Our Stories Made Visible: Two Mohawk Women Artists, Katsitsionni Fox and Shelley Niro

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Skywoman 2 by Shelley Niro
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Skywoman’s Daughter by Katsitsionni Fox

Katsitsionni Fox and Shelley Niro have created art to help define the state of Indigenous people in North America, the spirituality of our Indian Way of Life and the resilience of our people. Their perspective is firmly rooted in their own Haudenosaunee cultural traditions that they have examined visually. Haudenosaunee women have a very specific set of personal responsibilities that have been recognized since the dawn of Creation.

In this exhibition, their art is based on the story of Sky Woman, who is an integral part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Creation Story.  The Haudenosaunee Creation Story is a long oral narrative. Originally, Chief John Arthur Gibson, an Onondaga Ceremonial leader from the Six Nations Reserve, told his version in 1899 to J.N. B. Hewitt, a Tuscarora Ethnographer. In 2005, the late Seneca historian John Mohawk published an annotated version.  

Sky Woman is an integral part of the cosmology. The Creation Story begins in the Sky World where supernatural beings existed. One was Awe(n)ha’i’, or Mature Blossoms, who was taken as a wife by the guardian of the Standing Tree. From this Tree all light, fruit and flowers were available to those beings in the Sky World. After her marriage, Mature Blossoms was told by her husband Hoda’he’, that he had a dream and all the beings of the Sky World had to guess what it was. Fire Dragon (Comet) guessed the dream which involved uprooting the Standing Tree. Awe(n)ha’i’  was now showing signs that she would become a mother. Her husband insisted that his dream needed to be fulfilled. After the Standing Tree was uprooted the flowers and fruit withered and the light dimmed. Now all things could become new and as a further condition Awe(n)ha’i’ was cast into the chasm created by uprooting the tree. In this part of the story we begin to refer to Awe(n)ha’i’ as Sky Woman as she now begins her descent from the Sky World to the water covered sphere below. Fire Dragon appears again and he gives Sky Woman that which she will need in “this new place.” These include corn seed and dried meat. Below was an endless black sea and many different kinds of waterfowl. One saw the Sky Woman and assembled the birds to catch this being falling from the sky. A great turtle offered his back as a place to hold up the earth that muskrat gathered from the bottom of the sea. It was on the back of the turtle that the water fowl placed Sky Woman and the earth began to grow. Next Mature Blossoms gave birth to a daughter. Soon, her child became a young woman.  From the daughter there will eventually come two brothers: Skyholder and Flint. Flint, born from the arm pit of his mother, caused her death. These two brothers will form the things of this earth as we know them. Skyholder created plants, grass, berries, trees, birds, animals and human beings. Flint created snakes, bats, moths, monkeys, lizards and the like.  

This narrative details the Creation of the world as we know it. Just as two women played a prominent role in how this earth came to be, Fox and Niro have important contributions to make. Niro’s most recent paintings relate to the Journey of our Peacemaker who united the Haudenosaunee into a Confederacy of Five Nations. Their art is a reflection of the leadership and strength of our women.

-G. Peter Jemison, Guest Curator, Our Stories Made Visible, Two Mohawk Women Artists, Katsitsionni Fox and Shelley Niro. The 7th Contemporary Iroquois Art Biennial