Indian Act of 1869

Indigenous Land Management in the United States: Context, Cases, Lessons

Year

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is seeking ways to support First Nations’ economic development. Among its concerns are the status and management of First Nations’ lands. The Indian Act, bureaucratic processes, the capacities of First Nations themselves, and other factors currently limit the ability of First Nations to add lands to reserves or to use their lands more effectively in productive and self-determined economic activity.

As it confronts these issues, AFN has been interested in how Indigenous land-management issues are being addressed by Native nations in the United States. What is the status of Indigenous lands in the U.S.? Do Native nations in the U.S. face similar challenges to those facing First Nations? Are Native nations in the U.S. engaged in practices that might offer ideas or lessons for First Nations?

There are substantial historical, legal, and political differences between the situations of Native nations in Canada and the U.S. But there also are substantial similarities. In both countries, land has been a pivotal issue–in many ways the pivotal issue–in the history of Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations. In both countries, despite massive land loss, Native nations retain remnant land bases with varying potential for economic development. In both countries, Native nations fiercely defend their remaining lands, seek to expand them, and are determined to exercise greater control over what happens on those lands.

This report addresses the status of Native lands in the U.S. It is divided into two parts. Part 1, “Overview of the U.S. Context,” reviews the history of Indigenous lands and provides an overview of current Indian land tenure and jurisdiction. Part 2, “Meeting the Land Management Challenge,” specifies the primary challenges facing Native nations in the U.S. as they attempt to manage their lands in ways that meet their own objectives and summarizes some of the innovative practices currently in use or being developed by American Indian nations. It identifies what we believe are key features of those practices. It also summarizes some of the relevant research on the relationship between control of Native lands and socioeconomic outcomes. Finally, it offers some recommendations based on the U.S. experience...

This report is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Assembly of First Nations.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Cornell, Stephen and Miriam Jorgensen. "Indigenous Land Management in the United States: Context, Cases, Lessons." A Report to the Assembly of First Nations. Grogan|Cornell Consulting. Tucson, Arizona. December 2011. Report.

Angela Wesley: Huu-ay-aht First Nations' Forging of a New Governance System

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Angela Wesley, Chair of Huu-ay-aht Constitution Committee, discusses the painstaking effort the Huu-ay-aht First Nations undertook to develop a new constitution and system of governance, and how they continue to work to turn the promise of self-governance embodied in their new constitution into governance practice.

People
Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Wesley, Angela. "Huu-ay-aht First Nations' Forging of a New Governance System." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 4, 2013. Interview.

Ian Record:

Welcome to Leading Native Nations. I’m your host Ian Record. On today’s program we are honored to have with us Angela Wesley. Angela is a proud member of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation and has worked since 1980 with First Nations communities throughout British Columbia. Since 1992, she has been providing advisory and facilitation services in the areas of strategic planning, community development, communications and community engagement as well as governance capacity building. In recent years, her focus has been on providing assistance to her own nation as well as the other four First Nations that are signatory to the Maa-nulth Treaty. As Chair of the Huu-ay-aht Constitution Committee and member of the Huu-ay-aht Treaty Governance and Lands Resources Committees, she was instrumental in the development and community ratification of the treaty, the Huu-ay-aht First Nations Constitution and a suite of foundational laws that set the stage for her nation’s return to self governance as of April 1st, 2011. Angela, welcome and good to have you with us today.

Angela Wesley:

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Ian Record:

So I went through your rather voluminous bio and shared some of the highlights, but why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit more about yourself. What did I leave out?

Angela Wesley:

I think you pretty much covered it. Some of the things that I’ve done more recently, or that I’m involved in more recently, involve being involved on some boards. And one of the things that I’m really liking doing right now is venturing into the academic world a little bit and I’m chair of the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology as well, which is a public post-secondary institute in British Columbia that was founded by First Nations in the interior of BC [British Columbia]. So I’m really starting to see my abilities to cross over and start sharing information on governance through that field as well, so really an exciting new eye opener for me and a new venture for me.

Ian Record:

So we’re here to talk about governance reform, constitutional reform and specifically the work that your nation has been involved in in arriving to the point it’s at today. And I’m curious -- let’s start at the beginning -- what prompted your nation to consider going down the reform road to begin with?

Angela Wesley:

Well, I think it’s a bit different in Canada than it is in the [United] States, where we didn’t have constitutions as I understand tribal governments in the States do. Really we were embarking on nation rebuilding. The constitution was one piece of what we were doing in rebuilding our nation. Our nation was involved in treaty negotiations and has been involved in the BC Treaty Commission process since about the early 1990s. So in thinking about where we wanted to go and really thinking about the vision for our nation, that’s what sort of prompted us to look overall at our nation and what needed to change. As we got deeper into our treaty negotiation process, we realized that we really needed to reform our government and start to rebuild our nation into something that meets the vision of our community. We started off I think back in the 1990s -- and not to say we didn’t always have a vision -- but we started to try to articulate that and bring that to our people and to say, ‘Where is it that we want to go as a nation? Clearly we have some healing that we need to do. We need to change the way we do business.’ So we really spent a lot of time talking to our people about what we wanted for the future, and our vision statement is not dissimilar to almost any First Nations’ vision statement, where we want a healthy community, we want to be able to govern ourselves, we want to make our own decisions, we want to set our own priorities, we want to revive and strengthen our language and our culture and we want opportunities for our people for the future. And that really set the tone for an entire nation rebuilding process I think.

Ian Record:

So it became obvious very early on that, 'If we’re going to fully engage in the treaty process and take advantage of that opportunity, we need to jettison the Indian Act system altogether and develop one that reflects who we are and where we want to head.'

Angela Wesley:

Absolutely. One of the biggest pieces that we were looking at or one of the bigger pieces we were looking at in treaty is the ability to have self government. We struggled originally in our treaty negotiations. We were being told by Canada that they wanted to keep self government outside of the treaty and that was a show stopper for us. Unless self government was included in the treaty and protected by the Constitution of Canada, we weren’t going to have a treaty. So on the basis that that was something that was so important to us we realized that we needed to start building our constitution and talking about what we wanted from our government in the future.

Ian Record:

We’re talking a lot at this seminar that the Native Nations Institute is holding on constitutions and the importance of process, that often for many Native nations, whether in U.S. or Canada or elsewhere, that there’s a broad recognition among people in the community that our current system is not working for us, it’s not going to get us where we need to head, but then a lot of folks have difficulty getting from that point to the point of a new system. Can you talk about the process that your nation devised to develop this new constitution, to engage in this nation rebuilding effort?

Angela Wesley:

Sure. I just want to start by talking about maybe there wasn’t such a broad recognition by our citizens of the situation that we were in and I think that sort of formed the basis of how we approached communication with our citizens as well. We started off, we have a general, what we called a 'band meeting' at the time, and I give a lot of credit to our leadership at the time and our former chief counselor Robert Dennis, Sr. was very instrumental in putting a process in place that the people would feel comfortable with. So it was opened up to the floor and it was the citizens that appointed the committee that was going to look at the constitution and we were told to go and find out what people wanted. So we were given a lot of flexibility and latitude in terms of how we approached things. So we really sat down, we talked as a committee about what it was that we wanted to achieve. We talked about our vision, the need to really get people to understand that that was the basis of moving forward was that we all had this collective vision and it was a vision of the people, it wasn’t a vision of a specific government or a specific council and I think that’s how we started. We did a lot of research, we looked at constitutions of other nations, we talked about other peoples’ experiences, and really what we started with was a questionnaire process. Once we had talked we went and did a little bit of interviewing and speaking with our people about the vision and is that in fact what we wanted. I don’t think anybody could argue with that’s what we wanted, we want to change our world, we want a better place for future generations. And everybody agreed with that.

So having said that, then we started to probe a little bit further, what people wanted from their government. So we started with a very intensive questionnaire process, and I always give credit to a young woman in our tribe, Trudy Warner. She was in her 20s at the time and very enthusiastic. She was working with us and she was assigned to the committee to be our administrative support. She ended up taking a questionnaire around, and I don’t think it was so important what was in the questionnaire as the fact that we went out and talked to people about it. So we devised some questions, some of them were good, some of them not so good, but it opened up the doors for people to start to tell us what it was that they wanted. We asked about terms of council, we asked about what kind of ethical behavior we expected of council, we asked about what kind of terms we thought would be appropriate, we asked about how disputes might be resolved, we asked about how to incorporate our traditional hereditary system into our government, which was huge for us. That was one of the things we really wanted to do. So we engaged in a process of communicating with our numbers over a long period of time. We probably did this over five to seven years on and off; it wasn’t consistent. We were a committee and we were limited by finances and what we could do; it was very expensive. We have probably 80 to 85 percent of our people living away from home, so it involved going out and going to the people or bringing them in, which was very, very expensive as well. But we really, we talked a lot to our people, we talked we brought that back and we talked as a committee about what that meant and what did our people really want. I think that some of what we found was that what I started with is that people didn’t really understand the system that we were under. We’re so used to blaming our band councils for things that go wrong without understanding that the Indian Act is behind all of that and that our councils really are structured under an Indian Act system that so clearly does not work for us, that oppressed us for so many years. And that’s what our people grew up with. So a lot of people didn’t know about our traditional systems, they didn’t know how we used to govern ourselves. All they knew was this oppressive system that we’d lived under that had hurt them in huge ways.

So sort of interesting, maybe to back up a little bit to the questionnaire process, our young citizen went out door to door, bless her heart, by herself and knocked on people’s doors and said, ‘I have this questionnaire and it’s my job to come and talk to our citizens about what it is you’d like to see in government.’ And she heard a lot of venting. So we tried to give her a lot of support and told her to not to react, don’t get defensive, don’t feel like you have to defend the council for things that happened 30 years ago, but listen, allow people to say what’s on their mind and bring that back to us, because that’s all relevant to what we need to change in the future.' Along with that commitment from the committee, she also had a commitment from our chief councilor at the time, who said that, ‘If somebody needs to talk to me, come back and tell me. Don’t take it on for me, but I will go.’ And he made that commitment and he did go and follow up with people, which was huge. So once people had a chance to get some of that stuff out that they had been holding on to a lot of times for 30, 40 years -- people had gone been taken out of our community, they’d gone to residential school, they’d seen what had happened to their parents and grandparents in the community and they’d gone from there and never come home. So these are people who have memories from the past that aren’t good memories in a lot of cases. So we were able to get through a lot of that. When people had the chance to just say that and get it off their chest with nobody trying to defend how they feel, then they kind of went, ‘Oh, okay.’ And they would say to Trudy, ‘Well, what are you here for?’ She’d say, ‘Well, I have this questionnaire.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, come in. Who are you and what family are you from?’ And there was this warmth all of a sudden that, ‘Come and have a cup of coffee and do what we do traditionally,’ is share information. So she was able to, I think, with her personality, with her youth, with her enthusiasm and with the commitments and backing that she had from the committee and from our leadership was able to break through in a lot of cases and make people feel Huu-ay-aht again. We actually had people say, ‘I didn’t think I was Huu-ay-aht anymore, I didn’t think anybody cared about me. But I was important enough, somebody came to my house and talked to me about these things.’ It was a huge breakthrough for us.

Ian Record:

It’s interesting you bring up this thing about recognition. My experience in the many nations I’ve worked with on constitutional reform -- primarily in the United States -- has been that people in the community fixate on the symptoms of dysfunction, which typically means they focus on the council, ‘Everything that’s wrong with us is because of the council,’ when they don’t it’s very difficult for them to draw that connection back to the roots of the dysfunction, which in many cases are an imposed system of governance. How important was it for you guys to shift that focus in your community to show people that, ‘Look, at the root of what ails us, what’s holding us back,’ if you will, ‘from rebuilding our community into something that we think is important and is culturally relevant is this system that is not of our own design.’

Angela Wesley:

It was the foundation of our communications, both in our constitutional communications as well as in our treaty negotiations. We just felt that it was so important for us to realize that there was no way out of that system unless we created something ourselves, and that’s what we were trying to do through treaty negotiations, to be able to get governance tools, access to lands and resources, additional financial boosts that could help us to move forward and to create that economy for our people. So in order to do that, we had to show that there was nothing in the current system that we could see that was going to allow us to dig ourselves out and to be able to change our world. We needed something else to add to it and having governance, having good governance in place through our constitution together with having some extra tools, access to lands and resources, recognition of our rights, the ability to build the economy was what was going to change our situation. And like I said, so many of our people just had no idea what the problems were and when we started to talk about that I think it really opened eyes and gained a lot of support. And the support wasn’t 100 percent. A lot of people were taking a leap of faith. We were creating trust through doing this kind of communications with our people and saying, ‘Can you give us a chance? This is what we think is going to help us to change our world. Let’s do all of this together.’ So that was it was really the root of what we were communicating to our people is that how else are we going to change, how else are we going to change our social situation because it’s not good the way it is right now.

Ian Record:

I wanted to back up to something you said earlier about the importance for Huu-ay-aht of having this new governance system that you were creating be an expression of the people’s will and not necessarily an expression of political will, meaning you wanted to ensure that it was the product of the people as a whole versus the product of a particular council or particular elected official or someone else. And we’ve seen where other nations have succeeded with constitutional development or reform, that recognition going into the process, that we’re going to sabotage our own effort if this either becomes politicized or becomes viewed as a politicized process at the very beginning. Can you speak a little bit more about why that is so critical to sort of make sure that the process itself is an apolitical process in how you guys ensured that you insulated it from sort of the political impulses along the way?

Angela Wesley:

Yeah, it probably was a key to our success in terms of the communication or in terms of the approval and ratification of the constitution. I can’t give enough credit I think to our leadership to be able to have stood back not only from the process of building a constitution, but also recognizing that we were trying to incorporate in some fashion our hereditary system back into our government or at least the ability to do that as time went on into the future. And again our chief councilor at the time is a very traditional individual as well. He’s a historian for our tribe and I think that really helped to show people that we were really trying to do what was best for the nation. So there wasn’t political interference, but there was huge political support for developing that system and I think that the leadership showed that they weren’t afraid, that they weren’t afraid of the changes that were coming up because this was what was the best for the nation. So the separation is good, but the leadership was such a critical element of it as well to be able to stand up and really support what we were doing.

Ian Record:

It’s interesting you keep using the word 'support,' because where we see tribes succeed is where the elected leadership plays a supportive role, not a directive role. Where we see tribes struggle is where the reform process is quickly viewed by people in the community as just another initiative by the current leadership that’s in charge. Do you see that as crucial where do you see that as maybe sending a message to the people in terms of, ‘This is something that’s so critical that it’s got to be bigger than us as a group of leaders, it’s got to be about the nation as a whole?’ Did people kind of stand back and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is a real opportunity for us to re-engage, to have our voices heard,' as you mentioned? You mentioned the one person saying, ‘Wow, my government’s never asked me for my opinion on anything before,’ to say it’s not just a command and control decision anymore, this is going to happen from the ground up.

Angela Wesley:

We really it is critical. We really emphasized that with our people as well to say when and who have you ever seen that’s had the opportunity to say how it is that we want to be governed as a nation. To take advantage, we encouraged people to take advantage of that possibility; we encouraged people to use their voices in a positive way. The system that we were in, I think, really led people to be complaining about things all the time. There was no way out, there was no way to resolve disputes, they just went on and on and on. And to have us going out into our community and talking to people about solutions and to have them feeding into, ‘Okay, if that didn’t work, what can work and how can it work better for us, how can we take how we used to govern because it sustained us for thousands of years, how can we take those principles and those values and move them into our government of today so that we can do things better?’ And I think people understood that and it didn’t even really become a visible issue of, ‘Oh, it’s not the politicians that are involved in this?’ People just started to engage because they liked the conversation. So I don’t think it was so much a factor that people hung anything on the process and said, ‘Well, the politics aren’t involved.’ I think they just started liking having the conversation and started feeling more and more comfortable with it. Probably one of the earliest things that people really responded to was the chapter in our constitution that talks about individual rights, to actually see in black and white that people would be treated equally, that they would have equal opportunities within the nation as citizens of the nation; that really sparked something. So starting there, having that conversation as a basis for our communication on the constitution was really, I think, winning as well.

I think people really felt that it was something that was going to reflect what it is they wanted. Because when you go out we often talk about how you explain such complex matters to people who are just trying to get by in their lives and we really chose to try to make our communications really relevant as opposed to saying, ‘This is what provision 16 is going to say in legal language.’ We tried to keep our constitution as plain language as possible and to make it relevant to people because that’s their question, ‘What does this mean to me and my family? How is this going to change the world? How is this going to protect the assets of our nation for future generations, for those who aren’t born yet?’ Those are the kind of things that were on people’s minds. So having the conversation around those kind of things as opposed to around what the provision is going to say, we tried to capture what people were saying and put it into the language.

Ian Record:

It’s interesting you bring that up because often the refrain that we hear in many Native communities -- particularly those that are struggling with reform -- is a sense among many in the community that they simply don’t understand why they should even care about the constitution. They have no sense of how it impacts their daily life, the current constitution and how a new constitution could improve their daily life, and so forth. And it sounds like that was at the forefront of your mind as you went into this process, is to educate people about and making sure that the deliberations were accessible so they could understand, ‘This is how this new system will improve your situation individually, your family’s situation, and the nation’s situation as a whole.’

Angela Wesley:

I think so, and I think that people saw that this was a way of helping to make our governments, future governments and present governments, more accountable to the people. The way the Indian Act is set up right now, your funding flows from the federal government to the council. So the accountability of councils in a legal sense is right back to the Ministry of Indian Affairs, and there’s really not a whole lot of concern on the part of the department as to whether you are accountable back to your citizens. It’s becoming more and more prominent now, but and it’s also becoming more and more of a practice among First Nations to be accountable to their people. So despite the fact that it’s not really a requirement -- although Canada has paid a lot of attention to that in recent years -- nations are becoming more accountable to their citizens and citizens are demanding that accountability. And I think the constitution strengthens that and allows us to do it  to have councils be accountable in a way that is acceptable to the people. What are you going to report to us, when you are going to report to us, to see that these things have to happen? They have to happen according to our own laws, not according to the Indian Act or Ministry of Indian Affairs. It’s because this is what our people want.

Ian Record:

It sounds like things have gone well with your nation in terms of governance reform, really governance rebirth, if you will. But I’m sure at some point you encountered some challenges.

Angela Wesley:

Oh, absolutely.

Ian Record:

And given that it took you seven years, I’m sure there were lots of challenges, a lot of bumps in the road along the way. Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges that you faced in the reform process and how you worked to overcome those?

Angela Wesley:

Well, I think the whole...in terms of our community, I think what I’ve just been talking about in terms of the understanding or lack of understanding of the reality of our situation was probably the biggest hurdle that we had to overcome in the development process. We did end up with a high approval rate of our constitution and of our treaty, and I think it was just our people agreeing that we needed to take this leap of faith, that this was our chance to try to do something for ourselves and to do it our way. So I think that that was a big leap of faith.

Ian Record:

That sounds to me like that was an initial challenge of getting the people to recognize the reality of their situation, of just how pervasive the Indian Act how it affected them in so many ways that they may not have been aware of. But how about when you got really into the process full-bore, you got beyond that initial education, were there some other obstacles you encountered, external factors, internal factors that threatened to derail the process?

Angela Wesley:

You know, politics will always sort of pop up and matters become more urgent as time goes on, but I think that by and large, given the process that we went through, I think we were able to overcome any kind of hurdles. I think that the committee that was put in place and the leadership that we had in place was able to work together to understand that we were there to support each other and that made a lot of difference, I think, to how we approached when we were getting towards the end when it’s sort of crunch time and you’re going to start looking at going into a vote. There was some apprehension on the part of our leadership and our council maybe that, ‘Where is this going to go?’ They were sort of feeling like any arrows that were going to come were going to come towards them and we said to them, ‘Well, we’re the ones as a committee that should be taking some responsibility, and feel comfort in the fact that we’re happy to stand up in front of our people and explain why the constitution is the way it is,’ and it is entirely because of what it was that people wanted in our government in the future together with trying to build a system of good governance. So I think we overcame those.

The challenges I guess that we’re looking at now, we’re two years into being self-government or self-governing and it’s hard. We didn’t expect it was going to be easy. This I think now is when we’re starting to face the challenges, when we realize what it means to be fair, to treat people equally. When those things that our people told us that they wanted, it now takes much longer to make a decision because you have to go through, you have to be transparent, you have to treat people equally. There aren’t exceptions. If there’s an exception for one [person], you’ve got to think of how that’s going to happen and play out for the rest of the citizens as well. So what all sounds really good and is really good takes a different process and takes a different way to be able to move forward. So I think we’re having those kind of challenges right now.

I’m seeing I’m not working directly in my nation right now, but I’m still always very connected. I’m working with our economic development side now actually, so sort of shifted over into that. But you see our leadership struggling. They want to do things right. They want to follow our laws. And I think if there’s things that can be learned, it’s to really think about what this is going to mean as you’re drafting your laws, because I think in some places we found that we’re almost overly accountable and what we don’t want to do is to constrain ourselves with our own laws. But the beauty of being self-governing is that we can change those things if and when we need to. And recognizing that I think is a big part of our learning curve.

So being self-governing doesn’t mean that everything is working perfectly for us right now -- far from it -- and when will we ever be doing things perfectly? No government ever runs perfectly. But we certainly feel better, I don’t think that there’s a person in our nation that thinks that we made the wrong decision in taking on self-government and doing it for ourselves. It’s hard, it’s going to be difficult for us as we continue to move on but we’re getting better at it every day.

Ian Record:

So it sounds to me given that you’re just about two years now into your new governance reality, if you will, that your nation is still working to grow into its new constitutional skin, its new governance skin, it’s going through those growing pains of actually transforming that document on paper into practice.

Angela Wesley:

Oh, definitely.

Ian Record:

And this is something we hear from a lot of other folks, we’ve worked with a number of tribes who are now three, six, ten years into their new constitution and system of governance and they describe this same sort of dynamic taking place, where it’s one thing to have a new constitution and it’s quite another to actually live that in practice. And I would imagine for you as with other some of these other nations, you’re really the larger task really is to transform the political culture that has been in place in your community for so long, the Indian Act culture. In the U.S., for many tribes it’s the Indian Reorganization Act political culture, where suddenly you can no longer go to the council for absolutely everything that ails you, every problem you have. Now there’s processes in place that you have to follow. Can you maybe shed a little more insight into how that’s unfolding in your community, and I would imagine it entails an ongoing education challenge does it not?

Angela Wesley:

It is. It’s definitely a learning curve. Under the Indian Act, as we’re hearing in the courses through NNI and the kind of sessions that we’re in today, you need to put up the mirror sometimes and see how it is that you’re operating. Councils are expected to do everything. That’s the history of most First Nations in Canada and I assume in the U.S., and transforming at the leadership level into being visionaries and creating the environment to succeed is a really difficult thing to do, because citizens still expect you to go and take care of everything, all of the things that are going on in the community. So it’s difficult for citizens because they can’t do that anymore, and it’s difficult for leadership to try to let that go and to put the administrative systems in place that allow the questions to be answered and that allow give citizens a place to go to get their questions answered instead of to the political side. So it is, it’s a transition; it’s a huge transformation. It’s a new way of doing business and operating our government. So it’s I give a lot of credit to our leadership in trying to get through that and trying to remind themselves every day that they need to show citizens where they need to go to get their questions answered as opposed to coming to them, because that’s the critical part is that you can’t leave our citizens hanging, they’ve got to have somewhere that they can go and that’s the council’s role.

Ian Record:

And I would imagine this clarification, redefinition and then ongoing clarification of the new roles within your new system is absolutely critical, because as you’ve laid out, your governance, your new governance system is expected to achieve far more ambitious things than the previous system was under the Indian Act. You’re tasking your governance system and the leaders who lead that system with creating this brighter future of your own design. And so I think this point that you brought up is absolutely crucial, where you’ve got to make sure that you create the space for your leadership to be visionary and to actually figure out, how do we implement the vision that we’ve created for ourselves for our own future?

Angela Wesley:

Yes, definitely. And being able to feel comfort in the organization that we set up is the other big part of it as well. You can put your constitution in place, but unless you’ve got an effective administration as well to be able to take care of that we had to do a lot of reorganizing at our administrative level as well. We had a typical First Nation operation or band council operation or band administration, where we had our band manager who had everybody in the organization reporting to them. So that person as well needed to be able to focus on making sure that the council’s wishes and directions are undertaken and that’s what their role is as well. So there’s a shift in roles all throughout the organization. People have to learn new things. People who are really good at managing resources now also have to learn how to manage people. So it’s a shift at all levels within the government and that’s going to take time, and I think we need to go easy on ourselves a little bit in these early years and just realize that we need to relearn a lot of things and we need to learn how to do business effectively and efficiently for the benefit of our citizens.

Ian Record:

So a couple things out of that. One is that I think what you’re referring to is what we’ve heard from other folks from Native nations who’ve been involved in reform efforts is you’ve got to in many instances dial back expectations, that just because you have a new constitution doesn’t mean everyone’s problems are going to be solved overnight. There is going to be a learning curve, we’re going to make some false steps, we’re going to do two steps forward, one step back kind of thing, but the idea is that we’re in charge now and if we find that something in the new constitution isn’t working, as you mentioned, that we have the power to change it.

Angela Wesley:

And it’s not  in our case it’s not only the constitution, it’s the treaty as well, which both came in place at the same time. Probably one of the biggest lessons learned is to have not only that reorganizational plan in place to get your government ready, but also to start getting the economic side and getting that plan in place as well and start to make sure that there’s even small steps towards making changes that people will see some of the early things that we’re able to change that made a difference to our people. As we changed things like our education policies, we weren’t able to fund trades before and now we have the flexibility to be able to do that. So we’ve made little changes like that that make a difference to the people and to plan to do things like that to start to address some things that you can point to to say to your people, ‘Yes, things are working differently now. We are making small steps and hopefully as we continue to grow and build our economy, we’ll have lots of successes that we can look at and that’s going to happen over time.’

Ian Record:

The other thing I wanted to bring up from your previous response is you mentioned that the band manager, their reality has changed because of this new governance system, and I think that that’s often lost on folks is that this new constitution, this new system of government, it will definitely change the role of leadership or clarify perhaps the role of leaders and it will transform it will necessarily transform the expectations citizens need to have of their government, but really what you’re saying is that it’s going to change reality for everyone that is either part of the nation, works for the nation, or interacts with the nation. And can you talk a little bit about how I guess compare and contrast the new governance reality at Huu-ay-aht with the old governance reality? Say I came and visited the community under the Indian Act system and I had to work with the band government on something and now I’m getting ready to come back, I call you on the phone and say, ‘What should I expect, how are things going to be different for me if I have to come and work with the nation on this particular issue?’

Angela Wesley:

I think there’s a lot of fundamental differences, and we’re getting used to working within a new system as well. Having a treaty, having the constitution to go along with it and having a whole new set of laws, things have to be done differently. It’s not as easy now as going up and calling all the council members together and sit down and, ‘We have this new initiative we want you to look at.’ There’s a lot of things that need to go into it before it gets to that council level so the way of doing business. Do you need a permit to be able to go out and do certain things on the land? Do you need to be talking with our manager of natural resources to get all of those kind of things in place? Nothing goes before our council now without a full briefing note and some options that are provided to them so that they’re making decisions based on full information. One of the things that’s in our Government Act is a requirement for the way decisions are made and it’s actually written into our legislation of what needs to be considered at the council level in making a decision particular, well about anything, but particularly in relation to things that require money. Have you got all of the information that you need in order to make the decision? Have you looked at what the impact is on other programs? Where is the funding going to come from? Are there other options here? Is there a need to consult the community on this? What kind of impacts there’s a whole list of those things that are in the laws. So it’s our law that requires those things get done and that means a much more thorough process is required. So things are different, things take longer and hopefully we can refine that as things go along, but it’s probably better to walk on the side of caution a little bit first, at the same time being able to move forward economically and be able to make those changes in our nation.

Ian Record:

So I mentioned in the introduction that you have been intricately involved in your nation’s development of a whole new suite of foundational laws. You get the new treaty in place; you get the new constitution in place. Where did you guys focus your lawmaking energy at the beginning? What to you was, ‘We’ve got to address these issues right now. There’s nothing on the books that helps us deal with X, Y and Z.'

Angela Wesley:

What we did in approaching our lawmaking was to look at the real critical areas. We had gone through a process that I described of creating trust in from our citizens that we were going to do things right. So the first laws that we put in place were, we called them 'laws that govern our government,' because people were a little afraid. What are these new laws going to be and are we going to be expected to have all these new laws in place that we need to know. We thought it was really important that we put in place laws that show our people that our government needs to be accountable. So we have things like a Government Act, a Code of Conduct and Conflict of Interest, Election Act, Citizenship Act, all of those kind of really foundational pieces. We didn’t start touching the bigger areas that we now have lawmaking authorities under like adoption, child welfare, education, culture and language. We’ve got lawmaking in a lot of areas, but we decided first that we need to continue to build the trust of our government and allow our government some time to settle in to governing well. So we really put laws, a lot of laws in place that talk about how our government operates and how they’re to be accountable back to the people.

Ian Record:

So basically what it sounds like you’re saying is you worked to enhance the lawmaking engine to then make laws in the areas where you had newfound or newly affirmed powers.

Angela Wesley:

Yes. Yes. Yes and to make sure that there were ways in place that citizens could have an input, that they would be able to always have a say in government, making sure that our Government Act specified for example what the rules were around having people’s assemblies where people would have their voice, what the rules would be around providing financial accountability back to the people. So these were our laws that we promised people when they said, ‘How can we be sure council isn’t going to run off with all the money that we get under treaty?’ Because the constitution says they can’t and because there’s a law that says what they need to do and how they need to report back to the people. So we’re making sure that those checks and balances were really firmly in place before we start venturing off into other areas. Other areas that were really important to us in lawmaking was protection of our lands. So we have a few laws that deal with lands and resources. Areas that still allow our people to exercise our rights, harvesting rights and that kind of thing, so we made sure laws and permitting process and that were in place so that on effective date people wouldn’t say, ‘Well, how am I going to go and hunt now? Where does all of this happen?’ So we worked really hard to make sure there was no disruption in those kind of activities as well.

Ian Record:

So I have a final wrap-up question for you and that deals with lessons. You guys were involved in a process that lasted several years, you’ve managed to come through the light at the end of the tunnel and you have a new governance system in place. What do you feel that other First Nations in Canada, other Native nations in the United States can learn from the Huu-ay-aht experience?

Angela Wesley:

Well, that’s kind of difficult to say. You never really want to say what we’ve done that other people should do. We’ve done what we think is best for us. We’re happy to share our story and to see if what we’re doing can be of any assistance to others. We are grateful to those who came before us as well, there’s now 10 First Nations in British Columbia that are no longer subject to the Indian Act. We learned from them. We learned from the Nisga’a, we learned from Tsawwassen, we learned from other nations that are self-governing under self-government agreements as opposed to treaties. So I don’t know how to answer that except for to say it’s really important to bring the people along because if they don’t understand the change that’s coming up, nothing really changes for them. It’s just a shift in power from one to another and they won’t see the difference unless they’re involved in that. So I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I feel proud of that we did in our nation is we really did our best to bring the people along.

Ian Record:

Make sure they’re on board the nation rebuilding train before it leaves the station.

Angela Wesley:

Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. So it was a healthy experience for us. We’ll talk to a lot of our citizens who aren’t happy with the way things are going, I’m positive of it, but that will never go away either. But I think what we’ve learned through the process and what our citizens have learned is to use our voices and to try to be positive in terms of saying how things can be better. If it’s not working, let’s not just complain about it, because we can fix this if we want to. So I think that’s something that we’ve learned and that we’ll continue to learn as we become more comfortable in governing ourselves once again.

Ian Record:

Well, Angela, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts, experiences and wisdom with us and good luck to you and your nation on your new governance journey.

Angela Wesley:

Thank you.

Ian Record:

That’s all the time we have on today’s program of Leading Native Nations. To learn more about Leading Native Nations and the Native Nations Institute, please visit the Native Nations Institute’s website at nni.arizona.edu. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2013. Arizona Board of Regents.

Sophie Pierre: Enacting Self-Determination and Self-Governance at Ktunaxa

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

In this informative interview with NNI's Ian Record, Sophie Pierre, longtime chief of the Ktunaxa Nation, discusses Ktunaxa's ongoing effort to reclaim and redesign their system of governance through British Columbia's treaty process, specifically Ktunaxa's citizen-led process to develop a new constitution that reflects and advance Ktunaxa cultural values and its priorities for the future.

People
Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Pierre, Sophie. "Enacting Self-Determination and Self-Governance at Ktunaxa." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Phoenix, Arizona. October 21, 2008. Interview.

Ian Record:

“Welcome to Leading Native Nations, a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. I’m your host, Ian Record. Today, I am honored to welcome to the program Sophie Pierre, who for the past 26 years has served as chief of the St. Mary’s Indian Band in British Columbia. She also serves as the chairperson of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, an organization formed in 1970 to promote the political and social development of its five member bands, which includes St. Mary’s. She is the past co-chair of the First Nation Summit and a recipient of the Order of British Columbia. Last but certainly not least, Chief Pierre also serves as co-chair of the International Advisory Council for the Native Nations Institute. Welcome, Sophie and thank you for joining us today.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Thank you very much, Ian. It’s a pleasure to be here.”

Ian Record:

“Sophie, I’d like to start with a question that I ask all of the guests on this program and that is how do you define sovereignty and what does it really mean for Native nations?”

Sophie Pierre:

“I think that what it really means was explained by chief who’s since left, his name was Joe Mathias, he was chief of Squamish and he always said that sovereign, that exercising sovereignty was that the people who are going to live with the results of a decision are the people who make the decision and to me that’s what sovereignty has always meant is that we are responsible for our own lives, we make our decisions and we’re the people that suffer the consequences of those decisions.”

Ian Record:

“Okay. As a follow-up to that, how do you define a healthy Native community? What does that look like at Ktunaxa?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, we’re, I think that the healthy Native community is something that I can actually see coming into fruition and that’s a community where the decisions that are going to affect that community are being made right at the community level and that they’re being involved or everyone in the community is being involved in those decisions. The treaty process that we’ve been going through has allowed us, I think, that opportunity to engage our citizens in many aspects of life, not just the social programs that used to be the norm. Now we’re talking about making land-use decisions and far reaching planning for development and those are all at the community level, at the citizen level that those decisions are being made and that’s really where I see a healthy community is where the citizenry are engaged and they’re making, they’re charting their own course for the future.”

Ian Record:

“So essentially, regaining ownership in their own future and in the government that’s going to make that future happen.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Exactly. Yeah, exactly. It’s that regaining of ownership and it’s that recognition that the decisions that you make, that they’re, it’s the people who are going to live with the consequences that make those decisions.”

Ian Record:

“You are the chief, as I mentioned, of the St. Mary’s Indian Band and also Chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council. Can you tell us a bit about the St. Mary’s Band, the Ktunaxa Nation, and their relationship to one another?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, the Ktunaxa Nation is the Canadian relative of our nation, which is like many Indian nations in North America, was divided when the 49th Parallel was put in and the two countries were created of Canada and the United States, because we have Ktunaxa speaking people in Montana, Idaho and in British Columbia. So we are the Canadian group of Ktunaxa and the St. Mary’s Indian Band is similar to the other four bands within our nation. Those were created by the federal government when they were creating the Indian reservations just after the country of Canada became the Dominion of Canada. And so the St. Mary’s Indian Band is one of five Indian bands within our nation council and we have, our Indian reserve lands are held in trust by the government for our use and benefit as are all Indian reserve lands in Canada.”

Ian Record:

“The Ktunaxa Nation and I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly, ”

Sophie Pierre:

“Yes, you are.”

Ian Record:

“, or pretty closely anyway, works to advance the strategic priorities of its member bands through what it calls the 'Four Pillars.'“

Sophie Pierre:

“That’s right.”

Ian Record:

“What are these pillars and how does the Ktunaxa Nation support or advance those pillars?”

Sophie Pierre:

“The Four Pillars are lands, first and foremost, are our lands and our resources, that determines who we are as Ktunaxa and we know where our lands are because it’s in those, that territory where we have place names and when I’m describing our lands, that’s, I can give the place names, sort of the boundaries of it. And it’s our people, always, it’s the people of Ktunaxa ancestry, Ktunaxa speaking people and it’s our governance and then it’s our, the sort of overall what holds us together in terms of our, I’m wanting to talk about our social programs, but I don’t want to call it social programs. It’s the umbrella that provides services to the people. So it would be like our administrative side. So those are the four main pillars. And we determined that through about two years of discussion, of conversation with our people as we started to create our vision statement and that’s where that came from because we talk about strong, healthy people speaking our language and living in our traditional territory and sharing our resources and in a self-governing manner. That is our mission statement and it encompasses the four pillars.”

Ian Record:

“The Ktunaxa Nation, on behalf of its five member bands, has for several years now been engaged in comprehensive constitutional reform and governmental reform as well, which is very different in not only process but also terminology from constitutional reform by Native nations in the United States. What does the constitutional reform process entail for First Nations in Canada and what does it really look like?”

Sophie Pierre:

“It’s different in different parts of Canada. What we’re involved in in British Columbia through the treaty-making process has made it more, has made it, I think a little bit easier for us to actually get into the constitutional reform and to, maybe not so much constitutional reform as building a constitution, rebuilding our constitutions and that’s the discussion that I talked about earlier where I related that to sovereignty where there’s an engagement of your whole citizenry in order to develop that. So now we see, as we form our, build our constitution that that is being brought back to our citizens on a regular basis so they have real input into that. And what it’s going to be at the end of the day is, well, like what constitutions are, they’re the basis, they form the basis of our government and we are looking at recreating, rebuilding the governing structures that we had as Ktunaxa before contact. We, as an Indian band, of course, have been affected by the Department of Indian Affairs and their legislation called the Indian Act. We have, and I have served as such, the Indian Act-elected Leadership. And so you had mentioned that I’ve served 26 years as a chief, that’s something that I’m very grateful for having had that opportunity, but it was through the Indian Act process where we have elections. My grandfather was the last non-elected chief in our community and he stepped away from his position and passed it on in the traditional manner in 1953, but the Indian agent came in and said that the people had to do a vote according to the Indian Act, that that wasn’t, the way that we used to do it wasn’t considered democratic or whatever. So they changed it and now we’ve been having these Indian Act elections. So the, it’s sort of a melding of the way we did things traditionally to the way that we see us being able to move forward and it’s taking the 'Four Pillars' that have been developed by our people in our mission statement and determining a way that we can bring life to that mission statement so it’s not just on a piece of paper hanging on a wall -- it’s something that we live every day.”

Ian Record:

“So what compelled the Ktunaxa Nation to undertake not just constitutional reform, but as you say, but essentially rebuilding the constitution from the ground up? So, what compelled the nation to chart that course and what have been the major outcomes thus far?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, the, I keep mentioning the treaty process that we’re in and that really was sort of the trigger. I think that we may have been involved in this kind of discussion anyway, but probably at a lot slower pace and probably with not as much engagement of our total citizens as we have been able to through the treaty process. I think the most exciting outcome that this, that we’ve seen is the understanding and the, I don’t want to use the word 'buy-in,' but I can’t think of what else to call it, but people really believe that whether or not we sign a treaty with the other levels of government, the federal and the provincial governments, that what we have, that what we’ve recreated for ourselves, what we’ve regenerated in terms of our own governing structure, that that is really meaningful to our people and you can speak to people just on the street and they know when we talk about constitution rebuilding, we talk about recreating our government, we talk about just governance in general, people know what we’re talking about and I find that, ”

Ian Record:

“So that part of it’s taken on a life of its own, essentially.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely, yeah. And so, I mean, that’s a really positive outcome for us. And I wonder whether or not we would have been able to have that kind of an outcome if we weren’t involved, engaged in this particular negotiation with the government, but I do make that point that we may or may not reach a treaty. In fact, our American cousins tell us, ‘Why do you want to sign a treaty with the governments? They never live up to them, so why are you engaged in this?’ But for us, it’s been a really good process for our own people of engaging ourselves.”

Ian Record:

“In past conversations, you have pointed to the act of defining citizenship or more appropriately redefining citizenship as a critical first step in the Ktunaxa Nation forging a vibrant future of its own design. How so?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, I think that the, one of the key elements or one of our key pillars of course are our people, and our people embody our language and culture and you don’t have a choice what you’re going to be born as. Any of our people, when they’re born, we’re Ktunaxa, just as Italians are Italians and it doesn’t matter if they marry a Chinese [person], it doesn’t change them from being Italian. Well, same thing with us. And there’s been so much interference from government in terms of our own Aboriginal identity, Indigenous identity -- and I’m talking about all governments, not just in Canada -- that I think that one of the key elements of rebuilding nations is to take back ownership of the recognition of our own people. And I know that it creates difficulty because there’s a lot of, there’s very few pure blood as you would imagine, as you could say in this day and age just because of all the interaction that we’ve had with the rest of the world. But that doesn’t take away from someone who can trace their ancestry, if you can trace your ancestry to being Ktunaxa, then you’re accepted as Ktunaxa. I’ve mentioned before that our language and culture is very important and in the Ktunaxa language the word for our ancestors is '[Ktunaxa language]' and the root word of that '[Ktunaxa language]' comes from '[Ktunaxa language],' which is a root. You talk about the roots of a tree and any kind of a plant it’s '[Ktunaxa language]' and for, when you put those two words together '[Ktunaxa language],' meaning 'our roots.' And so if you can trace your ancestry to being Ktunaxa, then that’s who you are and you’re accepted as such. So that it’s not a matter of again the government interference saying that there are certain percentages or if you’re, like we had in the Indian Act. For a while, if you’re an Indian woman and you marry someone who’s not a status Indian, then you lose your status. That’s fine, that status was determined by the federal government to begin with, but it never ever changed the fact that that Indian woman is and always will be an Indian and so will her children.”

Ian Record:

“So has that taken some getting used to among some community members, ”

Sophie Pierre:

“Sure it has.”

Ian Record:

“, who have for so long relied on that blood quantum?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely, yeah. And I expect that it will affect probably all of our people in that way wherever there’s been government interference in terms of determining who the people are. So again it goes back to your original question, what is sovereignty? Sovereignty is being able to determine who your own people are and welcoming all people that are of your blood, whether they’re full blood or one-sixteenth. If they can trace their ancestry, that’s what that word means '[Ktunaxa language],' you can trace your ancestry, you can trace your roots to whatever nationality and I think that it would be the same if you’re English or German. If you can trace your roots, there’s sort of this Pan-Canadian or Pan-American, like what is that? They really should, everyone has roots from somewhere else other than the Indigenous people. We’re the ones that have roots here.”

Ian Record:

“And in some way doesn’t that entail at least some level of cultural engagement? So what you’re saying is you have to be able to trace your roots. It’s very hard to do that unless you’re participating in that culture, right?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Exactly, that’s right. Yes. Yeah, we’re going to have Ktunaxa people that probably will never become, will never come home, will never be part of our activity of our government, of our communities, simply because they don’t choose to. Maybe they’re part Irish and that’s the roots that, that’s the [Ktunaxa language] they’ve chosen to follow. That’s fine. What I’m saying is that when a person chooses to follow their Ktunaxa [Ktunaxa language], then we have a responsibility to that person, to that individual.”

Ian Record:

“The how of constitutional reform, of government reform is as important as the what. That’s been our experience at the Native Nations Institute and research we’ve done. What process has your nation employed to ensure that the governmental reform that you’re undertaking proceeds the way you envisioned and what have been the keys to that success thus far?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, I think that we’ve had the fortune, we’ve been fortunate to have the acquaintance of such people as Stephen Cornell and Joe Kalt and Manley Begay. I remember that when we first started talking about this that Stephen and Manley came and spent some time with our leaders, and it was really interesting because all of our leaders and particularly the older people who maybe didn’t speak English as well, but they were all saying the same thing and they could really connect with the discussions that we were having around the necessity of the definition of our governance being formalized if you will into a constitution. Like other Indigenous people, we come from an oral culture. So when we talk about and when we have a good understanding, and particularly when we use the Ktunaxa language, it’s all in an oral manner, but you take that to the next level and you start putting that down into a constitution and it makes sense to people when you do that.”

Ian Record:

“So if you can give us a little bit more specifics about the process that Ktunaxa Nation has employed to engage in governmental reform and what is really key to the success thus far, because it’s a very difficult process. It’s confronting a lot of colonial legacies that a lot of people would just as soon not confront.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely. The main activity that we’ve done is that all of our discussions have been open and these go back again to the negotiations that we have with the other two levels of government. We chose that ours would be called a citizen-led process. Unfortunately, some of the Indian nations in British Columbia that are involved in treaty go behind closed doors and it’s their lawyers that are negotiating and then they bring something back to the people later. We knew that that’s not what we wanted, that wouldn’t work for us. It might work for other people, but it wouldn’t work for us. So we started with a citizen-driven process right from day one and so it was that engagement of our citizens from the beginning. And I’ll tell you, that wasn’t easy because the first reaction we got was, ‘Yeah, right. You’re going to ask us a bunch of questions, but then it’s going to sit on a shelf somewhere. Our input is never meaningful, our input never gets into the final action,’ but I think that the, well, not I think, I know that our citizens are very pleased when they see their own thoughts, their ideas, they see themselves as we move forward in the final documents that are coming out that are reaching fruition now and people can see the input that they’ve had. And so then of course it’s more meaningful for them.”

Ian Record:

“The Ktunaxa Nation has made a concerted effort to get its young people heavily involved in governance and governmental reform. Why is this so critical?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Because they’re the ones that are going to live with the consequences and of course that underlies this whole thing -- is they’re the ones that are going to live with the consequences. I’m going to be long gone and it’s going to be the younger people that are going to have to put this into fruition for us and for their children and their grandchildren. But I think that how we’ve done that is maybe as important, it goes back again to when you engage people to actually make them feel that their engagement is worthwhile. So that it’s young people that we’ve had out there that have been leading the meetings, they’re the liaisons that go into the community, that sit at the kitchen tables and talk with people or go into Band meetings or make presentations at nation meetings. You don’t always have the old-timers like myself up there speaking. No, it’s, the presentations are made by the people that are actually out there gathering the information.”

Ian Record:

“And how have perhaps the older generations responded? Are they inspired by the eagerness of the youth?”

Sophie Pierre:

“I think as a whole, yes, and of course there’s always some old curmudgeon that sits somewhere thinking that, ‘These kids should be listening as opposed to talking,’ but I think that you learn by doing and I think that the majority of people recognize that.”

Ian Record:

“One of the great success stories of the Ktunaxa Nation is the St. Eugene Mission Resort, which I know you’re very proud of.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Yes.”

Ian Record:

“Can you tell us in a nutshell the story of St. Eugene and how what is now the resort and a major economic development engine for your people, how that story is emblematic of the Ktuxana Nation’s effort to reclaim their culture, their identity and their future?”

Sophie Pierre:

“You’re right, we are very, very proud of the St. Eugene Resort and because, I think the most important reason is that we chose to take something that was so negative in our past and turn it into something positive for our future. I say it that way because it really was a choice. When the residential school was shut down in 1970, the oblates, the priests who ran the school, the priests from the Catholic Church who ran the school, they turned over the property to the federal government with the understanding that the federal government would then turn it over to our tribal council. And when that was done, we were a bit unsure on what we were going to do. It’s a huge building and we could have turned it into like another school or health facility, some social-type program that would always be needing an infusion of cash; [we] chose instead to turn it into a business. And so we needed to have the approval of our people to do that and there were some people that told us that we should just knock it down. They said like that was such a horrible place, they suffered so much in that building that they wanted to see it just flattened, take it off the face of the earth. However, there were a greater number of people that understood what we were saying about turning it into something positive instead of knocking it down. So we made that choice rather than knocking it down to turn it around, and it was not easy and in fact it was very, very challenging. But we persevered and we were successful and we now have two other First Nations partners, Samson Cree Nation from Alberta and M’Chigeeng First Nation from Ontario, and it’s doing very well.”

Ian Record:

“So has that decision that you talked about, has that helped at least in some measure the community to begin healing from the experiences that took place there?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Very much so. I think a lot more so than if we had just knocked the building down. I think that actually seeing what it’s become and knowing that we did that ourselves, knowing that we made that decision and that choice to do that ourselves, I think that’s just been phenomenal and it really has had an impact. And what you see now is the younger generations refer to that as the resort. It’s only my generation that refers to it as the former school. It’s something positive and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Ian Record:

“So for younger generations and those to come it’s going to mean something a whole lot different then.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely, yeah. Yeah. For them it means a place to work, it means a place to go and recreate and it just means so much more and it’s so different from what it meant to us, to my generation.”

Ian Record:

“So you’ve been a leader for quite a long time, probably even longer than you were a leader in an elected capacity, I would imagine in my interactions with you. Pretend that I am a newly elected tribal leader who has been chosen to serve his nation for the first time. Drawing on your extensive experience as I’ve talked about, what advice would you share with me to help me empower my nation?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Talk to people, always just go around and meet with your citizens and talk with them. From elders, you’re going to learn so much from the elders, you’re going to learn from people who’ve served on council and you’re going to learn what people need when you talk to the younger generations so that’s what I, when I, the other piece of advice that I always give is that being elected is a privilege and it’s something that you have to, you are taking on a responsibility and it’s not, it’s not a position of power, it’s a position of serving your people. That’s what being elected means and you can only do that well if you know what it is your people need and assuming that your people need one thing when you haven’t gone out and talked to them about it is not a good thing to do.”

Ian Record:

“That’s interesting you mention this kind of axis between power and responsibility because we hear that so often among tribal leaders of nations who are really breaking away as we like to say, who are really finding success with their efforts to rebuild their nations in a way that they see fit and not perhaps a way that outsiders see fit -- we see that axis kind of, that axis pivoting on this issue of clearly defining your roles and responsibilities and that the conversation around leaders, it’s about responsibility and not so much power is when those roles are clearly defined. When they’re not clearly defined, it’s very hard to get away from the power issue because there’s nothing to keep you from overstepping your bounds.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Yeah, exactly and I think that that’s where it’s the process that we’ve gone through just in this last little while, because things are changing for us, and we are starting to see more financial resources coming into our communities for example, financial resources which are not grants from government, these are our own revenues, our own source of revenues, and it’s imperative that we’re ready for that and that those decisions have been made on how those resources are going to be shared among everyone before it actually starts to flow and how everybody is going to be able to benefit from it. So having that kind of responsibility and understanding that kind of responsibility as opposed to seeing it as power and using it over people -- we’ve seen the results of that. I don’t want to take any community, but you’ve seen the results of that. It’s not a good place to be.”

Ian Record:

“You kind of stole my thunder with this next question already on the advice question I asked you, but one of the things you and I have talked about in the past is this issue of effective leaders not just being decision-makers but effective leaders being good educators and good listeners and really what we’re talking about, we’ve talked about is this issue of citizen engagement, that it’s not enough just to engage your citizens come election time, but that to be an effective, empowered leader you have to be engaging your citizens all the time and that comes in the form of one-on-one personal interaction to getting the word out on the internet, whatever it might be. Can you just discuss your perspective on this issue of leaders as educators, leaders as listeners and how that plays out in your community?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, I think that it’s important that when a person is in a position of leadership that you also recognize the, not just the responsibility but the onus that is on you to ensure that people feel confident that you’re going to be able to represent what they need both within the community and also on the outside. So I think that that’s another very important part of leadership is to be able to go into the wider society and talk about the issues that are important to you like say some of the land development that’s going on and I would think [is] affecting all Indian nations. I was listening to that, the presentation just a little while ago from Ak-Chin and how they’re taking on the development that’s going on around them and getting, and their leadership made sure that the community that has infringed all the way around them is aware that, what the outside community is doing is going to affect life in their community and I think that that is a very important part of leadership. So there’s the leadership within the community and you’re absolutely right about, that you need to have input and you need to be able to listen to everybody’s point of view. And half the time, they’re not going to agree with what you’ve said and that’s okay. You engage in those discussions and eventually come to an agreement where that everybody can live with. So you engage your own citizens internally, but then you also have to engage the people that live around you and you have to do it in such a way that it’s respectful, but it’s also forceful so that people will listen.”

Ian Record:

“So really what you’re talking about in terms of leaders as educator,s it’s not just a challenge to educate your own citizens but there’s this kind of constant challenge of having to educate those people outside of your nation that are making decisions that are going to impact your nation’s future.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely, yes. And I think that that is becoming more and more a very important part of leadership. I think it probably always has been but it has not really, it hasn’t played as prominent a role, but I think that nowadays you cannot be a leader in your community without being able to communicate with the wider society about what it is that your nation or your community is involved in, and I think that one of the very important messages to make, too, is how much our communities are part of the larger community so to speak in terms of, even just in terms of economics when you figure how much money is actually spent in the local town of Cranbrook, for example, by people from my community and how much the businesses rely on that and what would happen if we were to suddenly not support Cranbrook business anymore. I think that it’s those, that kind of being real players in the whole life of the region. I think it’s very important.”

Ian Record:

“One of your neighboring nations, the Osoyoos Indian Band, shares this, at least their leadership shares this perspective about the importance of their nation going out and educating again these outside decision-makers whose decisions impact the nation. They made a concerted effort to do that, particularly around economic development as you mentioned and the incredible ripple effect that takes place when economic development takes place in Aboriginal communities.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely. That’s the point that I always make is that when we’ve got any financial resources coming into our community, we don’t squirrel it away in some Swiss bank. We go and spend it in the local community so it’s, it makes a big difference.”

Ian Record:

“We call it the 'Walmart effect' down here in the United States.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Yeah.”

Ian Record:

“It was interesting, in preparing for this interview I happened to Google your name and one of the first links that popped up was YouTube, and I had occasion to review a video that was recently posted on YouTube about the Farnham Blockade. Can you tell us a bit about the background to that story and why you felt it so important to take part in the blockade?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, it’s a major development, major tourism development on a very fragile glacier and the whole development itself from the get-go has been of great concern to us because we see that it’s, the development is of such a magnitude that it’s going to have impacts not only on the environment, which it’ll have a very detrimental impact, but on the wildlife and on the people that live there. It’s going to affect us in every way possible. So we’ve always been concerned about that and we have not been able to find any reason from the studies that have been done and everything that has been given to us, we haven’t been able to find any reason to support that level of development. And the provincial government has been kind of interesting in the position that they’ve taken here, because on the one hand they say that people in the local region should be the ones to make a decision because they’re the ones that are going to be impacted by the development. But on the other hand, they do these kind of, it’s almost underhanded actions that they take, where we found out in terms of the Farnham Incident, we found out that the provincial, one of the provincial ministries had actually transferred a license that they had given to a non-profit, Olympic ski organization that trains Olympic skiers, they had transferred that tenure from this non-profit to the development, to the profit-oriented group and in a very major way they transferred this tenure and hadn’t told anyone. And so when my colleagues brought this up, the response from the ministry was, ‘Oops, I guess we forgot to tell you.’ It was just very, very irresponsible kind of actions. So I think that the government really need, the provincial government in this case, they really need to put their own actions in what they say that they’re going to do. If it’s important for local citizens to make the decisions about the areas that they live in, then they should be allowed to do so and not have the provincial government step in and decide what’s going to be in our best interest. I think we’re beyond those days, I would certainly hope that we are anyway.”

Ian Record:

“So what do you see for the future of this issue?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Well, right now I think that we’re going to have to continue to fight it, quite frankly. I don’t see a whole lot of support coming from the province, I don’t see a lot of leadership coming from the province and the local people, I think at the last count and they do it fairly regularly, it’s like 85 or 90 percent opposition by our local citizens and I’m not talking just about the Aboriginal people of which our tribal council has had a formal position that we are very concerned with the proposed development because of its size. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, as they say, to figure out that our environment is in real dire straits and you take a look at that poor glacier. It is just ravaged and they’re talking about building a resort on it so that people can ski on it in the summertime. At some point, rational thought has got to start kicking in.”

Ian Record:

“Do you feel your nation and others have a leadership role to play in that regard?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Oh, absolutely, and we are very, we very much step up to the plate with that one.”

Ian Record:

“What do you see for the future of First Nations in Canada when it comes to self-determination and specifically governance?”

Sophie Pierre:

“That’s an interesting question because the, on the one hand, our Canadian government would probably say that there’s a very large, there’s a big move towards self-determination and governance. In fact, they’ve got programs called 'Self-Determination' and 'Self-Governance.' And of course that is the exact opposite of self-determination and self-governance. However, I think that there’s a couple things that are at play that will support self-determination and self-governance. In British Columbia, we have the treaty process, which some of us are taking advantage of in that way to re-establish our own governments but then there’s, we’ve also been fortunate in some of the court decisions that have been made, the legal cases that have been made that have led the government to actually vacate areas that they assumed that they had some say, and so we’ve been able to enforce Aboriginal title, Aboriginal rights in that way so yeah, I think that that’s, that’s been sort of an interesting outcome of some of the court decisions.”

Ian Record:

“So what about your nation specifically? You mentioned earlier on in the interview about...that strategic planning has been a key for you as you’ve moved towards governmental reform for instance, you’ve got a strategic plan in place or a strategic vision of where you want to head. What does the future look like for Ktunaxa Nation and how is the nation today working to get there?”

Sophie Pierre:

“It’s our mission statement. I’ve mentioned that it covers all aspects, it covers the Four Pillars that are the Bible for us, so to speak. And so for our organizations, our governments, our elected leadership, we know that that is our path and so if the government comes along with a new program, we measure it by our mission statement. Does it fit with our mission? If it doesn’t, carry on, move on to somebody else, leave us alone. We have our path, we’ve set our sights on what our nation is going to look like and it’s going to be the embodiment of that mission statement and if other people’s actions don’t fit in with that, then we don’t become involved.”

Ian Record:

“So what you’re saying is that this mission statement, which is essentially as you’re talking about your strategic plan, it’s where you want to head long-term.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Yes.”

Ian Record:

“It gives you a basis upon which to decide matters that are before you, day to day.”

Sophie Pierre:

“Exactly, yes.”

Ian Record:

“And that essentially, does that not really empower you as a leader?”

Sophie Pierre:

“Absolutely and well, yeah, it’s actually, it makes it a lot easier I think to start, when you start juggling things and particularly as we’ve come to this place where we’re at and we’ve had to depend so much on other governments to...and other sources of resources coming into our communities, whether they’re financial resources or whatever to keep our communities moving, we’ve always had to react to somebody else’s agenda and it’s been so empowering to say, ‘We don’t have to do that anymore. We know what it is we want: strong, healthy citizens speaking our language and practicing our culture in our homelands in a self-governing manner and looking after our own lands and resources.’ It covers all those areas and so if something comes along that doesn’t fit in there, then like I said, I don’t have to worry about it. As chief, I don’t have to worry about it. And the next administration, they will find that it’s going to be a lot simpler just to follow that plan.”

Ian Record:

“Well, Sophie, I’d like to thank you very much for taking the time to join us today. I’ve certainly learned a great deal and I’m sure our audience has as well. That’s all for today’s program of Leading Native Nations, produced by the Native Nations Institute and Arizona Public Media at the University of Arizona. To learn more about this program and Sophie Pierre and the Ktunaxa Nation, please visit the Native Nations Institute’s website at www.nni.arizona.edu. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2008. Arizona Board of Regents."

Angela Wesley: A "Made in Huu-ay-aht" Constitution

Author
Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Angela Wesley, Chair of the Huu-ay-aht Constitution Committee, discusses the process that the Huu-ay-Aht First Nations followed in developing their own constitution and system of government. She describes how Huu-ay-aht's new governance system is fundamentally different from their old Indian Act form of government, and offers participants some lessons learned about constitutional change based on her own personal experiences.

People
Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Wesley, Angela. "A 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' Constitution." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 4, 2013. Presentation.

"Good afternoon, good morning, sorry. [Huu-ay-aht language] My name is Angela Wesley, I'm from the Huu-ay-aht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I'm going to try to breeze through my presentation today. I'm known for being very long-winded when I get a talking stick in my hand. So I'm going to try to go through and honor my fellow panelist and make sure I try not to go into his time. I'm going to talk about a few things today. It's really hard to talk about our experience that we've gone through probably in the last 20 years and isolate it down to just one thing. So I do tend to wander around, so my PowerPoint slides are generally almost in a speech form so that you have something to take away and it keeps me on track as well. So I thank you in advance for your attention.

So these are the things I'm going to talk about today in terms of citizen engagement. I'm going to talk a little bit, as we do as aboriginal people, as First Nations people, we always start by talking about who we are and where we come from. I'm going to talk just a little bit about our 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' constitution. We're very proud that our constitution was very much citizen-based and we refer to it as that constantly with our citizens to remind us that this is our laws, this is what we have created for ourselves. I want to talk about what we communicated because that I think as much to do with community engagement and engaging our citizens as how we do that. I think how we communicate with our citizens was really pivotal to what we considered to be our success, and also talk just a little bit about how we communicated.

So 'Who We Are and Where We Come From': Those of you who know Canada I'll sort of narrow it down a bit. We're from British Columbia, the westernmost province in British Columbia. You see Vancouver Island down there on the bottom. This isn't going to work. Bamfield is where I am from, my community is from. And there is just zooming in a little bit on whereabouts we are. I always reflect on...some of the sizes of your communities and your nations here in the states -- we're just very small in comparison so one of my late chiefs used to tell me all the time, 'I don't know what Canada has got such a big problem within its treaty, I can put my little fingernail over our territory on this map. So why are they so concerned about giving it back to us.' Here's a couple of images. We are coastal people. We're very reliant on the resources. There's one of our little fish that we get out of the ocean, some of the logging trucks. That's one of our logging trucks, one of the enterprises we have and some of the trees that come out of the lands within our territories, coastal scenes. When we signed our treaty, we gained a lot more of our land and what you see up there is the survey posts, those long survey posts that go into the ground and we're very proud to say that along with the crown...you can see on there, you might be able to see on there very faintly our logo is actually within those survey posts now too, just showing very proudly that that's our lands. Again, we're coastal people. Some of our communities, that's the beach where I come from. My uncle always said, 'Why would you want to go to Hawaii when we've got this beautiful beach here?' It's a little colder where we come from though.

So 'Who We Are': Our traditional territories, the traditional territories of our nation amount to 78,500 hectares, which is just under 200,000 acres or 312 square miles. That's our traditional territory, where we come from and where our roots are. Our treaty lands that we recently gained through a treaty with Canada and British Columbia amount to about 8,000 hectares or about 20,000 acres. So we now own those lands as opposed to the way things used to be under the Indian Act where they were owned by Her Majesty, the Queen and right of Canada and who looked after us on those lands. Our nation is quite small in comparison probably to most of yours. We're about 700 citizens and it's significant for us in talking about governing ourselves to say that about 80 to 90 percent of our citizens live away from home. We are on the west coast of the island. You drive down a 60 mile logging road to get to our community and there's not a lot of opportunities there right now so that's resulted in a lot of our people living away from home. We're part of the Nuu-cha-nulth Nation and we're signatory to the Maa-nulth First Nations Treaty that came into effect on April 1st of 2011. So we're very happy and proud to say that as of April 1st of 2011 we are a self-governing nation, we operate under our own constitution, we have about 20 laws in place that were written by us that are in line with our constitution and we have additional lands and resources, governing powers that come to us through our treaty. So we operate under our own constitution and under our own laws.

I'll start by talking a little bit about our Made in Huu-ay-aht constitution and any presentation I give about our community and what we do and where we want to go always starts with our vision statement. How many in here have a vision statement for your community? Really, really important to develop a vision statement. It kept us...this vision statement has probably been in place for us for about 20 years and it has guided and supported our direction for 20 years so firmly and it is something that is grounded in our people, not just in a particular council or government. Our vision...and I do a lot of community planning, working with First Nations' communities and this vision isn't different probably from what your vision is for your communities. I find that almost every community I've been into shared some components of these visions. Our visions say that we envision a proud, independent self-governing nation. '[Huu-ay-aht language],' which is our word for respect -- respect for each other, respect for everything that's around us -- will guide us as we work together to establish a healthy, prosperous, self-reliant nation where our culture, language, spirituality and economy flourish for the benefit of all Huu-ay-aht. So that is the foundation of everything that we've done in our nation and this is our check and balance. Are we doing...is what we're doing leading us towards this vision? If it's not leading us there, we shouldn't be doing it.

So our 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' constitution at the very base of it, we've talked about a lot of the different components and the legalities of constitutions, but at the very base of it, the Huu-ay-aht constitution recognizes and affirms who we are. In our preamble, it talks about who we are and where we come from. It recognizes our hereditary system, where we come from and that system that governed us for thousands of years before any kind of contact. We did govern ourselves through our hereditary system. It provides for the protection of our lands and our resources including financial resources, which is a huge concern of our people. It establishes a trustworthy, accountable, transparent government system that people can understand, our own citizens as well as others who will do business in our territories. And it sets out rules and responsibilities at every level of our government. It also guarantees the individual rights of citizens, and one of the last pieces that we put into our constitution, it also talks about what the responsibilities of our citizens are back to our nation and I think that was the one thing we were trying to figure out what was missing in our constitution and that was the very last thing that we added where we felt, 'Okay, we've arrived.'

So in terms of the process, as I said, we were in treaty negotiations and part of what we were negotiating was self-government. We wanted self-government included in our treaty and protected by the Constitution of Canada so it couldn't be taken away from us. So in doing that, our treaty negotiations were requiring us to have a constitution, but we realized that we really needed it because unlike the tribes in the United States, tribes in Canada don't have constitutions, whether they're under the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] -- is that what you call it? Our constitution was really the Indian Act. So how we started was our elected council asked our citizens at an open meeting of our nation to select some of our citizens to serve on a constitution committee, and I was fortunate to be one of those people. So our citizens selected our hereditary leader, who was to always to be a standing member of that committee. The others of us could be changed, but our hereditary leader was to remain as a member of that committee. So there was three of us that were appointed to the committee. Our task was to develop a document that reflected how our people wanted to see ourselves governed in both the near future and into the future that lied ahead. Significantly, the council provided us with resources and they stepped back. They acknowledged that if they were seen to be driving the process of rewriting our constitution and how our government operated that the people would think that it was just politically motivated, that they were trying to protect their own jobs. So I give a huge amount of credit to our leadership who just stood back and said, "˜Okay, you go and talk to the people, you go and find out what it is that the people want in terms of government.' They really recognized that this constitution wasn't about them, it was about the government of our nation.

So our committee spent probably about seven years on and off researching, discussing, communicating with, and seeking input from our citizens. We'd talk about things, we'd learn things for ourselves, we'd go back, we'd talk about that with our citizens, share what we'd learned, and ask them for some feedback about what they were thinking about things. Our process really started with a questionnaire -- and I'll talk about that in a couple of minutes -- where we went out and ask questions of our citizens. The final draft of our constitution just coming to the end of that seven years very quickly was supported by our elected council, it was supported by our hereditary chiefs and it was ultimately ratified with 80 percent voter approval in our community. And that 80 percent was...I think 65 percent of our voters actually turned out, which is also a very high turnout for us and of those 80 percent voted in favor.

So it's also important to say that in terms of engaging our citizens, it wasn't just about the constitution we were talking about. We had some other really significant initiatives going on in our community that helped us to understand the context of why we were writing our constitution. We were negotiating a treaty, as I said, that would deal with our rights in title in our territories, it would provide us with additional lands and resources -- including financial resources -- and provide us with that self-rule, the governance piece. We also were doing some comprehensive community planning, talking to our citizens about what they saw for the community; not just the governance, but what their vision was for community. We had little kids sitting at tables and drawing, giving them crayons and telling them, "'Draw what your future looks like. What do you want to see in this community as you grow up?' They've got really amazing insights, children. We had land-use planning exercises going on. So we were talking to our people at many, many different levels and there were also other initiatives going on in our territories at the same time. We were trying to assert our rights throughout our territories through things like forestry agreements and just helping governments to understand that we still had a place within our territories.

So what we communicated, I always call this 'Indian Act 101' and 'Huu-ay-aht 101.' What we found when we started talking to our people was that so many people didn't understand our own history, they didn't understand our history that they had never seen terms of our traditional governing systems, that we had a system in place, that it worked for us for thousands of years, that we were able to sustain an economy and sustain our people for thousands of years before settlement ever occurred in our territory, but people had never seen that -- generations had passed. They also didn't understand that the system that we lived under was an Indian Act system. It was something that was imposed upon us and our council was getting blamed for everything that went on, but people didn't understand why council had to act the way they did and it was because we were operating under a system that was foreign to us.

So the context of our communications, first of all we talked about that vision, that's the very first thing that we went out with when we talked to our citizens. 'What do you see for the future of this nation? What do you want to see for your people, for your children, for your grandchildren and those that are yet to come?' Because we needed to ground all of our discussions in that, we couldn't just talk about what it was like today or enter into those discussions without thinking about where we wanted to go as a nation. So it was very empowering to bring that collective vision statement together. We also wanted to talk about what is good governance. Our people didn't understand what good governance was. They're out trying to feed their families, they're out trying to make sure their kids could get through school, they're out trying to deal with matters that are beyond their control. They're not thinking about governance except for how bad the Band council is. So we really needed to have a discussion about that.

Once again, I have to really credit the Native Nations Institute. It was around the time we were starting our constitution process when I met Steve Cornell and heard a presentation that he made and I thought, 'This makes so much sense when you hear the findings of what makes a nation successful.' And our people got that, they understood that if we had strategic vision, that if our government matched our culture, that if we were making decisions in a proper way that things would work better for us. It was really something that helped to ground people in where it was we were going in terms of governance. So when we also talked about how we were going to communicate, we wanted to talk about our past, our present and our future, the fact that we came from a rich history, the fact that we were living under a governance system and the fact that we wanted to change things into the future.

So our past, many of our people didn't know about our traditional form of government. We had a constitution; we heard that talked about yesterday. We had an unwritten constitution. As I'm sure happened in all of your communities, we had strict laws, strict laws. They weren't written down, but all of us knew, we knew what we were allowed to do and we knew what the consequences were and sometimes those were very, very severe in terms of what happened if you broke one of our laws. Everyone had a role and responsibility. We heard that in Steve's presentation yesterday. In my community, we had people who looked after beaches, who were responsible for getting halibut and bringing that into our community. We had people who were responsible for making sure that our elders were taken care of. All of those things were governing...those were our governance systems. So if people weren't fulfilling their responsibility, our system didn't work. So we did a lot of education about that. That system was interrupted by the imposition of the Indian Act.

So under the Indian Act, it's just a history of oppression within that system. I don't know how many of you know what was in the Indian Act, but it's a pretty disgusting piece of legislation that still exists today. It has been changed over the years, but fundamentally the Minister of Indian Affairs still controls every decision that's made in and about our community. It rules our lives from cradle to grave, from birth to death, everything that we do -- if we live on reserve -- is governed by the Indian Act and the Minister of Indian Affairs. It defines who our members are so we don't have control over our citizenship. It imposes a band council system. It tells us how long that band council is to stay in place. It tells us how the band council runs, what its authorities are and the minister makes all decisions. Any decision that's made by our council has got to somehow receive the approval of the Minister of Indian Affairs. It allows us only to administer not to govern, so we're administering federal dollars, federal programs based on their rules. We do have some bylaw making powers under the Indian Act and it's often referred to as just 'dogs and weeds.' We can make laws, bylaws about dogs, control of dogs on our reserves and noxious weeds and that's about the extent of the bylaw-making powers we have under the Indian Act. And the consequences have been devastating on our people and that's evidenced in well-known statistics. Sadly our constitution before April 2011 was that Indian Act. So it wasn't hard, once we started explaining that to our people, to realize that something had to change, something had to change and that's how we started talking about our constitution. So in our future governments, what did we want? We wanted to achieve our vision, bring together our values, our traditional governance principles and practices with the realities of today to provide good governance for our people of today and tomorrow. And a tag line that we came up with was, "˜A rich history, a bright future.' When we started to understand where we had come from and where we wanted to go, this became our tag line.

So how we communicated? First of all talking about why we engaged citizens. It would have been very easy just to go out and do some research and come up with a document, write it out and then bring it around to people and say, "˜What do you think? How does this work for you?' But we decided that we needed to start from the ground up. We needed to build this based on the knowledge and understanding of our people. We knew that if people didn't participate in the change that the changes wouldn't mean anything to them. At the end of the day, for those people who are struggling to get by every day, all it meant was that it moved...the power moves from the Minister of Indian Affairs to the band council. Nothing really changes for them, so we really wanted to make sure that we involved our people in the process. Their participation meant that our citizens understand and are a part of the change, that they understand the importance of using their voices in a positive way to help to find solutions to the things that have been pressing us and suppressing us for so long. And they can always say that they participated in a step towards achieving a vision for our nation. We wanted people to feel like they own it.

So our first step was the questionnaire I talked about. It had a number of questions in it and the questions weren't so important I think as the process that we went through in reaching out to our people. We went door to door, at home and away from home. As I said, we have about 85 percent of our people that live away from home and we sent one of our young citizens, she was probably about 20...actually I was looking at Nicole and I was thinking, "˜She's our Trudy.' That's what you're going to end up doing in your community. It was her involvement and her role, her passion, what became her passion for doing this I think was really pivotal in terms of what we did in our community engagement. A young woman went door to door with her questionnaire and she had a job to do and she stood on people's doorsteps who hadn't been home for 30 years, who had left with bad feelings because their house was taken away or they were sent to residential school or they didn't feel connected to their nation anymore and people vented at her. They told her what they thought about our nation and that young woman stood and she took it. And we told her, we told her as a committee that she would have our support and not to get defensive with people, let them do their venting, let them say what they had on their mind. The other part of it was she had a commitment from our chief councilor that if somebody wanted to talk to our chief councilor about something, he would follow up. That was huge. That was huge to the people who had somebody come to their doorstep to talk to them about what they wanted for their future government. So that was a huge part of a foundation for where we were going and that being the result of our constitution process. So just some examples of the kind of things that we asked; I've got five minutes and I've really got to talk fast.

What does it mean to us to be Huu-ay-aht? What are our traditional values and practices? How can we make things work for today and tomorrow based on our own values? How can we make things work better for today and for tomorrow? And then we asked sort of just the general questions to get people thinking that this is how we have a say in how we build our government. What do you see in terms of numbers, in terms of council for chief and council? How long should they be in place? What about gender equality, did we want to see balance of males and females, did we want to see youth on council? What about our hereditary chiefs' involvement? How are they going to be involved? What about decision makers and processes, elections, meeting frequencies, how often should our council be reporting to us as citizens? We asked questions about finances and budgets, approvals, reporting requirements. What kind of ethical conduct we expected out of our leadership, what our expectations were, what were the restrictions around the use and allocations of land and other assets and where did the decision points lie? We heard Miriam [Jorgensen] talking about that yesterday. At what point do you need to go back to your nation in order to ask to get that approval to move forward for those bigger things? Our people said, 'We're fighting to get our lands back under treaty. There is no way that any government should be allowed to be selling our lands once we get them back after a long struggle.' Our people were passionate about that, so our constitution reflects that in terms of the high level of approval that's required in order to do anything permanent with our lands in terms of letting them go. And actually asked them also about thoughts on amending the constitution. I think the most important question that we asked our members during that first round is, "˜Do you want us to come back and talk to you again?' And I think it caught people off guard, people who hadn't seen anyone from their nation for 30 years was all of a sudden being asked, "˜Do you want us to come back?' and people said, "˜Yeah, I'll talk about this some more. Yeah, I think you should come back.' So it really engaged people early on in our process. So when all those emotions and the venting were gone, what our citizens wanted -- and this is just a very brief list -- but they wanted a say in decisions that affect our people and our resources no matter where we lived. Because we lived away from home didn't mean we weren't connected to our tribe anymore. They wanted fairness and accountability, fair and strong leadership, good decision-making and working towards a vision for all of our people.

Our communications plan: it was really important for us that we made our communications relevant. The most common thought that we had when we talked to people is, "˜What does this mean for me? What does it mean for my family? How is this relevant? Why should I be interested in this process?' Using plain language and not legalese, talking about concepts not provisions or legal words that are going into the constitution was really, really important. "˜Remember that you are living this.' Those of you who are on the constitution committee, who are on your council, you think about this stuff all the time. You end up going to bed and you wake up and you're thinking about some provision in a constitution. Remember your people aren't doing that. They're out there putting food on their table, working in their jobs, doing what they do in their daily lives. So you need to bring it down a notch when you go and talk to your people because you can overwhelm people by starting to talk about these huge concepts; [it's] really important to keep it simple. And don't just communicate when you need something or when you want something. That turns people off right away. There are so many things that we need to communicate and where problems could be resolved in our community if we just kept up the communication. And that goes in waves. Communication is very expensive; it takes a lot of time. So we need to give ourselves a bit of slack, but we need to remember the importance of communicating. And be honest and sincere in our communications. That results in stronger unity and trust. I think we built a lot of trust in our community when we were going around talking about our constitution and our treaty negotiation process. The communication plan -- one of the things that we said especially when we got into our treaty negotiations cause people were so afraid that council was going to make a decision without them. We always went out and said to our people, 'Nothing is final without membership approval. Nothing is final without membership approval.' So when people started to get rid of that anxiety that they had, their ears would open a little more and they'd be willing to listen a little bit more about what we had to say and to participate in that discussion. Really important to involve the entire team in communication efforts, it's not just your communication worker that's responsible for communication; it's everyone. Everyone on the team needs to speak the same messages, everyone needs to involve themselves in communicating because we all have different people we can reach within our own networks and families.

We need to engage citizens in many different ways, especially in direct, two-way personal communications. People respond so much better when you're talking to them directly instead of sending them a piece of paper or something along those lines. So we had meetings, phone calls, we had our own newspaper for awhile, which we don't anymore and I have my own feelings about that -- not worth getting into discussion about here -- but newsletters, bulletins, frequently asked questions, responding to people, letting them know that you heard what it is that they said and that the questions they have other people have as well, so people sharing their stories and sharing their questions is really helpful to the process. We didn't use it so much because social media wasn't so big when we were doing it, but a lot of nations now are finding positive ways to use Facebook, Twitter, other kinds of social media. We did coffee houses, home visits, family meetings. The key was to respond, respond to people, let them know that their questions were valid questions. Follow up, meet your commitments that you make, respond to questions, put the right people in touch with the right people. Not everybody wanted to hear from me. I talk too much. They wanted to talk to somebody else. Make sure that you match people up with somebody that they feel comfortable with. Openness in leadership, our leadership being prepared to respond, allowing for informal discussions sometimes. Don't always use an agenda. We had a young man on our communications team and we had all sorts of scripts and PowerPoints and everything and he'd just come in the office and he'd grab a map and he'd go out and talk to people and our elders loved that or he'd grab pictures and those are really effective ways of communicating. Treat people well, incorporate our culture into meetings. We'd sing songs. We'd bring our songs and dances out to our people. We feed our people well. We provide daycare so that their children will be looked after so that they can focus on what's happening at meetings.

So final thoughts, our 'Made in Huu-ay-aht' constitution, community involvement and input, built from the ground up. We think that's why we were successful. We responded to the input and feedback of citizens. We incorporated what it was that people were telling us. That provides a solid government structure that people understand and what they wanted. Not everybody's concerns were met in the constitution, but we tried our best. It provides for accountability at all levels. It provides for the individual rights and equality of citizens. Why we think it worked? It was citizen based. They selected the committee, they were able to provide input throughout and it was based on our collective vision and thinking. Leadership was committed to the process and the outcome whether we achieved treaty or not, very important. Maybe not so much to you who have the ability to make your own constitutions, there were a lot of things in our constitution that we couldn't do unless we got a treaty, especially in relation to our lawmaking authority. But our council committed that they would do their best to improve government in our community. So whether we got a treaty or not, our leadership said, "˜This isn't a waste of time. We're not just coming out and asking you these questions and if you don't approve a treaty we won't have good governance.' They wanted to see good governance in our community. And it was built on what we were taught and what our people have always believed in. It incorporates our values, beliefs and thoughts. Treaty negotiations provided us with an opportunity to rebuild our nation starting with our constitution. We were determined whether or not we achieved treaty to have a constitution in place. Having a strategic plan and a vision in place, always knowing where you're headed to is so important, visible leadership support for initiatives, looking to your past to determine how to move forward in restructuring your own government, building your constitution from the ground up and seeking true engagement from your citizens. Use plain language, explain concepts and potential changes not legal provisions, demonstrate that change can be positive not scary. People are really afraid of change. Start to implement what you can during the constitution process. Refine your decision making processes, define and formalize what roles and responsibilities people have. Start to learn how to govern again by doing things in a different way. Restructure your organization. Involve the youth. Involve the youth. Where's Ruben [Santiesteban]? Involve the youth. Our youth came to life in these processes. Our youth got it. Our youth understood that we needed a new way to move into our future. They wanted to get rid of the Indian Act. It was our young mothers that stood up with their children and said, "˜I am so glad that my child will not know life under the Indian Act. I am so glad that we will be making decisions for ourselves.' So I'm not going to read them out but there's some statements, really profound statements that came from our youth when we achieved our constitution and our treaty.

So we've been self-governing, we're burning the Indian Act page by page the night before we signed in our own laws. It was a pretty awesome feeling. And this is the sign you see when you enter our territories. It says, 'Huu-ay-aht First Nations. Hish Uk Tsa Wak,' means everything is one, we're all connected, everything is connected. Welcome to our territory. Owners for 10,000 years. Stewards again after 150 years. Please treat our children's inheritance with respect.' [Huu-ay-aht language]."

NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell (Part 1)

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Grand Chief Michael Mitchell of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne provides an overview of the nation-building work his nation has engaged in over the past four decades, from its decision to move away from the Indian Act to its systematic development of capable governing institutions designed to exercise true self-determination and self-governance.

Resource Type
Citation

Mitchell, Michael K. "NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Michael kanentakeron Mitchell (Part 1)." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 1, 2008. Interview.

Ian Record:

"Well, we're here with Chief Michael Mitchell, the former Grand Chief of the Akwesasne...Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and Mike is our first ever Indigenous Leadership Fellow of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. Mike, if we could just have you start off by introducing yourself. I'm sure you can do a much better job than I just did."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"My English name is Mike Mitchell. My Mohawk name is Kanentakeron. I belong to the Wolf Clan. I'm a faith keeper in the Longhouse on the traditional side. I was born in Akwesasne, which is located on the New York State-Ontario-Quebec border. Half, half the reservation is in the [United] States, the other half is in Canada, and two-thirds of what's in Canada is in Quebec and the other part is in Ontario. So we have...if it's anything like this, it's five jurisdictions on the outside and in the territory on the Canadian side is the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, on the American side is another elected government called the St. Regis Tribal Council and historically we have our traditional Mohawk Nation Council. So there's three internal Mohawk governments. And the population, probably right now, it's closer to 17-18,000 and 10,000 are registered as resident Mohawks on the Canadian side of Akwesasne."

Ian Record:

"So that makes for a pretty complex governing situation, doesn't it?"

Michael K. Mitchell:

"Yes, it was, it still is, but it's...we've been able to resolve a lot of the issues, complex issues by taking over a lot of the authorities, programs and services and run it, operate it ourselves."

Ian Record:

"You've been involved with your nation's self governance for more than two decades now. I was wondering if you could provide just a general overview of nation-building efforts at Akwesasne since you became involved."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"The first time I got on Council for what was known back then as the St. Regis Band Council was in 1970, and I had just returned back from Alcatraz and just to start a few things back home, we started taking over islands on the St. Lawrence River. That kind of got people talking, "˜Maybe you should run on council.' So I served one term in 1970, but it was difficult because I was going to school at the time, ironically, film school at the National Film Board. We had our own Native Indian film crew that was doing documentary work. So it was really in 1984, well, I ran and got elected as a district chief in 1982, served two years and figured out that there's just too many outside government interference. Council was in a drastic deficit, probably half their budget of $5 million they were in a deficit and everything was controlled from the outside, which led to a lot of personality clashes within council. We're governed by the Indian Act in Canada, so we have to adhere to a lot of their regulations, codes, etc. All authorities were dictated from Ottawa through the Department of Indian Affairs. So that was sort of like an introduction. I didn't like it, I didn't want to run again, but the fact that I survived it and they were saying, "˜You should run for the top spot,' which was the Head Chief of the St. Regis Band Council.

Back then, the people didn't really elect the chiefs. You all got elected from your districts of which there are three. There's Snye, St. Regis, which is in Quebec side, and Ontario side is Cornwell Island, and each elect four chiefs they have a total... they had a total of 12. And among the 12, they would elect amongst themselves one head chief. So I had figured out, well, obviously you have to run not as yourself but you have to run with a party enough that you would control council and then make sure you have enough votes if you want to run for the head chief, which is what we did in 1984 and the person that I replaced had been head chief for about 16 years, so this wasn't easy. He had pretty well control of the community, the Council and ran it the way he wanted, the way he saw it. A lot had to do with the way the government ran things, too. So there was a very narrow causeway in terms of accessing information back to community. But regardless, we had the election in 1984 and I won by a vote of seven to five. So it wasn't expected; people were surprised. I was young back then, but I thought...ready for a change. I went about in the community and introduced myself as the new head chief and a little bit of surprise in the attitude in the community. They said, "˜You're only head chief of the council members that elected you. We didn't elect you.' And that stayed with me.

Then I ran smack into Indian Act regulations, how you run and service a community. You always had to ask for permission from the Department of Indian Affairs. So I took about less than three, four months before I recognized that we have people to bow to on every issue, on health, education, housing, economic development, and a lot of people are on welfare. People didn't have a high regard for council and it was stagnant. So I figured the only way out of this is you better cut a fine line as to where you're going to make your stand and proceed to make some changes. Right after I got on council, the person I replaced filed an appeal, went to court, and because it was a Canadian federal legislation, the Indian Act, there's many loopholes. It's pretty old. It was put in place in 1867 with very little changes. So if one wanted to mess around with it, there's a lot of legal things you can do with it. And there wasn't a whole lot of honor in the council system the way it was set up because it was controlled so much by the Canadian government. And about 10 years had gone by since the Indian agent had left because he used to run everything. So all this was fairly new. When I said it stuck in my mind when people were saying, "˜We didn't elect you,' and considering that I had to go through a Canadian court just to retain the chieftainship because being that it was so controlled I had pretty well said in my mind, "˜We've got to get out of this Canadian-controlled election process.'

I also found out I'm not supposed to release minutes of the meetings, so the community weren't really appraised that there was so much deficit in the council. Strangely enough, the Department of Indian Affairs, they came and chaired the meeting when I became...counted the votes to be elected chief, was the same person that came back a couple weeks later and he said, "˜We were about to lock up all your offices and put your community under third-party management because of your growing deficit.' So that wasn't a real good introduction. It seemed like every other week my office was occupied by my opposition. Where I lived was on Cornwell Island, Ontario and to get to St. Regis I had to go through the American side and once I'm in the village, if I want to go to Snye, I've got to go back through the American side to get back into the Canadian side of Snye. So we cross the border about 20 times a day just to service our people. Well, all those factors came into play rather fast and they had been operating this way, I would say about 50 years that they had been controlled. They had a system, delegated authority they called it, and everything that we were to do we had to ask for permission, "˜Can council do this, can council do that?'

Being that I was more used to blocking bridges and taking over islands, I took all that energy and started studying what had to be done in the community. We started doing house-to-house survey asking the community members would they like to see an election code that would be developed by the community, for the community and let's opt out of that Indian Act so that they would be the ones that would control it. And we started working out the mechanics after getting the feedback. So in that one term of two years, and that was the other thing I was upset about because I found out that two years is a very short time for elected leadership and a lot of things can happen in that two years and council members, if they want to get anything done they'll take the first year to learn the ropes. By the time the second year comes around, you're already getting pressured to provide money for such and such a person, for housing or more money for education and it's really money that set the limit, budget. Anyway, if you're going to make changes, it had to be done.

So I went to Ottawa and asked for a meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs and I told him, I says, "˜Listen, this system that you have in place isn't working and we're going to have to make some drastic changes if the community is ever going to come out of a deficit and learn to govern themselves and look after themselves.' And the Minister's name was David Cromby. He got very interested. He said, "˜Well, you know, you have a lot of audacity to come in here and say we want to make some changes.' He said, "˜There's a system in place,' but he says, "˜I do worry about the deficit because it's not just your community, there's many other communities in the same situation.' He says, "˜What do you want to do?' And I says, "˜To improve the attitude and the atmosphere of our community, we want more of our people to take over the administration of programs and services. We want to change the election law so that we can govern ourselves and put the election process through under our own authority.' I said, "˜There's a whole history here in Akwesasne of every time somebody loses an election, you're in court, either Indian Affairs is in court as well as the council.' So he listened tentatively and he says, "˜Well, what about the deficit?' I says, "˜I'll do a deficit retirement plan, but I'll do a separate management plan and we'll wipe out that deficit within five years, but you have to agree to let us run our community.' So he went, left the meeting for awhile, he came back, talked to some people and he said, "˜They say that I can't do that, that we have a system in place,' he says, "˜But I say, we should let you try it.' He said, "˜The only other alternative is I've got to send more people, pay more money, put more money into the community and for what? There's always going to be a deficit, there's going to bad attitude.' He says, "˜I want to try this experiment.' So that was a start.

If you want to get education dollars, the ultimate authority was somebody in Indian Affairs, if you want to build a house and you need housing dollars, somebody's going to come down and take, do papers for you, applications, etc., social services, welfare, the same thing. So I asked for all these people to be sent back to Ottawa, sent home and we hired our own people. I went around and got a list of nominees...they were already working somewhere, either Ottawa, Washington, Syracuse, Albany, Toronto and we needed an administrator, manager, program directors and whoever had the qualifications, we called them, talked with them and told them what we had in mind and I said, "˜I'd like to see more people return home. You'll have a job. Bring your senior experience, your management skills and help your community because we're going to turn this around.' For some reason it caught on and people started coming back and we put together a management team to take care of the administration and I had one policy. I didn't think we had any business running the administration side -- we're politicians. So I had discussion with council saying, "˜Let's do our politics and we hire these people, let them do their administration.' So separating administration and politics was one of the first objectives and it worked. We set out a goal to analyze the political situation and carved out a period of time that we would achieve this.

And the other thing, you had to stabilize the community. The internal politics had to be taken care of so we did, it was done Mohawk style. Obviously the man that I had replaced...we had to find a way to stop the occupation. If I went to work on the American side, chances are they would cut me off over there and punch me out a few times. But there was a great hope riding on this thing about taking over. The community dealt with him. They had to settle it the Mohawk way, going out and have a little fistfight and the winner came out and they said, "˜Okay, Mike's going to have the opportunity to run this community.' And so I had that opportunity, but the greatest strength...the way I was brought up, because this is my introduction to elected system; I was brought up on the traditional side. And maybe I should take a few minutes just to acquaint everyone that on the traditional side, the women put up the leaders. And it was said that the women knew who the leaders were from the time that they crawl on the ground to when they walk to when they hunt to when they marry and have a family -- the women already knew who's going to be a good leader, who will be a good provider, who has integrity, who has good characteristics. So among the various clans of which in the Mohawks we have three major ones: Wolf, Turtle and Bear. I'm a Wolf clan, remember. My mother's a clan mother in that system. My brother's a wampum keeper in that system. So that's the family I come from. My grandfather's a faith keeper. So this whole idea of being involved in a modern, elected tribal system was new and you didn't have much authority, so if you're going to establish yourself under certain principles, I borrowed a lot of that from our traditional custom.

I found out very early that the community was ready to make changes. You raise up the optimism, people wanted to feel good about themselves and it seemed that it wasn't...it hadn't happened for awhile. I'm trying to be very polite when I talk about the Indian Act, but it is so...to me it is so evil, so dictatorial and delegated that they didn't serve our interests because we were used to perhaps more of an honor system. Do things and people looked at you for it so I borrowed that. And I says, "˜We're going to have to fight for our jurisdiction. We're going to have to fight to have our authority and if we can't convince the government that we should be controlling more services, more programs and more jurisdiction, then we have to fight them.'

Well it was only weeks away, there was some men at my office as I got to work; this is months down the line. They were fishermen and they had their boat confiscated and their nets and the motor by provincial conservation authorities. So I listened to them and I apologized to them that I had to have appointments made for me, but they were standing on the outside so I just invited them in. And this is on my way to work. Anyhow, I identified with how they fed their family. They're high steel workers and they take time off for a month and they would fish for their families and then they would fillet it and put them in the freezer and part of the traditions; people always did that. So when you have an outside government intrude on your tradition, what are you going to do? So I told them, I says, "˜Well, tomorrow I'm going to get some people together, we're going to go out on the river and if we find this conservation officer, I will talk to him.' And that sort of raised the interest of people saying, "˜You know what he's going to do? He's going to go out there on the river and see what might transpire.' So when I got out there, there was boats there already. They were ready to guide me and find this conservation officer and it didn't take more than about a half hour they spotted him leaving Cornwall [Island].

So we met in the middle of the river, right on the international boundary and we cut him off and we stopped his boat and I asked him very politely where the seizure took place. And as we're floating on the St. Lawrence River in our boats and we're talking, I said, "˜You know, around here, one minute you're in the States, the next minute you're in Canada, you're in Ontario, you're in New York State, you're back in Quebec.' I said, "˜The way the international boundary zigzags, I doubt very much if this matter was going to go to court that your charges, the seizure would hold up. So I'm going to ask you real nice if ya'll might want to just think about returning this boat to them.' And he was kind of mean. He says, "˜There's no way.' So I tried another way. I says, "˜Well, we don't need an Ontario fishing license to fish in our own waters. We have an aboriginal right, we have a treaty right, and it always says we don't need to have that when we're fishing in our territory.' He didn't buy that either. He says, "˜There's been changes.' So this went on for awhile, then my blood pressure started to come up a little bit and I told him, I says, "˜Well, in that case, sir, since you took their boats I'm going to take your boat.' And his jaw just dropped down. He says, "˜You're going to what?' I says, "˜We're going to seize your boat and I'm just going to keep it until I get their boats back.' Well, you should have saw the cheering from these guys. They said, "˜Well, let us help you.' So we dragged his boat, with him in it, back to the village. And once I got down there, we tied up at the dock and I went to the police station and I phoned Toronto, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and told them what had happened. So the rest of that day phone calls were going back and forth and as we were, higher departments, higher authorities kept calling back saying, "˜What's going on down there?' And it got to the point where the last phone call was one of their regional heads who said, "˜This could turn into an international crisis.' I says, "˜Yes, it could.'

And there had just been elections in Ontario, a new government had gotten in, and it usually doesn't work for us, but in this case it sort of did because the Premiere got on, the new Premiere of Ontario, Bob Rae. He got on and he says, "˜Listen, I know you people don't need provincial licenses to fish'. And he says, "˜But I'm more concerned about that officer that you have. Is he a hostage? Is he...what condition is he in?' I says, "˜Oh, he's sitting right here.' "˜Is he a hostage?' I says, "˜No, sir, he's not and he's welcome to go home, but he ain't got no boat so he can't go anywhere.' So he laughed. He says, "˜I see where this is going.' He says, "˜Well, let's get down to the brass tacks.' He says, "˜What do you need?' I says, "˜I need them boats back that your government confiscated from my people.' So we talked for awhile. He says, "˜You're right. I'll go look for them.' He called an hour back and he said, "˜Those boats are in Toronto.' I said, "˜Sir, that's four hours away. I want them boats back by 9:00 in the morning.' So there was a little bit of discussion at their end but the long story... short end of the long story he says, "˜Well, we'll have it back'. I said, "˜And I want that man that confiscated... this officer here to bring them back tomorrow morning.' He says, "˜I'll send somebody with him.' So they dispatched an official from the Premiere's office. Sure enough, next morning -- and I had no reason to hold this guy so they took him, allowed him to go home with his boat. But I realized early that the only language that a non-Native government understands is something drastic like that, where you have to really stand up to them and that was only the beginning.

The next morning they brought the boats back, the fishermen analyzed it, their nets, their boat, motor, oars, everything was all in there so they were happy, but that got me thinking, 'There's all these non-Native police on our waters. So how come our police aren't patrolling on the water?' 'Well, they're under the authority of the Ontario Provincial Police and so there's...work is confined to the mainland, patrolling the speed zone and accidents, etc.' 'Well, who patrols the water?' 'Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Provincial Police.' 'Well, what about that conservation officer?' 'Well, he's under our jurisdiction, under our...as well.' So it only took a few weeks for me to ask our police and they said, "˜Well, that's the way it's always been.' I says, "˜You know, we should have our own conservation officer out there patrolling, looking after our environment, the fish, the river life, the safety on the waters.' They said, "˜Well, that's never occurred to us that we should be doing that.' So diplomatically again I asked Ontario if they would consider training some of our people to be conservation officers and they said, "˜No way.' So then I turned around and I thought, "˜Well, maybe if I ask Quebec.' They said, "˜No.' Then I asked Indian Affairs and they said, "˜No. Criminal Court of Canada applies and it's the federal police.' They had no mindset that we would be out there exercising our jurisdiction and authority.

Well, it didn't stop there because being that our reservation is half in the States and half in Canada I had one other option. I phoned Albany, New York at the State Trooper Police Academy and they had a conservation program there. I says, "˜Would that be open to Mohawks from Akwesasne?' And he said, "˜I don't see why not.' So I asked for the course that I needed and sure enough they had a very thorough course. I says, "˜Can we send some guys down there?' He said, "˜Yep.' Well, six months later the two candidates we sent down there returned home. They're wearing a Stetson hat, nine-millimeter pistols; they're in uniform. They wore the uniform of where they trained. So it's very much unlike what they wear in Canada because they're used to those taxi cab hats. There was a district Ontario Provincial Police supervisor and he really took offense to their style of dress. He wanted to arrest them right there so we had a few words.

Now the time that they were away in the six months, we put together a conservation law. Again, in that six months, Indian Affairs just wouldn't hear about it. They said, "˜You're asking your community to control your water, to control enforcement.' I said, "˜That's right.' They said, "˜It's under the Indian Act. You don't have the authority to do that.' I says, "˜Then we're going to seize it.' Seven times we send, modified, and pretty soon we stripped all authority away from them. They still wouldn't pass it. So I took it all back, reformatted it and I went to the nation council and I said, "˜We're trying to claim back some jurisdiction here and under inherent right we used to control and take care of our wildlife, water life and all the animal life. We don't do that anymore. We're going to start doing it again.' So I gave a presentation, and this is an elected leader now meeting with the traditional leaders and they had always been at odds, never got along, and I explained to them, I says, "˜Well, you send me over there to create better relations of our own people in the community. Here's what I'm going to need.' Anyway, they took it to the Grand Council and they liked the idea of reclaiming jurisdiction back and they passed it as a community law for Akwesasne. Nothing to do with Canada or the United States, but it's a nation law on conservation and environment. So when the two conservation guys got home they had a law and at the same time we developed our Mohawk court.

Now we had judges under the Indian Act, very limited authority, but they were already in place. So we again started adding more, giving them more authority to hear cases higher, 'cause all they were doing is dog catcher's law, little municipal type things, so everybody was ready for it and they says, "˜Do it.' Well, it all fell into place. Community had watched the way the direction this activity was going to go. When they got home, we had bought them a boat and they started patrolling our waters, start advising our residents safety measures and there was hunting and fishing licenses by the Mohawk Nation. They went out, started telling the non-Natives who were fishing in our territory that "˜You need to have a Mohawk Nation fishing license if you're going to fish in our waters.' Well, that started an avalanche of protests, members of parliament in Ottawa start calling the Department of Indian Affairs, "˜They can't do this.' And our two young conservation officers wouldn't take no for an answer, "˜cause if you didn't have one, you were arrested and brought to our court and that's what they were doing. They were just bringing people in and our court got very active.

When they came in they said that, "˜This is a kangaroo court. It has no authority. It has no recognition.' And one of the things I had done in dressing up our courtroom, making the changes, is that we had a Mohawk community flag and we had a Iroquois Nation flag in the backdrop. Carpenters had done some work setting up -- you know how the judges kind of sit in a high place -- and they did some woodwork and got a principal's desk. I used to like to take my kids to flea market and I found some church pews, about half a dozen of them. So by the time they walk in there they saw an official courtroom and our lawyers that were acting for our land claims and adjudicating outside, brought them home and said, "˜This is your court now. This is where you enforce our law.' So there was a prosecutor and there was also a lawyer to represent them. So all this they saw when they walked in the courtroom and it dawned on them, "˜There's laws here.' There's a courtroom, the charges were read and they paid the fine. And on their way out, if they didn't have a fishing license from the Nation, they bought one. Two years passed. We knew at some point we would have to fight this in the Canadian court and as much as they were kicking and screaming, nobody ever challenged us because they knew that everything was done in proper order.

Well, anyway, the conservation officers made quite a name for themselves in the community. They were champions because things are now changing and I looked at our police force and realized they also had to change, first their attitude. They were referred to by the outside police forces as "˜window dressing cops.' "˜You look like a policeman but you don't act like one. You only enforce their laws.' So we started making more laws by taking provincial highway traffic laws and then we adopted them and we modified them to fit our community. So these things were going on and the provincial police dressed a certain way, so do the Mounties, and so our police force were dressed the same way as the Ontario Provincial Police. So I asked them, "˜Why don't we change that?' So we did a few more consultation meetings in the community with elders and with families and they gave us a lot of good ideas.

As it turned out, the community wanted them to be their police force but they saw them as, excuse the expression, "˜scouts for the cavalry,' spies for the outside police. They just were not theirs. So we were talking about what would it take to be a Mohawk police force? They had a lot of discussion, they made up a list. The style of dress, the police cars, the laws they would enforce, let them know that they're working for community. And when they changed that Ontario Provincial Police headgear, they ordered all their equipment from the United States and so they got themselves nice Stetson hats, shoulder flashes that says Akwesasne, emblems, badges that were their own, cars were set up a certain way. So it was distinctively for the territory. This was all going up very fast, changes were going and while all this was going on, community activity, we were changing that election code through our surveys, we were getting more ideas coming back. Anyway, at the end of the activity, we had encounters with the provincial police because they were saying, "˜We tell you what to do not...don't listen to that chief, he's got no authority.' I said, "˜It's not my authority, it's the community's authority. This is where they want to go.' So we had a few clashes along the way. The OPP [Ontario Provincial Police] arrested the conservation officers and confiscated their guns, so we went to court and we showed them everything that they had been trained for. The judge looked at it and he said, "˜They're well-qualified to enforce their laws because they trained for it. Give them back their guns.' So sometimes you have to fight through the system, through the courts or direct confrontation to keep advancing, so we were doing all this pretty active. And the Ontario Provincial Police appealed to a higher court. We won that one, too. So they says, "˜Well, here's your guns.'

Anyhow, the police started their program and they had their uniform changes and they started showing the community that they were community police, serving the nation, and the whole attitude started to change and that flag that I was telling you about started hanging out in the schools and in public places and in our institutions. And then I went to the Canadian Customs Building and I says, "˜Put this flag right next to your Canadian and American flag.' They weren't going to do it the first time around, so we went and put it up there. Then we went to the Seaway Building and said, "˜Put up this flag to fly alongside the Canadian flag.' They weren't going to do it, so we bought our own and put it next to theirs and dared them to try to take it down. It was Mohawk diplomacy more or less. So those changes were going on, but the community could see, they could see these changes were going on and it was for the better -- confidence building. So people had a different attitude and it didn't take long before they reflected in that law for elections because this went very fast.

Two years was up. I figured that's all I had to do was change the course because they had asked me, "˜We only want you to run one term.' And the strange part about it was, although I was from the traditional side, they don't vote in elections. So in order for me to become chief I had to be voted by the elective Christian side. For some reason they did because I was well known in the community to begin with and knowing that I would be very active in things and so they wanted to see what was going to happen. It was an interest thing for them, but they started liking when they see all these changes coming about.

The attitude changed in the community and they put that election code through with a lot of input. It became an Akwesasne election code. If you wanted to oppose or take action, you didn't like the way the turnout, you had a chance to appeal, but you appeal to our Mohawk court, not to a Canadian court or Canadian government or an institution out there, it was all settled inside. All this time the Minister of Indian Affairs was watching the way things were going and of all the skirmishes and things that would happen, he was happy because we were running our community by ourselves, we took responsibility for our finances, the administration, our programs and had a transparent operation. We started reporting to community by way of annual, semi-annual, quarterly reports, releasing minutes, giving an activity report of where monies were being spent, how they had...how they were coming in. And while this was going on I knew we needed more dollars. So I applied other skills, in this case it was lobbying skills, looking for the dollars and so we set up a portfolio system. I says, "˜this council has to change. The head chief should not be the one who is going to run everything. The head chief is the facilitator; he's a servant of the community. So the rest of you chiefs have to take far greater responsibility, because I'm going to go and start looking for opportunities out there, I'm going to do the fights out there, you look after the community.' So we decided to develop a portfolio system. This chief took care of the justice, education, health; everybody had responsibilities, and the community started to understand that they no longer had to wait to talk to the head chief. They talked to any of those chiefs, whatever problem you had you could see them and he will know and act on and convene meetings and try to solve any problems. So it took on a greater interest and a greater authority. Now prior to that, chiefs that served on council they called them councilors; we changed that. I says, "˜You're not councilors, you're chiefs. You're elected by the community. You're chief for your district.' So other than just the word, we gave them a higher level of importance and with that a job description of what they will do when they're on council and that was incorporated into the election code, Code of Conduct for Chiefs -- that was in there. If he done something wrong, you could take a chief out of office, if he violated the code of ethics -- that was borrowed from the traditional side.

We changed the name. We didn't like the name St. Regis Band. As a matter of fact I hated that because there was a band program, band council, band administrator, everything was "˜band.' I know the Canadian government had this as a mindset for us, to think of ourselves as a lesser people, because we don't mention anything about 'nation' anymore. The only ones that were always saying "˜nation' were on the traditional side and they had... they were in the minority, the government didn't pay any attention to them. So this whole idea of changing, we got rid of the word 'reserve.' You've got 'reservation' on the American side, but you've got 'reserve' on the Canadian side, and I didn't like either term so we said, "˜We're a territory. This is a Mohawk Nation Territory. We're not St. Regis, we're Akwesasne.' So again, we had a pooling of ideas, got feedback and started passing council resolution saying, "˜We're no longer going to refer ourselves as the St. Regis Band. So we became the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. We became the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne. There's no more band office; it's administration. And all those administration offices became Administration 1, Administration 2 and that language fit well in the community. And around the council table, some of these chiefs had been in office maybe two or three terms, four terms, some of them maybe even 10 terms, two-year terms. That new election code that we were now discussing says we needed three years because if you're making promises on your second year, you're up for election, chances are you're never going to control the deficit, you're never going to deal with it because you're forever spending more money. Took it to the community, they said, "˜That makes a lot of sense,' and so we revised it.

As far as those chiefs that were on council, sometimes they would say "˜band council' inadvertently. I said, "˜We've got to cut this out because we have to show an example to the community how we're going to refer ourselves and if we're going to change our attitude we have to change the way we refer to each other. You're a chief and we don't want to mention this band word anymore.' So I says, "˜Here's what we're going to do. I put a coffee cup in our meetings and anybody that says band for any purpose will have to donate a quarter into our coffee fund.' Again, it was non-threatening. It became a game and they all looked at each other, laughed and says, "˜Okay.' So, yeah, every other meeting somebody would get caught and put a quarter in there; pretty soon, we had a big jug and it caught on with the stuff. This is a whole different idea, it don't cost a lot of money, but to have you think of yourselves differently, to have you think of your community differently, your people differently we had to incorporate some things like that. So now you had the flag, you have a new council name, your community is under a different mentality. To get back to the election code now. We had finished it, we had a model and the community voted on it. Well, the government came back and said, "˜Geez, you need 51 percent of your total membership.' Mind you, families are out working in different places; we're never going to reach that. So I went back to the Minister and I says, "˜Well, I'll tell you what, would you be satisfied with a letter from the nation council because they don't vote, they don't get involved in these things and you're counting their numbers. So if they give you a letter saying we represent 800 people, that's traditional and we like what the Mohawk Council is doing, we like the idea that they bring their election law back to their community, would that be enough?' And he said, "˜Yeah. I could see that.' And that's how we got around it, just a little bit of innovative thinking. Next election it was under the control of the Mohawk community.

I thought my job was finished back then because I had started these things. They said, "˜No, now you have to run because it's no longer the Head Chief, it's no longer the St. Regis Band Council, it's now the Grand Chief...' And the idea, the first time, the first week I went around when the community people were telling me, "˜We didn't elect you,' I pulled that Grand Chief position, I says, "˜The Grand Chief is now going to be elected by the community at-large, not by these 12 district chiefs or councilors.' That was the one significant thing and that's how the community know that we're going in the right direction. We empowered them. Anybody could run from the community for Grand Chief, but you had to be elected by the community. Well, my opposition, 'That man's crazy. He's from the traditional side, "˜They're not going to vote.'' So we had another one of those famous runoffs and I ran and I won again and council was strengthened even more.

We kept on the path for governance, for representation, for change. A lot of the changes that were going on were really back to our traditions, not necessarily changing so much on the outside. The Department of Indian Affairs stopped being my enemies because now they're taking lessons on accountability, transparency and they would come back and I noticed that every time we had a representative from Indian Affairs, he would try to sneak out our reports to the community, put them in their briefcase. Finally I just asked them, "˜Why don't you just ask us, we'll give you a whole batch,' because now they're taking it to other reservations, showing them, "˜See what they're doing over there, they're giving reports to their community membership.' And so they stopped fighting with me and we became partners in governance. I would give them ideas and say, "˜This is what we want to do.' And most of that time, mind you there were a few other bad apples over there, but for most of that time they knew that we were trying to survive in a community that's divided up into jurisdictions, into puzzles and it was hard to bring it back together. So that was a little adventure into Mohawk politics. It's still on a course, sometimes it slows down, sometimes it's on a crash course somewhere. I shut down ships because we're right on the St. Lawrence river, when I didn't like something that was going on or shut down the bridge, international bridge traffic, and pretty soon I didn't have to do those things. And I'm getting a little older now and people say, "˜You mellowed, you're not a militant anymore.' But all these things, when you have respect, you can sit at a table and negotiate solutions. The challenge doesn't stop. We did a lot of other things that brought us up, but the idea was for most of the leaders, have respect for the culture and tradition of your people, have respect for the language. When we were small, we all spoke the language and as we had children and they grew up, the mentality was if you're going to succeed get an education. That language is not going to help you out there, nobody speaks Mohawk in the States or in Canada. So that was the mindset. In the "˜80s we turned that around and said, "˜Our culture and language is important.'

And for all the hard time that I had coming from the traditional side, something had happened in my second term in 1984 when I became Grand Chief. The Pope came to Canada and he wanted to experience a Native ceremony. I don't know what he was thinking, but he had asked the bishops in Canada, the Catholic Church of Canada to say, "˜This is what I want to experience.' And years before that he had already known that the churches would bring out so many Indians and they would dress them up, put the western war bonnet on a Mi'kmaq or a Mohawk out east, put them on horses, dress them up the way you would see a Native American on cowboy and Indian and the Pope was, he says, "˜I know all that. And I know if I'm going to go to eastern Canada I don't want to see you dress up your Natives that way. I want to see what they're really like. I want to see the spiritual side and I want you to organize it.' So the priests from our territory wrote back, says, "˜Well, they just elected a traditional...' well, they referred to me as a pagan, but more diplomatic is, "˜There's a traditional Mohawk here, he's now the Grand Chief and he goes to the Longhouse, he goes to ceremonies, he's a faith keeper in that Longhouse.' So it didn't take long before they wrote back. They says, "˜Would you put on a ceremony for the Pope?' And I had a lot of difficulty from the very strong Christian side of the community. It was always a test. So I went back to the Longhouse and I told them, I says, "˜Listen, this has been an offer, an invitation has been given to me to do this and do you think it's a good idea?' They talked about it and the conclusion of their discussion was this, "˜Maybe it would lead to better relations between ourselves, us traditionals and Christians. So we're going to send you, but we're going to send a clan mother, an elder and singers to help you.' So that's how...this was 1984, kind of still fairly new back then and given a hard time by the Christian side and often be referred to as a pagan, the attitude was, "˜You look down on your traditional brother.' The Pope came to Canada, we put him through that ceremony, and he was so affected by it because I work with Ojibwe and Cree nations to put this on, but a healing ceremony consisted of smudging, they use sage and sweetgrass. I brought my sacred tobacco and put everything together, put him through the ceremony. One of our elders did the blessing with the eagle. But all along there they explained to him what we were doing and when the words and the songs were put to him as he was going through, I could see a tear coming down and he was totally committed to this experience.

Anyway, when it was over and he read his prepared speech, that man can say greetings in about 20 different languages so that took a bit of time and then he gave his address. It was broadcast all over the world. There was probably an audience of about 80,000 in this...if you can think about what a Woodstock concert would have been like, it was pretty well the same set-up; speakers all over, screens so that they would project all over the field. And then he digressed from his prepared text and from here he told them, he says, "˜The Church assumed when we came to the Americas that the Native Americans were godless and soulless people.' He said, "˜That's wrong. They have a very beautiful culture and traditions and thanks to us we've taken that away from them.' He says, "˜What I've experienced today, I will remember it and I want to thank the elders and the people who put this ceremony together and my message to all of you is I want to apologize on behalf of the church for what we've done, the damage that we have done.' So his message to his followers was, "˜Don't be ashamed of who you are. Don't be ashamed of your tradition, your culture, your traditional beliefs. Incorporate them into your church activities.' That was a big turnaround. It certainly led to my being more accepted in the total community and within a short while after this was all over we had all been home, my community, in the church they started burning sweetgrass and offering traditional chants, singing and dancing, even dress. And so they saw themselves as [Mohawk language] Mohawks and they were proud of it whereas before they had been taught to be ashamed of it. That was a stark difference. So situations happened in my early term that helped the path that I was pursuing. It was well appreciated. I was invited to speak to other churches. I went and spoke in their churches, something that was very new for me and it helped with a lot of the changes that were coming about."

Ian Record:

"You talked about the laws and the codes and the court system that you set up, and early on you found yourself right in the middle of it because one of your family members was one of the first violators of I believe it was your conservation code or one of those, right? I wonder if you'd tell us that story."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"Man, I went all the way around not to go near that story. Yeah. The conservation officers, as new as they were, but the uniform was very distinctive, their presence was distinctive and the support of the community, they were champions because now they're out there exercising authority on behalf of the community. So everywhere they went the elders singled them out, shook their hand. So one day I'm meeting in the village with elders, we're talking about building a new nursing home and they walk in. This is just probably a few weeks after they had come from their training in Albany. And they said, "˜Chief, we need to speak with you,' and they got cut off. The elders just got all around them and they give them coffee and tea and cookies and all, made a...so they had to make a little speech and they were just adored by the elders.

So when they got a chance one of them cut away and he says, "˜We're here on official business. We need to talk to you, Grand Chief.' I says, "˜Really? What's it about?' He said, "˜There's been a murder on the island and your...somebody in your family might be involved in it.' Well, it hits you right here, huh? I says, "˜Well, excuse me.' I took them outside for a briefing. At their suggestion went outside and with stern faces they looked at me and looked at their report and they said, "˜There's been a murder up the hill where you live.' And I'm studying their face to see if this is some kind of a trick or humor. I couldn't find anything. Then I started getting scared. I says, "˜Well, what happened? Does it involve my family?' He said, "˜Yes, it does.' They looked at each other and then they said, "˜A pig was killed up the hill, farmer called in and it had piglets and they were all killed, too. And those piglets were traced down the hill to your farm. So the murderer, the culprit of this murder, is your dog, your Alaskan Malamute.' Well, then it started...I didn't feel as bad, because now I knew that this is their way of impressing how important their work is and their investigation. So I challenged them. I said, "˜Well, how do you know it's my dog? There's about three or four other houses that have Alaskan Malamutes.' They were just waiting for that. They pulled pictures out. "˜Behind your barn there's a whole, there's piglet parts in there. There's your dog, blood stains on his face and on his chest, and there's a trail down the hill, and so we know, we have proof, everything's documented. Grand Chief, you're under arrest.'

Now they scared me. I didn't know how to react so I went with them and they charged me. I'm the first one to get charged on a conservation law that our people put together and in the authority they carry, they singled the Grand Chief. So this created a lot of discussion in the community because I didn't have to go to court for two weeks and to prepare whether I'm going to argue it or offer a plea. So anyway, the charge was given to me. People either laughed about it or there certainly was a lot of discussion. To the elders they said, "˜Well, it's the Grand Chief's the one that's trying to find the money for this program. He sent them to school, he found a place for them to be trained.' Pigs die, even the farmer up the hill when he found out it was my dog he was trying to drop the charge. It was going both ways. My opposition says, "˜Well, is he going to pull strings and get out of this?' Two weeks came up, I went to court. I paid the fine. And people wondered, 'What was the result, what happened?' And I said, "˜I paid it.' And I guess it tells me that we all have to follow the law, and I just want to say the conservation officers did a thorough job investigating the murder on Cornwall Island.

And that was the result of the story. But weeks later, then I started getting some feedback. Apparently a lot of people in our community were watching to see how this was going to turn out and are we going to have respect for our own nation law. And if the Grand Chief is the highest authority, is he going to pull some kind of strings to get out of this or have the case dismissed or find a technical way to deal with it? And I didn't realize that there was such an interest in how this was going to turn out. But the law, the nation law applies to everybody and it all turned out well. It was a little embarrassing for me. I had to swallow a few times, too, but the bottom line is if you make a nation law, you better abide by it. It's not just for the non-Natives; it's also for us, too. And that was a little story about how the law applies and how you treat and respect the enforcement of law and justice in your community."

Ian Record:

"It's an interesting story. I think leadership is in many ways leading by example and that citizens of a nation are going to take their cues about what's going to be tolerated and what's not going to be tolerated in terms of behavior by how their own leaders behave."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"It was an example to the degree that there was interest generated and people knew that I could have it dismissed like that and it was just a thing that they were saying, "˜Well, how is this going to...?' And it led to everybody having respect for our program, respect for the nation law, respect for the police authorities, because it wasn't just the conservation. It applied to police in general and so it became a healthier thing. It was a good example to everyone and it taught us a lesson, because there were times when you had to stand up to the authorities on the outside, you might even have to disagree with them about how law is applied. That's how I looked at it. If you have to stack that up against your own laws or your own beliefs, if you violated a custom, tradition, that you want to defend it, sometimes you go to jail on principle. And it was those principles that became very important in our community. But at the same time, in your traditions there's also law, there's also justice and you better respect it. It doesn't mean that we can just do anything. That border that we lived on was inviting for a lot of criminal organizations and in my time, two or three elections later, it became a thing for smuggling of contraband going back across.

Let me try to see if I can demonstrate something here. There's three islands here: Barnhart Island, Cornwall Island and St. Regis Island. Here's the St. Lawrence River. Whoever set the boundary line back in the 1700s and 1812 must have been drinking somewhere because here's how it goes. Barnhart Island, New York State, it goes around this way and then there's Cornwall Island, Ontario and then it goes around, St. Regis Island, Quebec. You would think they would just go one way. Of course the water goes straight down. That's why I said one minute you're in Canada, the next minute you're in the state, you're in New York, you're in Quebec, you're in Ontario because that's how the international boundary line was zigzagging. And so the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations] and the state troopers and the Canadian Mounted Police and the Provincial Police all said, "˜We'll never get a conviction on the water, so we'll just stay on the mainland and we'll catch whoever we catch on the mainland.' So this whole area became this, what they call this gray zone, and it didn't take long for criminal organizations to hear about Akwesasne, how it's easier to transport stuff back across. And it became very hard because they were enticing a lot of our people to say, "˜Run this across the river for me, boxes.' Well, it didn't take long for those cigarettes to turn into drugs, guns and when 9/11 happened, on CNN and NBC, ABC, CBS, we were watching and they had a map of Akwesasne and the first few weeks they were looking at saying, "˜Those terrorists must have had... come through Akwesasne.' We're getting to be famous for the wrong reason, but that's the scenario and that's what they thought happened. It took a couple of weeks to kind of find out that they didn't come through Akwesasne, that they were already in the country, but who do you blame first when something like this happens? Who do you point fingers to when criminal activities are going on? Both sides, they were blaming the people who live there and the customs security cracked down. They were checking every car, but they were checking the cars of the grandmother and the mother trying to get her kids to school going back and forth so they were very hard times for us.

There was another thing that I was instructed to do was challenge Canada on our border crossing rights. They loaded up my truck with food and furniture, household goods, stacked them way high and I came across the international bridge. Everybody walked with me alongside the truck, about 1,000 of our community residents, got through Canadian Customs and I declared everything that I had with me and then I says, "˜I want to exercise my aboriginal right, I'm not paying the duties and the taxes,' which amounted up to maybe $370 some dollars. They wanted to arrest me right then and there and they...Customs verbally arrested me, but I kept going. Second line was the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and they pulled me out, put me in their car and the women of our community went over there and pulled me back out, put me back in the truck and said, "˜Keep driving.' So somehow or another we got on this 401 that went to [Mohawk language], which is another Mohawk community further west and we gave the goods to them as a historic right of trade. And it went to court, it went all the way to the Supreme Court, because I was told in these meetings by high level government authorities, "˜Chief, if you believe your people have a treaty right, an aboriginal right to cross the border with your own proper goods, you have to win in a Canadian court. If you win in Canadian court, we will be prepared to negotiate how to implement, how to exercise that right.' So this was a test case that I was invited to participate. When I came home and I reported that, they said, "˜Let's do it.' And so this was the whole precedent setting thing that occurred.

Years later we finally hear the case and I win everything. So Canada was totally unprepared for how it was going to be done and the people that made those promises that I had to win in a Canadian court were no longer there, it was a new government there. They said, "˜We didn't make those promises, so we're going to appeal.' So it went to a higher level, they lost again. So a different Minister now getting really concerned because now their federal prosecutors are telling them, "˜You know, the Mohawks could bankrupt the financial institutions of this country, they could threaten the sovereignty of this country. Look at the decision what was awarded to them.' And we weren't asking for a lot, just to bring across our own community goods, our food, products, furniture, anything for the nation and to trade with another nation. That was the other thing that we had invoked. Anyhow, what happened was they said, "˜We're going to go to the Supreme Court.' I says, "˜You didn't say that. You said we would negotiate how to implement this right.' Anyway, they went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court heard the case and they altered the argument, restructured it and gave a decision, a 'no' decision.

So after all that time, this is about 10 years for this battle of recognition of inherent right, aboriginal right, treaty right. I wasn't satisfied the way we had been treated. The lawyers in Canada started holding sessions on how this was played with and there's a code...there's a code of honor among lawyers and legal institutions that there's some things you don't do, and this is what happened because they were so paranoid. I got home and I thought, "˜Well, I've been to the highest court of this country, it wasn't exactly...turned out the way I wanted to see it turn out, gave it my best shot and I was just going to proceed to do other things. And then somebody came to see me and they said, "˜You should try to take Canada to the International Court because what they done to you should have never happened and if that's the last resort, that's the last course, then you should submit it to the Human Rights Commission. There's no guarantee they're going to hear it though.' So that's the next thing that we did is we submitted to them and we asked for more documentation, they looked at it and here's a team of lawyers from Canada saying, "˜Don't hear it. It's been settled.' They examined everything and they said, "˜We're going to hear it.' It was heard last February and we expect a decision sometime in the next few months. It'll be the first of its kind, but when Canada holds itself up as a defender of justice, of human rights, this happened in their backyard and so I didn't want to do this, but you forced the issue; you're promised something and then they take it away. So that was one of the last things that I was...challenges that I faced because by now those two years turned into 25 years on council. I would take a break, but always the next term they say, "˜We want to bring you back.' So that was one of the last fights I had with Canada."

Ian Record:

"What I've been hearing a lot in your discussion thus far is essentially you moved, Akwesasne moved from a position under the Indian Act where your system of government really had no transparency and no accountability to a system where you're striving very hard towards and you're institutionally building towards a system predicated on transparency and accountability, not only within the government but also accountability of the citizens to the nation. I was wondering if you'd talk a little bit about that."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"In the early "˜80s, middle "˜80s, when the government controlled the purse, we were barely getting by with the monies we had to service the community. When we took over and we had a better grasp of what's needed, we were able to lobby for more dollars and by reporting the results of the expenditures and the programs that we had implemented we also had our own actual figures of what's needed. I'll give you an example in health. We took everything over -- the administration of it, started putting some policies of our own, hired our own people in-house -- it became a big regime. And so much so that Canada started referring to it as a living example of what would happen if First Nations took over like taking it from a self-governing position. I never lost sight of the fact that the only thing that we were doing is removing those government people away and putting our own people, designing our health schemes, putting accountability factors, implementing programs and services in the community the way they want to see it and then built in involvement from the community to give direction where the health programs will go and as a result we qualified for more dollars. The institutions that were built is the same for education, it's the same thing for other programs, and pretty soon when we started from $5 million, when I left in 2006 they had a budget of $76 million to administer and service the community. In between that, people had a chance to return home, have a skill and bring it home and find employment. But that wasn't the end all. There were other factors now that were available so it was more promising than from the time of the Indian agent or when the council was controlled by the Department of Indian Affairs. So the movement...what's indicative was the attitude change in the community. When you think better of yourself, you're more aware of your nation culture and traditions, you take pride in your community. Those are all factors that were crucial. They didn't cost a whole lot of money, because at the time when we were in a deficit I laid these things down and had a path to pursue. We didn't have a whole lot of money to spend, we couldn't make a whole lot of promises, "˜I'm going to do this,' but we did some confidence building, pride development and slowly the attitude started to fall in.

The elders provided the greatest support. They knew that this was their community and wanted to see a strong, healthy community. Now mind you, that didn't mean that we didn't get hit with a lot of modern problems. I mentioned smuggling a while ago. A lot of things that were going in and out would also stay. So drugs became prevalent, social issues became very prominent and hard to deal with, but we set ourselves with a way to deal with it because our programs were there and we could add anything that came, but we're able to deal with modern-day problems. Now that generation from the "˜80s and into now, the product, language has become very important, the curriculum in education systems have become very important, more involvement and teaching of Native culture and history and traditions, more language programs. We have some schools that are total immersion, Mohawk and all the subjects. Nobody would have thought back then that we could have done and built institutions like that. Our relations with the tribe, that had been our enemies in the past, now they sit together in council. They now recognize the Mohawk Nation "˜cause very early in my term, probably within the second year, we passed a resolution recognizing the Mohawk Nation council as our historic national government. We're a community government; they're a nation government. So now we're trying to find our way, how do we get everybody working together. The mindset was, and the trick from the outside is, get people fighting amongst themselves, make one side seem lower in stature than the other. You're the good guy, they're the bad guy, they're the pagans, you're this and that. Well, now everybody's saying, "˜Wait a minute. We're all traditional now and we're all proud to be Mohawks and that's going to affect the next generation. So we can withstand all the modern problems and difficulties that will come, we'll try to find a way to resolve them because those problems are great, they're coming at you from all directions. But now you've built your institutions, you've built your programs to service your people, you've also developed a character that will withstand all the negative, and also from the outside governments that try to influence them so you don't have that. You have it in your heart and your spirit to fight for those things. Your children will grow up fighting for the same thing. So it's been a worthwhile experience. I look back now and I say, "˜That was a good term. You learned something.'"

Ian Record:

"The last question I have is this issue of governing institutions, which you've talked about in detail. The extensive research of both the Native Nations Institute and also the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development have showed that across Indian Country in the United States, across Canada, Native nations are aggressively pushing for sovereignty, for self-governance, but has chronicled case after case where when nations do not back up that assertion of sovereignty with the building of capable governing institutions, they really can find themselves in the sorts of battles that they can't afford to lose. And I was wondering if you could just comment in maybe more general terms about the importance of reinforcing that push for sovereignty with those capable governing institutions."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"There's a very historic wampum belt that we all grew up with in all our Iroquois communities that we're taught, and this belt has two lines, two purple lines. And one line they say is a ship and on the other line is a canoe and the blue line represents a body of water. And they said on that ship is the non-Natives, the European newcomers, settlers and in 1664 they sat down in Albany and they talked about this, making an agreement. And from that experience between the Dutch and the Iroquois, later the English and the Iroquois, they had this discussion and on a piece of paper when they said, "˜My king will be your father and we're going to have a relationship here and we're going to do business in this manner,' is that they left that day and the Iroquois said, "˜We're going to come back the next day with our response.'

The next day they came back, they said, "˜We have made this belt. First our answer to you is we can't have a relationship because you're telling us the king will be the father and we're going to be the children. A father will always tell his son what to do. Our answer is we'll be brothers, equal.' And so they come to these two rows. They says, "˜On this one row will be your ship that you came from across the salt waters and from what you're telling us, you couldn't practice your religion over there. You didn't have a fair system of government over there. You get penalized for doing these little things and so you want to be free over here. On this ship we're going to allow you to have your own government. You're going to have your traditions, your culture, your language, your governance. It'll all be on this ship. In our canoe, we're going to maintain our traditions, our culture, our language, our governance, our jurisdiction. And we're going to go down the river of life together. Whenever you need help, we'll come over and help you, but we'll never interfere in internal relations of your people.'

So that was a solemn pledge they made to each other and they did help each other down the course, because when the settler governments first got to the Americas, everything was new for them. They weren't knowledgeable of the medicines that the Native people knew. They knew nothing of corn and beans and squash, pumpkin, maple syrup and the list goes on that we take for granted every day now as edible foods. That was all new, even tomatoes, beans. So in helping them with the foods that were grown in this world, Turtle Island, when I said they helped each other along the way, this is how they would help each other. We also were not privy to a lot of the diseases that Europeans brought over so they would help us in the other way. That was the relationship. My point is sovereignty began with us from day one when a clear line of understanding in the relationship the way it was supposed to go. And it's in our heart, it's in our spirit as we look after our people. Unfortunately, that was a traditional practice. So when they brainwash you into a modern elected system, you didn't believe any of that stuff anymore. One of our jobs was to go back to our traditional ways and bring that out and say, "˜Listen, we're Mohawks, we're Iroquois and that is our belief, that is our principles.' So now both...everyone adheres and abides by these principles whenever we talk to outside authorities and governments. That's the basis.

Now I'll tell you one thing in Canada, you can't say sovereignty. They just freak out when we talk about our sovereignty. Not that we don't ever stop. We just listen with interest because they're so concerned about Quebec separating from Canada and they call it separatists. And the Quebec people start talking about their sovereignty of their nation, which is Quebec. And so they've had a couple of showdowns, referendums. One time they come by one percent that they were going to leave. We never really concerned ourselves with it because three quarters of Quebec is Cree and the other part is Iroquois and so we would have just had a referendum of our own and say, "˜We're going to separate from Quebec,' and come back to our own nation. At least that's what we told them and they always freaked out when we told them more or less embarrassing them.

The idea of nationhood is now growing, finding it's way back to the nations in Canada, and I know as I travel around in the States they're always talking about sovereignty. As a matter of fact, I kind of get disillusioned at times because I see so many of our leaders go to a national chiefs' convention, stand up there, talk about sovereignty then go home and do their due diligence with programs and services that are administered from the outside, the social conditions are bad, they haven't moved their community, so it has become rhetoric more or less. So you see when people are really strong it's not particularly the leaders, it's the community that has to grow. They have to have the confidence and they have to have the ability to say, "˜We are who we are. We are a nation. We want to do this. We're strong in our traditions, in our culture, in our language.' And when you're strong there, you become strong in other areas because now you're not afraid to get an education, you're not afraid to get an occupation or train for something because you know who you are. That's the result of the residential schools, that's the result of the churches, it's the result of people that have changed our minds. So we want to go home. So my interpretation of sovereignty is strictly being...knowing who you are, what nation you belong to, the roots that you have, that's your tradition and culture, and you'll be a strong nation. The problem is that many of us have been educated to the degree then admitting to something else that we believe that we no longer have those roots of our nations. And back home that root took place and embedded. So I feel kind of confident in the next generation that we'll continue to have the fighters going in the same direction. I didn't quite answer you the same way as you'd expect somebody to talk about sovereignty in that way, but that's how we look at it." 

Michael K. Mitchell: A History of the Akwesasne Mohawk

Producer
Native Nation Building: Governance and Development undergraduate course
Year

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
Citation

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." 

Stephen Cornell: Getting Practical: Constitutional Issues Facing Native Nations

Producer
Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute
Year

Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy Director Stephen Cornell provides a brief overview of what a constitution fundamentally is, and some of the emerging trends in innovation that Native nations are exhibiting when it comes to constitutional development and reform.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Resource Type
Citation

Cornell, Stephen. "Getting Practical: Constitutional Issues Facing Native Nations," Remaking Indigenous Governance Systems seminar. Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Prior Lake, Minnesota. May 2, 2011. Presentation.

"So I'm just going to start with a couple of quotes that Joe [Kalt] had come up with that I think are worth bearing in mind as you consider governmental reform. This is Albert Hale, former president of the Navajo Nation, making an argument that all the things David [Wilkins] just talked about: tribal innovations in governance -- these are acts of sovereignty. I'll give you a moment just to look at that.

Now one of the issues that has come up -- and I mentioned this earlier when I was introducing Regis Pecos. We talk about constitutions and I think very often people immediately think of a written document. But if you think about a constitution with a small 'c', just what does it mean? It basically means what are the set of rules by which this Nation has decided to govern itself? That's a constitution, whether you've written it down or not, whatever form it takes. When a Nation says, ‘This is how we govern ourselves,' that's a constitution.

And some of you may be interested at some point, there's a First Nation in British Columbia called the Gitanyow people. The Gitanyow are a Gitxsan people in the mountains in central British Columbia. They're very traditional people and they have an interesting form of government. They've got a government on reserve on their reservation that was formed under the Indian Act passed by Canada. But then they have a very substantial traditional area where they retain land use, hunting and fishing rights. And within that area the hereditary chiefs govern and they govern according to the kinds of ancient rules and principles that Regis Pecos talked about this morning. But they found that Canada could not understand how these hereditary chiefs made decisions because in fact, it's a very complex system they have. It's a system of clan control over land use. And within their tradition area the clans, which they call houses, the houses of the Gitanyow people make decisions. If you want to hunt in that particular part of a mountain range, you have to go consult with that house and ask their permission to hunt in the piece of territory for which they carry responsibility. If you want to fish at this place in the river, you have to go to that house and ask their permission. ‘Can I fish in the area for which you're responsible?' And if the house says yes, then you can fish there. And sometimes there are disputes between houses over, ‘Wait a minute, whose territory is this? Who did you get permission from?' Well, the Gitanyow have a traditional mechanism for how they resolve those kinds of disputes. When those disputes come up, this group of houses get together and they deliberate and they decide what the answer is. All of this was simply passed on in the typical way, oral tradition and knowledge, but Canada couldn't figure it out. So the hereditary chiefs said, ‘We're going to have to write a constitution. We're going to have to explain to the Canadian government how we do stuff.' And they wrote a constitution, I've got a draft of it here. The Gitanyow Constitution, Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs Working Draft Number 12 -- it took a little while to get it right -- 2003. And what's interesting about this is now it's written, but it was a constitution before it was written down. It was the rules they used to survive as a people. And that's what we're talking about here, is the decisions you make about how you're going to govern. What are the principles and the processes you use to make the decisions you need to make to survive as people and create that future that you imagine? Nothing really changed in those rules when the Gitanyow wrote it down, but now they've got a written constitution where before they didn't.

Another couple of quick quotes; this is Rocky Barrett, Chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation: ‘Without good rules, tribal government is just a bad family reunion.' This is one of Darrin's [Old Coyote] countrymen, Richard Real Bird, former Chair at the Crow Tribe. When they were first working on trying to do constitution, that process didn't really work out. Darrin told you about the process that succeeded but when Richard Real Bird was starting that process, he said, ‘This is our strategic plan, a constitution -- how we're going to govern ourselves as a people. It's our strategy for how we deal with the future.' Joe Flies-Away, tribal judge at Hualapai, ‘A Nation's laws are the deepest expression of its culture.' It doesn't matter if they're written down. This is an expression of who we are. So that's what we're talking about when we talk about constitutions. (I'm going to skip a lot of what is in here, we'll be happy to email you these slides at your request if you...we'll just I guess decide we'll email them to all the email addresses we get on that sign in sheet.) But I wanted to touch on a couple of other issues.

This is one point that Joe wanted to make. ‘A lot of Nations today operate under constitutions built on ‘Western' paradigms.' But when we think of constitutions, I've had somebody say to me a constitution is a Western idea. Well, Dave mentioned the Iroquois. Here's a fascinating piece of the Iroquois, in a sense, Constitution of the Confederacy. It's pretty explicit about how we do things. I'll let you read it. I think ‘contumacious' means resistant. If you look at what that says, that's a set of rules about how we choose leaders and how we get rid of leaders who show that they cannot serve the people effectively. And it also tells who gets to do this. Who replaces the leader? The women shall choose the next lord and they'll inform the senior leadership about who they've chosen and then that person will be elected. It's a set of rules, ancient rules about how they choose to govern themselves. (I'm going to skip through some of this. We really covered a lot of this.)

Constitutions and the governments they create are tools; they have multiple purposes. (Again, we'll send some of this to you. I don't want to cut into the time of our presenters later.) Some of the key tasks that most constitutions -- that we see nations working on now -- some of the things they're trying to address: identity and citizenship, powers, rights, responsibilities, structures, etc. (I'm going to cut into a couple of these.) This is just one version of ‘who we are.' The Coquille Tribe of Oregon, the preamble to its constitution. It's making a certain claim about who we are as a people, why we're putting this constitution together. It's a statement.

Citizenship: the one thing I want to touch on here, this is a tough issue that a lot of nations are dealing with. One of the things we're seeing at that top bullet says, ‘From Membership to Citizenship.' Several times I heard Oren Lyons, traditional faith keeper of the Onondaga people, speak and he never used the word members. He always said the citizens of the Onondaga Nation. And one time I was chatting with Oren afterwards and I said, ‘I notice you always say citizens.' He says to me, ‘Are you a member of the State of Arizona, are you a member of the United States?' He says, ‘At Onondaga we're not a club. We're a nation; we have citizens.' It's an interesting take on just the language that we use.

‘Powers, Rights and Responsibilities: What Matters to You?' This is St. Regis Mohawk; they straddle the U.S./Canadian border, the Akwesasne people. These are some of the things, in their governing system, that they say their own citizens have a right to and that their government therefore has to deliver. And it also says, ‘The Constitution of our Nation will be secondary to the Great Law of Peace,' the constitution of the Confederacy.

There's a lot of talk about branches, separations. I want to spend a little bit of time on separations of powers and a couple of other things. What are the roles of the different pieces of government? And I wanted to acknowledge that sometimes people have raised questions about separations of powers. Sounds like a Western idea to me. I'm indebted to Don Wharton actually from NARF [Native American Rights Fund] who at a meeting last summer said, ‘What we're really talking about is allocations of responsibility,' because that's exactly what nations do. They say, ‘These people will be responsible for this. These people will be responsible for that set of issues. When it comes time to resolve disputes, that's taken care of by these people.' They're allocating responsibility for the various things the nation has to do in order to survive. And I think this quote I just showed you, that's really what they were doing. There are particular roles and responsibilities that have to be fulfilled. And part of what you learn to be a functional citizen of our nation is what those roles and responsibilities are. Now some of these things take Western form.

This is Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation -- sorry it's a little dark -- but Flathead is three nations with very different traditions, forced together under the Treaty of 1855 to live on a single reservation. And how are they going to govern? And what they come up with, they basically said, ‘How do you want to govern?' And the Kootenai said, ‘We want to govern in a Kootenai way.' And the Salish said, ‘It's got to be Salish.' And Pend d'Orielle said, ‘We want a Pend d'Orielle government.' And they said, ‘Boy, this'll never work. What's everyone's second choice?' Good old U.S. governing institutions. And so what they ended up with was district representation, a parliamentary system where the council chooses the chair. Why did they decide that? Because they said, ‘Look, we've got three different nations here with very different traditions and one is larger than the other two. So if we have a directly elected chief executive, it's always going to be a Salish person. And over time the Kootenai and the Pend d'Orielle are going to say, ‘Eh, we don't like this system.' 'So instead of having a directly elected chair, let's elect a council and then have the council choose the Chair' -- a smart solution for a difficult problem. A very strong, independent court system, because they knew there were going to be disputes and they needed those disputes to be free of politics. So they created a strong court system. They systematically -- this was the first nation basically to assume almost every program you could 638; they took it over. They basically said, ‘We want responsibility for everything that happens on our reserve,' systematically took it over and then made careful choices about how to keep the strategic decisions about where we're going as a nation in the hands of elected leadership but then put implementation of those decisions, that day-to-day management, in the hands of professionals. So that's kind of using Western models that they said, ‘Well, these may not be our traditions, but they work given the situations we're in,' which is kind of what Dave was just talking about.

But then there's -- and I'm building really on what Regis [Pecos] had to say -- the non-Western form and you can use Cochiti as an example but there are others: Jemez, Tesuque. Regis mentioned this, I'm just really giving you a quick summary. The governor has secular responsibilities, the war captain spiritual responsibilities. To the outside world, the governor is who you meet. When we first arrived at Cochiti Pueblo and said, ‘Who can we talk to?' they sent us to the governor's office. You think you're talking to the top guy. Turns out the world doesn't work that way. The governor's job is simply to keep people -- like these nerdy academics coming around asking questions -- keep them at bay and protect that core of what really matters to the people, from the State of New Mexico, the United States, the school system, the county, etc. And then as Regis pointed out of himself, if you ever have served in one of those positions, you're a member of the legislature for life. Think about what that means. It means there's a council at Cochiti and at other pueblos like this where you have an enormous body of experience that a sitting leader can draw on sitting in that council. Every person on that council has carried the ultimate responsibility of ‘I am responsible for the future of the Nation.' What a terrific asset for a sitting leader to draw on all that accumulated experience.

Rule of law: friend, family and foe should be treated equally. We found in our research the number-one predictor of economic and social success: politically independent dispute resolution mechanism. What you've got there -- I know it's a little dark -- but up on top is the Navajo Nation court processing 9,000 cases a year; some in a typical adversarial Western court system, some through traditional Navajo peacemaking that draws on ancient traditions of how we maintain the harmony of the community. Over here the San Carlos [Apache] Elders' Council doing the same thing, Flandreau police, and just as an example the Citizen Potawatomi Nation very successful economically. A powerful independent court system assures everyone, whether you're a citizen or not, you'll be treated fairly, not according to who you voted for, who your relatives are. This court system's a major reason for its success. How do we know the court's independent? Tribal Chairman Rocky Barrett: ‘I've had cases in that court twice and I lost both times.' When your tribal chairman loses in your tribal court, it's a pretty independent court system. I won't spend time on this. This is just a piece from their 2007 Constitution that describes the court system. San Carlos Apaches -- we went over this, but what I just want to come back to is this really is about separations of powers. It says, or as Don suggested, allocations of responsibility. Who chooses future leadership? The female heads of the clans. How do we get rid of a chief? Here's how. Now someone eventually wrote this down, but long before this was written down in the translation that you see here, it existed as a set of rules, it was a constitution. This is really... somebody asked Darrin [Old Coyote] about separations of powers. Well, this is from the 2001 [Crow] constitution. Every one of these branches is directed to respect separations of powers, allocation of responsibility. And finally I just wanted to, I've already given you one of these but run through a few of the things that just strike us as interesting innovations. Your nations are...I loved what Dave had to say of this history of governmental innovation that is this unspoken invisible history of Indian Country that Dave is trying to excavate and make visible to us again. Indian Country is full of innovation about how to deal with new challenges.

So some of the ones that we're seeing: Laguna. Six villages, each has representation on the council, and they describe councilors as elected officials. But when you go and actually find out how these councilors are chosen, there are no elections -- not in the way we understand them. Villages gather and in their wisdom and by processes not identified in a written constitution, they choose who they want to serve. We talked to one young man in his early 30s who'd been chosen to serve on Laguna Pueblo council. He said, ‘Well, the older people in the village came to me and they said, ‘You're the one. You're running for the council.'' 'But,' he said, ‘no one ran against me ‘cause they didn't tell anybody else. So there was an ‘election' and there I am on the council.' And he says, ‘When they showed up and told me this, you get this sinking feeling because you suddenly say, ‘Wait a minute. I'm being told I have to carry this responsibility. They don't give you power. They place this responsibility on you. Now I've got to go carry that responsibility.'' He said, ‘It's a sobering moment. You don't win an election. You get this burden placed on you to act on behalf of the people.'

Gitanyow I already covered. This is the British Columbia Council of Hereditary Chiefs. This is kind of how their government works. There's some overlap there but...the Indian Act is the Canadian equivalent, in a sense, of our Indian Reorganization Act. It specifies how First Nations in Canada should govern themselves. And the big constitutional movement among First Nations in Canada now is to get out of the Indian Act and replace it with their own ideas about how they should govern. And Gitanyow is one of those that has been doing this in part through the hereditary chiefs. And so this is what that system looks like. The elected chief and council run the social programs but when it comes to the things that really matter to the people -- the land, their way of life -- the hereditary chiefs are the authority and they recognize each other -- that division, that distribution of roles, that allocation of responsibilities is clear in the community.

And then Joe found this, the Pueblo Zuni Oath of Office. For 1970, it's a pretty remarkable piece of work. I'll let you read it. Interesting authority there: I don't know if any of your constitutions include this particular way of responding to disrespect, but it's intriguing. And then we thought this was an interesting innovation. This is a relatively small First Nation in British Columbi,a but it went through a long, careful process of constitution making that involved the entire community and when they finished and adopted the constitution, they had every adult citizen of the nation sign it. It was like this statement to Canada. ‘You want to know how we govern, here it is and all of us are part of it. It's our constitution.'

And finally, just a final word -- and this comes really out of some of the discussion this morning. We get talking about codes and various things and pretty soon when you think about creating a governing system, it just becomes a mountain to climb. Think of the constitution as laying the foundation. It's not about the details. ‘It establishes the principles and the processes by which the rest of your governing system can be built.' It's that first step that you then say, ‘Okay. Based on that, based on that articulation of our principles, our core values, of how we make decisions, now we can begin to put in place the other pieces of governance that we need -- those codes, those processes that we need -- in order to do the things we need to get done.'"

Michael K. Mitchell: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Michael K. Mitchell reflects on his role as a modern elected leader of his nation. Mitchell encourages small changes in terminology and ideology that in turn will change the community's mindset about nation rebuilding and what is possible.

Resource Type
Citation

Mitchell, Michael K. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2009. Presentation.

"First, I want to start by offering my congratulations for each and every new member of council, chief or council member or administrator. I imagine that's the purpose that you're all here. What can we learn from one another? I try to make my presentation simple. He was talking about a book that I'm working on. I took some notes from there and it's been passed around. You'll see it. It says 'My Introduction to Akwesasne Politics.' I want to go back to being a chief in Canada. And along the way that I'm telling my story, I want you to think about what commonalities that we have on reservations in the [United] States, reservation politics and reserve politics in Canada. A while ago it was mentioned that we are governed by federal legislation in Canada called the Indian Act. I guess the closest thing that comes to it in the States is the Indian Reorganization [Act] law. My story that I want to share with you pertains to, a lot to people that raised me. My greatest influence was my grandfather and grandmother and how they raised me. They taught me the traditions, the spiritual life at a very young age growing up, the language; and I was groomed to be a leader in the Longhouse, in the traditional governance. And somewhere along the way, life took a detour because I didn't wind up being a traditional chief; I wound up being an elected chief for over 20 years. And that's the story that I want to share with you.

You see, in every Native American community -- large or small, medium, close to urban or way off isolated area -- we have our politics. And when election comes around, there's different groups that make up the society. You're either poor, or there's a casino or revenue base of some kind, and it controls the lifestyle of the people. You're either in or out. Religion: you're either very traditional or very Christian. Very seldom is there a group that's kind of like both. So from 30, 40, 50 years ago, 100 years to recent years, that has been the trend. Well, my grandfather was a strong traditional. He hated the elected system. And his followers, and his people that he's part of in the Longhouse, dead set against the elected system of governance. And so they belong to a traditional governance of the Iroquois Confederacy, which is the Mohawks, the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and later the Tuscaroras. And that union, as ancient as it was, followed a very traditional form of governance. The women actually put up the leaders. And according to the clans, if they were not good leaders, the women would take you out of office. And so those were the principles of governance, as compared to a modern elected system. And in Akwesasne we were governed under the Indian Act, a federal national legislation.

You would run for office for two years, depending on what is in place, economically and the mood. Basically, in Akwesasne, you get in office as a councilor and 12 chiefs sat around the table. And out of the 12 they would elect a head chief out of the 12 who would become the head chief. But it's a system that was in place for a long time. Well, I was elected in that system. And the story that I want to share with you is, "˜How did I get involved in the elected system?' Well, over the last hundred years in Akwesasne, about every ten years we'd have a war of some kind between the elected system on the Canadian side and the tribal elected system on the American side and the traditional leaders. Three governments; two elected and one traditional. And it seems like we have a crisis every ten years of some kind internally. And there's deep-seated hatred and mistrust among the leadership of the three governments. As it went on, in my time I saw three major ones where we're pointing guns at each other, Native Americans pointing guns at each other. It was a time when the elders said, "˜We've got to stop this. And we've got to try to send some of our people who are on the traditional side to run in an elected system and see if we can change the mindset of the other half.'

You see, in Canada we were educated, the majority, by what we call the Indian residential school system. The other part was the reserve day system. Church had a lot to do with it; government had a lot to do with it. And how you grew up in the Native community depended on what you were taught. And so one group said, "˜We're the Christian side; we're a lot better than the pagan side.' And so that internal difference started from the day that you were born. So there could be no peace. Well, in my time, I ran a cultural center in the community. And I didn't make any difference in treating people whether they were traditional or elected followers or Christian. My purpose was to serve everyone. And when wars started we always stayed neutral. So this idea of finding a person to run, with the traditional side saying, "˜We ought to try to get Mike to get into that elected system and see if he can turn things around'; this is after one of our wars. Well, after a lot of discussions, a lot of thinking, 'What was the idea behind this?,' I agreed to run. And the story that's in those documents that we passed around was my adventure in being a modern-day elected leader. It's pretty rough.

The first, after the elections, I got elected by the 12 chiefs to be the head chief. They said, "˜We'll string him up in a couple weeks.' My office was constantly occupied for six months. And the only way it ended was a Mohawk fighting another Mohawk, in this case fighting the previous chief, before peace prevailed. But following that, what would a person do in a situation like that was tackle the things that affected us from the outside; and that was the Department of Indian Affairs, the way they told us to govern. Mostly through the two years somebody was protesting an election. You could go to court; you could appeal to the government. So in that first six months we had meetings in the community and asked them if we could bring home and let the community make their own election law, devise an election code where things would be settled at home. When we finished that, we had a vote. And when the people voted -- see Longhouse people, traditional people don't vote. So the first act was to get the elected followers to vote on an issue. After that was finished, then I went over to the traditional side and asked them to have clan meetings. And by majority or consensus they would arrive at a decision on a traditional manner. However, both sides agreed that we should control our own elective system. And when they found out that they both agree on a system, they looked at each other and said, "˜Geez, we actually agreed on something.'

Then we tackled membership. Who should be a member of our nation, and does culture and tradition come into it? Does a clan, having a clan have something to do with being a member? Who gets to be a member? Do you have to have both parents be Native? Is there room for a person who's half? And all those questions went out into our discussions in the community. And at the end, another year later, we had another vote. And little by little we started chipping away, taking these authorities away from Ottawa, from the Indian Act, and bringing it home to a community-based process. And in these meetings we invited finally the tribe to sit with us and the Nation council to sit. I brought out agenda items like land claims, tourism, economic development, just to look at it, inviting them for their opinions. What could we do as one people?

Akwesasne, the international borderline runs right through the middle of our territory. One half is in Canada, the other half is in the United States. One half that is in Canada is in Ontario and the other half in Canada is in Quebec. So you can't be more divided than that. And then of course, historically, the mindset of the people is always one of division. Now you learn a great lesson. Being under the Indian Act election only gave you two years. And when I became chief they were in a deficit of over $2.5 million and they only had a $5 million operating budget. That's because on the outside the government controlled everything. The Indian agent had left recently but all his people still controlled...if you want education dollars you have to ask a DIA [Department of Indian Affairs] official to come down and look at your proposal, what you want to do. He'll decide how much money you're going to get. If you want economic development, if you want housing, capital works, it's the same thing. Little by little we trained our people. First they came home, second let's make our own decisions, let's do our own planning and start taking that authority away from Indian Affairs. And it's this little community-based mindset.

I'm going back a little bit. We didn't think like Mohawk Nation. We had no concept of a nation mentality. Over the last hundred years or so, we were engrained in thinking Indian Act way. We were 'Band Indians.' We were the St. Regis Band, we went to the St. Regis Band office, we had a Band administrator; our community was a small Mohawk band of Indians. So the terminology was obvious that the federal government had engrained in us to think less of ourselves. If you said 'Nation,' you were an enemy; you were hostile. Well, my grandfather was a hostile; he was traditional and he said our people are a nation. So that mentality only came from a certain group of people. So I started asking the council to have meetings in the community to throw issues out to the community. You had a lot of public meetings. And in those meetings we raised the issue, 'Why do we consider ourselves to be inferior?' And we went through a change of name from the St. Regis Band to the Mohawks of Akwesasne. Akwesasne is our traditional Mohawk name. That passed. Then we made a flag. That passed. A community flag to fly with our nation flag. Council changed the name from the St. Regis Band Council to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. We're no longer a reserve or a reservation, we were a territory. 'You have entered the Territory of the Mohawk Nation.' And it's just a mentality of the young people thinking differently of themselves. This is a useful education process because the community's in deficit, you ain't going to be able to spend a whole lot of money, so let's look at our mentality. How do we view ourselves, especially the ones that are coming up, the next generation? How does that impact their thinking? And so we did that. We started concentrating on who we are, how do we perceive ourselves as [Mohawk language], as First Nations. And by the time we got done we made a whole mess of changes that was fun.

My council that made up the governance, a lot of the old timers couldn't get away from saying the word 'band.' So we made a game. I put a cup in the middle of the council table and asked all the chiefs, "˜If any of you say 'band' in our meetings anytime in our discussions, I want you to put a quarter in there.' Pretty soon we have to have three cups in there because they kept tripping up. But they voluntarily put in there, "˜I'll get it, I'll get it.' And he'd mess up again, he'd put a couple more dollars in there. Pretty soon we had a big coffee fund set aside. Well, the administration offices heard about this little nation-building game and they started doing that and it afflicted the staff. And people in the community started hearing about this little game and it affected them too, but it affected them in a positive way because now we're all thinking that. Undoing a mindset that was given to us.

I will ask, 'What could I have learned coming into a system, an elected system, a divided community, deep roots in hatred?' Well, I would have probably, as a leader, learned more about the history of the Indian Act and how Indian Affairs does its business because for 20 years it was a game, a chess game of trying to turn things around -- put more tradition, more community values, more awareness, preparing the next generation -- and knowing that you had to go against the stumbling blocks of government interference from the outside. It was a nice battle, counter battles, but that's what I would have really like to have seen is the government saying, "˜You want to take over your governance. You want a representation of your people in getting them involved in your politics. We'll step out of the way.' Eventually they did, but it was always through different battles that we had to go through. But now the people are in a fighting mood.

And I just want to finish off by saying nowadays they find a way to sit together. The tribal council, the Mohawk council, and the Nation council actually sit together and look at the issue that impacts the community. And so there are many things that you always learn and there are many things that you are grateful that you've given to the community and they're nation-minded. They're proud of their Mohawk heritage, it's engrained in them. Governance is an issue that will always be there because one side is American, the other side is Canadian and that international border plays havoc with us.

We are well known in North America as the smuggling capital. We smuggle cigarettes, make a lot of money doing it, too. And so within our community there's a little power struggle. The business community have a lot of influence, have a lot of power underground by the dark-of-night economy. And then you try to create a legitimate economy. So there are always going to be things like that that are going to happen, but we're talking to each other. Drugs is a problem of being stuff that's smuggled across; guns, now aliens, terrorism. When 9/11 happened they thought they came through Akwesasne. CNN had these maps, "˜This Mohawk Nation community here, that's where they came from.' A few weeks later they said, "˜Oh, we might have made a mistake,' but we get blamed right away.

What did I learn, what did the community learn about our politics and the way we do things? Talk to each other, talk to your enemy, talk to your elder, talk to your people in the community. So that's my story."

Michael K. Mitchell: Perspectives on Leadership and Nation Building

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Michael K. Mitchell discusses the Akwesasne Mohawk's effort to regain control over their own affairs, and offers his advice to leaders who are working to regain jurisdiction over their lands and resources as well as rebuild their nations.

Resource Type
Citation

Mitchell, Michael K. "Perspectives on Leadership and Nation Building." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2008. Presentation.

Michael K. Mitchell:

"Mohawk golf club. Guaranteed to go 300-400 yards, no problem. So if you can't hit your drives, I'm selling good sticks. Actually I wanted to come up here and start with this because the game of lacrosse is a contribution of Native American. It's an Indigenous game. We were playing this game when Europeans came to the New World. But if you read your history, it will tell you the Jesuits, the first time they saw Iroquois playing this game against another tribe, they recorded in their history that they were at war because they played the game so intensely. It gives you an idea how far apart -- their view and ours -- because they were really playing this game to honor their Creator. They were playing the game to honor their elders. They were playing the game to get physically fit. And it could be, in them days, close to 100 braves on one side. And if they had a difference of opinion or a difference with different nations, they wouldn't necessarily go to war, but they would agree to have a lacrosse game. And the winner would be accorded the right of whatever differences they had. And I wanted to inject a little culture because I want to donate this stick to our Indigenous golf tournament that we're going to have Friday. Don't you guys get any ideas about using it for a driver, either."

Joan Timeche:

"We will be, I'm not sure if we're going to, we'll probably auction this off at our golf tournament on April 4th here in Tucson. Thank you very much."

Michael K. Mitchell:

"It was a real pleasure to sit in the audience this morning and listen to the presenters share some of our experiences on leadership, Indigenous leaders from different nations. There's a lot of wisdom there. From what I understand, there's quite a few young leaders that are attending this conference. Heed their words, because nation building is a process that you cannot get from books, you certainly can't get it from Washington or Ottawa. These ideas of governance stem right from the heart of our nations, passed on from our elders.

They say in our traditions back home -- among the Mohawk Nation, Haudenosaunee -- our leader is acknowledged from the time he is crawling on the dirt, to when he walks, to when he's a young man and he hunts. And everything he does defines his characteristics. And depending on what clan he belongs to -- because we also, like many nations, have our clans (I belong to the Wolf clan, my Mohawk name is Kanentakeron) -- and so we are defined [by] how we are conducting ourselves within our own society. And from that, back home the women of the clans would select who the leader would be. And they say that he has already proven his leadership from the way he conducts himself, morals, leadership to how he relates to his people, how he takes care of them, how he acknowledges the elders in the families that are in his nation. So the women already knew he was going to be a good leader. And they say that he would be a leader for as long as he demonstrated those qualities. If at any time he wasn't a good leader, that he would fall on something, the women gave him three chances in his lifetime to set it straight; they would set him straight. And so if he went beyond that and he didn't follow the principles of [Mohawk language], a good mind, the women would take you out of office.

Well, back home in Canada, Canada thought they could improve on that kind of leadership and that kind of democracy. And you've been hearing this morning about the Indian Act in Canada. You also heard about the Indian Reorganization Act in the United States. That was Canada's idea of governance for First Nations. I grew up in the longhouse. My mother is a clan mother, my brother is a wampum keeper, and I have a sister who is a very strong Christian -- goes to church just about every day. So for my family, I think we cover all the elements. Now I come from a territory that is located in upstate New York and it's right on the border of Canada/United States. Half the reservation is in the United States side. My brothers -- James Ransom is the tribal chief, he's here; Ron LaFrance, Jr. is a tribal chief, he's also here –- he's one of the younger ones. We were just talking to James a while ago and he's on his third term. They both adhere to those principles and philosophy from the traditional side of our nation. And when you have that in your heart and in your mind, it just about guarantees that you have the nation's heart and mind, that you're going to be a good leader. And so those ideas about all the frustrations that you're going to face in your political lifetime, there's another saying back home, the elders tell you as you're growing up: If you're going to be a leader, you have to have a skin, and in our language that means 'seven thumbs thick,' or sometimes they'll say 'seven skins thick,' because you have to exercise a lot of patience, you have to exercise a good mind and good will. And you will take a lot of abuse. And so you take that home. And how you conduct yourself as a leader that will be judged by the people in your territory, in your community. And so for us, term limits is something that is decided by your nation and that term could be your whole life if you're a good leader. So those people that you saw -- those three people that sat in front of you and gave presentations just before noon -- look at them as very wise leaders who are willing to share their experience with you, because they have demonstrated the type of leadership that our people need and have served our nations well.

I became Grand Chief in 1984 and all I had in knowledge was my traditional upbringing. I didn't realize that under the Indian Act that all the authority comes from Ottawa, comes from the Indian Act, comes from the Department of Indian Affairs. The council that I inherited was in a deficit of close to $2.5 million and all they were responsible for was $5 million. The government was sent to come down and put our administration finances under third-party management. So I came to be a leader at the wrong time. And I studied, talked to people, and I found out that it's pretty well the Indian agent, Indian Affairs, their officials pretty well ran the community -- education, they controlled health, they controlled social, welfare, housing. And it was just like they said this morning; the chiefs that were on council were really just administering the programs. So the head chief was the band administrator. The language that was prevalent; nobody said 'nation.' Nobody spoke of 'nation.' As a matter of fact, our people at that time looked down on nation people. They were the Long House people, traditional people, and they never gave up the idea that we're a nation. They kept that alive. But they were very few because they also followed their own Native American religion. They still had their ceremonies and they kept that going. They kept our tongue alive: [Mohawk language].

We only spoke our language, first language. And so when I got to work in my term, there was some men by the council office and they didn't have an appointment. So they stayed outside because that's the way you met with the chief back in them days and you better have an appointment. So they caught me as I'm going in and they said, "˜We'd like to meet with you. And we don't have an appointment, but it's kind of important. Could you make some time for us?' I said, "˜Come on in.' Sat down, gave them some coffee, spoke in our own language and I said, "˜What seems to be the problem?' And they said, "˜Well, our friends over here were out fishing the other day and a conservation officer stopped them. And he said they didn't have any license to be on the river to be fishing, by the interior government. And so they confiscated our boats and motors and nets. And in the last six months it's been a steady process of having this happen. You're a new chief. We're wondering if you might consider checking into this.' I said, "˜Listen, I'm going to make time tomorrow morning. I'm going to get my boat and I'm going to track down this conservation officer from Ontario and ask them,' because you grow up believing that our waters is ours. And they were making new laws and the government was changing things, creeping more into 'civilizing us' by making us come under their law -- provincial law, state law. And so the Aboriginal right to hunt and fish at that time was slowly being taken over. Anyway, when I told them that I was going to go on the river they said, "˜Well, we'll come with you because we know the river. We know where he's going to come in from.'

So early in the morning we got out on the river. It didn't take long before they found where he was coming from, Cornwall. You have to come around a certain island. And the river current is very fast. So when you come around this one island eastern corner island, St. Regis Island, you have to, you're in United States waters and you're in Quebec waters and he's in Ontario. That's where we were waiting for him. And as soon as he come across that island we came out and we stopped them on the river. And then we shut off the motor and we started talking. He didn't want to hear anything about...I was asking him if he could return the boats. Maybe he didn't understand that we don't need a license. He was aggressive. He was talking down to us like we didn't know anything. So I tried to be very diplomatic, and when it came down to the end -- remember that seven thumbs thick, patience and all that -- I said, "˜Sir, you won't tell us where you took their boats but we want them back. So I have to take your boat.' And his jaw just dropped and he says, "˜You're what?' I said, "˜Yep, I have to take your boat until they get their boats back. You're coming with us.'

We took him down to St. Regis Village police station and then I phoned Toronto, Ministry of Natural Resources and I told them, I said, "˜I have your administrator official here.' Well, it worked up very fast up the chain of command. People were calling. "˜Is he a hostage?' Nothing like this had ever happened in Canada. I said, "˜No, I just want those boats back.' So it didn't take long, maybe a couple hours. Their Premier, Prime Minister of Ontario, he calls. He said, "˜Look, this might be an international crisis situation. I'm sure we can resolve this.' Anyway, we worked it out, they traced; they found those boats in Toronto, which is a four-hour drive from Akwesasne. I said, "˜I want them boats back by 9 o'clock in the morning or I'm going to call a press conference.' So he calls back in half an hour, he says, "˜Those boats are on their way.' You see I learned very fast that you've got to speak their language. That's the only way they'll do business with you. Those boats came back. The same guy that arrested them brought the boats back in the morning -- turned them over, they inspected and everything was there -- the motor, boats.

And then I asked my council and our administrator, "˜Why is it that we don't have any authority on the water? We live by the river. We're on the St. Lawrence and we don't seem to have any authority left.' The RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, they enforce the federal laws. The Quebec Provincial Police and the Ontario Provincial Police enforce the provincial law. So everybody was an authority out there except us. Anyway, I passed a council resolution. We put together our own conservation law for the water, for the environment, for the wild game, for the river life; sent it to Ottawa. Well see how fast it came back and said, "˜You have no authority under the Indian Act to do this.' Anyway, seven times, diplomatically. Again, they said 'no.' I turned around and I went to the nation chiefs, the traditional leaders at the longhouse and I said, "˜I want to implement a nation law based on our inherent right.' We went to the Iroquois Confederacy Grand Council meeting and passed it as a community law for Akwesasne.

I said, "˜Now, we need our conservation officers.' And Canada says, "˜Nope. Whoever heard of Mohawk conservation officers executing their own law?' Ontario said no. The feds said no. Ontario said no. Don't forget where we live. I called Albany, New York -- New York State Police Academy -- and said, "˜Do you have a conservation course up there?' They said, "˜Yeah.' "˜Can you register some Mohawks to take this program?' "˜Yep.' Six months later they come home wearing uniforms. They had the state trooper headgear, nine-millimeter sidearm -- 'Dirty Harry' guns -- and they hit that water and they started bringing in.

Oh, at the same time, we executed our conservation environment law in the justice program; we set up our courts. Well, that court was nonexistent. We're only doing dog catching and little municipal things. We upgraded our statute [because] we had judges but they just weren't allowed to hear bigger cases. Those conservation officers were bringing in non-Natives who refused to buy our fishing licenses, hunting licenses, safety license and they brought them to our court and they were kicking and screaming saying, "˜This is a kangaroo court. You have no authority. I'm going to contact my member of Parliament.' But when they opened that door, there's a courtroom that had the Mohawk community flag, the Haudenosaunee flag, on the wall. There's a judge sitting up there, there's a prosecutor and there's a lawyer there that would defend you if you needed one. They read the charge, they read the law and they paid the fine. And that's how we started our justice program.

And those, I guess in reflection, is stand up for your nation's rights; putting them back in action. Those conservation officers, the first time they went over to Canada into Cornwall, the Ontario Provincial Police arrested them, confiscated their weapons saying, "˜These are totally illegal in Canada.' They went to court, produced their training from the United States. The judge says, "˜These people are qualified for the work they do. You return them guns.' And so you have to fight the legal system, you have to fight the government system, but after awhile -- oh, the appeal, they lost the appeal, too. Anyway, you have to take control. And then I noticed that on council, the way the programs were running, the Department of Indian Affairs just about ran everything, all the different programs. So I went to see the Minister of Indian Affairs and said, "˜Look, these deficits are going to keep occurring "˜cause your people don't give a damn about how our business is...' (Thank you very much. That wasn't peace; that was two minutes.) Well, to make a long story short, I asked the minister, [because] all these government people that were in authority over us, none of them was [Mohawk language], none of them were Native. So I cut a deal with him. I said, "˜I'll wipe that deficit out within five years but you've got to let us do it our way.' He says, "˜What's that?' I said, "˜A lot of our people are skilled in financing, administration, proposal writing. Why do we have to get authority from you?' So we made a deal. That was kind of a curiosity for him. And I said, "˜You take back all your government people and we'll hire our own to look after the affairs of our people. We'll look after our administration.'

We did wipe all that deficit within five years and our government grew. We established a relationship with the traditional government and passed a resolution recognizing them as our historic national government. We started having meetings with the tribal council on the American side and we started planning for the future. It's just an idea that evolves from your own nation. A lot of other episodes happened like the stories that I'm telling you. I was on a little bit of a roll there. When you're a leader, you require patience but sometimes it's the audacity, shocking the Canadian and American governments to say, "˜Yes, I have that authority and I'm going to do something about it.' You also got to think of your youth and your elders, and I proposed the writing that led us to having our own nursing home, our own arena, looked at development around in the community that needed those programs and our people went after them. So it's out there. For those fights between a tribe and the Long House on our side was an ongoing affair. Today, they sit together and they plan for the whole territory. And that's the kind of story I guess I can leave with you. Don't allow yourselves to fight with one another because the Indian Act, criteria from the American government, state, etc. -- we have that jealousy factor; it don't belong to us but we are so full of it in our communities. The longer vision in nation building, you rise, give knowledge to your young, respect your elders, look after the people in general and fight together. And I guess I could say that to all of you."

Sophie Pierre: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Former Ktunaxa Nation Chief Sophie Pierre discusses the Ktunaxa Nation's nation-building struggle, and offers her thoughts on what sustainable leadership is and what it requires of leaders.

People
Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Pierre, Sophie. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2008. Presentation.

"Thank you very much. [Ktunaxa language]. I bring you greetings, my colleague and I. Gwen Phillips is here with me. Gwen is the person within our nation that is working with us on governance and so I thought that it was right that she be here at this gathering. I bring you greetings from the Ktunaxa Nation and if it's okay I'm going to stand. When I'm addressing you I feel like I should be standing. I want to first of all acknowledge the great Tohono O'odham Nation and thank them for allowing me to be here today in your traditional territory. I want to take a few moments and just introduce who I am, who Gwen is and who our people are. We're in the Rocky Mountain trench in the southeast corner of British Columbia, in northern Montana and Idaho. Our traditional territory runs along, from the big bend of the Columbia River at a place called [Ktunaxa language] all the way along what's today the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia, places like [Ktunaxa landmark] all the way down to Missoula, Montana, that's [Ktunaxa landmark] and along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. It was mentioned earlier when Manley and Stephen were speaking that they were talking about the Kootenai Flathead Reservation and again it was a bringing together of peoples and of them learning how to work together. Those are the Kootenai people, those are part of the same people that we are. We speak the same language; we have the same culture, the same traditions.

My own personal experience, I was first elected in 1978 and I was pretty young. It's a good thing -- I thought I knew it all, had a lot of energy and it's been an incredible ride. For those of you young people that have just been, that are just coming on council, one thing I have to tell you is that 30 years -- it goes like that. Time passes so quickly. When I first started, when I was in my late 20s, I just figured that time went on forever and I had lots of time to do what I wanted to do. Well, of course time waits for no one. Time moves along very quickly. The experiences that have been described so far are very similar to what we have in Canada, in British Columbia, what we have in my own backyard, where we have family difficulties and leadership challenges, but it's been kind of an interesting anomaly in my own community. My community is called [Ktunaxa language]. It also in the book says St. Mary's Indian Reserve, IR #1. In my community, I'm an only child and in all the 30 years that I've been on council, when my mother was still alive, I always said, "˜I think I have one vote I can count on.' I was never quite sure because my mother, she was one of my biggest critics and she was also of course my greatest teacher and my greatest support. But we didn't have that particular dynamic and I think that that really does make a difference when you're not, you don't have those kind of almost imposed on commitments that you have to make just to one family as opposed to all of your people. And it has been able to help us in thinking on a nation basis because in Canada we have our separate Indian reserves that were set up, but we still belong to a nation. And that's why I shared with you where I come from because that is our nation territory. And as a nation of people, if you can move yourself from that mindset of family within one reservation and think of yourself in terms in of your nationhood, that is really what I feel that that's where Indian nations, that's how we are going to rebuild our nations and that's where our strength comes from is from our nations.

I was first elected in the late 70s and through the 80s. That was a time of great change and those of you that are my age and older, you know what I'm talking about. There was change that was happening here in the United States as there was across Canada. I was involved in lots of the sit-ins that we had, getting rid of Indian Affairs, well at least physically. We never really got rid of them totally in terms of the impact that they have on our lives, but at least getting rid of those offices that were everywhere, getting rid of the Indian agent. When I first started, when I first graduated from high school and I started working for my band, for my reservation, we still had an Indian agent. The Indian agent came around with the documents and had our people sign them. That's what I witnessed and I knew that was wrong so we went, so started from that to today where we're not totally there, but we're a long ways ahead from where we were. In my first few years of office I was just like everybody else. I chased all those grants and chased the programs because our communities needed it. We were like tall grass [NNI's "Tall Grass" executive education case]. We had unemployment, housing, like all those social ills and so we chased those programs -- not just myself but the other chiefs and councils within our nation. We chased all those programs. And we found ourselves bumping into each other fighting for that same money realizing that we were expending a tremendous amount of energy, but we weren't looking at our own, what was important for us as Ktunaxa people, what we needed.

Around 1991-92, two things happened that started to help us change our course. First of all, in the province of British Columbia, we entered what is called the modern-day treaty process. Now that's been a curse and a blessing in a way. It certainly brought about some changes, not all of them good. But luckily we have leadership within our nation that saw this as an opportunity for nation rebuilding and we have taken that, we have turned the treaty process around to meet our needs. We have insured that all of the negotiations that go on, they are what we call 'citizen-led.' Now that's made it a very, very slow process in terms of where some of the other nations are. We've had two nations just in the last year that have actually signed their implementation plan or they've signed their treaty with the provincial and federal governments and now they're in implementation and they're having difficulty. And the reason is because it's not been a citizen-driven process. We still have negotiating tables where there are lawyers and consultants that are sitting at those tables instead of our own people and that we know is wrong and that's something that we insured -- that we would not fall into that. So we have this treaty process. What the treaty process has enabled us to do, has brought to us, is financial resources and that's what really needed because we are on the Canadian side, four Indian reservations with virtually...we don't have two nickels to rub together, we don't have our own source [of] revenues. So we're financially, we don't have a whole lot of resources, but in other ways we have lots of resources. So we're using the treaty process, we're using the money that comes through the treaty process and we have been for the last 17 years, we've been using that to rebuild our nation.

The other thing that happened is that we have a former Indian school; I think they were called industrial schools down here. We called them residential schools. But they're the schools, those big, old buildings where they gathered up our kids from all over and they put them into these buildings for, like in our case, 10 months of the year you never got to see your parents. And their whole purpose was to take the Indian out of the Indian child. But we have this big, old residential school sitting just right next to my reservation. It's called St. Eugene. Well, about 1984 one of our elders had given us a challenge. Mary Paul was at a meeting with us and there was a lot of complaining going on in the room about just how terribly burdened we were. Woe is us. We lost our language and our culture and everybody was drinking and drugging and all the usual litany of woes that we have in our community. And Mary Paul stood up and she told us, "˜If you think...' and she said this in Ktunaxa so this is paraphrasing. "˜If you think that you lost so much in that building,' and she pointed across the road because it was just right there. She said, "˜If you think you've lost so much in that building, you haven't lost it, it's still there, go back and get it. Only if you refuse to pick it up again have you lost it.' Well, we didn't really know what she meant but we thought, "˜Oh, she's an elder, we've got to listen to her.' So we started thinking about it and we realized, yeah, we have a choice. We have a choice. We can continue, continue to go down that self-pitying kind of road, blaming everybody else for our problems or we can take control of it. We chose to take control of it.

To make a long story short -- because I like my long story about St. Eugene [because] I'm so proud of it -- but to make a long story short, today that former residential school is a resort. It's a five-star resort, 125-room hotel, a PGA-type golf course and of course a small casino. But that's where...so that was the other thing that was happening. So we have these two things burgeoning at the same time and one really helped support the other. So today we have this business and I am a walking billboard for St. Eugene. I'm always wearing our logo and I have this whole other presentation that I do about 15 lessons learned in getting into economic development because of the struggles that we had to go through. You can imagine going and trying to convince investors and bankers that you want to take a former Indian residential school...because at that point all these court challenges were coming forward and everybody was saying, "˜Residential school? Get away from me, we don't want to talk about residential schools.' If you can imagine taking that and turning it into the resort that we have today and -- just as an aside, we have a little TV clip that was done by Global Television and we're going to show it during the coffee break this afternoon if you're at all interested -- I think you'll find the story interesting.

Right now just a final word on St. Eugene. It was about partnerships, because Anthony [Pico] here mentioned that you're in partnerships with the Oneida on your developments. Well, we found that that's one of the strengths that we have with St. Eugene is that we have a partnership with the Sampson Cree Nation out of Alberta and the M'Njikaning First Nation out of Ontario. They have the Rama Casino just north of Toronto in their community. So they're our partners. And I think that that again is one of the strengths that we need to develop is how we invest in each other and work together in partnerships. We used the treaty process to rebuild the nation and as we're doing that we realize that what we really were talking about was enhancing sustainable leadership.

And I think that -- if this works, okay -- in dealing with sustainable leadership, first and foremost, leadership comes with inherent responsibilities. Our creation story sets out a relationship of the human beings to the land and to all of creation. And it's not, it's similar to all of the creation stories I'm sure that come from all the various nations in this room. [Ktunaxa language] is our word for natural law, which we received of course from the Creator and it's our mandate for stewardship and our responsibility to govern according to set principles from the Creator. As Ktunaxa people, we were taught to be respectful of leaders and those selected to lead were nurtured right from childhood. And other skilled individuals, their skills were enhanced and they became experts in their own field like the deer chief or the war chief. And of course there's always a high regard for spiritual leaders. Many societal activities were done by both male and female societies. Now the roles of the leaders changed and as those roles changed we started to see the breakdown of the nations. So what caused some of these changes?
There are historical impacts. These are just a few. Some of these are similar to the experiences that you had and some of these are particular to Canada. Well, I think that in reality all of them are similar instances because when I talk about laws in Canada, there are similar laws here in the United States that affected you also. We had things like small pox. The establishment of the 49th Parallel, that had a tremendous impact on the Ktunaxa people because here all of a sudden we are no longer on family, one nation. Now we have these outsiders telling us that we can't move back and forth. One of our communities is right on the 49th Parallel and when that reservation was being created that chief stood up and said, "˜What are you...why are you dividing my house in two? You're telling me that I have to live in my bedroom and I can't go into my kitchen,' was the analogy that he used. Because his particular group of families were actually moved from Montana, moved north and told that they're now Canadians and there's this 49th Parallel and that we can't go across this anymore. We have a way of dealing with that now and that's for another time.

Things like the Indian Act came in and it was mentioned earlier that those, there are similarities here in the United States. In Canada we had laws that prohibited our people from cultural practices. And if that wasn't enough, there was also laws that prohibited Indian people from hiring lawyers to protect our rights. Our reservation boundaries were formed in 1887 and residential schools were established in 1893 and there's a whole list of other things that were happening. One of the things that we don't have on there but that is very important in terms of our development was that in 1991 we did a full psych analysis of our entire school-age population and we found that 40 percent of our school-age children were suffering from some form of FAS/FAE [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effects] and we haven't heard very much about that, we don't hear enough about it. We need to be aware of that, of the impact that that has on our people.

With all of those things coming at us, we're really talking about trying to lead through chaos. The traditional roles of leaders have been replaced by government, particularly the traditional roles of men. That's within our nation, we know that's within nations in Canada, and I would imagine it's the same here. Most of our First Nations, we have tremendous experience in administering government programs, everybody else's agenda except our own. [I have to move a little faster Ian just told me.] At any given time, First Nations in Canada, we are managing programs for 20 different agencies all at the same time. So it's like 20 different balls in the air. You're so busy keeping those balls up in the air you forget about the real purpose of why you applied for that ball in the first place. And then the employment challenges within our communities were forcing our leaders to become, like the chief is the band manager or the other council members, the council member would be the band accountant because of employment challenges within our communities. So that too often our leaders, they're not governing, they're only administering, they are directing and they're managing programs. And in fact what they're really doing is they're managing crises, from ones crises to the next. We said that what happens is that we have taken on this challenge of looking at our problems, trying to solve our problems and that's the wrong way to go. You don't look at...as soon as you start just looking at your problems you get more problems. You solve one problem and it's created ten more. You solve those ten; all of a sudden, you've got 30 more. Problems generate their own. They're like rabbits. So quit concentrating on problems and start looking at, 'What are the good things that are in your community, what are the strengths in your people?' So find ways to enhance those strengths.

What we realized is that leaders need to be retrained to better understand the leadership role and we gained that to regain what it was really that leaders are all about. With us, we realized leadership; it's effectively guiding the people towards a common vision. And that was really what we needed to work on and this is where the treaty process assisted us with this, gave us the time and the resources to do this because it does take a lot of time and it can be expensive. This is our common vision of the Ktunaxa Nation: strong, healthy citizens and communities speaking our language and celebrating who we are and our history in our ancestral homelands, working together, managing our lands and resources as a self-sufficient, self-governing nation. It took us over two years of going to each household, working with all of our members, all of our citizens to come up with that as our vision. [I've just skipped through because I know that I have to finish off. Ian has just given up on me. He went and sat down. He's been waving his five-minute flag.]

First of all, sustainable leadership creates and preserves sustainable learning. Hereditary leadership is...that's what we have in some of our nations. We still practice that. Others we're in this election or appointing or whatever but what we're talking about is renewing leadership skills, always renewing them. [This would cooperate with us. So I apologize for this. You're going to have to try and find, well actually, I can tell you where it is then.] Traditional or sustainable leadership secures success over time. [So we have that. Okay, I'm having difficulty, I think I'm just; don't worry about the picture up there.] Traditional leaders are advisors until they pass on and we know that and it's been mentioned also by my friend here that going back to the teachings of our elders. We're not the first leaders, and I think that that's really the thing that we have to remember, that we are only following in a long line of leaders before us. Sustainable leadership sustains the leadership of others. You're only as strong as everybody else that you have working around you. Delegation builds trust and potency. Sustainable leadership addresses issues of social justice including a broad interest in equities. We talk about the 'haves' and the 'have mores.' We don't talk about the 'haves' and the 'have not's.' In our nation, it's every has and some people because of their own efforts will have more. And I think again it's a different way of looking at things.

Sustainable leadership develops rather than depletes human and material resources. We have that mandate of stewardship that all things are related. We must remember that. And sustainable leadership practices that. Sustainable leadership develops environmental diversity and capacity so that we're flexible and adaptable. This is, on the top corner, the older lady with the glasses -- that's a picture of my mother -- and talk about being flexible and adaptable. She went through an incredible time of change and she was able to maintain, even though at the time that she was young other Indian women were marrying non-Indians because it was considered a way of uplifting yourself. She never ever did that. She believed that we had to keep our culture and she ended up in the last years of her life being one of our most important teachers. Sustainable leadership undertakes activist engagement in the environment. And one of those that I'm talking about is that whole thing around FAS/FAE. It was very, very difficult to look at ourselves and see what we had done to our children because of the drinking and the drugging that's going on in our communities. It's still difficult today, but we do look at that challenge directly and that's what sustainable leadership is about, is that you take on those challenges. You don't just take on the easy stuff or the good stuff, you face those challenges. Another big one that we all know is in our communities we have to deal with, sexual abuse and where that came from. So it's those kinds of challenges. Thank you very much."