“The History of AKWESASNE from Pre-Contact to Modern Times” By Darren Bonaparte


Brothers of the Forest by Robert Griffing

Brothers of the Forest by Robert Griffing

Akwesasne is Mohawk community that rightfully deserves the title, “First Nation.” While this community of about 12,000 has seen its share of internal divisions and controversy in modern times, it started out as a place of peace and a refuge for Mohawks and other natives weary of war. Countless warships sailed through Akwesasne on their way from one colonial battle to another, but somehow Akwesasne managed to survive (and even prosper) while so many other native peoples in the Northeast Woodlands dwindled away. From its humble beginning as the smallest Mohawk community, it is now the largest, both in population and in territory. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy considers Akwesasne the “capital” of the seven communities that make up the Mohawk Nation. Considering the tribulations we have faced throughout our history, this is no small accomplishment.

Ancient Akwesasne

Although the Roman Catholic mission of St. Regis was established in July of 1755, the territory of Akwesasne has long played a role in the lives of the Mohawk people going back thousands of years before Europeans explored the continent. It’s Mohawk name translates as “place of partridges” and was a reference to the abundance of the game bird along the shores of the St. Lawrence and its tributaries. Mohawk and other native peoples frequented the region to fish, hunt, and trade, as evidenced by the diverse archaeological remains on the many islands and mainland north and south of the river. Upriver from Akwesasne, natives using the St. Lawrence were compelled to portage around the tumultuous Long Sault Rapids. In times of war this provided enemies with a chance to attack, but in times of peace it usually gave the weary traveler a chance to camp, rest, fish, hunt or trade before continuing on.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long debated the identity and fate of the “St. Lawrence Iroquoians” that once built palisaded longhouse villages found in the rich soil of the St. Lawrence River Valley. When French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence in the 1500’s, he visited a large village where the present-day city of Montreal is now located. That village, and the people who populated it, had disappeared by the time Samuel de Champlain made it to the area, the result of epidemics or warfare with enemy nations. Archeological evidence in Wyandot (Huron) country to the west and Iroquois country to the southwest suggests that many of these “St. Lawrence Iroqouians” were captured and adopted or sought refuge among these nations when the weakened village of Hochelaga came to its mysterious end. Memories of the Montreal area were so much a part of Mohawk oral tradition that for a time many historians assumed that the Mohawks and the Hochelagans were one and the same people, and that a massive migration occurred to the Mohawk Valley in the years after the encounter with Cartier. What is far more likely is that the Mohawks regularly headed to their “northern frontier” to hunt, fish, and trade and came into direct contact with the people living there. When the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were dispersed, many of them sought refuge among the Mohawk.

Trouble at the Eastern Door

Samuel de Champlain formed alliances with the Hurons and Algonquins to establish a fur trading network in the New World that would reach the Great Lakes. To solidify his alliance, he agreed to accompany the Hurons and Algonquins in an attack on what were at the time their mortal enemies, the Mohawks. This battle took place near what is now Ticonderoga, New York, and was the Mohawks’ first encounter with Europeans and their arquebusses (firearms.) Three chiefs were shot and killed by Champlain, and the terrified Mohawks fled with Champlain’s native allies in hot pursuit. The Mohawks never forgot this event and it set the tone for French/Mohawk relations for many generations afterward. Eventually the Mohawks and their confederation allies were drawn into a war against the Hurons and Algonquins that dragged on for years, broken up only by sporadic peace councils and wampum diplomacy. Mohawk war parties swooped down on the Hurons as they tried to navigate the rapids of the St. Lawrence with canoes packed full of furs destined for Montreal. In time the mighty Huron Confederacy was broken by the Iroquois, and many of their people were absorbed by the Iroquois or scattered throughout the northeast. This turn of events probably would not have occurred had the Iroquois not had access to the same deadly weapons from the Dutch colonists coming up the Hudson River from the south.

Peace with the French was established and missionary activity began among the Iroquois, though not without a few rough starts. The presence of Huron and Algonquin converts among the Iroquois gave the Jesuit fathers an “in” with the Iroquois that they quickly seized. Soon they had Mohawk converts as well as Huron and Algonquin. This led to divisions and tensions within the Mohawk communities that resulted in a new village being established where the Catholics could worship in peace, once again in the Montreal area. In time more than half of the Mohawk population (which had already been weakened by epidemics and war) migrated to the village on the south bank of the St. Lawrence near the Lachine Rapids. This village was named Kahnawake (at the rapids) after the village from which they came in the Mohawk River Valley. They were joined by Hurons, Algonquins, and other Iroquois converts from Oneida and Onondaga. These former enemies solidified their peaceful alliance with sacred wampum belts that still exist today.

The Seven Nations of Canada

In time the population of these villages grew so large that new ones were established. By the 1750’s these villages eventually united in an alliance that Mohawks knew as Tsiata Nihononwentsiake, also known as the Seven Nations of Canada, the Seven Fires, and the Seven Villages. When this union was formalized, it consisted of the Mohawks of Kahnawake (Caughnawaga); the Mohawks, Algonquins, and Nippissings of Kanesatake (Oka); the Abenakis of Odanak (St. Francis) in what is now southern Quebec; the Hurons of Wendake (Lorette), just west of Quebec City; and the Iroquois (mostly Oneidas and Onondagas) of Sawehkatsi (Oswegatchie), site of present-day Ogdensburg, New York. Even though as many as twenty-two different nations were represented at these new settlements by the early 1700’s, they were nevertheless able to maintain a distinct cultural identification as Huron, Algonquin, and Iroquois communities in their own right.

The cultural model of this new confederacy was the Rotinonsionni (“People of the Longhouse,”) also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Five Nations, the Six Nations, and the League of the Iroquois. As founding members, the Mohawks knew the workings of the league and drew on its principles and structure to establish themselves in a new political environment. Although the Jesuit priests still held considerable political power among these Mohawks, they still maintained their original clan system, wampum protocol, leadership customs, and language, all of which was incorporated in the new alliance. Historians in the past have assumed that the system of leadership was patterned after the French noble system (that is, the chief’s title passes to his oldest son) but this may have been more out of convenience than out of any French influence: a chief’s oldest son was usually the best-qualified to take over the role, having most likely served as the chief’s assistant for most of his life. Another misconception that historians have passed down was that all of the Mohawks at the mission villages were Christians. Some of them went to the new Kahnawake to be closer to family and friends while still others went for the better fur prices offered by the French. There is mention in historical accounts of Kahnawake Mohawks getting into deep metaphysical debates with the Jesuits over concepts such as heaven, hell, and the afterlife, even after they had lived in the mission villages for years. Nor is it accurate to say that the Jesuits purged all of the sacred ceremonies from the Teieiahsontha Onkwe Onwe (literally, “the Forever People Who Make the Sign of the Cross.”) There is evidence that the “Praying Indians” recited a variation of the “Thanksgiving Address,” observed the Strawberry, Seed, and Harvest ceremonies, and even acknowledged the founder of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Peacemaker, in one of their hymns.

In modern times the Jesuit missionaries of long ago have become scapegoats for the loss of our pre-contact culture. In some respects, they must shoulder some of the blame, but in all fairness to the Jesuits, their efforts to preserve and maintain the Mohawk language (by translating and transcribing scripture, prayers and hymns into Mohawk) and the traditional clan system (by refusing to marry people of the same clan) may have been one of the reasons these aspects of our culture are as strong as they are today. Accounts from the late 1800’s indicate that of all the Iroquois people still living in New York State, the native language was the strongest at Akwesasne. To their credit, the Jesuits never insisted that their converts learn a European language or assimilate with the outside culture. Mission registers in the late 18th and 19th centuries, for example, didn’t even list non-Mohawk family names when such names were known to exist.

No greater evidence of strong cultural persistence among the Seven Nations exists than the twenty or so wampum belts held by museums in Albany, New York City, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. These were purchased at Oka, Kahnawake, and other Seven Nations communities by anthropologists and private collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One in particular stands out among the collections of the McCord Museum in Montreal. It is a purple belt with the same white “path of peace” as the legendary “Ayonwatha Belt,” only this one joins seven “checkerboards” that were a favorite Huron wampum symbol for communities. The symbolism thus invoked suggests that the “Great Law of Peace” was extended to the Hurons and the Algonquins via the Mohawks of Kahnawake, regardless of whatever political “separation” may have occurred between themselves and those still living in the Mohawk River Valley.

Kahnawake was the “Great Council Fire,” or capital, of the Seven Nations Confederacy, just as Onondaga was the “Central Fire” of the Iroquois League. Kahnawake eventually became the central hub of an even larger “confederacy of confederacies” that included the Wabanaki Confederacy of New England and the Three Fires Confederacy of the Great Lakes. Although the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has received the lion’s share of historical attention over the years, the influences of the Seven Nations Confederacy were considerable in its day.

It was during this time that a type of trade began by which the Mohawks near Montreal in the north and the Mohawks near Albany in the south by-passed the trading restrictions established by the French and English colonies. The northern and southern Mohawks helped each other get around these restrictions to get better prices for their furs. This cooperation extended into other areas. If they felt they weren’t being treated fairly by their respective colonial “allies,” they would allow the “enemy” Mohawks to raid a few white settlements for captives and stir up a little fear. This made the English and French suspicious of their Mohawk allies, but the alliances were maintained anyway. Neither colony could risk alienating their native allies, as they held the balance of power in North America with their vast networks of native confederacies reaching deep into the continent.

A New Community, A New War

It was only a matter of time that the many wars in Europe would spill over to the North American theater, and the two native confederacies were drawn into it on their respective French and English “sides.” In the final North American conflict between France and England, known as the French and Indian War, Mohawk warriors once again drawn into conflicts against their own people on battlefields such as Lake George, Oswego, Niagara, and Ticonderoga. Military sources from both sides of the war state that the Mohawks were reluctant to fight their own kin and were mistrusted by their European allies. Nevertheless, Kahnawake Mohawks are said to have killed the famous Mohawk Valley chief Taiennoken (literally, “Between His Tracks,”) also known as “King Hendrick,” as he staggered from the battlefield of Lake George in September of 1755.

It was the onset of this war that prompted the move to Akwesasne and the establishment of its first permanent village. It is mentioned in the earliest written accounts that a factional dispute at Kahnawake led to the establishment of a new community around 1754. Overcrowding, soil exhaustion, and alcohol at Kahnawake were also given as reasons for the move. The earliest traditions tell us that a faction led by the son of an English captive made up the earliest migrants. Pierre (Peter) Tarbell, or Karekohe (“It Is Going To War”), is the second name listed in the old church registers; he was the son of either John or Zachariah Tarbell, taken from Groton, Massachussetts in 1707. We may speculate that because the Tarbells maintained ties to their biological New England family and even visited them when tensions between the colonies had eased, they may have been viewed with suspicion by the pro-French Mohawks at Kahnawake, who were about to go to war against their “Yangeese” kin. Whatever the case, it was very fortunate that they left when they did, because epidemics swept through both Kahnawake and Kanehsatake in 1755, killing hundreds.

This offshoot village, known to Mohawks as Akwesasne and the French as Saint-Regis, was established where the Racquette and St. Regis Rivers joined the St. Lawrence River near the 45th parallel. The French government allowed the creation of this village in the hopes that it would draw more Mohawks away from the Mohawk Valley and the strong English influences there. Three or four families of no more than about thirty people from Kahnawake came to Akwesasne with a priest, Father Billiard (Biard) in the fall of 1754. Oral tradition at Akwesasne suggests that there were already people here when this first Kahnawake migration occurred; these people may have come from either the Mohawk Valley or the Onondaga/Oneida mission at Oswegatchie, where an epidemic had recently claimed numerous women and children. After spending the winter in what is now Tsi sniahne, they crossed the St. Regis River in the spring of 1755 and established a new village on the peninsula formed by the St. Regis and St. Lawrence Rivers. The fledgling community kept a low profile throughout the war, offering only a handful of warriors to the French war effort. Eventually the war would touch them personally, as the Abenaki village of Odanak was attacked and destroyed by Roger’s Rangers. The survivors eventually made their way to Akwesasne where they were taken in as refugees.

The Seven Nations Take Hold of the Covenant Chain

By 1760 the war was in its final stages with an inevitable British victory on the horizon. Having conquered the French forts at Niagara and Oswego, the English army and its Haudenosaunee allies began their conquest of the St. Lawrence River. The Seven Nations of Canada had sent peace envoys to meet with Sir William Johnson to promise their neutrality as long as their villages were not attacked. He agreed, and the former French allies became friends of the English. The British army lost several men during their passage through the Long Sault Rapids. Most of them then camped near what is now the city of Cornwall while Johnson and 600 or so Iroquois (including a young Joseph Brant) visited Akwesasne to smoke the pipe of peace with the Akwesasne warriors. Ten of them agreed to accompany Johnson’s men and helped guide them through the rapids on their way to the conquest of Montreal. Within days of the French capitulation a great peace council was held at Kahnawake in which the Seven Nations and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy buried the war hatchet and became allies once again.

Not long after that, a large number of Mohawks from the Mohawk Valley moved to Akwesasne, free as it was from the encroachments of English, Dutch, and German colonists that had pushed them from their former homes at Skohare (Schoharie), Teiontontaroka (Fort Hunter), and Kanatsiohare:ke (Canajoharie.) According to Philip Schuyler, an American general writing in the era of the American Revolution, at least 30 of the men who came up from the Mohawk Valley after the French and Indian war later went on to fight on the side of the British when the American Revolution broke out.

Even though they were now welcomed into the “Covenant Chain” (alliance) with the English, the Seven Nations of Canada soon realized that the English troops did not share the generous attitudes of Sir William Johnson. He had promised protection of their lands and rights by presenting them with a wampum belt, but they soon found that their people were being fired upon as they paddled their canoes, their chiefs were beaten up, and their fish and furs were confiscated by soldiers assigned to the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain outposts. Back at Akwesasne, the Abenakis were overstaying their welcome, disrupting Mohawk trapping lines and claiming that they were the original proprietors of the territory. Akwesasne chiefs complained to Johnson about the Abenakis and the white fur trader they had brought with them from Odanak, and eventually their village was rebuilt so that they could return home. According to oral tradition, some of the Abenakis were allowed to stay behind and were absorbed into the Mohawk community.

Drums Along the Mohawk

With the former colony of New France under British rule, the Haudenosaunee and Seven Nations Confederacies found themselves at the mercies of the power that dominated North America. No longer could they play one European power off the other to their own advantage. This uneven playing field would not last indefinitely, however. England’s colonies were beginning to assert their independence as never before, and soon began pushing through barriers the English had established between native and non-native territory. White settlers attacked peaceful Indian villages, killing indiscriminately, which led in turn to reprisals that threatened to set the frontier ablaze. This insatiable appetite for more Indian land was probably as much a driving force behind the American Revolution as British tariffs ever were.

Like the French and Indian War that preceded it, the American Revolution was politically divisive to the natives living in close proximity to the British loyalists and American patriots. The Seven Nations and Haudenosaunee Confederacies were asked to remain neutral in the conflict, but efforts to recruit their warriors for both sides began almost immediately. The majority chose either neutrality or the English with only a few hundred Oneidas and Tuscaroras and a handful of Kahnawake Mohawks actively supporting the Americans. Although many started out as scouts and couriers, they were eventually drawn into open hand-to-hand combat on the battlefields of Saratoga, Oriskany, and Newtown, to name just a few. By war’s end the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was in tatters with most of their villages burned to the ground, many of their leaders and young men dead, and their people living as refugees far from home at Fort Niagara and elsewhere. The Seven Nations of Canada came out of the war more or less intact, possibly due to the greater distances between their communities and the Americans. The only casualty was Oswegatchie, which was eventually destroyed by the Americans. Her people eventually sought refuge at Akwesasne, as evidenced by the numerous Snipe and Deer clan people living here today. This infusion of people from Oswegatchie resulted in Akwesasne inheriting Oswegatchie’s territory (the Thousand Islands) and status as one of the Seven Nations. (Previous to this, Akwesasne was considered to be a sub-community of Kahnawake.)

The war had another major impact on Akwesasne with the drawing of an international border directly through our territory. Located as it was on the 45th parallel and the St. Lawrence River, Akwesasne soon found itself “divided up” by the British and American governments and was told that it would have no effect on day-to-day Mohawk lives. Eventually this partitioning of our territory resulted in the loss of lands and political autonomy. Another major impact of the war was the settlement of British loyalists under Sir John Johnson (son of Sir William Johnson) on the northern shores of the St. Lawrence at what is now Cornwall, Ontario. When Akwesasne chiefs objected to white settlers on their lands, they were told that since the French government had never actually “granted” us the land or given us a written title, the British government wasn’t obligated to recognize our claim. Eventually a compromise was worked out by which a strip of land (known as the Nuttfield Tract) between the British settlements was reserved for Akwesasne use, but the people of Akwesasne never forgot the double-edged treachery: not only had our former French benefactors failed to document our title, but now the son of the man who had promised the protection of our lands in the 1760’s was now denying that those lands were even ours at all.

The Burden of Peace

Relations between the Seven Nations of Canada and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy during the last decades of the 18th century were contentious thanks to the mad rush of land sales and treaty negotiations that stirred up old animosities and disputes over territory. At one point a war almost broke out between the two confederacies over land sales with New York. This was narrowly averted by a peace council at Kahnawake in 1799. Relations were further complicated by the threat of a new Indian war out of the Great Lakes, promoted by the British to harass the Americans. Delegates from the Seven Nations and Haudenosaunee Confederacies were asked by the United States to promote peace among these nations, but it became apparent that the western nations viewed those from the east as having “opened the door” to the whites.

British and American animosity eventually resulted in the War of 1812. Wisely, the Seven Nations of Canada and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy insisted on maintaining neutrality in the conflict, having lost so much by getting involved before. Once again this neutrality was impossible to maintain as intense pressure was put on our men to serve on both sides. In October of 1812, the village of St. Regis was the scene of a battle between American and British forces in which a number of people were killed and native homes were ransacked. The native contribution to this war was considerable, but eventually it resulted in natives killing natives, especially at the Battle of Chippawa on the Niagara frontier in 1814. For Akwesasne, the divisions were on a much more personal level: those that agreed to fight for the British found that their homes had either been burned or taken over by those Akwesasne Mohawks who had chosen neutrality or the American side. Eventually this split between British and American factions resulted in two separate reservations, each drawing on different annuities and rental moneys that had previously been shared by the community as a whole. Membership lists were drawn up that also corresponded to the division, and those that ended up on the American side began to petition the outside government for recognition of their own set of chiefs.

This era was one of great suffering for Akwesasne. A worldwide famine occurred in 1816 when a volcanic eruption created a small-scale “nuclear winter” that resulted in potatoes growing no larger than walnuts. Smallpox, cholera, and tuberculosis also swept the area, killing off hundreds of our people and leaving survivors in a weakened state. Add to this the massive deforestation of the once mighty timberlands in the region and Akwesasne in the 19th century emerges as a wasteland of sorts, devoid of the very means of survival. It was during this era that many people began to relocate for much of the year and only returned to Akwesasne in the warmer seasons. A few Akwesasne people had become farmers by this time and others found work as both lumberjacks in the Adirondacks and as boatmen for the growing non-native population. By the time the American Civil War broke out in the mid-1800’s, Akwesasne had become strong enough to allow many of her young men to enlist. These men were refused at first for being Indian (non-citizens) and had to travel as far as Massachusetts to enlist. This war marked the end of separate “Indian companies” who decided their own course of action. Henceforth, all native combatants in the wars of the United States would serve as regular foot soldiers with the other enlisted men. Gone were the days of all-Indian war parties conducting guerrilla warfare at their own discretion.

The last decaded of the 19th century saw drastic changes in the political landscape of Akwesasne and the other Mohawk communties, who were still governed by the old “life chiefs.” Non-native governments began legislating away their existence by imposing elections on our communities and doing away with the old clan-based system of choosing leaders. At Akwesasne, the rejection of this new system of governance led to confrontations at the polling booth. When armed police came to help the Indian agent conduct an election in 1899, a group of Mohawks disarmed them and physically removed them from the territory. Police returned not long after to arrest the life chiefs, whom they considered to be the instigators of the revolt. A Mohawk man, Jake Ice, was killed when he rushed to the assistance of his brother, Chief Jake Fire. The life chiefs sat in jail for over a year before charges were finally dropped. Realizing that these elections weren’t going away, they began to offer their names up as candidates with the hopes that the old way of doing things would eventually be restored.

Akwesasne Takes on the World

In spite of these affronts to Mohawk cultural and political sovereignty, the last half of the 19th century witnessed a cultural renaissance of sorts at Akwesasne and her fellow Mohawk communities. Mohawk baskets made of black ash splints and sweetgrass were becoming a popular commodity to white visitors, sparking a “cottage industry” at Akwesasne that thrives to this day. Native beadwork, snowshoes, and cradleboards were also in demand. The native game of Tewaarathon (or lacrosse) also attracted attention of the non-natives, thanks to a few well-timed exhibition games in Montreal. Soon new leagues were springing up and Mohawk players were in hot demand. Mohawks also found a ready audience for trick riders and circus performers who toured the world with “wild west” shows. By adapting their old ways to a new world, Mohawks were able to prevent the total assimilation of our people and the loss of cultural values that had “swallowed up” many less fortunate native communities.

This era also saw the rise of another occupation for Mohawks in the high-steel construction industry. This all began at Kahnawake, were Mohawk men who had been hired as simple laborers on a railroad bridge job began to scale the beams every chance they got to inspect the work. Recognizing their lack of a fear of heights as the sign of natural born steel workers, the construction company began training them for the more dangerous jobs of connectors and rivet gangs. After a bridge collapse killed 33 Mohawks in 1907, the Mohawk women made the ironworkers promise to work on different jobs to prevent a whole generation of women from turning into widows overnight. Soon Mohawk ironworkers were “booming out” all over the United States and Canada, working on the buildings, and bridges that are major landmarks today. The Empire State Building, World Trade Center, Sears Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, and CN Tower are just a few of the famous structures Mohawks have helped to raise over the years. The high pay from construction work resulted in an economic revival back home that also spilled over to the political arena: chiefs were now able to travel to distant cities to search through archives, hire lawyers, and fight for our rights as never before thanks to advances in transportation and communications.

Throughout the early 20th century the identification of the Mohawk communities with the banner of the Seven Nations of Canada began to wane in favor of that of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, viewed by many as older and purer of the two since it originated long before European contact. Old ceremonies, legends, songs and dances began to make their way from longhouses in Seneca country, Onondaga, and the Six Nations reserve on the Grand River to Akwesasne, Kanesatake, and Kahnawake where they were taken to heart. Soon there were longhouses and a small but growing longhouse following in each of these communities and political activism and nationalism on an unprecedented scale.

Another social phenomenon reestablished itself at Akwesasne in the early part of the 20th century, thanks to the existence of the U.S./Canadian border and the prohibition of alcohol in the United States. Just as Mohawks were able to bypass colonial trading restrictions in the late 17th and 18th centuries, they were now able to make a handsome profit from transporting liquor from Canada to the United States. This led to many confrontations and even gun battles with customs inspectors and police officers in which Mohawks were arrested or shot and killed. Mohawk elders recall the grim discovery of gunshot victims floating in Akwesasne’s waterways the morning after such “enforcements.”

Regardless of the whatever profit there may have been for those willing to take the risk, being divided by an international boundary has almost always posed hardships for our people. A native woman who married a man from the opposite side of the border, for instance, lost her status as an “Indian” while a non-native woman who married a native man “became” one. “Canadian” Mohawks hoping to seek work in the U.S. were forbidden to do so and were deported as illegal aliens until a court challenge in the 1920’s forced the U.S. to recognize our border-crossing rights as protected by treaty. The fight to get Canada to recognize those rights, meanwhile, has continued up until the present time and appears nowhere near resolution.

The 1940’s stand out as an important time for cultural revival at Akwesasne, even though much of that decade was overshadowed by World War II. It was in this era that an idealistic young schoolteacher, Ray Fadden, came to Akwesasne to “kindle the fire” of Mohawk nationalism in the youth by taking them on fieldtrips to Haudenosaunee historic sites, teaching them about wampum belts, and publishing pamphlets and posters that countered the negative image of natives in Hollywood westerns and school textbooks. Many of his students have gone on to become the traditional leaders of today.

The 1940’s also saw the birth of Mohawk journalism with the publication of Akwesasne’s first newspaper, Kawehras! (“It Thunders!”) by a young Ernest Benedict, who later went on to establish Akwesasne Notes and the North American Indian Travelling College in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Among the news events Benedict covered was the resistance of many Mohawks to accept the system of elections imposed by New York State on the “American” side of Akwesasne. He reported that on May 24, 1948, a vote was held in which “The Six Nations Chiefs” received 83 votes as opposed to “The Elected Chiefs” who only got 1, and “The Seven Nations Chiefs” who didn’t get any. Even though the elected chiefs acknowledged this vote of no confidence by stepping down, New York State and the federal government refused to abide by it and continued to impose elections.

Dam Nation

Halfway through the century construction began on the massive system of navigation locks and hydro-electric power dams known as the St. Lawrence Seaway. This project, which helped to make the United States and Canada the economic superpowers they are today, had the opposite effect on Akwesasne. Not only did we lose parts of our shoreline and entire islands beneath the rising waters, but it disrupted spawning patterns of fish and greatly reduced the oxygen levels in the water. Drawn by cheaper utility rates, three major industrial plants set up shop upriver and upwind of Akwesasne, contaminating both the river, air, and soil with toxic chemicals that affected the fishing, farming, and health of the community as years went by. This forced the Mohawks of Akwesasne to unify in their efforts to demand remediation. Our environmental efforts, the first of their kind and scope in a Native American community, have since become the model for many other international environmental studies and has served as a unifying force for the much-divided community.

Throughout the last decades of the 20th century, Akwesasne continued to feel the long-term effects of the St. Lawrence Seaway. As the agricultural and fishing base began to decline, a majority of Mohawk men sought work in construction far from home, taking their families with them or starting new ones where they ended up. Others sought careers at the various factories close by and in cities like Syracuse and Buffalo, New York. While this may have improved the economic situation for individual families, in some circumstances it served to increase the pressures of cultural assimilation and alienation.

Weary of a life in perpetual transit, a few Mohawk entrepreneurs began selling tax-free gasoline and cigarettes to native and non-native customers along Akwesasne’s main thoroughfare, Route 37. The commercialization of these hard-won treaty rights has been controversial since gas stations and smoke shops began to proliferate in the 1980’s, followed by high-stakes bingo and casinos that further divided the community at the same time as they brought much-needed jobs to the area. In the shadow of these much-publicized events, a web of international smuggling networks began to spring up on the highways and waterways that pass through Akwesasne, complete with hijackings, murders, nightly gun battles, and corrupt law enforcement officers. Relations between the elected and traditional councils were already strained by generations of ideological differences; the influx of fast cash and a materialistic lifestyle brought on by the new “economy” only heightened those differences. These internal conflicts have erupted in just about every Iroquois community since the 1980’s, setting back our efforts to rebuild our nations and make them strong in the face of mounting external pressures.

Today, it may seem to the outsider that Akwesasne is nowhere nearer to a solution to these fundamental differences in philosophy. But it is hoped that the revival in interest in our unique history and cultural heritage will help to make Akwesasne Mohawks aware of the great difference the “path of peace” has made in our ancestors’ lives and become a unifying force for the future. That path has become encumbered by weeds of late, but there is still time to clear the way for the generations yet to come.