Grand Chief Michael Mitchell of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne provides an overview of the nation-building work his nation has engaged in over the past four decades, from its decision to move away from the Indian Act to its systematic development of capable governing institutions designed to exercise true self-determination and self-governance.
Mitchell, Michael K. "NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Michael kanentakeron Mitchell (Part 1)." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 1, 2008. Interview.
"Well, we're here with Chief Michael Mitchell, the former Grand Chief of the Akwesasne...Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and Mike is our first ever Indigenous Leadership Fellow of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. Mike, if we could just have you start off by introducing yourself. I'm sure you can do a much better job than I just did."
Michael K. Mitchell:
"My English name is Mike Mitchell. My Mohawk name is Kanentakeron. I belong to the Wolf Clan. I'm a faith keeper in the Longhouse on the traditional side. I was born in Akwesasne, which is located on the New York State-Ontario-Quebec border. Half, half the reservation is in the [United] States, the other half is in Canada, and two-thirds of what's in Canada is in Quebec and the other part is in Ontario. So we have...if it's anything like this, it's five jurisdictions on the outside and in the territory on the Canadian side is the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, on the American side is another elected government called the St. Regis Tribal Council and historically we have our traditional Mohawk Nation Council. So there's three internal Mohawk governments. And the population, probably right now, it's closer to 17-18,000 and 10,000 are registered as resident Mohawks on the Canadian side of Akwesasne."
"So that makes for a pretty complex governing situation, doesn't it?"
Michael K. Mitchell:
"Yes, it was, it still is, but it's...we've been able to resolve a lot of the issues, complex issues by taking over a lot of the authorities, programs and services and run it, operate it ourselves."
"You've been involved with your nation's self governance for more than two decades now. I was wondering if you could provide just a general overview of nation-building efforts at Akwesasne since you became involved."
Michael K. Mitchell:
"The first time I got on Council for what was known back then as the St. Regis Band Council was in 1970, and I had just returned back from Alcatraz and just to start a few things back home, we started taking over islands on the St. Lawrence River. That kind of got people talking, "˜Maybe you should run on council.' So I served one term in 1970, but it was difficult because I was going to school at the time, ironically, film school at the National Film Board. We had our own Native Indian film crew that was doing documentary work. So it was really in 1984, well, I ran and got elected as a district chief in 1982, served two years and figured out that there's just too many outside government interference. Council was in a drastic deficit, probably half their budget of $5 million they were in a deficit and everything was controlled from the outside, which led to a lot of personality clashes within council. We're governed by the Indian Act in Canada, so we have to adhere to a lot of their regulations, codes, etc. All authorities were dictated from Ottawa through the Department of Indian Affairs. So that was sort of like an introduction. I didn't like it, I didn't want to run again, but the fact that I survived it and they were saying, "˜You should run for the top spot,' which was the Head Chief of the St. Regis Band Council.
Back then, the people didn't really elect the chiefs. You all got elected from your districts of which there are three. There's Snye, St. Regis, which is in Quebec side, and Ontario side is Cornwell Island, and each elect four chiefs they have a total... they had a total of 12. And among the 12, they would elect amongst themselves one head chief. So I had figured out, well, obviously you have to run not as yourself but you have to run with a party enough that you would control council and then make sure you have enough votes if you want to run for the head chief, which is what we did in 1984 and the person that I replaced had been head chief for about 16 years, so this wasn't easy. He had pretty well control of the community, the Council and ran it the way he wanted, the way he saw it. A lot had to do with the way the government ran things, too. So there was a very narrow causeway in terms of accessing information back to community. But regardless, we had the election in 1984 and I won by a vote of seven to five. So it wasn't expected; people were surprised. I was young back then, but I thought...ready for a change. I went about in the community and introduced myself as the new head chief and a little bit of surprise in the attitude in the community. They said, "˜You're only head chief of the council members that elected you. We didn't elect you.' And that stayed with me.
Then I ran smack into Indian Act regulations, how you run and service a community. You always had to ask for permission from the Department of Indian Affairs. So I took about less than three, four months before I recognized that we have people to bow to on every issue, on health, education, housing, economic development, and a lot of people are on welfare. People didn't have a high regard for council and it was stagnant. So I figured the only way out of this is you better cut a fine line as to where you're going to make your stand and proceed to make some changes. Right after I got on council, the person I replaced filed an appeal, went to court, and because it was a Canadian federal legislation, the Indian Act, there's many loopholes. It's pretty old. It was put in place in 1867 with very little changes. So if one wanted to mess around with it, there's a lot of legal things you can do with it. And there wasn't a whole lot of honor in the council system the way it was set up because it was controlled so much by the Canadian government. And about 10 years had gone by since the Indian agent had left because he used to run everything. So all this was fairly new. When I said it stuck in my mind when people were saying, "˜We didn't elect you,' and considering that I had to go through a Canadian court just to retain the chieftainship because being that it was so controlled I had pretty well said in my mind, "˜We've got to get out of this Canadian-controlled election process.'
I also found out I'm not supposed to release minutes of the meetings, so the community weren't really appraised that there was so much deficit in the council. Strangely enough, the Department of Indian Affairs, they came and chaired the meeting when I became...counted the votes to be elected chief, was the same person that came back a couple weeks later and he said, "˜We were about to lock up all your offices and put your community under third-party management because of your growing deficit.' So that wasn't a real good introduction. It seemed like every other week my office was occupied by my opposition. Where I lived was on Cornwell Island, Ontario and to get to St. Regis I had to go through the American side and once I'm in the village, if I want to go to Snye, I've got to go back through the American side to get back into the Canadian side of Snye. So we cross the border about 20 times a day just to service our people. Well, all those factors came into play rather fast and they had been operating this way, I would say about 50 years that they had been controlled. They had a system, delegated authority they called it, and everything that we were to do we had to ask for permission, "˜Can council do this, can council do that?'
Being that I was more used to blocking bridges and taking over islands, I took all that energy and started studying what had to be done in the community. We started doing house-to-house survey asking the community members would they like to see an election code that would be developed by the community, for the community and let's opt out of that Indian Act so that they would be the ones that would control it. And we started working out the mechanics after getting the feedback. So in that one term of two years, and that was the other thing I was upset about because I found out that two years is a very short time for elected leadership and a lot of things can happen in that two years and council members, if they want to get anything done they'll take the first year to learn the ropes. By the time the second year comes around, you're already getting pressured to provide money for such and such a person, for housing or more money for education and it's really money that set the limit, budget. Anyway, if you're going to make changes, it had to be done.
So I went to Ottawa and asked for a meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs and I told him, I says, "˜Listen, this system that you have in place isn't working and we're going to have to make some drastic changes if the community is ever going to come out of a deficit and learn to govern themselves and look after themselves.' And the Minister's name was David Cromby. He got very interested. He said, "˜Well, you know, you have a lot of audacity to come in here and say we want to make some changes.' He said, "˜There's a system in place,' but he says, "˜I do worry about the deficit because it's not just your community, there's many other communities in the same situation.' He says, "˜What do you want to do?' And I says, "˜To improve the attitude and the atmosphere of our community, we want more of our people to take over the administration of programs and services. We want to change the election law so that we can govern ourselves and put the election process through under our own authority.' I said, "˜There's a whole history here in Akwesasne of every time somebody loses an election, you're in court, either Indian Affairs is in court as well as the council.' So he listened tentatively and he says, "˜Well, what about the deficit?' I says, "˜I'll do a deficit retirement plan, but I'll do a separate management plan and we'll wipe out that deficit within five years, but you have to agree to let us run our community.' So he went, left the meeting for awhile, he came back, talked to some people and he said, "˜They say that I can't do that, that we have a system in place,' he says, "˜But I say, we should let you try it.' He said, "˜The only other alternative is I've got to send more people, pay more money, put more money into the community and for what? There's always going to be a deficit, there's going to bad attitude.' He says, "˜I want to try this experiment.' So that was a start.
If you want to get education dollars, the ultimate authority was somebody in Indian Affairs, if you want to build a house and you need housing dollars, somebody's going to come down and take, do papers for you, applications, etc., social services, welfare, the same thing. So I asked for all these people to be sent back to Ottawa, sent home and we hired our own people. I went around and got a list of nominees...they were already working somewhere, either Ottawa, Washington, Syracuse, Albany, Toronto and we needed an administrator, manager, program directors and whoever had the qualifications, we called them, talked with them and told them what we had in mind and I said, "˜I'd like to see more people return home. You'll have a job. Bring your senior experience, your management skills and help your community because we're going to turn this around.' For some reason it caught on and people started coming back and we put together a management team to take care of the administration and I had one policy. I didn't think we had any business running the administration side -- we're politicians. So I had discussion with council saying, "˜Let's do our politics and we hire these people, let them do their administration.' So separating administration and politics was one of the first objectives and it worked. We set out a goal to analyze the political situation and carved out a period of time that we would achieve this.
And the other thing, you had to stabilize the community. The internal politics had to be taken care of so we did, it was done Mohawk style. Obviously the man that I had replaced...we had to find a way to stop the occupation. If I went to work on the American side, chances are they would cut me off over there and punch me out a few times. But there was a great hope riding on this thing about taking over. The community dealt with him. They had to settle it the Mohawk way, going out and have a little fistfight and the winner came out and they said, "˜Okay, Mike's going to have the opportunity to run this community.' And so I had that opportunity, but the greatest strength...the way I was brought up, because this is my introduction to elected system; I was brought up on the traditional side. And maybe I should take a few minutes just to acquaint everyone that on the traditional side, the women put up the leaders. And it was said that the women knew who the leaders were from the time that they crawl on the ground to when they walk to when they hunt to when they marry and have a family -- the women already knew who's going to be a good leader, who will be a good provider, who has integrity, who has good characteristics. So among the various clans of which in the Mohawks we have three major ones: Wolf, Turtle and Bear. I'm a Wolf clan, remember. My mother's a clan mother in that system. My brother's a wampum keeper in that system. So that's the family I come from. My grandfather's a faith keeper. So this whole idea of being involved in a modern, elected tribal system was new and you didn't have much authority, so if you're going to establish yourself under certain principles, I borrowed a lot of that from our traditional custom.
I found out very early that the community was ready to make changes. You raise up the optimism, people wanted to feel good about themselves and it seemed that it wasn't...it hadn't happened for awhile. I'm trying to be very polite when I talk about the Indian Act, but it is so...to me it is so evil, so dictatorial and delegated that they didn't serve our interests because we were used to perhaps more of an honor system. Do things and people looked at you for it so I borrowed that. And I says, "˜We're going to have to fight for our jurisdiction. We're going to have to fight to have our authority and if we can't convince the government that we should be controlling more services, more programs and more jurisdiction, then we have to fight them.'
Well it was only weeks away, there was some men at my office as I got to work; this is months down the line. They were fishermen and they had their boat confiscated and their nets and the motor by provincial conservation authorities. So I listened to them and I apologized to them that I had to have appointments made for me, but they were standing on the outside so I just invited them in. And this is on my way to work. Anyhow, I identified with how they fed their family. They're high steel workers and they take time off for a month and they would fish for their families and then they would fillet it and put them in the freezer and part of the traditions; people always did that. So when you have an outside government intrude on your tradition, what are you going to do? So I told them, I says, "˜Well, tomorrow I'm going to get some people together, we're going to go out on the river and if we find this conservation officer, I will talk to him.' And that sort of raised the interest of people saying, "˜You know what he's going to do? He's going to go out there on the river and see what might transpire.' So when I got out there, there was boats there already. They were ready to guide me and find this conservation officer and it didn't take more than about a half hour they spotted him leaving Cornwall [Island].
So we met in the middle of the river, right on the international boundary and we cut him off and we stopped his boat and I asked him very politely where the seizure took place. And as we're floating on the St. Lawrence River in our boats and we're talking, I said, "˜You know, around here, one minute you're in the States, the next minute you're in Canada, you're in Ontario, you're in New York State, you're back in Quebec.' I said, "˜The way the international boundary zigzags, I doubt very much if this matter was going to go to court that your charges, the seizure would hold up. So I'm going to ask you real nice if ya'll might want to just think about returning this boat to them.' And he was kind of mean. He says, "˜There's no way.' So I tried another way. I says, "˜Well, we don't need an Ontario fishing license to fish in our own waters. We have an aboriginal right, we have a treaty right, and it always says we don't need to have that when we're fishing in our territory.' He didn't buy that either. He says, "˜There's been changes.' So this went on for awhile, then my blood pressure started to come up a little bit and I told him, I says, "˜Well, in that case, sir, since you took their boats I'm going to take your boat.' And his jaw just dropped down. He says, "˜You're going to what?' I says, "˜We're going to seize your boat and I'm just going to keep it until I get their boats back.' Well, you should have saw the cheering from these guys. They said, "˜Well, let us help you.' So we dragged his boat, with him in it, back to the village. And once I got down there, we tied up at the dock and I went to the police station and I phoned Toronto, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and told them what had happened. So the rest of that day phone calls were going back and forth and as we were, higher departments, higher authorities kept calling back saying, "˜What's going on down there?' And it got to the point where the last phone call was one of their regional heads who said, "˜This could turn into an international crisis.' I says, "˜Yes, it could.'
And there had just been elections in Ontario, a new government had gotten in, and it usually doesn't work for us, but in this case it sort of did because the Premiere got on, the new Premiere of Ontario, Bob Rae. He got on and he says, "˜Listen, I know you people don't need provincial licenses to fish'. And he says, "˜But I'm more concerned about that officer that you have. Is he a hostage? Is he...what condition is he in?' I says, "˜Oh, he's sitting right here.' "˜Is he a hostage?' I says, "˜No, sir, he's not and he's welcome to go home, but he ain't got no boat so he can't go anywhere.' So he laughed. He says, "˜I see where this is going.' He says, "˜Well, let's get down to the brass tacks.' He says, "˜What do you need?' I says, "˜I need them boats back that your government confiscated from my people.' So we talked for awhile. He says, "˜You're right. I'll go look for them.' He called an hour back and he said, "˜Those boats are in Toronto.' I said, "˜Sir, that's four hours away. I want them boats back by 9:00 in the morning.' So there was a little bit of discussion at their end but the long story... short end of the long story he says, "˜Well, we'll have it back'. I said, "˜And I want that man that confiscated... this officer here to bring them back tomorrow morning.' He says, "˜I'll send somebody with him.' So they dispatched an official from the Premiere's office. Sure enough, next morning -- and I had no reason to hold this guy so they took him, allowed him to go home with his boat. But I realized early that the only language that a non-Native government understands is something drastic like that, where you have to really stand up to them and that was only the beginning.
The next morning they brought the boats back, the fishermen analyzed it, their nets, their boat, motor, oars, everything was all in there so they were happy, but that got me thinking, 'There's all these non-Native police on our waters. So how come our police aren't patrolling on the water?' 'Well, they're under the authority of the Ontario Provincial Police and so there's...work is confined to the mainland, patrolling the speed zone and accidents, etc.' 'Well, who patrols the water?' 'Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Provincial Police.' 'Well, what about that conservation officer?' 'Well, he's under our jurisdiction, under our...as well.' So it only took a few weeks for me to ask our police and they said, "˜Well, that's the way it's always been.' I says, "˜You know, we should have our own conservation officer out there patrolling, looking after our environment, the fish, the river life, the safety on the waters.' They said, "˜Well, that's never occurred to us that we should be doing that.' So diplomatically again I asked Ontario if they would consider training some of our people to be conservation officers and they said, "˜No way.' So then I turned around and I thought, "˜Well, maybe if I ask Quebec.' They said, "˜No.' Then I asked Indian Affairs and they said, "˜No. Criminal Court of Canada applies and it's the federal police.' They had no mindset that we would be out there exercising our jurisdiction and authority.
Well, it didn't stop there because being that our reservation is half in the States and half in Canada I had one other option. I phoned Albany, New York at the State Trooper Police Academy and they had a conservation program there. I says, "˜Would that be open to Mohawks from Akwesasne?' And he said, "˜I don't see why not.' So I asked for the course that I needed and sure enough they had a very thorough course. I says, "˜Can we send some guys down there?' He said, "˜Yep.' Well, six months later the two candidates we sent down there returned home. They're wearing a Stetson hat, nine-millimeter pistols; they're in uniform. They wore the uniform of where they trained. So it's very much unlike what they wear in Canada because they're used to those taxi cab hats. There was a district Ontario Provincial Police supervisor and he really took offense to their style of dress. He wanted to arrest them right there so we had a few words.
Now the time that they were away in the six months, we put together a conservation law. Again, in that six months, Indian Affairs just wouldn't hear about it. They said, "˜You're asking your community to control your water, to control enforcement.' I said, "˜That's right.' They said, "˜It's under the Indian Act. You don't have the authority to do that.' I says, "˜Then we're going to seize it.' Seven times we send, modified, and pretty soon we stripped all authority away from them. They still wouldn't pass it. So I took it all back, reformatted it and I went to the nation council and I said, "˜We're trying to claim back some jurisdiction here and under inherent right we used to control and take care of our wildlife, water life and all the animal life. We don't do that anymore. We're going to start doing it again.' So I gave a presentation, and this is an elected leader now meeting with the traditional leaders and they had always been at odds, never got along, and I explained to them, I says, "˜Well, you send me over there to create better relations of our own people in the community. Here's what I'm going to need.' Anyway, they took it to the Grand Council and they liked the idea of reclaiming jurisdiction back and they passed it as a community law for Akwesasne. Nothing to do with Canada or the United States, but it's a nation law on conservation and environment. So when the two conservation guys got home they had a law and at the same time we developed our Mohawk court.
Now we had judges under the Indian Act, very limited authority, but they were already in place. So we again started adding more, giving them more authority to hear cases higher, 'cause all they were doing is dog catcher's law, little municipal type things, so everybody was ready for it and they says, "˜Do it.' Well, it all fell into place. Community had watched the way the direction this activity was going to go. When they got home, we had bought them a boat and they started patrolling our waters, start advising our residents safety measures and there was hunting and fishing licenses by the Mohawk Nation. They went out, started telling the non-Natives who were fishing in our territory that "˜You need to have a Mohawk Nation fishing license if you're going to fish in our waters.' Well, that started an avalanche of protests, members of parliament in Ottawa start calling the Department of Indian Affairs, "˜They can't do this.' And our two young conservation officers wouldn't take no for an answer, "˜cause if you didn't have one, you were arrested and brought to our court and that's what they were doing. They were just bringing people in and our court got very active.
When they came in they said that, "˜This is a kangaroo court. It has no authority. It has no recognition.' And one of the things I had done in dressing up our courtroom, making the changes, is that we had a Mohawk community flag and we had a Iroquois Nation flag in the backdrop. Carpenters had done some work setting up -- you know how the judges kind of sit in a high place -- and they did some woodwork and got a principal's desk. I used to like to take my kids to flea market and I found some church pews, about half a dozen of them. So by the time they walk in there they saw an official courtroom and our lawyers that were acting for our land claims and adjudicating outside, brought them home and said, "˜This is your court now. This is where you enforce our law.' So there was a prosecutor and there was also a lawyer to represent them. So all this they saw when they walked in the courtroom and it dawned on them, "˜There's laws here.' There's a courtroom, the charges were read and they paid the fine. And on their way out, if they didn't have a fishing license from the Nation, they bought one. Two years passed. We knew at some point we would have to fight this in the Canadian court and as much as they were kicking and screaming, nobody ever challenged us because they knew that everything was done in proper order.
Well, anyway, the conservation officers made quite a name for themselves in the community. They were champions because things are now changing and I looked at our police force and realized they also had to change, first their attitude. They were referred to by the outside police forces as "˜window dressing cops.' "˜You look like a policeman but you don't act like one. You only enforce their laws.' So we started making more laws by taking provincial highway traffic laws and then we adopted them and we modified them to fit our community. So these things were going on and the provincial police dressed a certain way, so do the Mounties, and so our police force were dressed the same way as the Ontario Provincial Police. So I asked them, "˜Why don't we change that?' So we did a few more consultation meetings in the community with elders and with families and they gave us a lot of good ideas.
As it turned out, the community wanted them to be their police force but they saw them as, excuse the expression, "˜scouts for the cavalry,' spies for the outside police. They just were not theirs. So we were talking about what would it take to be a Mohawk police force? They had a lot of discussion, they made up a list. The style of dress, the police cars, the laws they would enforce, let them know that they're working for community. And when they changed that Ontario Provincial Police headgear, they ordered all their equipment from the United States and so they got themselves nice Stetson hats, shoulder flashes that says Akwesasne, emblems, badges that were their own, cars were set up a certain way. So it was distinctively for the territory. This was all going up very fast, changes were going and while all this was going on, community activity, we were changing that election code through our surveys, we were getting more ideas coming back. Anyway, at the end of the activity, we had encounters with the provincial police because they were saying, "˜We tell you what to do not...don't listen to that chief, he's got no authority.' I said, "˜It's not my authority, it's the community's authority. This is where they want to go.' So we had a few clashes along the way. The OPP [Ontario Provincial Police] arrested the conservation officers and confiscated their guns, so we went to court and we showed them everything that they had been trained for. The judge looked at it and he said, "˜They're well-qualified to enforce their laws because they trained for it. Give them back their guns.' So sometimes you have to fight through the system, through the courts or direct confrontation to keep advancing, so we were doing all this pretty active. And the Ontario Provincial Police appealed to a higher court. We won that one, too. So they says, "˜Well, here's your guns.'
Anyhow, the police started their program and they had their uniform changes and they started showing the community that they were community police, serving the nation, and the whole attitude started to change and that flag that I was telling you about started hanging out in the schools and in public places and in our institutions. And then I went to the Canadian Customs Building and I says, "˜Put this flag right next to your Canadian and American flag.' They weren't going to do it the first time around, so we went and put it up there. Then we went to the Seaway Building and said, "˜Put up this flag to fly alongside the Canadian flag.' They weren't going to do it, so we bought our own and put it next to theirs and dared them to try to take it down. It was Mohawk diplomacy more or less. So those changes were going on, but the community could see, they could see these changes were going on and it was for the better -- confidence building. So people had a different attitude and it didn't take long before they reflected in that law for elections because this went very fast.
Two years was up. I figured that's all I had to do was change the course because they had asked me, "˜We only want you to run one term.' And the strange part about it was, although I was from the traditional side, they don't vote in elections. So in order for me to become chief I had to be voted by the elective Christian side. For some reason they did because I was well known in the community to begin with and knowing that I would be very active in things and so they wanted to see what was going to happen. It was an interest thing for them, but they started liking when they see all these changes coming about.
The attitude changed in the community and they put that election code through with a lot of input. It became an Akwesasne election code. If you wanted to oppose or take action, you didn't like the way the turnout, you had a chance to appeal, but you appeal to our Mohawk court, not to a Canadian court or Canadian government or an institution out there, it was all settled inside. All this time the Minister of Indian Affairs was watching the way things were going and of all the skirmishes and things that would happen, he was happy because we were running our community by ourselves, we took responsibility for our finances, the administration, our programs and had a transparent operation. We started reporting to community by way of annual, semi-annual, quarterly reports, releasing minutes, giving an activity report of where monies were being spent, how they had...how they were coming in. And while this was going on I knew we needed more dollars. So I applied other skills, in this case it was lobbying skills, looking for the dollars and so we set up a portfolio system. I says, "˜this council has to change. The head chief should not be the one who is going to run everything. The head chief is the facilitator; he's a servant of the community. So the rest of you chiefs have to take far greater responsibility, because I'm going to go and start looking for opportunities out there, I'm going to do the fights out there, you look after the community.' So we decided to develop a portfolio system. This chief took care of the justice, education, health; everybody had responsibilities, and the community started to understand that they no longer had to wait to talk to the head chief. They talked to any of those chiefs, whatever problem you had you could see them and he will know and act on and convene meetings and try to solve any problems. So it took on a greater interest and a greater authority. Now prior to that, chiefs that served on council they called them councilors; we changed that. I says, "˜You're not councilors, you're chiefs. You're elected by the community. You're chief for your district.' So other than just the word, we gave them a higher level of importance and with that a job description of what they will do when they're on council and that was incorporated into the election code, Code of Conduct for Chiefs -- that was in there. If he done something wrong, you could take a chief out of office, if he violated the code of ethics -- that was borrowed from the traditional side.
We changed the name. We didn't like the name St. Regis Band. As a matter of fact I hated that because there was a band program, band council, band administrator, everything was "˜band.' I know the Canadian government had this as a mindset for us, to think of ourselves as a lesser people, because we don't mention anything about 'nation' anymore. The only ones that were always saying "˜nation' were on the traditional side and they had... they were in the minority, the government didn't pay any attention to them. So this whole idea of changing, we got rid of the word 'reserve.' You've got 'reservation' on the American side, but you've got 'reserve' on the Canadian side, and I didn't like either term so we said, "˜We're a territory. This is a Mohawk Nation Territory. We're not St. Regis, we're Akwesasne.' So again, we had a pooling of ideas, got feedback and started passing council resolution saying, "˜We're no longer going to refer ourselves as the St. Regis Band. So we became the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. We became the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne. There's no more band office; it's administration. And all those administration offices became Administration 1, Administration 2 and that language fit well in the community. And around the council table, some of these chiefs had been in office maybe two or three terms, four terms, some of them maybe even 10 terms, two-year terms. That new election code that we were now discussing says we needed three years because if you're making promises on your second year, you're up for election, chances are you're never going to control the deficit, you're never going to deal with it because you're forever spending more money. Took it to the community, they said, "˜That makes a lot of sense,' and so we revised it.
As far as those chiefs that were on council, sometimes they would say "˜band council' inadvertently. I said, "˜We've got to cut this out because we have to show an example to the community how we're going to refer ourselves and if we're going to change our attitude we have to change the way we refer to each other. You're a chief and we don't want to mention this band word anymore.' So I says, "˜Here's what we're going to do. I put a coffee cup in our meetings and anybody that says band for any purpose will have to donate a quarter into our coffee fund.' Again, it was non-threatening. It became a game and they all looked at each other, laughed and says, "˜Okay.' So, yeah, every other meeting somebody would get caught and put a quarter in there; pretty soon, we had a big jug and it caught on with the stuff. This is a whole different idea, it don't cost a lot of money, but to have you think of yourselves differently, to have you think of your community differently, your people differently we had to incorporate some things like that. So now you had the flag, you have a new council name, your community is under a different mentality. To get back to the election code now. We had finished it, we had a model and the community voted on it. Well, the government came back and said, "˜Geez, you need 51 percent of your total membership.' Mind you, families are out working in different places; we're never going to reach that. So I went back to the Minister and I says, "˜Well, I'll tell you what, would you be satisfied with a letter from the nation council because they don't vote, they don't get involved in these things and you're counting their numbers. So if they give you a letter saying we represent 800 people, that's traditional and we like what the Mohawk Council is doing, we like the idea that they bring their election law back to their community, would that be enough?' And he said, "˜Yeah. I could see that.' And that's how we got around it, just a little bit of innovative thinking. Next election it was under the control of the Mohawk community.
I thought my job was finished back then because I had started these things. They said, "˜No, now you have to run because it's no longer the Head Chief, it's no longer the St. Regis Band Council, it's now the Grand Chief...' And the idea, the first time, the first week I went around when the community people were telling me, "˜We didn't elect you,' I pulled that Grand Chief position, I says, "˜The Grand Chief is now going to be elected by the community at-large, not by these 12 district chiefs or councilors.' That was the one significant thing and that's how the community know that we're going in the right direction. We empowered them. Anybody could run from the community for Grand Chief, but you had to be elected by the community. Well, my opposition, 'That man's crazy. He's from the traditional side, "˜They're not going to vote.'' So we had another one of those famous runoffs and I ran and I won again and council was strengthened even more.
We kept on the path for governance, for representation, for change. A lot of the changes that were going on were really back to our traditions, not necessarily changing so much on the outside. The Department of Indian Affairs stopped being my enemies because now they're taking lessons on accountability, transparency and they would come back and I noticed that every time we had a representative from Indian Affairs, he would try to sneak out our reports to the community, put them in their briefcase. Finally I just asked them, "˜Why don't you just ask us, we'll give you a whole batch,' because now they're taking it to other reservations, showing them, "˜See what they're doing over there, they're giving reports to their community membership.' And so they stopped fighting with me and we became partners in governance. I would give them ideas and say, "˜This is what we want to do.' And most of that time, mind you there were a few other bad apples over there, but for most of that time they knew that we were trying to survive in a community that's divided up into jurisdictions, into puzzles and it was hard to bring it back together. So that was a little adventure into Mohawk politics. It's still on a course, sometimes it slows down, sometimes it's on a crash course somewhere. I shut down ships because we're right on the St. Lawrence river, when I didn't like something that was going on or shut down the bridge, international bridge traffic, and pretty soon I didn't have to do those things. And I'm getting a little older now and people say, "˜You mellowed, you're not a militant anymore.' But all these things, when you have respect, you can sit at a table and negotiate solutions. The challenge doesn't stop. We did a lot of other things that brought us up, but the idea was for most of the leaders, have respect for the culture and tradition of your people, have respect for the language. When we were small, we all spoke the language and as we had children and they grew up, the mentality was if you're going to succeed get an education. That language is not going to help you out there, nobody speaks Mohawk in the States or in Canada. So that was the mindset. In the "˜80s we turned that around and said, "˜Our culture and language is important.'
And for all the hard time that I had coming from the traditional side, something had happened in my second term in 1984 when I became Grand Chief. The Pope came to Canada and he wanted to experience a Native ceremony. I don't know what he was thinking, but he had asked the bishops in Canada, the Catholic Church of Canada to say, "˜This is what I want to experience.' And years before that he had already known that the churches would bring out so many Indians and they would dress them up, put the western war bonnet on a Mi'kmaq or a Mohawk out east, put them on horses, dress them up the way you would see a Native American on cowboy and Indian and the Pope was, he says, "˜I know all that. And I know if I'm going to go to eastern Canada I don't want to see you dress up your Natives that way. I want to see what they're really like. I want to see the spiritual side and I want you to organize it.' So the priests from our territory wrote back, says, "˜Well, they just elected a traditional...' well, they referred to me as a pagan, but more diplomatic is, "˜There's a traditional Mohawk here, he's now the Grand Chief and he goes to the Longhouse, he goes to ceremonies, he's a faith keeper in that Longhouse.' So it didn't take long before they wrote back. They says, "˜Would you put on a ceremony for the Pope?' And I had a lot of difficulty from the very strong Christian side of the community. It was always a test. So I went back to the Longhouse and I told them, I says, "˜Listen, this has been an offer, an invitation has been given to me to do this and do you think it's a good idea?' They talked about it and the conclusion of their discussion was this, "˜Maybe it would lead to better relations between ourselves, us traditionals and Christians. So we're going to send you, but we're going to send a clan mother, an elder and singers to help you.' So that's how...this was 1984, kind of still fairly new back then and given a hard time by the Christian side and often be referred to as a pagan, the attitude was, "˜You look down on your traditional brother.' The Pope came to Canada, we put him through that ceremony, and he was so affected by it because I work with Ojibwe and Cree nations to put this on, but a healing ceremony consisted of smudging, they use sage and sweetgrass. I brought my sacred tobacco and put everything together, put him through the ceremony. One of our elders did the blessing with the eagle. But all along there they explained to him what we were doing and when the words and the songs were put to him as he was going through, I could see a tear coming down and he was totally committed to this experience.
Anyway, when it was over and he read his prepared speech, that man can say greetings in about 20 different languages so that took a bit of time and then he gave his address. It was broadcast all over the world. There was probably an audience of about 80,000 in this...if you can think about what a Woodstock concert would have been like, it was pretty well the same set-up; speakers all over, screens so that they would project all over the field. And then he digressed from his prepared text and from here he told them, he says, "˜The Church assumed when we came to the Americas that the Native Americans were godless and soulless people.' He said, "˜That's wrong. They have a very beautiful culture and traditions and thanks to us we've taken that away from them.' He says, "˜What I've experienced today, I will remember it and I want to thank the elders and the people who put this ceremony together and my message to all of you is I want to apologize on behalf of the church for what we've done, the damage that we have done.' So his message to his followers was, "˜Don't be ashamed of who you are. Don't be ashamed of your tradition, your culture, your traditional beliefs. Incorporate them into your church activities.' That was a big turnaround. It certainly led to my being more accepted in the total community and within a short while after this was all over we had all been home, my community, in the church they started burning sweetgrass and offering traditional chants, singing and dancing, even dress. And so they saw themselves as [Mohawk language] Mohawks and they were proud of it whereas before they had been taught to be ashamed of it. That was a stark difference. So situations happened in my early term that helped the path that I was pursuing. It was well appreciated. I was invited to speak to other churches. I went and spoke in their churches, something that was very new for me and it helped with a lot of the changes that were coming about."
"You talked about the laws and the codes and the court system that you set up, and early on you found yourself right in the middle of it because one of your family members was one of the first violators of I believe it was your conservation code or one of those, right? I wonder if you'd tell us that story."
Michael K. Mitchell:
"Man, I went all the way around not to go near that story. Yeah. The conservation officers, as new as they were, but the uniform was very distinctive, their presence was distinctive and the support of the community, they were champions because now they're out there exercising authority on behalf of the community. So everywhere they went the elders singled them out, shook their hand. So one day I'm meeting in the village with elders, we're talking about building a new nursing home and they walk in. This is just probably a few weeks after they had come from their training in Albany. And they said, "˜Chief, we need to speak with you,' and they got cut off. The elders just got all around them and they give them coffee and tea and cookies and all, made a...so they had to make a little speech and they were just adored by the elders.
So when they got a chance one of them cut away and he says, "˜We're here on official business. We need to talk to you, Grand Chief.' I says, "˜Really? What's it about?' He said, "˜There's been a murder on the island and your...somebody in your family might be involved in it.' Well, it hits you right here, huh? I says, "˜Well, excuse me.' I took them outside for a briefing. At their suggestion went outside and with stern faces they looked at me and looked at their report and they said, "˜There's been a murder up the hill where you live.' And I'm studying their face to see if this is some kind of a trick or humor. I couldn't find anything. Then I started getting scared. I says, "˜Well, what happened? Does it involve my family?' He said, "˜Yes, it does.' They looked at each other and then they said, "˜A pig was killed up the hill, farmer called in and it had piglets and they were all killed, too. And those piglets were traced down the hill to your farm. So the murderer, the culprit of this murder, is your dog, your Alaskan Malamute.' Well, then it started...I didn't feel as bad, because now I knew that this is their way of impressing how important their work is and their investigation. So I challenged them. I said, "˜Well, how do you know it's my dog? There's about three or four other houses that have Alaskan Malamutes.' They were just waiting for that. They pulled pictures out. "˜Behind your barn there's a whole, there's piglet parts in there. There's your dog, blood stains on his face and on his chest, and there's a trail down the hill, and so we know, we have proof, everything's documented. Grand Chief, you're under arrest.'
Now they scared me. I didn't know how to react so I went with them and they charged me. I'm the first one to get charged on a conservation law that our people put together and in the authority they carry, they singled the Grand Chief. So this created a lot of discussion in the community because I didn't have to go to court for two weeks and to prepare whether I'm going to argue it or offer a plea. So anyway, the charge was given to me. People either laughed about it or there certainly was a lot of discussion. To the elders they said, "˜Well, it's the Grand Chief's the one that's trying to find the money for this program. He sent them to school, he found a place for them to be trained.' Pigs die, even the farmer up the hill when he found out it was my dog he was trying to drop the charge. It was going both ways. My opposition says, "˜Well, is he going to pull strings and get out of this?' Two weeks came up, I went to court. I paid the fine. And people wondered, 'What was the result, what happened?' And I said, "˜I paid it.' And I guess it tells me that we all have to follow the law, and I just want to say the conservation officers did a thorough job investigating the murder on Cornwall Island.
And that was the result of the story. But weeks later, then I started getting some feedback. Apparently a lot of people in our community were watching to see how this was going to turn out and are we going to have respect for our own nation law. And if the Grand Chief is the highest authority, is he going to pull some kind of strings to get out of this or have the case dismissed or find a technical way to deal with it? And I didn't realize that there was such an interest in how this was going to turn out. But the law, the nation law applies to everybody and it all turned out well. It was a little embarrassing for me. I had to swallow a few times, too, but the bottom line is if you make a nation law, you better abide by it. It's not just for the non-Natives; it's also for us, too. And that was a little story about how the law applies and how you treat and respect the enforcement of law and justice in your community."
"It's an interesting story. I think leadership is in many ways leading by example and that citizens of a nation are going to take their cues about what's going to be tolerated and what's not going to be tolerated in terms of behavior by how their own leaders behave."
Michael K. Mitchell:
"It was an example to the degree that there was interest generated and people knew that I could have it dismissed like that and it was just a thing that they were saying, "˜Well, how is this going to...?' And it led to everybody having respect for our program, respect for the nation law, respect for the police authorities, because it wasn't just the conservation. It applied to police in general and so it became a healthier thing. It was a good example to everyone and it taught us a lesson, because there were times when you had to stand up to the authorities on the outside, you might even have to disagree with them about how law is applied. That's how I looked at it. If you have to stack that up against your own laws or your own beliefs, if you violated a custom, tradition, that you want to defend it, sometimes you go to jail on principle. And it was those principles that became very important in our community. But at the same time, in your traditions there's also law, there's also justice and you better respect it. It doesn't mean that we can just do anything. That border that we lived on was inviting for a lot of criminal organizations and in my time, two or three elections later, it became a thing for smuggling of contraband going back across.
Let me try to see if I can demonstrate something here. There's three islands here: Barnhart Island, Cornwall Island and St. Regis Island. Here's the St. Lawrence River. Whoever set the boundary line back in the 1700s and 1812 must have been drinking somewhere because here's how it goes. Barnhart Island, New York State, it goes around this way and then there's Cornwall Island, Ontario and then it goes around, St. Regis Island, Quebec. You would think they would just go one way. Of course the water goes straight down. That's why I said one minute you're in Canada, the next minute you're in the state, you're in New York, you're in Quebec, you're in Ontario because that's how the international boundary line was zigzagging. And so the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations] and the state troopers and the Canadian Mounted Police and the Provincial Police all said, "˜We'll never get a conviction on the water, so we'll just stay on the mainland and we'll catch whoever we catch on the mainland.' So this whole area became this, what they call this gray zone, and it didn't take long for criminal organizations to hear about Akwesasne, how it's easier to transport stuff back across. And it became very hard because they were enticing a lot of our people to say, "˜Run this across the river for me, boxes.' Well, it didn't take long for those cigarettes to turn into drugs, guns and when 9/11 happened, on CNN and NBC, ABC, CBS, we were watching and they had a map of Akwesasne and the first few weeks they were looking at saying, "˜Those terrorists must have had... come through Akwesasne.' We're getting to be famous for the wrong reason, but that's the scenario and that's what they thought happened. It took a couple of weeks to kind of find out that they didn't come through Akwesasne, that they were already in the country, but who do you blame first when something like this happens? Who do you point fingers to when criminal activities are going on? Both sides, they were blaming the people who live there and the customs security cracked down. They were checking every car, but they were checking the cars of the grandmother and the mother trying to get her kids to school going back and forth so they were very hard times for us.
There was another thing that I was instructed to do was challenge Canada on our border crossing rights. They loaded up my truck with food and furniture, household goods, stacked them way high and I came across the international bridge. Everybody walked with me alongside the truck, about 1,000 of our community residents, got through Canadian Customs and I declared everything that I had with me and then I says, "˜I want to exercise my aboriginal right, I'm not paying the duties and the taxes,' which amounted up to maybe $370 some dollars. They wanted to arrest me right then and there and they...Customs verbally arrested me, but I kept going. Second line was the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and they pulled me out, put me in their car and the women of our community went over there and pulled me back out, put me back in the truck and said, "˜Keep driving.' So somehow or another we got on this 401 that went to [Mohawk language], which is another Mohawk community further west and we gave the goods to them as a historic right of trade. And it went to court, it went all the way to the Supreme Court, because I was told in these meetings by high level government authorities, "˜Chief, if you believe your people have a treaty right, an aboriginal right to cross the border with your own proper goods, you have to win in a Canadian court. If you win in Canadian court, we will be prepared to negotiate how to implement, how to exercise that right.' So this was a test case that I was invited to participate. When I came home and I reported that, they said, "˜Let's do it.' And so this was the whole precedent setting thing that occurred.
Years later we finally hear the case and I win everything. So Canada was totally unprepared for how it was going to be done and the people that made those promises that I had to win in a Canadian court were no longer there, it was a new government there. They said, "˜We didn't make those promises, so we're going to appeal.' So it went to a higher level, they lost again. So a different Minister now getting really concerned because now their federal prosecutors are telling them, "˜You know, the Mohawks could bankrupt the financial institutions of this country, they could threaten the sovereignty of this country. Look at the decision what was awarded to them.' And we weren't asking for a lot, just to bring across our own community goods, our food, products, furniture, anything for the nation and to trade with another nation. That was the other thing that we had invoked. Anyhow, what happened was they said, "˜We're going to go to the Supreme Court.' I says, "˜You didn't say that. You said we would negotiate how to implement this right.' Anyway, they went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court heard the case and they altered the argument, restructured it and gave a decision, a 'no' decision.
So after all that time, this is about 10 years for this battle of recognition of inherent right, aboriginal right, treaty right. I wasn't satisfied the way we had been treated. The lawyers in Canada started holding sessions on how this was played with and there's a code...there's a code of honor among lawyers and legal institutions that there's some things you don't do, and this is what happened because they were so paranoid. I got home and I thought, "˜Well, I've been to the highest court of this country, it wasn't exactly...turned out the way I wanted to see it turn out, gave it my best shot and I was just going to proceed to do other things. And then somebody came to see me and they said, "˜You should try to take Canada to the International Court because what they done to you should have never happened and if that's the last resort, that's the last course, then you should submit it to the Human Rights Commission. There's no guarantee they're going to hear it though.' So that's the next thing that we did is we submitted to them and we asked for more documentation, they looked at it and here's a team of lawyers from Canada saying, "˜Don't hear it. It's been settled.' They examined everything and they said, "˜We're going to hear it.' It was heard last February and we expect a decision sometime in the next few months. It'll be the first of its kind, but when Canada holds itself up as a defender of justice, of human rights, this happened in their backyard and so I didn't want to do this, but you forced the issue; you're promised something and then they take it away. So that was one of the last things that I was...challenges that I faced because by now those two years turned into 25 years on council. I would take a break, but always the next term they say, "˜We want to bring you back.' So that was one of the last fights I had with Canada."
"What I've been hearing a lot in your discussion thus far is essentially you moved, Akwesasne moved from a position under the Indian Act where your system of government really had no transparency and no accountability to a system where you're striving very hard towards and you're institutionally building towards a system predicated on transparency and accountability, not only within the government but also accountability of the citizens to the nation. I was wondering if you'd talk a little bit about that."
Michael K. Mitchell:
"In the early "˜80s, middle "˜80s, when the government controlled the purse, we were barely getting by with the monies we had to service the community. When we took over and we had a better grasp of what's needed, we were able to lobby for more dollars and by reporting the results of the expenditures and the programs that we had implemented we also had our own actual figures of what's needed. I'll give you an example in health. We took everything over -- the administration of it, started putting some policies of our own, hired our own people in-house -- it became a big regime. And so much so that Canada started referring to it as a living example of what would happen if First Nations took over like taking it from a self-governing position. I never lost sight of the fact that the only thing that we were doing is removing those government people away and putting our own people, designing our health schemes, putting accountability factors, implementing programs and services in the community the way they want to see it and then built in involvement from the community to give direction where the health programs will go and as a result we qualified for more dollars. The institutions that were built is the same for education, it's the same thing for other programs, and pretty soon when we started from $5 million, when I left in 2006 they had a budget of $76 million to administer and service the community. In between that, people had a chance to return home, have a skill and bring it home and find employment. But that wasn't the end all. There were other factors now that were available so it was more promising than from the time of the Indian agent or when the council was controlled by the Department of Indian Affairs. So the movement...what's indicative was the attitude change in the community. When you think better of yourself, you're more aware of your nation culture and traditions, you take pride in your community. Those are all factors that were crucial. They didn't cost a whole lot of money, because at the time when we were in a deficit I laid these things down and had a path to pursue. We didn't have a whole lot of money to spend, we couldn't make a whole lot of promises, "˜I'm going to do this,' but we did some confidence building, pride development and slowly the attitude started to fall in.
The elders provided the greatest support. They knew that this was their community and wanted to see a strong, healthy community. Now mind you, that didn't mean that we didn't get hit with a lot of modern problems. I mentioned smuggling a while ago. A lot of things that were going in and out would also stay. So drugs became prevalent, social issues became very prominent and hard to deal with, but we set ourselves with a way to deal with it because our programs were there and we could add anything that came, but we're able to deal with modern-day problems. Now that generation from the "˜80s and into now, the product, language has become very important, the curriculum in education systems have become very important, more involvement and teaching of Native culture and history and traditions, more language programs. We have some schools that are total immersion, Mohawk and all the subjects. Nobody would have thought back then that we could have done and built institutions like that. Our relations with the tribe, that had been our enemies in the past, now they sit together in council. They now recognize the Mohawk Nation "˜cause very early in my term, probably within the second year, we passed a resolution recognizing the Mohawk Nation council as our historic national government. We're a community government; they're a nation government. So now we're trying to find our way, how do we get everybody working together. The mindset was, and the trick from the outside is, get people fighting amongst themselves, make one side seem lower in stature than the other. You're the good guy, they're the bad guy, they're the pagans, you're this and that. Well, now everybody's saying, "˜Wait a minute. We're all traditional now and we're all proud to be Mohawks and that's going to affect the next generation. So we can withstand all the modern problems and difficulties that will come, we'll try to find a way to resolve them because those problems are great, they're coming at you from all directions. But now you've built your institutions, you've built your programs to service your people, you've also developed a character that will withstand all the negative, and also from the outside governments that try to influence them so you don't have that. You have it in your heart and your spirit to fight for those things. Your children will grow up fighting for the same thing. So it's been a worthwhile experience. I look back now and I say, "˜That was a good term. You learned something.'"
"The last question I have is this issue of governing institutions, which you've talked about in detail. The extensive research of both the Native Nations Institute and also the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development have showed that across Indian Country in the United States, across Canada, Native nations are aggressively pushing for sovereignty, for self-governance, but has chronicled case after case where when nations do not back up that assertion of sovereignty with the building of capable governing institutions, they really can find themselves in the sorts of battles that they can't afford to lose. And I was wondering if you could just comment in maybe more general terms about the importance of reinforcing that push for sovereignty with those capable governing institutions."
Michael K. Mitchell:
"There's a very historic wampum belt that we all grew up with in all our Iroquois communities that we're taught, and this belt has two lines, two purple lines. And one line they say is a ship and on the other line is a canoe and the blue line represents a body of water. And they said on that ship is the non-Natives, the European newcomers, settlers and in 1664 they sat down in Albany and they talked about this, making an agreement. And from that experience between the Dutch and the Iroquois, later the English and the Iroquois, they had this discussion and on a piece of paper when they said, "˜My king will be your father and we're going to have a relationship here and we're going to do business in this manner,' is that they left that day and the Iroquois said, "˜We're going to come back the next day with our response.'
The next day they came back, they said, "˜We have made this belt. First our answer to you is we can't have a relationship because you're telling us the king will be the father and we're going to be the children. A father will always tell his son what to do. Our answer is we'll be brothers, equal.' And so they come to these two rows. They says, "˜On this one row will be your ship that you came from across the salt waters and from what you're telling us, you couldn't practice your religion over there. You didn't have a fair system of government over there. You get penalized for doing these little things and so you want to be free over here. On this ship we're going to allow you to have your own government. You're going to have your traditions, your culture, your language, your governance. It'll all be on this ship. In our canoe, we're going to maintain our traditions, our culture, our language, our governance, our jurisdiction. And we're going to go down the river of life together. Whenever you need help, we'll come over and help you, but we'll never interfere in internal relations of your people.'
So that was a solemn pledge they made to each other and they did help each other down the course, because when the settler governments first got to the Americas, everything was new for them. They weren't knowledgeable of the medicines that the Native people knew. They knew nothing of corn and beans and squash, pumpkin, maple syrup and the list goes on that we take for granted every day now as edible foods. That was all new, even tomatoes, beans. So in helping them with the foods that were grown in this world, Turtle Island, when I said they helped each other along the way, this is how they would help each other. We also were not privy to a lot of the diseases that Europeans brought over so they would help us in the other way. That was the relationship. My point is sovereignty began with us from day one when a clear line of understanding in the relationship the way it was supposed to go. And it's in our heart, it's in our spirit as we look after our people. Unfortunately, that was a traditional practice. So when they brainwash you into a modern elected system, you didn't believe any of that stuff anymore. One of our jobs was to go back to our traditional ways and bring that out and say, "˜Listen, we're Mohawks, we're Iroquois and that is our belief, that is our principles.' So now both...everyone adheres and abides by these principles whenever we talk to outside authorities and governments. That's the basis.
Now I'll tell you one thing in Canada, you can't say sovereignty. They just freak out when we talk about our sovereignty. Not that we don't ever stop. We just listen with interest because they're so concerned about Quebec separating from Canada and they call it separatists. And the Quebec people start talking about their sovereignty of their nation, which is Quebec. And so they've had a couple of showdowns, referendums. One time they come by one percent that they were going to leave. We never really concerned ourselves with it because three quarters of Quebec is Cree and the other part is Iroquois and so we would have just had a referendum of our own and say, "˜We're going to separate from Quebec,' and come back to our own nation. At least that's what we told them and they always freaked out when we told them more or less embarrassing them.
The idea of nationhood is now growing, finding it's way back to the nations in Canada, and I know as I travel around in the States they're always talking about sovereignty. As a matter of fact, I kind of get disillusioned at times because I see so many of our leaders go to a national chiefs' convention, stand up there, talk about sovereignty then go home and do their due diligence with programs and services that are administered from the outside, the social conditions are bad, they haven't moved their community, so it has become rhetoric more or less. So you see when people are really strong it's not particularly the leaders, it's the community that has to grow. They have to have the confidence and they have to have the ability to say, "˜We are who we are. We are a nation. We want to do this. We're strong in our traditions, in our culture, in our language.' And when you're strong there, you become strong in other areas because now you're not afraid to get an education, you're not afraid to get an occupation or train for something because you know who you are. That's the result of the residential schools, that's the result of the churches, it's the result of people that have changed our minds. So we want to go home. So my interpretation of sovereignty is strictly being...knowing who you are, what nation you belong to, the roots that you have, that's your tradition and culture, and you'll be a strong nation. The problem is that many of us have been educated to the degree then admitting to something else that we believe that we no longer have those roots of our nations. And back home that root took place and embedded. So I feel kind of confident in the next generation that we'll continue to have the fighters going in the same direction. I didn't quite answer you the same way as you'd expect somebody to talk about sovereignty in that way, but that's how we look at it."