leadership selection

Navigating the Structures of Native Nations

Native Nations Institute

Native Nations Institute presented a panel at TENWEST 2019 in Tucson called “Navigating the Structures of Native Nations.” Arizona is home to 22 Native nations, many whom are major economic drivers. Panelists presented an overview of Native nations including their socio-economic challenges, governmental form, authorities, laws, and economic environments. Representatives from two of Tucson’s Indigenous communities, the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, shared suggestions for building effective inter-governmental relationships. Panelists included are:

Joan Timeche, Executive Director, Native Nations Institute

Austin Nunez, Chairman, San Xavier District Tohono O’odham Nation

Herminia Frias, Councilwoman, Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council

Resource Type

Native Nations Institute. "Navigating the Structures of Native Nations" TENWEST 2019. Tucson, Arizona. October 14, 2019

Transcript available upon request. Please email: nni@email.arizona.edu

Meeting the Need for Higher Education and Professional Development

Native Nations Institute

Native Nations Institute and the Indigenous Governance Program presented a panel at TENWEST 2019 in Tucson called “Meeting the Need for Higher Education & Professional Development.” The panelists presented a case study on how the Indigenous Governance Program (and a proposed School of Indigenous Governance and Development that is still in the planning phase) at the University of Arizona was created to address a growing need for education related to Indigenous governance best practices among tribal nations in the U.S. and Indigenous communities around the world. To date, the program has reached over 350 participants from over 30 Native nations on 6 continents.

Included in the presentation are stories about how these programs have helped tribes to strengthen their governance, rebuild their nations, and demonstrate sovereignty in action. Panelists included are: 

Joan Timeche, Executive Director, Native Nations Institute

Tory Fodder, Indigenous Governance Program Manager

Robert Williams, Jr., JD, Professor, Regent’s Professor, Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program, University of Arizona

Transcript available upon request. Please email: nni@email.arizona.edu

Honoring Nations: Oren Lyons: Governing Our Way to a Brighter Future

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons shares his perspective on why governance matters to the sovereignty and long-term prosperity of Indigenous peoples, and stresses the importance of adhering to the long-taught instructions that have ensured the survival of those peoples to this day.

Resource Type

Lyons, Oren. "Governing Our Way to A Brighter Future." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Sante Fe, New Mexico. February 7, 2002. Presentation.

Oren Lyons:

"[Iroquois language]. That's our greeting for, general greeting across Six Nations country and the Haudenosaunee, people call us Iroquois. It means ‘thank you for being well' and it's important. '[Iroquois language]' means 'peace' and it's the same word for health. [Iroquois language]. ‘Health and peace,' that's our greeting. Thank you for being healthy. Thank you for the peace. We'll come back to that because that's instructive. Time is relentless and so is Andrew Lee. He put together a program, you know, when you look at it and say, ‘Well, how are we going to get through all this?' But here we are. It's Saturday afternoon and we have gone through all of the points that were put out in the program and very well as a matter of fact. It's been very enlightening and I really enjoyed these sessions because I learned so much, there's just so much that I guess we all had the same feeling. 'Boy, I wish everybody was here from my nation so they could have heard this.' So what that means is that somehow we have to transfer this information that we have back to our peoples, back to our nations, and to give them some hope and direction because we are in perilous times, there is no doubt.

Now I thought that we should begin and I should take the time and I will take the time to go through our greeting, our [Iroquois language] we say, the opening or the words before all words. Before we open any session in any meeting, big or small, we start with these words and so I thought you should hear them because as my grandmother said last night as she was talking, my aunt, and she said, ‘There are words, there are directions,' that she doesn't hear much anymore, but they are there and I know all our nations have them and when Regis [Pecos] was talking and he was speaking, when Peterson Zah was speaking his language, he was saying these very words and even though we didn't understand the language, we understood that these were the words and they are the same. They're the same for all our peoples and we're so fortunate that any of our elders can stand and speak for all of us. That's how common we are. Language of course is the soul of a nation and that's what's been put forward. And if you don't have a use for a language you lose it or if somebody transfers your uses to another language then that's what you use. Indian nations -- we didn't lose our language, it was taken from us, it was beaten from us, it was forced from us. We didn't lose it. So we have to fight back for it. We need it. There's a lot of information and instruction in our languages. When we lose these languages, all that instruction is gone. Ceremonies that we run will be gone. So we have to fight for it. Each generation has to pick up that fight and that's where we're at right now.

It's interesting to me, one more statement on the language, is that we're getting a lot of political play these days for the code talkers. Here in Washington people are talking about the code talkers, but the irony I think is missed by most people but probably not by our people. You know, those code talkers -- and there were many -- there were...I know there were the Ojibwes, I know that there were many other languages used but those languages, those Navajo languages that was used this war, the second World War saved thousands and thousands of American lives, thousands, and these were the very languages that they were beating out of us. And what if they were successful? How many lives would America have lost? Isn't that ironic that the very thing that they were taking from us saved...maybe saved the war. Who knows? It was mentioned here that we should forgive and we have and it's amazing but we don't forget. As you know, Indians never forget anything...ever! But we have forgiven and there's an amazing amount of good will in Indian Country to our brothers. We espouse common cause very easily. It's amazing, but I think that's a reflection of our nations, of our cultures cause that's just the way we are.

And anyway, we always start these meetings with the thanksgiving acknowledge we call it. We say first...our first acknowledgement is to the people. So all of the people who are here, all of the people who are not here, those who are sick, those who could not make it, we acknowledge all the people of the world, whoever they are, wherever they are, and we give a big thanksgiving.

And then we acknowledge the earth itself. [Iroquois language] we say, 'Our Mother.' We acknowledge the earth and all the life that she brings and all the generations of faces looking up from that earth...coming...coming...coming. We acknowledge the earth and we give a big thanksgiving for the earth, Our Mother.

And then we acknowledge all the grass and all the bushes and all the medicine that grow on this earth and we think about that. We're grateful and we're thankful and we put our minds together as one and we give a big thanksgiving for all of the grasses and medicines and bushes on the earth.

And then we move to the trees and we think of the leader of the trees, the maple. And we think of all the trees in the world and their duties and we give a thanksgiving, because they continue their duties and it supports us and we're grateful. So we put our minds together as one and give a big thanksgiving for all the trees of the world.

And then we move to all the animals that run in the woods and run in the fields and that live in the rocks and we think about them and we give a thanksgiving for all of these animals for they carry out their duties and their duties provide for us, support us. We think about them and we give a thanksgiving for all the animals of the world, big and small.

And then we move to the waters and we think about the waters, all these waters, the springs, the streams, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans, our life and what it does for us. The water that we cook our foods, we wash ourselves, we cook our medicines; without the water there would be no life. And so we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving for all the waters of the earth.

And then we think about all the fishes and the life that's in the waters and how great they are and how they sustain us. And we think about that and we think about the leader, the trout, and we say, ‘The river runs through his mouth' and we say, ‘This is wonderful.' We give a big thanksgiving for all the fishes of the sea and all the life within it. So we put our minds together as one and we give a big thanksgiving. So be it, our way.

And then we move to the birds, those that fly. These are very special. These birds do many, many, many duties. And the chief, the leader, the eagle is the one that looks out for all. And we think of even the smallest, the tiniest, the hummingbird and the songs that they give us that can raise our spirits when we don't feel good. They wake us in the morning, they remind us every day this is another day. They are messengers and we give thanks for all the birds of the world.

And then we move to our grandfathers, the four winds, the ones that bring the seasons. And we think about them, these powerful forces so great in strength that we do not want to see their ultimate strength but we may as we were warned. But still, we love these grandfathers, these winds of the four directions that plant the life on this earth and bring the seasons. And we put our minds together as one and we give a big thanksgiving to the great winds from the four directions of the earth.

And then we think of our grandfathers with thundering voices that bring the rain and when we hear them in the spring we're grateful and we run and we give thanks, special thanks because it means we are going to have rain for another season when they speak, these grandfathers with thundering voices. And we give thanks for them because they water our people, they water the trees, they water the earth and they replenish all the fresh water. So we put them in our minds and we give a thanksgiving.

And then we move to our grandmother the moon and she looks after the female, she works with the female. She sets the duties for the seasons. She raises and lowers the great seas of the earth, very powerful. We call her the night sun. She shows our way at night. And we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving for our grandmother the moon.

And then we think of our eldest brother the sun, without whom we wouldn't have light today as we can look outside and we can see he is doing his duty and we are served by that and we are fortunate. He works with the earth to bring life, together they produce life, this eldest brother, a mighty thanksgiving. Each day we are fortunate. Someone once said here, ‘Tomorrow never comes' and that may well be. So today is here. So we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving for our eldest brother the sun.

And then we move to the stars, those beautiful stars. They hold a great deal of knowledge and our people used to know the knowledge. But we now say we don't know much anymore. But yet they still guide us at night, yet they still lead us and they lift our hearts with their beauty and they bring the dew in the morning and work with water. And so we put our minds together and we give a big thanksgiving to the stars in the heavens.

And then we move to the spiritual beings and these spiritual beings who look out for us every day, these spiritual beings whose duty it is to work with this earth and help us, support us. They're the ones that catch you just before you fall; they're with us all the time. And they're with us if you want to work with them and if you want to ask them, they're there, these spiritual beings, and we don't know who they are and they work in many ways. And so we put our minds together in a big thanksgiving for these spiritual beings that work for the Creator.

And in our lands we give thanks for [Iroquois language], this man who was given a message to us 200 years ago that helped our nation survive, that gave us the directions that we needed, spiritual message. And so we put our minds together and we give a thanksgiving for [Iroquois language].

And then we come to the Creator, [Iroquois language], giver of all life; this might force who sustains us, looks after us, provides for us. Finally, with all our minds and thinking of all the things that we can think of that he has given us. We put our minds together in a mighty, mighty thanksgiving and we give a thanksgiving for [Iroquois language], the Creator.

So then we say we have now finished our first [Iroquois language], which is the words before all words and now we have provided a context as to who we are and what our duties are and we go about our business. And so with that I thought I could share that with that with you. [Iroquois language] So now we'll begin the business.

They told us, make your prayers, get up and make your prayers and then go to work, 'cause nothing happens without work. So the context then, who are we? In this great earth that we heard about, where is the human being and what is our responsibility because we have intellect, because we have hands, because we can build things and especially because we have the foreknowledge of death? We know that we are going on. Animals know when they are going, they prepare. If you watch your dog, in the morning when he goes out and he's making a bed and he disappears for a day and then two days then three days and five days and he doesn't come back because he knows it's his time. We used to know that too. We've lost a lot of things. Animals know, but they don't know beforehand. We know beforehand, so that's our responsibility. That means we have to look up for life and that's our responsibility and that's where leadership comes, that's where governance comes and that's where the relevance of our peoples today in today's context is very important because of these great knowledges that our nations have. We don't want to lose them. Everybody will suffer by that loss.

So now we want to talk about identity. You heard about it. What is our identity? Our identity is our land. That's our identity, it's our land, it's our water, it's where we live, it's where we've lived for thousands of years and who knows how long. I get such a big kick out of anthropologists and archaeologists and historians who say, ‘Well, you Indians have only been here 10,000 years yourself,' immigrants talking to us. We've been here a lot longer than 10,000 years and we know that. And I told them that. I said, ‘I'll just simply wait because eventually your science will turn it up.' They get very angry. But identity, yes, that's us, that's our land.

My uncle took the time when I was just graduated from college, took the time, realizing that I was head strong, kind of full of myself and feeling pretty hot...pretty hot stuff here. He said, ‘Hey, let's go fishing.' I said, ‘Good idea,' because I knew he knew where the fish were. We went in a boat, we got out in a boat and we were over by where the bass were and sitting there quietly, got our lines in and he said, ‘Well, I see you're just graduated from the university.' And I knew right then I was in trouble. I was in a boat, I couldn't go anywhere and he was the one that had the motor on the other hand. But it was interesting because he said, ‘Well, you must know who you are then. You know a lot of things.' ‘Yeah, I learned a lot of things.' ‘Well, you must know who you are.' ‘Yeah, I know who I am.' So I gave him my Indian name, I gave him my clan, gave him the nation and every time I would add something then he'd say, ‘And that's it, huh?' After a long struggle I finally had to be quiet for awhile and then he says, ‘You need some help?' I said, ‘Yeah.' ‘Good,' he says, ‘good.' He said, ‘Look at that tree up here,' and he pointed to a cliff and there was a beautiful tree not very old, a spruce it looked like, beautiful. He said, ‘You're the same as that tree.' He says, ‘Your roots are in the earth, that's your Mother.' He says, ‘You're the same as that tree.' He says, ‘You're one in the same, you're a little ant, your mother's the earth.' He said, ‘That's who you are.' That was the biggest lesson. I never forgot it and that's what we have to remember.

So identity, the land, that's what I mean, you're part of the earth. It's us and it's our responsibility. So how do you maintain this responsibility? Well, we were instructed to one, give thanks, which we did and two to enjoy life. We're instructed to enjoy...you're supposed to enjoy life. You're not supposed to be walking around like them pilgrims we saw come over, they were so grim. They only wore black clothes and worked seven, no six days. They worked six days. Our people thought they were kind of crazy. They took their little children in the middle of the winter and they put them in the water and they were just born and some of them died. And our people said, ‘What are you doing?' And they said, ‘We're saving them.' We never really figured that out yet. ‘We're saving them.' But anyway, they were pretty grim, but our people are not. They like bright clothes. Look at my shirt, nice. One time when we were talking with these...white, they're my brothers, they're Dutch...we were making an agreement, a treaty called the Two Row. After all was said and done, they said, ‘Well, how will we know one another?' And we said, ‘You will know us by the way we dress.' Now, think about that. If you have a hard time, they'll see a lot of us these days, won't they, by the way we dress. What does it mean ‘by the way we dress?' That means your culture, that means who you are. So wear something, carry something, show who you are.

Now, my clan is the wolf and we had a lot of discussion here about the wolf and I'm glad my young nephew Aaron brought that up. He talked about the wolf. A good question, ‘Who is the wolf?' Well, the clan, that's me, I'm the wolf. I'm proud of it. And people ask me, they say, ‘Well, what's your sign?' I say, ‘The wolf.' And they get confused, but the signs that they talk about come from another land and another idea and another way. We have our identities, we know who we are, and I'm so glad you spoke about your clans, who you are because that is really important, that's our identity. And who is the wolf then, who is the wolf? Really, even among our people, an enigma. We know powerful, we know spiritual, and we know our white brother looks at the wolf the same way he looks at us. He likes us because we're proud, he likes us because we're fierce, he likes because we fight hard. So he takes his picture and puts it on his uniform and says he is a warrior or he is an Indian because we're fierce and we fight, but that's not who we are and that's not who the wolf is. Anyone will fight when you're coming in your front door. The mouse will fight you if you corner them. You know you've got to be careful, he'll bite you. You have to respect. And so who is the wolf, then?

We were having a ceremony in the longhouse and it was a great feather dance, the Creator's dance, and we had a singer coming from [Iroquois language], Mohawk, and he was singing and I was listening. I couldn't understand exactly what...so I went to my grandmother and I said, ‘He's talking about? The wolf?' She said, ‘Yes.' She said, ‘That's an old song. I haven't heard that in a long time'. And I said, ‘What is he saying?' And she said, ‘In this road to the path to the Creator, this beautiful path that we all go on and we're walking,' she says, ‘we're walking and on the sides of the road are the strawberries, the leader of the fruit, strawberries all the way out.' 'And we're walking,' that's what he saying in his song, his preamble before we begin the dance. And then he said, 'To my side my grandfather the wolf, on his own path, side by side we're walking, we're walking through the Creator's land.' And that gave us some indication of who our brother the wolf is because I think, yes, I think he represents the natural world and I think how it goes with the wolf goes with us. We're the same and we're also the same with all our brothers. And so how it goes with us will go with them, although they don't know yet, don't understand yet. So somehow we have to educate and explain to them that we need all of us to survive, we can't lose one. We can't lose great leaders like the wolf or the bear; again, spiritual, again, powerful medicine, we know that.

We say in Onondaga, Haudenosaunee, that the leader of all the animals is the deer. Now with the deer with his horns we come around and in between these horns like radar and he can see far beyond his eyes here. He's all over the world, as the wolf is all over the world, as the eagle is all over the world the leader, they're all over. That's how you can tell they're leaders, they're everywhere. Not all animals are everywhere, but these are leaders. And so, yes, who is the wolf? I think the wolf represents humanity, life as we know it. We lose that, we lose everything, us included, and it will be miserable and slow. You're not just going to fold over and die, you're just going to die slowly, one generation after the other. It's going to take generations suffering. We don't want that. So how do we stop that? By keeping our ceremonies, by keeping our dances, by giving our thanksgivings. That's what he said. ‘As long as you give thanks, life will go on.' Simple instruction. Are we too busy, are we too busy to take the time to give thanks? So those are questions that we have to answer ourselves in today's time when time is relentless. It is relentless because we've entered into the same time frame as the rest of the world so we feel the same thing. There are some people who still operate on the time of the earth and they're quite happy, they're quite content. They just go along with the day. Kind of a nice way to live, but it's not the way things are today.

And so the identity: land. Then with the land is the jurisdiction. And jurisdiction is the ultimate authority over that land and if you don't have jurisdiction on your land, then you don't have the land. You're just there until somebody wants to move you and they will. Our people have a great history of being moved. You know about it. We know where we live, we know where we come from and still remember. We had great leaders who gave their lives for our people, great leaders who would look at us today and wonder, wonder about us. Do we have the strength? Do we have the conviction? Do we have the will to survive as our peoples, as who we are? We've talked about political will. Well, that's the bottom line, political will. If you don't have the political will to survive, you won't. You have to fight and you have to fight on all levels and yet in all of this is a common cause and the common cause is survival. There was an old Indian leader who came from the west, I don't know what exactly his name was but he said, ‘There is going to come a time when people will cease to live and begin to survive.' What did he mean by that? He's talking about quality of life and that's the values we talk about. What is the quality of life? Is the quality of life a BMW? Is that your quality of life? Or is it your grandchildren singing Indian songs? Is that a quality of life? It's up to us to choose that. Every generation has to look out for itself. You can't live your children's lives. You have to give them enough instruction to survive. That's our responsibility, instruction. Each generation will have its leaders, each generation will have its heroes and each generation will have those people whom nations will despise. All of us are spiritual beings and every day when we get up we try to keep the spiritual center and be a good person. We don't want to be too good over here because then you just follow this way and of course you get too bad then you follow this way. So every day we have to make choices of who we're going to be today. And any one of us on any given day can be the worst enemy of our people ever...every day. These are decisions every day. So we need a lot of instruction. We need ways to keep in a good way. So we said with ceremonies. Now we'll move on. We'll move on.

In the borders of nations, you have three specific borders in the area of sovereignty. You have a geographic border. You can see a map and you can draw yourself a couple borders here. You have a political border. That border can look fuzzy. And then you have an economic border. Now you're really getting fuzzy. If you don't watch all three borders, you lose your sovereignty. Money, necessary, currency, around the world. At the U.N. [United Nations] or in Europe now we have the Euro. They now have a common currency. They've decided that they're going to work together and become like the United States. It seems to be working. Now we have to live every day in this society and societies, they're all different. But we have to keep our own identity and so think about that, every day think about your geographic border, think about your political border, and think about your economic border and try to keep them clear because the clearer you keep them, the stronger you are, the more sovereign. And you're at risk all the time.

So we heard about women. Somebody said women are important. Well, I guess so. When they talk about...I'm traveling around the world, which I do a lot and they're, ‘Oh, you're a chief'. ‘Well, yeah, one of the leaders'. The first question they ask, ‘Can a woman be a chief?' I said, ‘No'. I said, ‘No more than I could be a clan mother'. But the question comes from Western society. The question comes from what they call the battle of the sexes, the conflict that Western society has between men and women and the battle that women have gone through to even be recognized as equal and not quite yet. But we knew long ago, our people knew long ago that women were the center of our nation. We're partners. We've always been partners, full and equal, with duties of the woman and duties of the man. Not difficult. No one better than the other but working for the good of the family and working for the good of the nation. Not a problem, this idea of equality. It's old to our people, but our brothers in Western society is just beginning and having a hard time with it. So we should not be carried away by their discussion. We should retain and understand our own and we all remember and know that women are sacred. They carry life. We can't do it. And I think that's why the white man fears them. But I don't know.

Now, what is the danger that we face today? The dangers that we face today is this idea of government and governance, we were talking about it and I hear a lot about it. And people that have played sports, lacrosse or basketball or hockey, and these sports in particular, transition is a big factor. And if you can lay your attack on a transition, you catch your opposition in a vulnerable position and you can score. The transition game, it's getting to be a common talk. We knew about this transition game long ago. So changing, the nation is changing, you're in transition, you're in this contest and if you're not aware, you're vulnerable. So if you're changing from a traditional government to an elected government or have changed, you're still in transition. You're vulnerable because it's not your rules that you're playing by. Somebody else set these rules. So not only have you played a game, you've got to know the rules and know them good enough so you don't get caught in transition. And what are you transitioning to? From Indian to what? Envision and looking forward to who? But what I hear that gives me such great hope, strength, enthusiasm is every single one of the projects and schools people are talking about hanging onto the ways and borders. And that's where we're at.

The variety of realities that exist are the varieties of realities that are across this nation. There's a full spectrum. So we have to watch and as we move into the international field and we have people probably on their way back or assessing the last meeting at the U.N. in Switzerland and very important that Chief Justice [Robert] Yazzie was there and we had a discussion the other day. He was explaining what was going on in Geneva as they discussed your and my fate in an international forum. Were you there? Do you know about it? Eventually you'll hear about it. There's coalitions of states out there, Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, coalescing against Indigenous people. We had a statement here from the federal government said, ‘Self-determination is essential...essential...to our good governance.' And yet our number one opponent at the U.N. is the United States against self-determination. Did you know that? You know how long we've been fighting them on that simple term? Well, it's not quite so simple, is it? Self-determination: the right to determine for yourself who you are. It carries great political impact and since 1994, when we put the draft declaration for the Rights of Indigenous people to the Human Rights Division in ECOSOC [U.N. Economic and Social Council] at the U.N., out of 45 articles they have only since 1994 agreed with two. Forty three of the articles of self-determination and human rights they have not agreed to. That's the kind of fight going on over there. The Haudenosaunee led that delegation to Geneva in 1977 and I was one of the leaders there and the people responsible. One hundred forty four people in that particular event, North, Central and South America. Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, we said, ‘That's who we are.' And the last meeting they had there was over 1,000-1,100 delegates, Indigenous people.

They moved to establish a permanent forum for Indigenous issues in ECOSOC. We are now developing the rules and regulations for governing that. That's going on and the ECOSOC will be in May at the U.N. in New York. It's going to reflect all the peoples of the world. But from the time that we stood outside the U.N. in 1973 petitioning to speak to them on behalf of the Lakota Nation, who was struggling at Wounded Knee, they wouldn't let us across the street. Phalanx is the police. We couldn't cross the street to the U.N. In 1992 I gave the first address to the United States body at the U.N. in their forum from their roster. And if you didn't' have the longevity of knowing the fight in between those years you would have said, ‘We haven't moved a step,' but obviously we have. So you have to have a perspective. You've got to know about these things. The same slam you're fighting at home, these fights are going on over there. You've got to support the people that are there. It's hard, it's expensive, it's really excruciatingly slow. We just last year, from the Clinton Administration, got an agreement that we were peoples, in brackets yet, but still. They didn't even agree to that before.

So I want to end this little discussion with some news from my country. Good news, I think. It makes me feel good. On the 14th of April we are going to raise the next Tadodaho, the next leader of the Haudenosaunee for the Six Nations, we're called the Iroquois. This title is 1,000 years old and although I feel apprehension for this man that's going to take this position because it's such a difficult position, yet, I have a lot of real hope. He's a good man. He was one of our very best lacrosse players. He was one of the very best defensemen we ever had. And now he's going to take this position. His name is Sid Hill. About 46, pretty young for the position but he is working hard and I think he's going to do it. So in the process and procedure of governance that we do and how we raise our leaders, we're going to raise this leader and there isn't going to be any Bureau of Indian Affairs there and there isn't going to be any Department of Interior and we're not asking anybody for anything. We are just doing what we should be doing, which is to raise our leaders in our way and the process is 1,000 years old. It's hard, it's tough to maintain that in these times but we have. And I never realized until I started traveling how important that was. And I don't think a lot of our people, our own people, realize how fortunate they are to still have chiefs because all of our nations know about chiefs. They revere these people, very selfless leaders. We still have them. And I've been on that council for a long time now, since 1967, and I can say one thing, that there is no budget for the chiefs. We don't get paid. I think that might be a good idea for governance. You will certainly change the people who want to be in charge. No, nobody wants to be the chief where I come from. It's too much work, it takes you away from the family and I heard it the other day, when you're working for the [Iroquois Language] you can even lose your family and it's happened, I've seen it. It's hard but it's important. It's what you call leadership in governance. What is the purpose of leadership, but to defend and promote the welfare of your nation and your people and to really be concerned for that seventh generation, the long vision?

So we have to raise our leaders and I thought Lance [Morgan] had a good idea. I said, ‘He's really put his finger on the problem that I see with elective systems which is that two- to four-year fight that goes on which can be really fierce in Indian Country, disruptive and no continuity.' And I thought his idea was a good idea. Maybe we should look at that because you want continuity. And it's nothing to it except to change it. You know you can do that if you just have the political will. That's all it takes. So having been taken far out and finding our way back, we have to take advantage of all of these things. And I tell you that I could take all the events...I can take it home to our people and say, ‘We can learn from every one of these projects. They're positive, they show spirit, they show the will of our people.' And I congratulate you. We've just got to keep it up and somehow we have to share and we have to be better coordinated to work with each other and support each other wherever we are. And so we have to give up some of our people we love to hate, long-time battles. We have to really set them aside now and work together and be more understanding and be more tolerant with the problems of all of our brothers wherever they are, the nations and their struggles.

They're asking...the world is asking for the wisdom of the elders of the traditional Indigenous people, all over the world. I know because they call me. And I'm just the runner. I'm just a runner. All I do is talk about what the nation knows and I'm careful about that. I'm learning all the time. I know who the leaders are and I know what it takes to be. So we have to support them. And in our own way now...by being at this meeting we're all runners. We now have to go back and take the message home and share it and be concerned. It is the future. It is our people. And it's not only our people; it's the rest of life. I don't think that it's too late but we are, the human race, approaching a point of no return. We are approaching this point of no return. The ice is melting in the north as we speak. Global warming is here, we're in transition and the work that we're going to be doing today we are not going to be doing for ourselves, we are going to be doing for the next two or three generations. That's who's going to...who will gain by our work. Not us. We have to understand that we're going to have to take what's coming and not be weak and raise our leaders to meet these problems and they're going to be big. And if you think two towers going down in New York was a problem, wait. You're going to see some real problems coming. That's when we have to be strong and that's when we have to rely on the wisdom of our nations and remember them and hold them and keep the language. And with that I'm going to end my discussion. I'm going to, I think, urge you as we say [Iroquois language] -- try hard, do your best. [Iroquois language]"

Michael K. Mitchell: A History of the Akwesasne Mohawk

Native Nation Building: Governance and Development undergraduate course

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

Resource Type

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

Michael K. Mitchell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Record:

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

Michael K. Mitchell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lifetime Journey: Alabama-Coushatta Name New Chiefs


For the first time in nearly two decades, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas is welcoming a new principal and second chief. The 1,200-member tribe, located on 4,500 acres of land north of Houston, elects its chiefs to life terms. An inauguration ceremony held January 1 was the first such event since 1995. The ceremony is revered because it may be witnessed only once in a lifetime, tribal spokesman Carlos Bullock said...

Resource Type

Landry, Alysa. "A Lifetime Journey: Alabama-Coushatta Name New Chiefs." Indian Country Today Media Network. January 30, 2014. Article. (https://ictnews.org/archive/a-lifetime-journey-alabama-coushatta-name-new-chiefs..., accessed February 24, 2023)

Servants of the People


Traditionally, this title was an honor bestowed on those distinguished both by willingness to serve and effectiveness in doing so. This was our concept – unique throughout the world but one with such a strong sense of rightness that many would claim it for their own. Of course, claims and reality are not necessarily the same.

The crazy part of this story is that we don’t use this concept or even the expression anymore. Americans never quite got the concept but to this day they refer to those elected or appointed to office as belonging to the public service – to be sure, these are only words. But what happened to us?...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Kane, John. “Servants of the People.” Let's Talk Native. Two Row Times. September 11, 2013. Opinion. (http://tworowtimes.com/opinions/columns/lets-talk-native/servants-of-the..., accessed November 6, 2023)