to find that person somebody else who can help them, because the worldview of our community was always based on principles of peace. It’s beautiful, I mean I think it’d be nice if the whole world learned Mohawk, frankly. I’ll never be a fluent speaker, not even close, but I do deeply understand certain things that have really transformed me as a person, and I’m very grateful for that. My teacher just passed, Taw^te'se, so it’s sort of sad, but he really encouraged me and kept saying “I want you to live it, you have to live it,” so part of me feels like even doing this interview is a way of living it. That’s really important.

CE: That was one of the questions I had for Storm, who lives in Kahnawake, I asked how he would feel about Mohawk hypothetically being part of the mainstream school system, and he thought it would be awesome.

DIA: That’s nice, because there are two camps. Some people don’t even want to distribute any language literature except amoung Mohawks, and then there’s another camp, which I really understood from Tom Sakokwenionkwas Porter, where he said “well everybody learned English, why doesn’t everybody learn Mohawk?” and I really liked that.

CE: You started a workshop called the Native Composer Project. What is that project about and how did it come to be?

DIA: It really came into being with Jan Kaheti:io Longboat from Six Nations. She’s an elder I’ve worked with for a long time, and one of my dearest friends, and she was dedicated to helping women who suffered from residential school abuse by teaching culture so they can go back to their communities and teach their future generations. It was a very hands-on approach to learning culture and it started with healing through culture. It was a culture-based healing project. In that project I was working with her for a long time, studying with the other women, and then she helped me develop this project. My first workshop was a three-day workshop where I thought women traditional women’s song that I had learned in Six Nations, and then they wrote their own, but they wrote them in their language. I would work with a fluent language speaker and the women to write these songs, and then we recorded them and came out with this CD and a booklet of these songs, so now these songs can be passed on. Out of that I developed another project for Tyendinaga, and that was a week-long project, and I worked with Larry Mitchell, who’s a producer and recording artist, and he won a Grammy with Johnny Whitehorse. He’s produced a lot of Native American musicians. He’s very dedicated to that. What we did in one week, which was sort of insane because Larry and I basically didn’t sleep for an entire week, was the students would learn the basics of the language, and a lot of them had already been studying the language through the Tyendinaga language program. Then we would work on particular words and concepts and then they wrote a piece in the traditional way, which is in the women’s songs style, and then we recorded that and learned them all. Everybody had to learn everybody’s songs so we’d have a lot of language. Then we took those same pieces and turned them into pop tunes, and then from that I took their themes and I’d write a few different melodies for them and they’d pick what they liked. Then I took those and turned them into string quartets.

CE: There are three string quartets on the Native Composer Project CD. How did the idea of including the string quartets emerge?

DIA: I’m a classically-trained cellist, and I was invited to be on the board of the First Nations Composers Initiative. “Classical” is sort of a broad term, and has been since the 20th century, so there’s anything from very avant-garde composers to very traditional composers who write symphonic works. At the time that I was really involved there were only, maybe, 12 classical concert composers, and so it was a way to help support them and disseminate their work, and my dissertation is on what we call “native classical” music, which is a complicated term, but people understand it. I think that in Native American culture, like everybody, we’re very expressive, and we express ourselves in a variety of ways. We all are individuals who have a lot to say. Classical music is one of the many ways we express ourselves.

CE: How would you describe the native classical genre?

DIA: The genre is self-identified through this group as being music that is meant for instruments and musical forms that are classical in nature. It could be chamber music, it could be orchestral music, even though people might add other instruments like flutes or rattles or voices. Some people say that it has to be notated, but notation is also broad because notation can be a picture with a poem and then directions on how to improvise or it could be fully notated, like in a symphonic score. Another definition was that it has to be for the concert stage, but then concert stage is also relative because some people perform this classical music in the middle of a desert. There are so many loose definitions about what “classical” means, but then the “native” definition was that there just has to be some blood that’s native. What I found in my research was that there were certain things that native composers had that not all other composers had, and one was that the sounds and sentiments and values that we grew up with somehow find their way into our music. And they are different than the experiences of, say, a Polish composer, or an African American composer. A lot of us do employ native instruments within a classical setting, or words, or inspiration. I also started looking at the actual process of composing, and a lot of us compose music from dreams, but the dreams have a different symbology than, say the dreams of someone in Italy composing, because of how they grew up. Our process also somehow always involves our community. All of the composers, thus far, go back to their communities and work with the youth, and that’s a really important part of what we do. Not all classical contemporary composers do that but, so far, all of the classical native composers have done that. Also, most of us, our work is on some level political because our lives have become so political. That’s a big part- a lot of our pieces have been written for political events, or have a political statement.

CE: How did the Rohati:io string quartet in particular come about Rohati:io?

DIA: Rohati:io was a song that Teddy Peters wrote, who is known for taking the Mohawk language and translating country songs. He’s fantastic at this. He came to the workshop and he wrote Rohati:io for his grandson. He wrote the words and I wrote the music. The music is directly created by the sounds of the language, and by that I mean the inflection of the language. There’s a melodic content of the language, and there’s a rhythmic precision to the language, and there’s an emotional content to the language.