Michael K. Mitchell: Perspectives on Leadership and Nation Building

Native Nations Institute

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

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."

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