When the Olympic torch is lit, Akwesasne will be there

By Christine Graef
Akwesasne, Ontario (NFIC) 11-09

Youth Flame Attendant
Aronhiaies Herne with
members of the Akwesasne
Olympic Torch Committee

When the torch is lit before the XXI Olympic Winter Games begin in Vancouver on February 12, the hearts of Akwesasne Mohawk will be thinking of three men from their community who guided and protected its journey there.

Elder and faithkeeper Howard Iothore Thompson will greet the flame when it reaches the Kahwehnoke, also called Cornwall Island. Mike Benedict Jr. will be the community torchbearer. Aronhiaies (Sky Striker) Herne, a 23-year-old Bear Clan Mohawk was selected as one of 11 Aboriginal youths to run with the Olympic Flame on its three shifts across the 45,000 kilometers across Canada.

Of these 11, Herne is one of two chosen to travel to Greece to safeguard the flame as it makes its trip to Canada. Herne’s journey as a flame attendant began as he boarded a 6 a.m. flight on Tuesday, Oct. 27 to travel to Greece for three weeks.

“He’s the youngest sub-chief in this generation,” said Tim “Dooley” Thompson. Chair of the Akwesasne Olympic Torch Organizing Committee. “He’s become a role model in our community in many different facets of life.  Aronhiaies has volunteered his own time to teach, for example the creation story, which can take a whole day. He’s an ambassador not only for Akwesasne, but for the Haudenosaunee (Confederacy) as well.”

In November 2008 Akwesasne learned that it was selected as one of 119 Aboriginal Route Communities for the 106-day Olympic Torch Relay leading to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Community leaders, educators and community members formed the Akwesasne Torchbearer Selection Committee to consider individuals nominated by the community for their service to the community, athletic achievements and their commitment to basic moral principles. The Committee noted Herne’s traditional upbringing has taught him from a young age to make decisions that are based on what is best for the community.

Aronhiaies Herne,
a 23-year-old
condoled Sub-Chief
for the Mohawk Nation

“I’m honored to be chosen for such a position,” said Herne. “I wouldn’t be able to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event without the support of my family. I want to express my appreciation to them and to the community for allowing me to represent Akwesasne as a Flame Attendant in the Olympic Torch Relay.”

Herne has been in training for the past two months. Traveling to Vancouver, he’s met with 1,000 other people from all four corners of the earth all working in the same mind to bring this together.

“I changed everything about my life so I could be ready,” said Herne.

The 11 who qualified were required to run 10 kilometers in under 50 minutes. Herne was in the upper three.

“Based on our performance, we were given more responsibilities,” he said.

All three Akwesasne Councils – the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, St. Regis Tribe and Mohawk Nation Council – “have been phenomenal in providing the financing I need,” he said.

The flame is expected to touch 90 percent of the Canadian population as it journeys to Vancouver and stops 200 meters from the opening ceremonies.. It’s the longest domestic relay in the event’s history.

The run will be broken into three shifts. Herne run will accompany the flame and its carriers from Nova Scotia to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

“He is a remarkable young man,” said Janique Odjick, President of the Boys & Girls Club. “His dedication makes him the perfect candidate to carry the flame.”


Herne has worked as the Cultural Program Coordinator at the Akwesanse Boys & Girls Club for the past two years. He is a Mohawk language and cultural preservationist for the community. He was a Grade Four teacher at the Akwesasene Freedom School for four years, where he continues to volunteer his time to teach Mohawk students in social and ceremonial songs

Herne was originally nominated as a community torchbearer by his wife, Kaienthokwas, and was nominated as an Aboriginal Youth Flame Attendant by the Akwesasne Olympic Torch Organizing Committee. Both nominations were based on Herne’s life-long pursuit of promoting language and culture, as well as his athletic achievements and contributions to Akwesasne.

He played for the Junior B Akwesasne Wolves hockey team in the Eastern Ontario Junior League for three years and was named the team’s most valuable player in the 2006-2007season. He’ll be continuing his experience in hockey as the team’s assistant coach in the upcoming season. Off-season, he plays lacrosse for the Cornwall Island Redman in the Senior B Lacrosse League.

“I hope this opens the door to Aboriginal people across the world,” Herne said of his role in the Olympic Relay.

Mike Benedict Jr. was nominated to best represent his community’s achievements and dreams and chosen to be one of the 119 torchbearers to carry the flame along a route in their First Nations communities.

Benedict is well-known in the community for excelling in sports as a player, coach and referee. He was on the hockey team that won the New York State Championship in his senior year of high school and traveled to play in Sweden and Finland. Benedict has been named to several All-Star Teams. He’s played in England for the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team and began his professional lacrosse career in 1995 in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League with his team winning the World Lacrosse Championship in 1997.

Benedict will attend the ceremony for the flame given by the firekeeper when the torch arrives in Akwesasne on December 14. Firekeepers traditionally play an honored dual role in Aboriginal ceremonies with keeping fires burning and teaching the spiritual meanings of the fire.

There will be 119 firekeepers for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch Relay. In Akwesasne, Mohawk elder Howard Iothore Thompson, a condoled chief for the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, will welcome the Olympic Flame on behalf of the Mohawk people.

The Olympic flame began the relay when it was lit in Greece on October 22 by a Holy Priestess in front of the Temple of Hera in Olympia. In tradition, she held a parabolic mirror to use the sun’s rays to ignite the torch then handed it to the first runner. 

After  being met in Akwesasne, the torch will be escorted to the Akwesasne Anowarakowa Arena where a pow-wow, speakers and a video of the Torch Relay will welcome celebrants of the tradition.

The Olympic Games originated as festivals at Olympia, Greece to offer honor to the gods and to ready the men with skills for battle. Hosted in four year cycles, messengers would be sent throughout Greece to call a “sacred truce” to halt all war for about three months. The games were suppressed in the fourth century as religion was imposed. In April 1896, the first modern Olympic games were held in Athens with 13 nations. In 1900 women competed for the first time.