Doug George-Kanentiio: Bad land claim settlement for Mohawk

Leaders of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe signed a memorandum of understanding with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and local officials. Photo from St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

The May 30 announcement by the St. Regis Tribal Council that it had reached a "settlement" with New York State is one of the strangest in Native land claims history.

The settlement begins with a bold lie: that of the three Mohawk governing councils at Akwesasne, this most factionalized of Native communities, one-the New York State created St. Regis Tribal Council -has decided that it would unilaterally bring a "forever" end to all Mohawk claims against the US and the State without consultation, consensus or approval of the Mohawk Nation Council or the Canadian based Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.

Never mind that there are over 40,000 Mohawks living on seven territories: Ganienkeh, Kanesatake, Kahnawake, Tyendinaga, Wahta, Ohsweken and Akwesasne and none of them, with the exception of a few Tribal officials, knew anything about the agreement. Their opinions were never solicited nor is there any provision for their approval in a settlement which wipes out their valid claims against the US and New York for the blatant theft of over 9,000,000 acres of aboriginal Mohawk territory and the forcible removal of their ancestors from our homelands.

That the Tribal Council would assume it has the authority, never given, to represent all Mohawks on this most vital and delicate of issues is nothing short of pure arrogance without basis in history or fact.

Yet New York State will go ahead and enter into the settlement since it maintains that a single signature by any governing agency located on Mohawk territory is sufficient to extinguish all Mohawk claims which was its exact position in 1797 when Joseph Brant betrayed all Mohawks by unilaterally signing away our native lands when it was abundantly clear to the Americans that he had no such authority.

Since then the Mohawks have lived on restricted reservations, confined at times by force of arms by a vindictive New York which has taken a hostile, active role in opposing the unification of the Mohawks on any issue particularly land and jurisdiction. Hence, the creation of the St. Regis Tribal Council in 1892 by the State Legislature and the pouring of millions of dollars in support to that colonial entity.

It is therefore no surprise that a State agency, the Tribe, would be given the power by the US to once again cede all of Mohawk lands for less than a pittance and a weird pittance it is. In the May agreement the Tribe agrees to the following:
-elevate a county, St. Lawrence, to equal jurisdictional status with a supposed "sovereign" tribal entity
-agrees to abide by all county, state and federal regulations on lands returned to the "Tribe"
-agrees to pay $4,000,000 annually and forever to St. Lawrence County with additional money to be given to nearby Franklin County
-agrees to pay nearly $4,000,000 more to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties from its casino operation
-agrees to compensate both counties for lost tax revenues and school fees on lands returned to the "Tribe"
-agrees to surrender any claim on the highly lucrative hydro electricity generating dam on contested lands in St. Lawrence County
-agrees to abandon any liability claims against St. Lawrence County and New York State for the generations long extraction of natural resources on contested Mohawk lands and despite the enormous financial benefits both the county and state have profited from those lands
-agrees to pay the New York Power Authority millions of dollars in "reduced" electrical rates despite the fact that NYPA uses Mohawk resources (both land and water)
-surrenders any right to have St. Lawrence County or New York to do environmental assessments or clean up contaminated soils and water on Mohawk territory
-agrees to waive and surrender any claim to hold the county, New York State or the US federal governments liable in any way for the displacement of Mohawk people, the subsequent harm to culture and health or in any way provide compensation to any Mohawk entity for such harm

As is well known, and elementary, in any negotiation that what is not expressly cited is considered excluded. So the Tribe, in another strange decision, decided not to protect Mohawk jurisdiction or freedom from external taxation. The Tribe made no mention of the vital trade and commerce issues nor did it exempt itself from the criminal or civil laws of either county or state.

It is hard to see what exactly benefits the Tribe in this very bad agreement. The Tribe may get 3,000 plus acres of land but only under highly restrictive conditions. It gets $2,000,000 a year from the NYPA but must immediately pay that back in hydro fees. If New York, the real culprit, gives anything at all it is from money the Tribe gives to the state under the provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

So the odd, disturbing and outright bad agreement awaits the signature of a Tribal official. But which one of the the three "trustees" would sign such a deplorable agreement when it provokes more internal dissension and will spark years of litigation?

Which trustee will sign away the birthright of all Mohawks and wipe out the seventh generation? And which one will be condemned by history for doing so?

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes. A founding member of the Native American Journalists Association he served on the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is the author of many books and articles about aboriginal people including "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio@aol or by calling 315-415-7288.

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