Film explores Mohawk coming-of-age ceremony

The short film “Ohero:Kon (Under the Husk)” follows the journey of Kaienkwinehtha and Kasennakohe as they take part in their traditional passage rites to become Mohawk women. (Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — Katsitsionni Fox’s name translates from the Haudenosaunee language as “She Makes Flowers.”

“That’s the name my mom gave me,” Fox, an educator and multi-modal creative, said.

“The name for me has more to do with the things that I make because I’m an artist, a filmmaker. I’m always making beautiful things.”

At the moment, she’s firing tons of pottery with Carol Vossler at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake.

“I’m mixing the old-style Haudenosaunee pots with more contemporary things on them, like adding different variations,” Fox said.

But her oeuvre includes film, video installation, painting and printmaking.

Four years ago, she made the film “Ohero:Kon,” which translates as “Under the Husk,” which will screen virtually at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24.

Sponsors are BluSeed Studios, Lake Flower Landing, John Brown Lives and North Country Community College.

Under the Husk

“I made the film because I had been involved in Ohero:kon, our rites of passage ceremony for 16 years now. My son went through it. He was one of the first initiates to do it. Then my daughter went through it.

“What I was noticing with the young people that go through that ceremony, I was seeing big changes in the youth that were going through that. So, I knew it was something that was making a really positive change in our community and I felt like I needed to make a film on it.”

The film’s name comes from the rites of passage ceremony, Ohero:kon.

“It’s like the young people are like that corn,” Fox said.

“And as we are teaching them different things, we are peeling back the husk until they are ready to be able to be seen.”

Small view

Fox shot most of her award-winning short documentary with a Canon XA25.

“It’s a small camera,” she said.

“It takes SD cards. I used it because it’s unobtrusive. The first scene and the last scene are actually shot by a cinematographer from Montreal. She has a huge camera. That’s what she does for a living.”

“Ohero:kon” follows the transformation of her Bear Clan daughter, Kaienkwinehtha Ransom, and her Wolf Clan bestie Kasennakohe David.

“They both went to school together at the Freedom School,” Fox said.

“The film follows them through their journey going through these rites of passage and then comes out two years later where they are as a result of going through this.”

Third-time charm

It took Fox two years to secure funding for the film through a Vision Maker Media grant.

“They fund Native films, and they get their money from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. The third-time was the charm. That’s the one where I actually got the funding. I already had been documenting, and then I went forward. I documented more. It worked out just perfectly because it ended up I got that money just when they were going through their fourth year, when they were finishing.”

It took Fox several more years to edit the film and push it into the world. It is a Two Row Production distributed by Women Make Movies.

“It was very successful,” she said.

“We premiered at imagineNative, which is an Indigenous Film Festival in Toronto. We won the ward for the Jane Glassco Award for Emerging filmmaker.”

Inside job

“Ohero:kon” won Best Short Documentary at LA Skins Fest and also the Red Nation International Film Festival. It also racked an award at Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and was a PBS Broadcast in November 2018.

“I think it was successful because it was an inside job,” Fox said.

“I mean you couldn’t have had an outsider filmmaker come in and do the film that I did because I knew all the people there. They were like my family, the people I was filming. So, they kind of ignored me while I was filming because it was just me.”

Fox also attributes the film’s success to the dearth of films about Native women.

“Even less films about Native young women,” she said.

“Even less films about Native young women that are empowered. Most of the stories that you see out there are sad stories.

“That’s one thing as a filmmaker that is important to me to share some of our stories of empowerment of the things that our young women and older women are doing that are positive in our communities because there are so many stories like that but they don’t get told.

“Our young people need to see that. They need to see those positive stories.”

Four-year process

The first year Ransom and David attended the ceremony, they had to choose Aunties.

“They choose role models, people they look up to be their Aunties,” Fox said.

“They go with them, and we have teachings on the weekend. Some of them are telling our cultural stories. Sometimes they are learning hands-on things like cooking or how to make a fire or how to make a basket. They learn a lot of our cultural teachings on the weekends with their Aunts.”

The spring marks the fasting time.

The first year, they fast for one night.

“It’s actually in a field where we can see them,” Fox said.

“The next year, they fast for two nights. And then, they go in the woods where we don’t see them. We just check on them.”

Then, the young women fast for three and finally four nights for the remaining two years.

“The purpose of is they are young adults, and they are trying to figure out why they are here,” Fox said.

“Why were they put here? What’s their gifts that they are going to give back? They are connecting with all of those things, and at the same time they are also sacrificing. They are sacrificing their food and their water and their contact with people and that does something to them.

“They don’t forget that. So when they are drinking water, they are so grateful for that water. When they are eating their food and when they’re in contact with people, it really affects them in a big way to do that.”

After the film’s screening on Thursday, there will be a Zoom Q&A with Fox and her daughter approximately at 8 p.m.

Mother tongue

Ransom studied visual arts for two years at SUNY Potsdam.

“She decided that wasn’t what she really wanted to do, and what she really wanted to do is be more fluent in her language,” Fox said.

“She went to school up in Six Nations, which is maybe an hour from Toronto. She went to an adult immersion school and graduated from there.”

Ransom graduated from the school after two years.

“She came out fluent, and they hired her to teach there,” Fox said.

“She taught there last year and the year before teaching adults how to speak in the language. She is so prolific with the language.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Ransom is back at Akwesasne.

She Zoomed her classes, and in her down time, she talked to her Elders at night, extracting words from them and writing them down.

“This year she is teaching in the community, another adult immersion class but here in Akwesasne, like the other classes in Six Nations that she was teaching,” Fox said.

A mother’s pride

David married and has a new baby.

“They took that language program together and both graduated at the same time,” Fox said.

“Kasennakohe went on to teach at an adult immersion program as well, and then she taught at the Freedom School. So, she’s done a couple of jobs since she got that. They are both working in language. I am so proud of them.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect time of Thursday’s screening.)


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today