Jake Swamp-Tekaronianeken, a Mohawk leader and founder of the Tree of Peace Society, was remembered last month, a year after he was laid to rest, in the most befitting way: the planting of trees.
A total of 50 trees—nut, fruit, white pine, cedar and fir trees—were planted on or around October 18, what would have been Swamp’s 70th birthday. Between 75 and 100 people participated in the plantings, which took place in several states, including Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Vermont, and in several countries, including Canada, France, Germany and even as far away as Japan, to honor the man who planted and encouraged the planting of trees around the world to promote peace.
The plantings were orchestrated by Billy Myers, a Mohawk who teaches art conservation at Smith College and is a member of the Tree of Peace Society. Myers began coordinating the effort the day after Swamp’s funeral services, held on October 18, 2010, and he did most of it via the Internet and phone.
“I just could not let his birthday go unnoticed,” said Myers, who planted six white pines, the original symbol of the Tree of Peace, donned with spirit ribbons—black, white, yellow and red to represent the human races—for Swamp on 200 acres that his relatives own in Central Bridge, New York.
Swamp served as a Mohawk sub-chief and representative of the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy for more than 30 years. In that role he was a respected diplomat, counselor and spiritual leader. Swamp was also a renowned speaker, and he spoke often, whether it was at a Thanksgiving, wedding or funeral ceremony or a sacred circle, forum or conference. He traveled across the country and overseas to share his deep knowledge and love of Mohawk culture—its traditions, history and language—and his ideas of peace. And he was an accomplished teacher and writer, authoring the children’s book Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message.
Swamp founded the Tree of Peace Society in 1982. The organization, based in Hogansburg, New York, is grounded in the 1,000-year-old teachings of the Skennenrahawi (the Peacemaker) and the formation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, but it was also established to advocate for ecological awareness and sensitivity. Through this organization, Swamp planted hundreds of Peace Trees in the United States, including one near Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall, as well as in Canada and other countries. He inspired the planting of millions more in places such as Australia, Israel, Spain and Venezuela.
Undoubtedly, anyone who knew him would describe Swamp as a powerful force. Myers said he was one of the few Indians who could bridge the gap between the Native American mindset and the rest of the world. He made himself accessible to all. “He did not close the door on anyone, Indian or non-Indian. He actually opened peoples’ minds up so people could talk to each other,” Myers said.
When Mohawk elder Leonard Fourhawks first met Swamp in the early 1980s, he was in awe of the man and what he did. “He was able to transcend any culture, any nationality, by planting trees. More importantly, he followed the oldest tradition that we have: Whatever we do today will affect the seven generations to come, which is 140 years from now. We don’t live that long as humans, nor do most animals, but trees do.” Fourhawks wishes that all of the people who Swamp touched would take one day each year and plant a tree to promote and continue what he began.
Dale Bellisfield, an herbalist nurse in New Jersey, said, “Jake gave us a role model for how to live a life in humor, in peace and forgiveness. He was a model of what one person can do and how it affects the world.”
Swamp brought in Bellisfield to work on a herbarium cabinet. She said he wanted to know what plants were there in the Akwesasne area and what their medicinal purposes were. He also wanted a record of their uses and what they might have been called in Mohawk. Bellisfield and her friend, naturalist Nancy Slowik, spent 10 years gathering, identifying and pressing more than 100 plants. Their names were translated into Mohawk; those that did not have a Mohawk name were given one by community members. The cabinet was placed in the Akwesasne Cultural Center in 2008.
“He was fearless. In his own quiet, calm, gentle, under-stated way—he was a force to be reckoned with,” said Bellisfield, who met Swamp at a sacred circle that he hosted about 20 years ago.
Swamp left behind his wife, Judy, seven children, 23 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and 12 siblings. Still mourning, the family declined to speak to be interviewed.