When we examine Mohawk history as it involves Akwesasne we think about those individuals who had the most impact upon us.
Names like the African-Algonquin Louis Cook, the ambitious political operative Joseph Brant, the patriot Ernie Benedict or the great teacher Ray Fadden come to mind but there is one person who has affected our culture, language and even our health in the most dramatic of ways.
That person is Robert Moses.
Other than a name hung on the St. Lawrence Power Dam on our property at Niionenhiaseko:wane the man is virtually unknown among the Mohawks but his passion for building roads, reservoirs and hydro-electrical stations changed the environment and impacted every person at Akwesasne from the 1950's onward.
Moses was born in New Haven Connecticut, a few blocks from Yale University, a school from which he would graduate. His background was political science and he began his career as a reformer in New York City. He was successful in pushing through a series of laws in Albany which reshaped the manner in which the legislature functioned but when he ran for New York governor in 1934 he was thoroughly defeated, ending any thought of public office.
Instead, Moses decided to implement his ideas in a unique fashion; he would bypass the state legislature altogether by controlling the flow of US federal money into New York through the Work Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. At one time Moses, through a series of appointments, had over 80,000 workers under his authority and he did not hesitate to use that massive force for political and monetary profit.
Moses was opposed to public transit so he built dozens of freeways through anything which stood in his way. He destroyed communities, reshaped the land and payed little attention to the impact his plans had on the environment.
Moses was accused of being a racist who used highways to create artificial barriers to hold blacks and others into ghettos effectively isolated by a series of bridges and elevated roads. While he could be generous in the building of parks for white neighborhoods he opposed such facilities for blacks and others.
Moses wanted to cut lower Manhattan in half with a four lane highway in Greenwich Village, one of his plans which failed. He played a key role in demolishing Penn Station, the architectural gem across from Madison Square Garden. He pressed for the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Throg's Neck Bridge and the Triboro Bridges.
His genius was his creation of an independent commission which was able to secure all of the bridge tolls. The profits were enormous and enabled Moses to issue bonds which in turn generated more money for his projects. Moses was not accountable to the state or New York City for these funds which he used to reshape the state.
Moses had no patience with anyone who stood in his way. At Tuscarora he bullied the state into violating the Treaty of Canandaigua by taking 550 acres of that community to build a reservoir for the new dam he was building alongside the Niagara River. He dared the Tuscaroras to challenge him and when they took their case to the US Supreme Court only to lose he went ahead and bulldozed their homes.
The Moses victory would spell doom for the Senecas of Allegany who also lost their homes and lands to the Army Corps of Engineers when the Kinzua Dam was built in clear breach of Canandaigua.
At Akwesasne Robert Moses saw an opportunity to control the powerful Kaniatarowaneneh (St. Lawrence), a plan most Mohawks would have thought insane. Yet he pressed for the building of a dam astride the river on Niionenhiaseko:wane (Barnhart Island) when it was clear that the land belonged to Akwesasne and was never ceded by treaty or any other agreement.
In constructing the Moses-Saunder Dam (Saunders was chairman of Ontario Hydro while Moses held the same position with the New York Power Authority) the entire eco-system of the region was altered, a change made more severe when General Motors and Reynolds Aluminum decided to take advantage of Moses' extremely low power rates and build factories alongside the river. The resulting pollutants would further contaminate the waters, skies and land while leading to the death of hundreds of Mohawks through cancers and other diseases resulting from a radical change in diet and overall physical health.
His plans also resulted in the loss of Mohawk land at Akwesasne, the destruction of the cleansing Karo:kwi (Long Sault Rapids) and the slowing of the river itself. The decision by New York State to accommodate Moses caused it to deal with the St. Regis Tribal Council exclusively, overriding the people's wishes to eliminate the Tribe and return to the traditional governing system. Decades of turmoil would come about because of this blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Mohawk people.
Because of the dam, the factories and the St. Lawrence Seaway the ancient patterns of life at Akwesasne were forever broken. With the loss of an economy based upon the river and the land the Mohawk people were forced to enter a cash economy thereby disrupting the barter system.
Realizing the children would not be able to sustain their lives using the region's natural resources parents pressed formal education as a means of survival with the Mohawk language perceived as irrelevant, even harmful. Beginning in the late 1950's almost every Mohawk child was raised speaking English as their primary means of expression with enormous psychological, spiritual and cultural impacts still vibrating throughout the community brought about by linguistic displacement.
Moses's plans effected the Mohawks in many ways. Without access to natural proteins from the fish the health of the Mohawk people declined. A reliance on processed foods based upon a European style diet led to the rapid increase in diabetes and other food related ailments. The mirex, mercury, PCB's, flourides and other lethal chemicals emitted by the factories resulted in brittle bones, cancers, tumors, birth defects.
While litigation was brought against the polluters no amount of money could change the startling changes brought about by Robert Moses and his decision to use Akwesasne's waters to generate electricity for New York City.
Moses impacted the Mohawks in less direct means. His state highways enabled ironworkers to travel greater distances in shorter times. He transformed cities across the US by urging the building of super highways through the heart of urban areas.
Anyone who has lived in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo or Albany can see his work and the demise of the center city which this plan has brought about. Moses had a passion for massive housing projects for minorities to replace their single family homes while he wanted to make it easier for suburban dwellers to leave the center cities using his roads. In its wake, the urban areas were left to decay while making it almost impossible for blacks and others to improve their homes given diminished tax bases.
Moses's power was finally ended by Nelson Rockefeller who gradually stripped him of his 12 plus chairmanships. Moses also incurred the anger of environmentalists and other civic minded groups.
Yet his name is affixed to many "public" works projects. Not only is the St. Lawrence Power Dam named in his "honour" (which should be reconsidered) but he has parks, roadways and another dam on the Niagara carrying his name.
Robert Moses died in 1981, long enough to see the results of his ambitions across the state and how his long shadow has darkened the lives of the people of Akwesasne yet it is highly unlikely he would have cared.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne
Notes, was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Indian of the
American Indian and the author of "Iroquois on Fire" among other books. He may
be reached via e-mail: email@example.com
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