Michael K. Mitchell: A History of the Akwesasne Mohawk

Native Nation Building: Governance and Development undergraduate course

Grand Chief Michael Mitchell of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne offers students a broad overview of the governance history of the Akwesasne Mohawk and the efforts his people have made during his time in office to exercise true self-governance and rebuild their nation.

Resource Type

Mitchell, Michael K. "A History of the Akwesasne Mohawk." Native Nation Building: Governance and Development undergraduate course (faculty: Dr. Ian Record). American Indian Studies program, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 31, 2008. Presentation.

Michael K. Mitchell:

"[Mohawk language] What I said in my language is it's an honor to be here and I'm very nervous anytime I stand before a class that seem to be at the university level that have garnered so much knowledge from books that I don't quite know how I could relate, but I'm going to try.

I come from a territory that got dissected by the U.S./Canadian border. Half of Akwesasne is located in upstate New York and the other half is in Canada. Three quarters of what's in Canada is in the Province of Quebec and a quarter of it is in the Province of Ontario. So we have five jurisdictions on the outside perimeters of our reservation.

As I'm going along, I may be asking you some questions because I'm working on almost like an autobiography of my upbringing and political experience and a question I have is if any of you already know, what year did the American war of Independence end? Does anybody know? I should have you on Jay Leno. In the late 1700s, right? Because later on, it lead into the War of 1812, but around that time was when they put the international border. And for some reason it split our Mohawk community in half. So part of us became Americans and the other part Canadians. So you have brothers and sisters, one's American and one's Canadian at least by the standards on the outside.

We always consider ourselves to be nation members and citizens of the Mohawk Nation. And I don't know how much you would learn about the Iroquois in your American Indian studies but the Mohawks are part of the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations. And the nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy are the Mohawk, the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Senecas and Tuscaroras. At the time, what we called the 13 Fires or the 13 Colonies, when Europeans were starting to settle in North America [want to break for a minute?] they met and got permission from the Iroquois Confederacy and established relationships with the Haudenosaunee as to where European settlers would take up residence. It started with the Dutch, Germans and later the English and each group that came, each group of settlers that came made treaties with the Iroquois.

Now in making these agreements there was one particular agreement that we know very well that was made in Albany, New York. It was called the two-row wampum because our people recorded our history in wampum belts. And this is a story that our people talk about in our earliest relations with European settlers. There was a belt that had two rows and our elders said that at that time it signified two ships, two vessels. One was a ship and one was a canoe and what they told the European settlers is that, "˜On this ship you came to this land to escape from religious prosecution, from not being able to practice your governments the way you would want to be represented and so in this land we're going to give you that freedom to do so, speak your language, practice your traditions, your culture, everything that you would like to be as a people will remain on that ship and in our canoe will be the same thing. Our governance, systems of government, our languages, our cultures, our traditions, our ceremonies, our religious beliefs will be in our canoe and they will go down the river of life together in parallel. I will never make laws, my nation will never make laws for your people and you will never do the same with us.' So it was that kind of a relationship. "˜But throughout time, we'll always be there to help you.' And as it was in the earliest times, Europeans were not aware of their surroundings, they were not aware of the many types of foods that they could cultivate and eat. So the Native Americans were the first ones to show them, the first time that they would ever have experienced squash, pumpkin, corn, beans and down the line, as well as medicines. In this exchange, Europeans showed them how to hunt, utensils, farming equipment, etc., so there was this exchange.

Anyway, in those days where they came from they told a story about being ruled by kings and queens, nobles, barons and peasants, religious prosecutions. So one of the earliest historical leaders in this country was Benjamin Franklin and in his earliest writings he talked about sitting at the council fire of the Iroquois and he watched how they governed their people, for it was something drastically different than what he was accustomed to and he invited others to come and observe when nations got together and talked about governance.

Their leaders were called [Mohawk language], chiefs. And contrary to the way politics are run today for both of us, because I'm an elected leader, usually have a term of three to five years. But in those days a Native American chief would be put up by the women of his nation. We all had our own clans. I belong to the Wolf clan. Among the Mohawks there's three major clans, the Wolf, Turtle and Bear. And so it would be the women of that nation is was said that would watch men form the time they crawl on the ground to the time they walk to the time they hunt to the time they marry, the women of that nation would know and judge the character of a man; how he provides, how he related, how he conducted himself as a human being, as a family person. If he was a good hunter, if he was a good speaker, if he knew ceremonial, cultural things that belonged to his nation, then they knew he would be a good leader. And so he didn't have to make promises to say, "˜I want to be a chief.' The women already had made up their mind that he would be a good leader.

And so when they picked a man to be the chief, the women had a fair notion what would make for a good leader and in them days, and we still have that system of governance today, a man had three chances in his lifetime, in his adult life, in his leadership life to be a good leader. If he did something against what would harm the people of his nation, the women would come to see him three times and straighten it out. He would have three chances to retain his chieftainship. And on the third time, they would have a head warrior with them to take his title away. It was considered a disgrace if a chief ever had to have his title taken away.

And with our tradition, a man who was a chief was given a headdress that had deer antlers and he carried that, he wore that in council meetings and in ceremonies and important events when they met with other nations. And so that symbol of office, if there ever came a time that he would be removed from office, there was a term called "˜de-horning a chief.' They would take his title away by taking his antlers away from him. He would never be recognized as a leader again ever in his lifetime. And so that was the system of governance for us. Then European governments came and said, "˜We have a better system.' And I'm going to talk about my experiences on the Canadian side, but there's parallels on both sides.

In Canada in 1867, they created a federal legislation called the Indian Act. It had three major objectives or principles. One was to Christianize the Indian nations, make farmers out of them, and educate them; what they call educating the Indian-ness out of them, make them non-Indians. And so they set up these residential schools. They would round up all the Native kids off their territories, send them hundreds of miles away in a church-run school and those kids wouldn't see their parents until eight, ten years later they would be allowed to come home. That was a system that ran and stopped probably around 1971, '73, they started closing off the so-called residential schools in Canada.

Did it work? Many times it did, for our people returned home strangers, no language any longer, no awareness of their customs and traditions, cultural values, can't speak the language, but they were educated. And the thing that happened with many is that they were lost. They couldn't mingle with their people, associate with them, but they couldn't survive in the cities, outside the reservations because now they had lost something very important, their spirit as Native Americans. So for many to get home, they had to relearn or get re-educated as to who they were. The churches played a strong part de-Indianizing of our people because all these schools were run by religious institutions.

Some significant things that happened is that when they started catching on as to the effects of residential schools in that just under a hundred years in Canada, is that suicide rates, social conditions prevailed on the majority of people who came out of residential schools. Suicide rates are high. In Canada there's 30 million people, population in the country. We form the majority of the prison populations in Canada because one other factor that was crucially important, alcohol wasn't meant for our people to touch. In the time that they drank they became...they lost their memory, they committed a crime, they killed somebody, they robbed something that would land them in prison, lifetime, 20 years. And so that became a big social impact in our development, progress as people.

We are now starting to realize the consequences because the values that we were taught as Native Americans, as Mohawks in nation for us, the virtue of what makes for a good person was in our cultural teachings, and when they took that away from us and tried to make us into something else, we couldn't adjust there, either. And so in Akwesasne, those that are on the Canadian side wound up in a school strange enough called 'Spanish.' On the American side they wound up in a residential school, which escapes me for the minute. Anybody ever hear of Jim Thorpe? What school did he go to? Carlisle [Indian School], that was the school where they sent our people on the American side, and a lot of our elders went to school with Jim Thorpe.

So they would return home. Now there are some people that use their education and they did make something of themselves but in between that was a sad story. So those of us that got an education within our community, there was a fight all the way through. I was raised by my grandparents and they gave me the cultural teachings, the language, ceremonial songs, what makes for a good person. Many of the stories of the nations that I find myself now being an elder in a community of sorts and as strange as it is, the governance that I told you a little earlier about how people get put up, my mother is a clan mother and they are the ones who put up leaders. And so I would say from the time I was small being raised that I had retained all these teachings that I was going to be a traditional chief, where the women would put you in office.

In the 1970s to "˜80s in our community, there was always turmoil between the elected leaders and the traditional people. And then for us there was elected leaders on the Canadian side and there's elected leaders on the American side and there was the Mohawk Nation traditional chiefs. So if it wasn't bad enough to have five governments on the outside, we had three inside the reservation. And like the Hatfields and McCoys, the elected leaders were usually the Christian leaders and the traditional chiefs were people who they called them the Long House people. They were the people who maintained the ceremonies, the language and the customs and traditions and they adhere to a traditional form of governance as I had told you.

Anyway, as in any society when they don't get along there would be skirmishes. So the nation people said, "˜We want to find a way to exchange our cultures in the event that maybe we could make for a better world in the next generation. So we're going to exchange some of our people.' So they send me over to the elected side and in 1982 I became, I was elected as a chief in the elected system and at that time I was probably the first one. We were referred to as pagans because we weren't Christian and the church taught them that if you're not a Christian you must be a pagan. So that was a very catchy name on council by my peers, to have a pagan chief. Not that I really knew much about it, so it didn't really bother me. But as I later found out, some cruel things. The priest in our reservation was a Mohawk from another reservation and so when you get somebody believing in something really hard, they espoused a lot of hatred and that existed in my time growing up. If you weren't a Christian Mohawk, then you were something of a lower class. My duty and responsibility was not only to be a good leader, but to change that whole image and that whole attitude of what makes for a good Mohawk person.

So two years later...they've only got two-year terms; we had another election. In that time, I looked at our elected governance, chief and council, the way they conducted their business. They didn't have any public meetings, they didn't show the community any of the minutes of their meetings so they know how much education dollars, how much housing dollars and welfare and house...so it was all like a big mystery. And usually it's a favorite; some people get catered to. If you elect a person and you represent so many of a large family, you're looked after. If they didn't think that you were supporting particular people on council, you didn't kind of work your way up the ladder.

So it was that kind of governance I wasn't really used to. So I started taking minutes of our meetings and I would show them around. Finally I did a small newspaper, I would ship them out into the community. I became very well versed on information that had to get into the community. So I took it upon myself -- because that was my tradition -- to take this information and provide it to the community. Now for some reason, the community liked having this information even though I was traditional and the next year they wanted me to become the Grand Chief of the reservation.

Now I'm going to go back a little bit. The first time I went for elections and I was put up, our traditional people don't vote. So I had to get elected by the other side. I still don't know how that happened, but it did and I got in. So the second time around when I competed for the Grand Chief position, a Grand Chief is elected among the general populace. A District Chief is elected from his own area. So I thought I was safe there. And to jump in that short time was a little difficult...and it was rough for somebody that came from the traditional side of the community. I got beat up going to work. The office that I had was occupied by protestors who didn't believe that the Grand Chief should be traditional. My life was threatened. And so it didn't kind of work out at the beginning, but if you have a thing in your mind that you want to try to govern, I had to mix my upbringing into my politics. So I found different avenues, different venues where I would get information to the community, "˜This is our situation.' And as I'm trying to fight off my opponents, I also had to fight off the governments on the outside. So I got together with the chiefs and we had some sessions, normally like you would anywhere else where you decide to get everything out in the open. And I convinced them that we're here for the same reasons -- to have effective governance.

Don't forget about the Indian Act that I told you, because not that long ago in our community the Indian agent ran everything. He controlled the chief and council, told them how to vote, what is the important issues and how they should govern, how they should make decisions. When I was coming out of high school was the last few days of the Indian agent was around in our reservation but the effects, government policy, everything was decided in Ottawa. If the chief and council made a decision about something, whether it's a school or a health facility, anything that would benefit the community, you had to ask for permission through the Department of Indian Affairs and they would let you know if you could do it. I was very much opposed to not having the community be the ones who decide on issues and I advocated that the people had to get involved.

Now we live on a reservation as I told you that's half in Canada, half in the States. For me to come from Cornwall Island, Ontario, I have to cross through the customs to the American side of the reservation to get to St. Regis, Quebec. If I have to go to Snye, I have to go back to the American side and get back into Quebec. So every day I'm going through borders. And when we had problems crossing borders, I convinced the community that we should stand up for ourselves. After a few meetings we got people worked up, we shut down the international bridge; fifty of us went to jail. But that was the first time in "˜70s that in Canada people started, Native people started organizing themselves, speaking up for themselves, and that was the time that changes started to happen. Then we started getting in touch with our brothers on the American side.

One of the things that happened, we affected government policy. I convinced Ottawa to allow us to hire our own people because they had non-Native coming on the reservation to be our education director, to take notes in terms of social programs, to take health information back and statistics that they kept and nobody really was comfortable with that kind of relationship. In the space of two years, I was able to convince the governments on the outside to allow young people who were coming out of colleges and universities to come home and work for us, stay home. They became our administrators, they became our teachers, they became our police people, our conservation, environment...we had jobs of all kinds, but they weren't really our people that were working there. So that was the changes that came about in the "˜80s. As the changes started to happen, confidence came back to our people, that confidence and tradition.

There's something important I left out, an event that happened in 1984, which was just as I was starting my second term, my first term as Grand Chief. The Pope came to Canada and he had asked the bishops that... he was tired of the churches in U.S. and Canada every time a figure like that would come around they would dress up the Indians, put the war bonnets on and put them on horses just the way you see them in cowboy and Indian movies. That was the perception. So as easterners we were not very much aware of the prairie Indians, they still would put western headdresses on our elders and parade them around. Well, the Pope that we had passed away just a few years ago, Pope John Paul. He didn't want that. He said, "˜I want to see real people. I want to see them how they do their spiritual practices, I want to experience it.' So the priests on my reservation wrote to them and said, "˜We just elected a pagan over here so I'll send his name up.' And I got a call from the Vatican and they said, "˜Would you be interested in putting a ceremony on for the Pope?' And I agreed. I went back to the Long House and I told them what had been requested and in their wisdom they said, "˜Maybe it would make for better relations because as long as they don't understand they've got hatred in their hearts.' And so we put together a small group. We went to Midland, Ontario to do this ceremony for the Pope.

When I got there, just imagine what it must have been in Woodstock when they had this great big celebration over there, change it around, the Pope was the main attraction but there were about I'd say 70,000, 80,000 people in these foothills, cameras, everything was broadcast worldwide. And this event that he was trying to pursue was one that he was pushing for all religions to have greater tolerance and understanding of each other. And this one mission that he had in North America was to understand the Native spiritual practices better. And so I worked with the Ojibwes and the Crees in Canada with the Mohawks to put together this ceremony. And we put together a healing ceremony that consisted of smudging, sweet grass, sage and tobacco, the three main things that we use to conduct our ceremonies. I'm a singer. I sang with a group of other young guys. And so the whole event was televised and when it come up to putting the words to him and singing and putting him through the ceremonies, the Pope started to have tears come down. And when we got done and everything was translated to him what we were saying, I knew that it had a profound effect on him.

So when it was over, and by the way about 500 perhaps maybe more than that of the same people that called us down and called us pagans were in the audience out there somewhere. I know because I put buses on to get them there and I paid for their gas as chief so I know somewhere they're out there. And it was slightly uncomfortable because they said, "˜Well, now that we've got a pagan chief we know we have to go out there. The previous chief would have given us money.' Well, I did give them money and I put buses on and I helped them get there so I knew somewhere they were in the audience.

But what happened that day was, the speech that he gave at the end of the ceremony where he said, "˜The European people that came across the salt waters, the religious, the churches that came across believed that the Native Americans in this country were godless, soulless people and ever since then we have advocated to everyone that the only one way they would be human beings if they became Christians.' Then he put down his papers and he looked right at them and he said, "˜That was wrong. For I have experienced a religious experience from these people that I want to talk about.' He proceeded to lay everything out for them saying, "˜The churches have been wrong. The White man has been wrong,' he says, "˜to even have thinking that you've got to be like us.' Then he talked about the residential schools, talked about the education systems. By the time he got done, he offered an apology on behalf of the Church. And then he told everybody, he said, "˜I know there were ways that you have shown the distaste of your own practices. I'm going to ask you to go home, incorporate your traditional teachings in the Church.' And from that time on for me life became easier because the protest, the occupations, the beating have stopped and I was given a chance to govern.

We went to the churches, me for the first time, to give talks like this about peace and brotherhood, because for me in my upbringing we also had a spiritual leader. He had a name, referred to as [Mohawk language] but we only refer to him as the Peacemaker because with him he came to our people like close to a thousand years ago at a time when there was warfare going on between nations. And he advocated the great peace, the Great Law of Peace where people would put away their weapons and always find a way in whatever you do advocate a more peaceful way to live. Now you also had in the Great Law of Peace the constitution and that constitution advocated fairness in representation, fairness in governance. The people were the ones who made decisions and put their leaders up more to be like servants and so [Mohawk language], a chief was really a person who followed the wishes of his Nation. And this is when I was telling about women wound up being the ones who elected their leaders. Very interesting concept: five nations in unity governing on the basis of peace on the law that was known as the Great Law of Peace.

This was the meetings that Benjamin Franklin sat in and he brought his people along to say, "˜Look at these people making decisions and look at the way they govern and the way they advocate their governance, is that they would find a way to speak, counsel, make decisions all on the basis of peace.' And so they influenced the Constitution of the United States. I offer you these tidbits of information because I know you're going to go back and check, where did this all occur. Well, today it's pretty well a foregone conclusion that these events did happen and that there were these early influences, but with us when governments met and they came to a decision, nations would have to all unanimously agree. That's something that Benjamin Franklin said, "˜My people cannot ever do.' So they opted out for majority decision. So that was the difference in our lifestyle back home in governance.

In my time, I tried to cooperate a combination of our traditional cultural practices in a modern elected governance system. And that law called the Indian Act in Canada, I opted out of the provisions of that so that I could replace it with some strong, Mohawk-flavored governance models; giving the power back to the people. That's why in 1982, '84 I was asked by the elders to consider being a chief maybe for a term or two just so that they could turn things around and maybe politics would get a little better. And as I said a while ago, in 2006 the second time that I retired, people kept putting me back in office and they always said, "˜For one more term, until we can find and develop new leaders that will take your place.' And I began to find myself stuck to a position that I was only supposed to be there on a temporary basis. Now mind you, the excitement of governing, the challenge of representing and serving your people is a fire that is always going to be ignited inside you if you're a leader. And so I agreed to keep going.

Now I serve on the advisory board for the Native Nations Institute, but I also serve in advisory capacity to many other developments, both American and Canadian, Native American leaders. Offer them advice based on many years of experience. I wasn't...I'm not going to lie to you, it wasn't always a peaceful leadership style based on peace. When I talked about shutting down international roads and bridges, took over islands but just to get people involved in a non-violent way without guns, without clubs, but simply assert yourself. And so I started doing this across Canada and people rose and life is better when you can speak for yourself and nations can speak out. And that was a time for us that led up to 2006 when I finally made my decision to pursue a private life, more or less. Elections are coming around back home next year and they said, "˜You had enough rest. You should consider coming back.'

Well, presently I'm working on my book. Basically I made a very fast cut through of my experiences but in more greater detail of events that happened in the United States with Indian Country, events that happened in Canada, because I offer certain parallels that are very distinguishable. But my survival in politics led to my knowing my traditions and my culture and my language, taking the best of the non-Native world and combining it, pushed education a lot but the social conditions in our community has improved. But being on that border, we got famous for something else. I don't know if you can guess at it but whenever there's a border there, what's likely to happen? Anybody take a guess? Smuggling took place and in a big way because we've got 100 miles of the St. Lawrence River of islands and in the dark of night, our people know that territory inside out. And so it started with cigarettes. Canadian companies, cigarette manufacturers would reroute their cigarettes from Buffalo, New York to Pennsylvania to New Jersey to Boston and make a big circle and then would bring them back in and they were using our people to bring them across the border. It wasn't long before people caught on and they started doing their own smuggling. It's still going on. So I had that to contend with. Pretty soon motorcycle gangs called the Hells Angels in Montreal started, "˜Hey, there's a profit to be made here,' so they started enticing people to bring drugs across. And then when that started, some of that drug stayed in the community. So for us it was always an ongoing battle.

When 9/11 happened, and if some of you have a good memory CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC all had giant screens with a map of Akwesasne saying, "˜Those terrorists came through that Indian reservation.' For two weeks that was going on. They were reporting that it had to be this complicated, unique Native community where they might have come through. The more they talked about it, the more they convinced themselves that that in fact happened. It wasn't until maybe two, three weeks later that they found out they didn't come through there, that they were in fact in the country. I was Grand Chief at the time and you will not know your gut, the heart, what it felt like thinking they crossed and killed so many people because of this border. And it's a border that much unlike...I went to visit the Tohono O'odham Nation here. Their reservation is the same way. Part of it is in the United States, part of it is in Mexico and they've got 85 miles of nation territory they have to watch over. People are coming over, but not to the extreme or as dangerous as people coming from Canada into the States because they have one thing in mind, smuggle something over. So now our concerns is explosives, guns, terrorism types, finding a way through our reservation.

So that became the greatest concern. So we made up our own border patrol program. We added to our police force. Now we work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs, State Troopers and it's a program called IBET [Integrated Border Enforcement Teams], integrated policing. And that's becoming another big part of our reputation, coincide with the smuggling concern.

But all in all, you advocate to your young people, "˜Go to school, get an education, seek something out that you want to be but come back home.' And that thing that started in the 1980s is still going on today. And so I've just given you a very fast run-through of what life is like for where I come from. I don't know how much of it you can digest in a short time, but you invited me here to talk a little bit about where you're from and what you do or what you were doing and that's the story of Akwesasne. By the way, Akwesasne in Mohawk means "˜land where the partridge drums,' and at the earliest times along the St. Lawrence you still see quite a few, I guess you call them grouse, partridges, from that family, very prevalent on the St. Lawrence. And they call our place the home of the partridges. Anyway, that's my story."

Ian Record:

"I've got a question about...you mentioned just now the jurisdictional agreements you have around law enforcement to try to control the smuggling and all that. I've had conversations with you before where you talked about the kind of early origins of when Akwesasne started really asserting their jurisdiction back over their own territory and I wonder if you could talk about that, because at least originally Canada and the provinces and even the states weren't too approving of that, were they?"

Michael K. Mitchell:

"That's right. On the Canadian side the Mounties enforce...Royal Canadian Mounted Police enforce the federal law and the Provincial Police, Ontario Provincial Police and the Quebec Provincial Police enforce the provincial laws. That was on the river and on the mainland. And they enforced the Criminal Code of Canada. And so as complicated as our territory is there was no room...we had a Native police force but they weren't giving them any respect. As a matter of fact there's a term I still remember. They called them "˜window dressing cops.' If they won't let you do anything but they were still complaining that they weren't arresting our people on driving intoxicated or speeding. They didn't keep up their quota so they had a very narrow definition of what makes for a good peacekeeper. And when I became chief, I wanted to see that change. But I found nowhere where that would happen. They had everything cornered off.

As a matter of fact, the time that I became chief our people were being arrested on the river for fishing, traditional fishing whenever they would net and have enough for their families, put away... The laws on the outside said, "˜You can't do that anymore.' So they started taking the boats, the motors, the nets, confiscating, making seizures. So when I became chief, our people came to me and said, "˜What has changed so much that we can't practice our traditions any longer?'

Well, I went to see the person who was the...the officer who was making these seizures on the river, in the middle of the river. I stopped him with a few other boats that were traveling with me, let's put it that way, and as nicely as I was talking to him asking him, "˜We don't need provincial, federal license to fish. It's in our treaties.' He says, "˜That's in the past. From now on you will learn to get a provincial license.' So I says, "˜But we don't have to.' And I was diplomatically I was trying to be...he was just squashing, didn't care about it. So I took it to the next level and I said, "˜Look, sir, if you don't tell us where the boats are that I can go get them, I might have to take your boat.' He just laughed. As soon as I give the signal, our guys are waiting, they shut the motor off and took his equipment out, tied a rope and we towed his boat back to St. Regis to the police station and we seized the conservation officer's boat.

When I got back, then I phoned Toronto, the main office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and told them what I had done and actually they said, "˜This could be an international situation, crisis of sorts so what can we do?' I said, "˜I guess we have to negotiate the release of our boats, half a dozen of them.' They just had elections in Ontario so there was new people there and they said, "˜Well, that man, the officer, is he a hostage, are you holding him in a hostage situation?' I said, "˜No. I'm holding his boat hostage.' "˜Well, is he allowed to go home?' I said, "˜Yep. If he can walk or swim, he can get back across the river, but the current is very strong, so he's going to stay here until we get our boat back.' So pretty well half the night we're negotiating back and forth. The Premiere gets on the phone, he says, "˜I want to put an end to this. I know you don't need fishing licenses to fish in your traditional territories. I'm well aware of that.' He says, "˜So I've got people looking for your boat.' As it wound up it was in Toronto. So he says, "˜We'll have them back by 9:00 in the morning.' So they returned all the boats. Naturally it helped my leadership because I was able to resolve the situation without any violence of sorts. And the same man that made these seizures was the same man that was made to bring them back the next day.

I wanted to see our own people become Conservation Officers so I went back to Quebec federal government in Ontario. "˜Nobody,' he says, "˜We never heard of that before.' Being an international community I picked up the phone, I phoned Albany, New York. They had a state troopers, conservation police training. I said, "˜Can I send some people down to be trained to become Conservation Officers?' They called back and said, "˜I don't see why not. These are dual citizens, you can do that.' So I sent two. Six months later they got home. They had the state trooper Stetson hats, 'Dirty Harry'-type .9 mm pistols, everything that's totally legally in Canada that's...they came back and they're certified police force and they hit the waters to start patrolling.

By that time we had set up our Mohawk Justice Court, we had laws that I had registered with the nation council and they started executing. And that raised in the community a perception that we could take care of ourselves, that we could have law and order and it could be done with our own people. And the attitude on the outside changed too. We didn't always have to be fighting each other. The right people came and the relationship led to us having more police under our jurisdiction, having our own justice, having our own courts and because I was able to diplomatically negotiate these things, it became a much better environment for us, on the river and on land.

I like being, talking about being a good strong advocate, a good leader, but some funny things happened along the way. Those two conservation officers that returned home, within that same week they were on patrol, they got a call from the island I was from and an incident had taken place. I'm in the main village with elders. We were talking about how we could build a new seniors' home for them and they walk in. So all the elders made a big fuss over them. "˜These are the people we've heard about. They've trained and now they're out there on the river, they're looking after our people and are giving out licenses for non-Natives and they're making them buy licenses from us. What a change! And they give them cookies and milk and everything.' They said, "˜We're really here to talk to the grand chief.' So I went over and said, "˜What's up?' He said, "˜Sir, there's been a murder on the island where you're from. We've investigated and found out that somebody in your family is involved and we need to talk to you outside.'

Geez, when you get news like that the first thing you do is boom, it hits you right here. Did somebody die in my family? Did something happen? Did somebody in my family do something? I went outside and he said, "˜There's a farmer up there who called us. We got there and found out that his pig had been killed. And the pig had piglets, six of them. They were all killed too.' And he said, "˜Chief, it was your dog that killed them. You're under arrest.' I said, "˜What?!' The first person on the reservation when they got back from training that was arrested was me and I tried to dispute it. I said, "˜Well, you got no evidence.' They had pictures. There was a trail of piglet parts down to my house, to my farm. Around the house, where he had dug up, there were piglet parts. I was raising an Alaskan malamute. So he was laying there, he had blood on his face; he had blood on his chest. They took pictures, a very thorough investigation. I had nothing I could say but the whole reservation was laughing up and down. "˜There's your conservation officers.' So they marched me across the street to the Justice and charged me and I had to go back for my hearing two weeks later.

In those two weeks, there was a lot of commotion, a lot of discussion "˜cause all I had to do was say, "˜Drop it,' or the elders would say, "˜Don't go there because how hard he's worked to get this program this far.' And people were either for or against. I went to court, I paid the fine and it was done. I said, "˜We have a very efficient peacekeeper and we all have to follow the law regardless who it is.' So that's how the law and order picked up in our community.

I just don't like telling this story but he heard it once and he always asks me about it. Anyway, thank you very much." 

Honoring Nations: Sovereignty Today: Q&A

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

The 2007 Honoring Nations symposium "Sovereignty Today" panel presenters as well as members of the Honoring Nations Board of Governors field questions from the audience and offer their thoughts on the state of tribal sovereignty today and the challenges that lie ahead.

Native Nations
Resource Type

"Sovereignty Today: Q&A." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Ethel Branch:

"Hi. Thank you all for speaking. It was really inspiring to hear all of your words. I guess my question is -- My name's Ethel Branch. I'm a student at the law school. I'm Navajo from Arizona. My question is, Indian policy, federal Indian policy has always suffered vicissitudes going back and forth from an era of termination, extermination, whatever, and switching to an era of revitalization, empowerment of tribes. We've been in self-determination for now over 30 years. Do you see a shift in the tide? What direction do you think the next era is going to go? If you could give insight on that, I'd really appreciate it. Thank you."

Floyd "Buck" Jourdain:

"Geez, I feel like Billy Madison up here. Anybody who's seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.

Self-governance. We're a self-governance tribe and we no longer have a BIA agent and all that, we deal directly with our appropriations through the tribe. And it's [an] experimental thing that several tribes took on, but we feel it's working to our advantage; we're using it in a good way. And one of the things that we notice with the non, the tribes that are still under the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] -- they do get preference over us, so we have to really fight and arm wrestle every year; appropriations, negotiations, hearings. And it's almost like sometimes there's a safety net there that we need to grow away from. Self-governance is a good thing if it's used in a good way, and it's used correctly, and you have good leadership, and people are really on top of it. I think we just need to pry away from that old era and get away from that. And if it doesn't happen, then you'll see tribes, kind of, falling back into that, which is a dangerous thing.

Like I talked about today, the climate. You talk about the energy push in America, George Bush and the big oil companies. One of the things that -- our tribal treasurer goes to D.C. and brings back these horror stories about, 'There's going to be another huge cut. The [Department of the] Interior and BIA is going to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.' And you have all these issues in your Indian community. You have methamphetamine, you have homelessness, you have poverty but, 'Hey, here's the answer to all your solutions! Let us come in and build a power plant on your lakeside and that will really help you guys out and get you out of this state.' So right now it's been rights of ways issues, those are huge -- people wanting to build power lines and roads across our land so they can -- tourism can explode and those types of things.

So I think that tribes need to really grasp it, emphasize self-governance, and really use it in a good way, and be aggressive with it. And I think that if more of them start moving in that direction you're going to see a lot of self-sufficient tribes out there doing some pretty good things."

James Ransom:

"I wanted to stand up. I know some of the people over here can't see us over here. I just had two comments on the question.

A trend that I see happening and which is real obvious is one, stay out of court. That cannot be overemphasized right now. Anything that gets to the Supreme Court is going to be an erosion of sovereignty. You can almost be guaranteed that.

What that tells us though is we need to refine our diplomacy skills and we need to negotiate solutions to issues on the local level, on a state level, on the federal level but in a way that is protective of our communities. And again, that talks about responsibility. We need to work on that and bring that back.

I think that's going to be the key to the future is exercising our responsibilities in ways that non-Natives -- the larger society -- can understand and appreciate."

Michael Thomas:

"I can only agree first of all with what's been said in terms of our own responsibilities and how we should not allow a perpetual federal trust responsibility to us to foster dependency. And frankly, the 30 years of the [Indian] Self-Determination Era has, in my mind, fostered as much dependency as self-determination. And frankly, I think that self-determination can be an excuse for modern governments to avoid their trust responsibility to each and every one of the people in our tribal communities. And so it's a balancing act. I think that we will see the lip service toward self-determination continue, but I think that you'll see the pendulum swing back and forth between whether these people are walking the walk or simply talking the talk.

As you watch the composition of our Supreme Court change, the advice about staying out of court becomes more and more relevant. And that is the kind of long-term pendulum swing that we as Indian people can appreciate but the average American cannot. The reality is, unless you are subject to those swings in constitutional interpretation, and Supreme Court composition, and federal Indian policy, and all the other things that create the storm of politics within which we must live, you're not going to get consistent outcomes.

And so that responsibility that both other tribal leaders here have emphasized is critical. Because it's a different approach to say 'They will never fully meet this trust responsibility, therefore we must...' than it is to simply cry over and over and over, 'Meet your trust responsibility, meet your trust...' We end up putting our people in a victim's position, when the reality is that we have all we need to protect and advance our people even in the absence of that fulfilled trust responsibility. I think an increasing recognition of this by tribal leaders can only lead us to good places."

Ben Nuvamsa:

"I'm very humbled to be here among you leaders. Thank you for your teachings and validation of what I also believe in. Chief Ransom, as you spoke, I feel like you were talking about us.

At Hopi, we're going through a tremendous change. I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that along with sovereignty comes responsibility and accountability, and if we can exercise that in the correct way -- hopefully we don't get to the point where somebody tells us what sovereignty means to us, like the Supreme Court. Our constitutions that we have adopted, the IRA constitution -- at Hopi we're very different because of our traditional ceremonies that we are very still actively involved in, in that -- and our values are much different than what an IRA constitution puts forth. And that really creates some problems for us, that we have two different cultures always conflicting with how we operate. And I think that in the situation that we're in, we need to go out and we need to re-evaluate that constitution. And many tribes have done that. I guess what I'm trying to say is that good, bad, or indifferent, however our constitutions are, we need to interpret those in our Hopi ways, in our tribal ways, what does that mean to us in our local customary practices. That's what's going to sustain us forever. I think that's where we're at.

I'm also very humbled to be with a group of our representatives here that are very knowledgeable in our tribal government. Mr. Kuwaninvaya has been on the council for a long time and I look to him for guidance. He's very astute about when we get into a debate at the council -- and he has this unique knack to put things in proper perspective, and he brings our traditional values, our knowledge, and interprets that debate into how we are supposed to be. And it seems like it really clarifies the whole debate. It's very simple. Go back to what Hopi is. Go back to what our beliefs are. And I think that's what sovereignty means to us is who we are as a people, and what our beliefs are, what our customs are. And we speak our language; our language is what sets us apart also. That is our sovereignty.

And so I just want to thank you for the thoughts. We also have certain principles that you talked about. Sumi'nangwa. Nami'nangwa. Kyavtsi. Respect for one another, coming together as one people, putting our heads together and working together. Those are principles and kind of visions that we have, high bars that we have to achieve. But I think that's the kind of a process that we're in right now and we'll need to get to that point. And I just want to thank you for your words of wisdom all of you."

Regis Pecos:

"Thank you for that, what I think is a really profound question. If we go back into the past and reflect upon that time of federal policies dealing with extermination, and where that moved to assimilation, and where that moved to termination, and then the more recent federal policy that defines this time as the era of self-determination, we really are at a critical juncture to be asking some very critical questions with regard to, 'What are we doing differently now, when we are in control, from those times when we weren't and we were critical of that subjection to those federal policies?' Because if we're not careful, I think that we potentially become our own worst enemies at this particular time and juncture in our journey through life.

I really think that this next wave, to answer your question, really is going to be a return to the core values. And that the definition of sovereignty is really going to come back to be defined, redefined, internally and outwardly. And I think part of the celebration, with something as profound as what we've heard all of today, are the incredible redefining of approaches that is coming from and dictated by our return to those principles and core values. I think in this next wave it's going to be part of a process and an evolution that is using the core values to redefine the strength of tribal governments, and the sovereignty and the power of our peoples to define, outwardly, the interrelations of intergovernmental relations, if you will, but defined for our purposes. So that, as we take a circle, and in it are the core values of our land, our language, our way of life, our people, our resources, our water, our air that sustains that spirit of living, to examine the way in which we either are making decisions with governance and our jurisprudence that moves us away from the core values or reinforces the core values; and where decisions are made that's moving us away, how we're contributing to make fragile that institutional framework that otherwise creates for an operation from a position of strength. And if all we're doing in this time of self-determination is simply replicating programs with no conscious thought about how the replication of programs is moving us further away from those core values or reinforcing core values, or the way in which economic development is viewed, to either be supportive and compatible with the core values or moving us away from the core values, and something as critical as education -- If we see education as the means and the process that was never intended for us, but how we find that to be necessary in developing our skills to deal with their external forces, to protect the internal workings of our nations, it becomes critical at this very point to really look at ways in which we strike a balance. And as our young people and our trust for the future are being schooled in the formal education institutions, we really have to be mindful in terms of what we're doing consciously in redefining our own blueprint for the teachings, from a cultural perspective, so that in the kind of challenges from this point forward, we really must operate from that position of strength, that is, articulating our relationships with other governments from those fundamental principles encompassed and defined by those core values.

So I think in this next wave, it's going to be about our redefining relationships with other governments based upon the articulation and the full utilization of the core values moving from within, outwardly, as it's never been done before. And if we're not approaching it in that way, the gaps are going to become greater and wider. And if language and culture is not the focus of what we do in creating the next generation of leaders, ask ourselves, 'Will they have any opportunity to argue the spirit of sovereignty from any other context or perspective?' Because when that happens we're going to be reduced to everything we don't want to be reduced to, as simply political subdivisions of someone else's sovereign governmental framework, different than what we want to do -- to come from within that context that sustains that spirit, that is defined by everything the Creator gave us and blessed us with, that sustains that spirit of living from a totally different perspective, which means that we have to create our own institutions. So that for all of us who've gone through the experience of a formal education, it doesn't take us to move back through a process of being reeducated in the principles of those core values.

So I think in this next wave, we have to be conscious about creating our own opportunities and institutions to strike the kind of balance that results in the kind of training that is necessary for young people to have that kind of balanced perspective, moving the core values as we define the way in which we're going to preserve that sustained spirit of living using those core values."

Michael Thomas:

"Definitely very well said. I would only add one piece, to what frankly, I don't think any of us could say better, which is that one of those core values we have to emphasize, in addition to that which separates us...is our foundation, our language, our culture, our values, the history, this dirt that we are from and of -- the interconnectedness value that we were all given as well is horribly underplayed. As important as all of those things that make us distinct tribal communities are, equally important are the things that bind us from one to the other, the interconnectedness value that every last one of us was taught by our elders is one that we don't walk often enough. It's an area where the way I say it to our council, it's an area where we are not matching our lips with our moccasins. It sounds wonderful, but to really emphasize the interconnectedness means that we would fight less within each of these tribal communities.

And frankly, I've never been to a tribal community, and I've visited several hundred in my life, that is startlingly different from another. As a matter of fact, when people come to Mashantucket, I tell them, 'Don't be confused by the cars and the houses. This is the res.' It might be a little bigger or a little prettier -- same issues, frankly. Wealth has intensified some of those community, social, cultural issues that we face. We're thankful to have the means to deal with those things, finally, but we've got to emphasize connectedness, because all of the other things bring us into our own individual boxes. And everything in this American culture is so individualized and so disconnected from anything, that what that value of 'the connectedness of all things' is one of the most important traditional values we should keep in mind and turn into the action that Regis articulated as well as anyone could. Thank you."

David Gipp:

"Regis, I think you summed up quite a few things today, at least from our perspective and from the tribal perspective, and where we're going hopefully. Let me jump to the next question. And it's a question for you, and other leaders, and everyone here, I think. And that's the question that our Assistant Secretary is posing and he's talking about modernizing the BIA. I don't know if you heard his remarks this morning. And I thought some of them made very good sense as compared to what I heard you say out in...which was the introduction of that thought. And I know you're running around the country trying to get ideas of what that means as well, at least that's what I hear. Comes that question, and that's part of what you have raised is, where are we going to go with this? And how are we going to deal with this? Because the immediate question is, now we have a new trust office that's been put in place, and it's supposedly doing all of these wonderful things for us in terms of managing our trust resources, and being accountable, and somebody mentioned the word transparency, and perhaps we'll see this someday from the U.S. government and truly see what they've been up to all these centuries. But the other issue is, what happens with the rest of the functions within the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Particularly as our tribal nations assume more of these, I'll just say, jurisdictional issues and more of the issues that relate to sovereignty and who and what we're all about. What happens to the government in the meantime, and the U.S. government? And what role does it play? And how will it play that role? And where do we put it in its place, if you will, as we talk about this new, if you will, evolution that's beginning to take place? And I think that's a very real question, because the government can surely be, as we know, stand in the way and create even more problems than it has in the past. Or it can be, indeed, potentially a partner, if we make it a partner. And how do we do that?"

Oren Lyons:

"Sovereignty is the act thereof. No more. No less. And it's a French word. It talks about kings. It talks about absolute monarchal power, absolute. That's what sovereignty comes from. But we came to understand it to mean control of your own future. When we talked this morning about the landing of our brothers here, and not too far away from right here, and they saw the Indian come standing out of the forest. And they looked at him and the word was, 'We'll never tame that man.' And all they ever saw was a free person. That's what they were looking at, was a free person. And that's what we all were at one time. And it's absolutely [certain] that we have to go back to our original teachings to move into the future because they're fundamental, they don't change. Principles don't change. Everything else changes, but principles do not. So as we move forward, we've changed as well. I would imagine that if we were to talk to our counterparts 200 years ago, if they walked in here, they wouldn't know who we were. They'd say, 'Well, whatever happened to our people?' We change. And 100 years or 200 years from now, we'd look at what's in the future and we'd say, 'Well, whatever happened to them?' But if you keep your principles, the main core principles, you can change all you want and nothing changes.

And so I think that it's true that there's going to be outside forces, this global warming is no joke. It's going to break economies. It's going to break world economies. They're just not going to be able to stand it. They're not going to be able to be spending all their money on wars and fighting because they're just going to be talking about survival. So commonality comes back. The discussion is about water, it's about land, it's about resources. When you talk about sovereignty in a contemporary sense, you're talking about jurisdiction. Who has jurisdiction on your land? And that will tell you how sovereign you are. And so jurisdiction is a very important discussion. How do you maintain that?

The courts have always been unfair but they're extremely unfair these days. I agree with you, it's a very difficult time. There's not been fairness in this country to us, there never has been. Racism is still here, it's still rampant, doesn't take much for it to come up. It does not take much for it to pop right up and look you in the face. So we're in a time, I guess, where we're going to see momentous changes. And so the spiritual strength that comes from our elders and comes from our nations and our old people, they always talk about the old people. I always remember Thomas Banyacya saying, 'Well, the old people said...' I always liked it when he said that because he was talking about our elders and how they instructed us and how they always looked after us. It was never a question about leadership then.

The problem with today's leadership in Indian Country is the system that doesn't allow you any continuity. You're there for two years, and then you have an election, and you fight each other for two years, and then you start again, and two years later you're -- it keeps you off balance. The traditional system, the old system, where the chiefs were there for life, I'm one of them. I've got 40 years on the bench, so to speak. I've seen a lot, talked to a lot of leaders (Nixon), most of them one time or another. Bob Bennett, I knew Bob. All of them actually -- how they had a short time, problematic time, but meantime back home, back home where we live, things remain kind of constant. You do what you can do, but I think the core values are just what we're going to depend on and we have to just get back to that. The ceremonies that Jim [James Ransom] was talking about as a guideline -- ceremony is what kept us going, ceremony is what makes us unique, it makes us different from everybody. If you were to ask who we are, we're the people who give thanks to the earth. That's who we are. And we do it all the time. And we still do it. It's important and we were told as long as you're doing it, you're going to survive. When you give it up, you won't. Simple as that.

So we're coming into times, hard times. We've had changes. On September 13th [2007] the United Nations adopted the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And for the first time in the history of this world they recognized us as peoples with an "s." We fought 30 years for that. Up to that point, we were populations. Populations don't have human rights. Peoples do. That's why we had such a problem. Well, 143 countries voted for us, four voted against us. We know who they were. But the question is why? The question is why? And you have to really inspect that for a reason. We know each other. We've been sometimes allies, sometimes antagonists, but we know each other very well, especially the Haudenosaunee. Those 13 colonies were about as close to Indian as you're ever going to get, Grand Council, the whole works, instructions from our chiefs, democracy. Democracy is from here. It didn't come from overseas. It was here all the time. We were all democratic.

And so we're coming to a crux and it's a tough one. We're involved in it because we're people; peoples, I should say. That was really a benchmark. Now the problems that we had in that final document, we'll be battling in the next 30 years I suppose, if we have 30 years. That's the question. This global warming is extremely fast, it's coming and it's coming faster than you will think. In 2000, we gave a speech at the UN and we warned them then. We warned them then. The ice is melting. It took them seven years to respond to that, but seven years lost. Time's a factor now. We really don't have the luxury of another 100 years. We're going to see stuff very quickly and we best be ready, as leaders, as responsible people. It's coming now. You can't be red, you can't be white, you can't be yellow, you can't be black. You're people, you're a species and the species is in dire trouble as a species. There's nobody in charge of our fate except ourselves. Human beings have their own fate in their hands and how they act is how it's going to be. So they're looking for instructions and right now the long-term thinking is coming forward and the values are coming forward -- our values. And I say that collectively, because I know we all have the same -- I know that. I've traveled into ceremonies all over the place. It's all the same. It doesn't matter what language. It's the same. That's going to come back again. Now whether we can survive, collectively, is going to be up to us. It's just going to be up to us. That's all. So leadership is now coming forward and I think Indian nations have that opportunity. And the stuff that we're doing right here is kind of what you would call getting in shape. You're getting in shape, flexing yourself, getting back to where we used to be, getting in shape for the big one.

And I'm just really pleased and honored for this collection of humanity: common people, common cause, and we have to work together for survival. That's the way it's going to be. Unity -- that's what the peacemaker said. Your strength is in unity. One arrow you can break, arrows bound together in a tight bundle is strength. That's what we're doing. We're binding the arrows, getting ready. We've got to take care of each other and help our brother. He's in a lot of trouble and when he's in trouble so are we. There's no way to run. You have only one Mother and when you make her mad you're in trouble. And that's where she is right now. You can't make war against your Mother and that's what's going on in this world, and not without a consequence. So I know next year, when we have the meeting again, there'll be more examples of our abilities and our strength and who we are. It's coming forward and I'm pleased to see that.

I just want to say one more thing about sovereignty. In May [2007], in Halifax, Canada, they played the World Games Box Lacrosse Championships, world championships. And Iroquois Nationals won all through the week and came into the semi-finals and we defeated the United States 14 to 4. And we moved in to play for the gold on a Sunday and we were defeated by Canada by one goal in overtime. And I would say bad call from the ref in there, too. But it was our flag, it was our anthem, and our nation and our boys and they did do well. [Thank you]."

Megan Hill:

"Thank you, Chief. I've been honored and humbled to have been in this room with so much wisdom."

Honoring Nations: James Ransom: Sovereignty Today

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Saint Regis Mohawk Chairman James Ransom provides his perspective on what sovereignty means today, and stresses the importance of using traditional Indigenous teachings in modern Native nation governance.

Resource Type

Ransom, James. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Megan Hill:

"Next, we're going to hear from Chief James Ransom from the St. Regis Mohawk. As we know, Akwesasne Freedom School is a 2005 [Honoring Nations] honoree. Chief."

James Ransom:

"Thank you. I wanted to thank you for the opportunity to speak, and it truly is an honor to be here. I wanted to recognize David Cole from our tribe's economic development staff. He is also here, and you had already met Elvera earlier. Just as introduction to myself, I've been on tribal council now for four years but I've been working for my community for 29 years in different capacities. Akwesasne is pretty unique. We're an international community, half in Canada and half in the United States. And I've been fortunate to work for the tribe, prior to becoming Chief, to also work for the Canadian Recognized Council, as well as to -- I've spent five years working for the Confederacy itself. So I've kind of had a unique life experience of seeing all of our governments in action in different capacities.

What I want to talk about is, to share with you my perspective on sovereignty first. I think that I view it as inherent, as either you have it or you don't. There is no gray area about it. Someone else can't give it to you, and I feel strongly that someone can't take it away from you. I think that the Supreme Court just doesn't get it. They can only suppress it, but it keeps coming back. I think it was [Justice John] Marshall, on the Supreme Court, that called us 'domestic dependent nations,' as you heard this morning. Tell that to, as you heard this morning, tell that to Israel, tell that to China, tell that to Australia, who are looking to us for help today. That's not dependent on anybody. I think that the key to why sovereignty can't be taken away from us is because it's about responsibility. It's about our responsibility to live in peace and harmony with each other. It's about our responsibility to live in peace and harmony with the natural world. As Oren [Lyons] said this morning, it is about our responsibility to ensure that there is going to be a seventh generation.

The one thing that I've learned over the years about it is that it can become the longest four-letter swear word that I know when somebody abuses it. Particularly when individuals defend inappropriate actions by hiding behind it, that's the danger for us. The other thing that I've learned is that if you don't exercise then you can be pretty certain that somebody is going to try to exercise it for you and to your detriment. I wanted to talk briefly about the origins of tribal sovereignty in particular, and I think that -- I've heard a lot of the presentations today -- and the common theme that I keep hearing, resonating, is we need to look inward, we need to look at our culture. And I think the same holds true for sovereignty, that's the key to it. And for the Haudenosaunee, in particular, and I think for all tribes and all nations, we need to turn to our traditional teachings to answer the questions about the origins of sovereignty. And I think that when you're talking about responsibilities that our ancestors knew their responsibilities long before sovereignty was even a word, and that they embodied these responsibilities in the traditional teachings.

For us, you can see it in some of our teachings, like the Thanksgiving address, like the two-row wampum treaty belt, and they serve today as valuable guides on how we should conduct our relationships with others. And when you look at your teachings, look at the principles that underlie them. For us, I think that these principles are based on simple, but powerful words that are just as practical today as they were hundreds and thousands of years ago. For example, in the two-row wampum, there's three principles. The first one is [Mohawk language], or peace, and peace requires action. It doesn't just happen. It means that we have to work at it to achieve it. It means we need to be communicating with each other, always working to maintain the peace. The second principle, we call it, [Mohawk language], or a good mind. And what that means is that we set aside our differences and instead we try to bring our minds together as one and focus on our common interests rather than our problems. The last principle is [Mohawk language], or strength. And strength arises when our words and our actions match. That's what integrity is, that's what ethical conduct is.

In terms of sovereignty today, I thought it was important to set that backdrop to talk about it today. In that, if we look at Indian Country, we are approaching an economic crossroads. Some are already there, some are fast approaching it, others have a ways to go. And I think that the message I try to give on that is that now, more than ever, we need to make sure our decisions are rooted in our traditional teachings. I think it can make the difference as to whether we control our decisions or whether our decisions control us.

I wanted to give Akwesasne as an example to try to convey the message. We've had more than our share of problems, we've had 100 years if not more of industrial pollution. We've seen the destruction of our traditional lifestyles. We have health problems today from this pollution that weren't there before. In terms of education, in the 1950s, we turned over the responsibility of educating our children to the state and the public school systems. Internally, we've struggled as a community. We've struggled in particular to come of one mind as a community.

As I said, we're one community that's international, but we've become a community divided, and it's more than just the border dividing us geographically. Today we have three Mohawk governments. I sit on the elected council on, quote, 'the American portion.' We have an equivalent Canadian federally recognized government on the northern portion of the community, and we have a traditional government, and we [have] a couple of others that are trying to claim to be governments as well. I think to say that we haven't always gotten along is to put it mildly -- anybody who knows our community. If we look at our surrounding area and our region, locally and regionally, we have similar stories to others. We've been marginalized over the years, we've been viewed as being irrelevant, unimportant. We've got the St. Lawrence Seaway and the associated hydroelectric project in our backyard, but we have none of the benefits of that. We certainly have the environmental harm. Our local school district that we send our children to has an arena, has a swimming pool, at one time it had a planetarium, all built with Indian dollars because our students were going there.

So that's sort of a little bit of the past, but today, we're a community in transition, and that's where I want to bring back the traditional teachings. In that, particularly the last 30-40 years, I think we've seen a return to those traditional teachings, an enhancement of them to guide our community. If you look at some of the examples, I don't know if people are familiar with Akwesasne Notes. That newspaper, I think, really was a big part of the renaissance in terms of traditional teachings coming back into our community, and that thinking being reinvigorated. The Akwesasne Freedom School in 1979, and that institution being established. It's literally wrapped in traditional teachings, both in the Thanksgiving address and in teaching in the Mohawk language. What Elvera didn't talk about is the influence the Freedom School has had on the public school system. And what we've been doing the last 10 years in particular is taking back responsibility for the education of our children. I think that we send the majority of our students to a public school system and today over 60% of the students in that school district are Mohawk. It's the only school district in the entire state of New York that has a Native American student population that's the majority. Today, five out of the nine school board members are Mohawk. The curriculum is now incorporating the Thanksgiving address into it. You can go to the school and the Haudenosaunee flag flies alongside the Canadian and American flags, and it has carried over into Onondaga territory and the other territories as well. You can go to graduation now and you can see Mohawks in traditional clothing as an alternative to cap and gown at graduation -- it is a powerful visual sight. If you look at [the] environment, that we've been using the teachings to change relationships with state and federal officials and with industry. We've been using them to explain how we've been harmed from the pollution. We've been able to, by doing this, force -- literally force -- hundreds of millions of dollars of environmental cleanups. We're also using the teachings to restore our agricultural base. We are now planting original Haudenosaunee heirloom seeds in our community. We've planted thousands of black ash trees to support our basket makers. We've now developed an environmental assessment process based on the Thanksgiving address. I think that going forward from here for Akwesasne, and I think for Indian Country, is we need to develop a positive vision for that seventh generation that Oren [Lyons] talked about. In Akwesasne, what that means for us is getting control of our infrastructure.

Right now, we're in the process of forming a tribal electric distribution company and we've convinced the local company to leave our territory and allow us to buy them out and take it over. We're working with the Mescalero Apache, and we hope to form a tribal telephone company. We're working to heal the rift in our community, and that's probably the most daunting task we have. The reason is that, I think it's a trust issue in that the years of distrust work against us and it takes years to build trust. And when I talked about the last principle of [Mohawk language], or the strength, what I've seen is that when our words and actions don't match, it can take years to repair that damage. That being said, I believe our community is well positioned going forward. There is a lot of cooperation going on in the community that wasn't there before. We held a referendum on land claims in 2005, first time in the history of Akwesasne that we held a referendum on the southern portion and the northern portion on the same issue, on the same day, at the same time. And in that same time period, the traditional council held a similar debate over the issue. All three councils came out and the community literally came out in support of the settlement. That's the power of working together. What's changed probably most significantly is how the outside community views us. And I think that we're now getting our respect from our neighbors, our non-Native neighbors, that's been missing for a long time. And in fact we're becoming recognized as the economic hope for the region.

So I wanted to share this perspective with you and again I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak."

Stirring the Ashes


One of the biggest challenges for any people is broad participation in the issues that affect everyone. And when you stop and think about it, there is very little from the smallest ripples in a family to major calamities in a community that occurs without impacting others.

The notion of “mind your own business” or “let someone else handle it” has become commonplace in many cultures. As we observe the flaws of some of these other cultures and societies there are those among us that would like to think the Haudenosaunee lived in a utopian society where conflict and controversy could never find a home. We speak of “the good mind” as though our ancestors never had bad thoughts...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Kane, John. "Stirring the Ashes." Let's Talk Native. The Two Row Times. April 1, 2014. Opinion. (http://www.tworowtimes.com/opinions/columns/lets-talk-native/stirring-th..., accessed January 22, 2024)

Embrace Our Sovereignty or Continue the Genocide?

Two Row Times

“The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians’ personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king.” — Jack Weatherford, “Indian Givers”

Almost immediately, all that was known about society, government and social order had come into question for the Europeans who washed up on our shores half a millennium ago. Social order without a hierarchy? Equality? Even between genders? Unalienable rights bestowed to all by Creation?

Resource Type

Kane, John. "Embrace Our Sovereignty or Continue the Genocide?" Let's Talk Native. The Two Row Times. March 25, 2014. Opinion. (http://www.tworowtimes.com/opinions/columns/lets-talk-native/embrace-our..., accessed April 11, 2023)

Iroquois women enjoyed equality long before 1492


Normal perceptions regarding Women’s History Month revolve around the struggle for women’s political equality in the United States. Yet, many citizens in the U.S. would not suspect that within some American Indian culture, long before Columbus ventured across the Atlantic Ocean, native women enjoyed an equality only dreamed of by the women of European descent. One prominent American Indian tribe which genuinely manifested an attitude of respect and trust toward women existed within the “Iroquois League,” later known as the “Iroquois Confederation.”...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Jamison, Dennis. "Iroquois women enjoyed equality long before 1492." Communities Digital News. March 4, 2014. Article. (http://www.commdiginews.com/history-and-holidays/iroquois-women-enjoyed-..., accessed March 10, 2014)

Tribal Constitutions

Native America Calling

Modern tribal nations pass laws, exercise criminal jurisdiction, and enjoy extensive powers when it comes to self-governance and matters of sovereignty. And of 566 tribal nations, just under half have adopted written constitutions. In the American tradition, a constitution limits the power yielded by governments over citizens, which raises a question: how can the rights of tribal citizens be protected if tribal nations have yet to codify their own functions and operations? Join us as we discuss government power, sovereign status, and whether modern tribal nations are serving the needs of their citizens by adopting constitutions.

Resource Type

"Tribal Constitutions." Native America Calling. March 26, 2015. Audio. (http://www.nativeamericacalling.com/thursday-march-26-2015-tribal..., accessed April 6, 2015)

The Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery


Let's Talk Native Radio program host John Kane discusses the implications of asserting the Doctrine of Discovery on Native lands and the role that treaties play in recognizing and affirming the inherent sovereignty of Native nations. 

Resource Type

"The Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery." Let's Talk Native (Host: John Kane). SoundCloud podcast. 2019. Audio. (https://soundcloud.com/letstalknative/lets-talk-native-398-2420-the-legacy-of-the-doctrine-of-discovery-1, accessed May 17, 2023)

Suzan Shown Harjo: The View From Lincoln's Head: Notes of a Native American Journey

Arizona Public Media

Poet, writer, lecturer, curator and policy advocate Dr. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) commemorates the legacy of scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. by recalling stories of his service to Native communities and by reading a series of poems that he enjoyed.

Resource Type

Harjo, Suzan Shown. "The View From Lincoln's Head: Notes of a Native American Journey." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 28, 2013. Presentation. (https://www.azpm.org/s/14383-dr-suzan-shown-harjo/), accessed July 30, 2017)

Tradition and Governance: Ron Thomas

National Centre for First Nations Governance

Ron Thomas from Haudenosaunee / Six Nations talks about Haudenosaunee traditional governance, and the challenges of removing the Indian Act and replacing it with more traditional governance. 

Resource Type

Thomas, Ron. "Tradition and Governance: Ron Thomas." National Centre for First Nations Governance. Canada. 2012. Film. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-MgYKvIWPs&list=UU6Kmkt3MUlLgGT4vN4NVKWQ&index=8&feature=plcp, accessed September 18, 2012).