Montreal pays tribute to Mohawk culture with holiday light display

Lights adorning a busy downtown street in Montreal are educating pedestrians and motorists on an important lesson in Indigenous culture.

Normally decorated with holiday lights, Montreal’s Peel Street is illuminated this winter by the designs of three clans in the Kanien’kehá:ka, or Mohawk, nation.

The lights depict the images of the bear, wolf and turtle clans. Each are a social, cultural and political representation of what it means to be Kanien’kehá:ka. The city is showcasing the light display from mid-November and extending it beyond the holidays until mid-February.

“It’s an honour to see them here, depicted in the city of Montreal where our ancestors had a foothold here,” said Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, council Chief for the Kahnawake community involved with the project.

Each animal represents a sacred meaning: the turtle is a symbol of longevity and perseverance, the wolf is a symbol of loyalty and the bear symbolizes strength.

ISM Art & Design’s art display is not only inspired by Montreal’s historical significance, but also by the discovery of 14th-century archaeological Iroquois artifacts unearthed under the intersection of Peel St. and Sherbrooke St.

Thousands of artifacts, mostly pottery that date around 1375, were discovered during an excavation of the downtown streets in 2018. Archaeologists also discovered a tooth from a beluga whale. 

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KORLCC) partnered with the City of Montreal for the project.

“For us it’s important because it’s not just Christmas lights, right? It’s something more, it allows everyone to know more about Montreal,” said Cristina D’Arienzo of the Downtown Montreal Businesses Improvement Association.

The art display is also a sign of resiliency and a positive way to acknowledge Indigenous life in Quebec’s largest city.

“It’s a step in the direction of reconciliation and understanding that as Indigenous people, we’ve been here since time immemorial and just to have that recognition of the fact that we’re still here,” said Sky-Deer.

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