Kent Lyons, assistant manager of the Onondaga Nation Arena, was caught off guard by an unexpected phone call in November from a neighbor to the north.
Canon Cook, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, a First Nation in the province of Manitoba, Canada, rang to say they were looking to gift a special stone carving, shrouded in secrets, something they’d been holding onto for the last few years while traversing Turtle Island. It depicts a man who appears to be of Mohawk origin grasping a round sphere.
A former long-haul trucker for six years, Cook recently acquired a green card through enshrined travel rights established by the Jay Treaty. Cook and their partner Charlotte, and two dogs Emmy and Birch, have been borrowing a friend’s cozy little Scamp trailer for a continental road trip.
The mysterious Mohawk stone carving came into their possession and tread thousands of miles, somehow winding up at its new home among the Onondaga Nation.
In 2013, Peter Lattimer, who operates the Vancouver-based Lattimer Gallery, that specializes in curating and selling Pacific Northwest Coast Indigenous artwork, obtained the peculiar piece from Richard and Kate Porter, a couple who once owned a Woodlands art gallery during the 1990s.
“The original owners left it with a number of other pieces for us to donate on their behalf,” Lattimer divulged. “This was one of those pieces, and since I don’t carry work like that, I gave the piece to my father.”
Cook, a 46-year-old former performance artist in Toronto, is now an aspiring author and part of Audible’s Indigenous Writer’s Circle who’s still attending virtual night classes to earn a bachelor’s degree from Laurentian University. And Lattimer’s father eventually passed the stone carving to Cook in April 2021.
Though Cook admitted they’ve never gazed upon the Creator’s Game unfold, they are convinced that circular shape in fact symbolizes a lacrosse ball.
Stickball, later popularized by the term lacrosse, is considered a gift from the Creator to the Haudenosaunee, hence the literal name. Also commonly called the “medicine game,” it possesses deep spiritual and even religious significance, a sport that can heal those who play and the communities surrounding them.
Today, participating in the honorable game has been considered an age-old way to worship the Creator’s spirit across the continent for nearly a millennium.
And what better place to bring that carving embodying a physical testament to that living tradition than the popular sports arena owned by the Onondaga Nation, the site of the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, the first and only Nation in Indian Country to ever host the global tournament.
The Haudenosaunee Nationals, which recently changed its name from the Iroquois Nationals, draws players from all corners of the Confederacy. The elite team faced-off against Canada in the championship round that same year, dropping 12-8 in the fourth finals loss to their long-time rivals since the inaugural gold medal bout back in 2003.
Originally instructed by Lattimer’s father to sell the Mohawk sculpture, Cook couldn’t “work up the chutzpah to knock on doors” and do so. Later on, the Lattimer family offered Cook expressed permission, simply to gift selective pieces of artwork away, including the carving of unknown sculptor or origin.
“I felt that it would be more powerful to find the right place for this lacrosse player than finding the right amount of money for it,” Cook elaborated.
Tracing the footsteps of their ancestors both in the U.S. and Canada, Cook has been essentially repatriating artwork to Indigenous communities that carry cultural connections and an appreciation for the craftsmanship.
Lugging around the heavy sculpture standing at approximately 15 inches tall, 18 inches long, and 12 inches wide, Cook searched tirelessly to locate “the perfect home for the piece” until stumbling upon someone who actually answered their unsolicited phone calls while crisscrossing the Confederacy.
That journey lasted 42 hours, taking Cook nearly 2,883 miles away from Vancouver to reach their final destination: the Onondaga Nation Arena, nestled in the hamlet of Nedrow.
Cook thought the building that bears the phrase Tsha’ Hon’nonyen’dakhwa’, which translates to “where they play games” in Onondaga, would shelter this stoic stone player of the sport, too.
‘It came back to the right place, the right people’
Master carver Tom Huff sold one of his stone carvings to Lyons in November. No less than a day removed from that transaction, Lyons asked Huff to return and examine this mysterious donation immediately after Cook’s unannounced arrival to Central New York.
The classically-trained Seneca-Cayuga stone sculptor is quite literally a resident expert to the craft. Born and raised on the Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Territory, Huff eventually relocated and opened a home studio on the Onondaga reservation.
His highly sought-after artwork has been showcased at the New York State Museum in Albany, Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art and the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum on the Nation’s Allegany Territory, among many other institutions and private collections.
A former adjunct professor at the Onondaga Community College where he taught courses on stone carving and the history of Iroquois art, Huff said “it’s an impressive piece,” adding that while the realistic approach isn’t his style, he still admired the artform’s intention.
Huff immediately identified the stone as Alabaster mined from Utah, a popular material he commonly carved while attending the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
Shades of the translucent stone illuminate distinct hues of red and green, Huff elaborated, adding that the nameless chiseler “read the grain good” regardless of whether the carver had any formal art school training.
“Reading a stone is probably what he did,” Huff explained. “I look at a stone for two weeks and then I carve it in two days. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Beyond an unmistakably-shaped mohawk haircut, the backside of this stone tells another story with the initials “MB” scratched into the sculpture. Behind the face and ball are three etched symbols: a turtle as well as bear and wolf prints, each representing a clan among the Mohawk, or Kanienʼkehá꞉ka.
“It could’ve been anybody who did it,” said Huff, “but identifying the clans, that might make it more specific.”
Meaning, this carver may more likely have a relationship to the Keepers of the Eastern Door among the Akwesasne community at the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe clustered along the St. Lawrence River or across the Grand River in the nearby Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
Once heralded as proud carving communities, those times for the Haudenosaunee have since faded with only a handful of artisans still around, said Huff. Too few to count, now he’s someone who safeguards that artform today — a lifelong commitment to preservation, including works that aren’t his own.
He spent a few weeks during December tending to the sculpture on Thursday afternoons at the arena, taking out bruises that appear in the stone due to typical wear and tear. Using a scraping-like motion, this technique essentially files the stone’s surface to dull out these white spots, with Huff mentioning that “I can only take bruises down before it gets deeper.”
“I’m sure the original owners would’ve been happy it will be enjoyed,” said Lattimer, who learned about Huff’s treatment of the puzzling sculpture through Central Current’s reporting.
With Huff recently completing his minor restoration work, Lyons revealed that they’re ready to store the stone carving inside the arena’s main lobby showcase collection. A mirror may be installed in the back of the case to highlight the imagery of the Mohawk clans and “hopefully that will enhance the display,” according to Lyons.
Although the sculptor’s identity still remains an unsolved mystery, master carver Huff insisted that the Mohawk man made of alabaster, who sits as a motionless monument to the Creator’s Game, is welcome to stay after being guided by “fate and destiny” to reach the Haudenosaunee homelands.
“It surely came back to the right territory,” said Huff. “It came back to the right place, the right people.”
Land, life and language: The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is a greeting of gratitude to honor all that’s left
It’s a greeting of gratitude, not just giving thanks once a year, but each and every day. Even today, Haudenosaunee peoples from across the Confederacy still honor that tradition without any hesitation by extending gratitude to the natural world for all that remains, including land, life, and language.