Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawk man stands up for his people

Alvin Jock
Alvin Jock. Photo from Akwesasne Today / Facebook

Kanaharonton-Alvin Jock is a Mohawk businessman, known throughout Akwesasne for this towing service and car parts. He is a light sleeper, alert to those phone calls in the deepest part of the night seeking his help in responding to automobile accidents which he does regardless of time or circumstances. The revolving lights of his tow truck are a welcome sight to those in crisis as he uses his skills to remove damaged vehicles and clear the roads.

Like most residents of Akwseasne he knows that his business is based on the fact that he resides on Mohawk territory, separate and distinct from any other. His family has a tradition of serving the people and is rightfully proud to have taken an historic role in preserving Mohawk culture. It was his parents, Karoniahnoron and Kaherahere, who sponsored the Indian Way School 45 years ago, the predecessor to the Akwesasne Freedom School. His is:tah also served as a Iakoia:ne for the Nation.

Kanaharonton is of a peaceful nature, generous and with a keen sense of humour. He does not look for conflict but when his principles and his family are challenged he will respond. This happened last fall when he confronted employees of the National Grid power company, a cooperation based in England which had purchased the former Niagara Mohawk. The company was attempting to terminate the electrical service of those Mohawks who it maintained had not paid their bills.

Apprehensive about the safety of their works National Grid elected to send unmarked trucks to Mohawk homes in the company of the St. Regis Tribal Police. By doing so National Grid put Mohawks at risk and placed the Tribal Police into serving as its enforcement arm. The threat of armed officers ding the corporation's dirty work is a tactic used by companies to intimidate people into compliance and has been employed, as an example, by anti-union strikebreakers with deadly results.

Akwesasne Today: Alvin Jock Vs National Grid

But if National Grid thought that by using heavily armed cops to threaten the Mohawks into paying controversial bills would work on Jock Road they were mistaken. Kanaharonton knew families in his area were dependent on electricity including his brother and a pregnant relative. He knew that National Grid had no right to intrude upon the private property of Mohawk homeowners and he knew that the St. Regis Tribal Police made a bad mistake when they allowed themselves to get involved in a civil matter which is rooted in a legal issue far beyond their authority. In effect, the St. Regis Tribal Police were manipulated by National Grid into taking a position against the very people they have been sworn to protect.

So what to do when National Grid physically trespasses on Mohawk property? And how to respond to a member of the St. Regis Tribal Police who also trespasses? And without a warrant or cause of any kind? As a Mohawk citizen you have to take a stand in defense of the sanctity of home and community. You have to challenge the trespassers and that is what any Mohawk would do and what Kanaharonton did. For this he was given numerous tickets which carry the risk of heavy fines and imprisonment. He feels that he is being used as an example for other Mohawks that if they oppose the trespass actions of National Grid the Tribe will strike back with its police force.

The question Kanaharoton's case raises is of vital importance to all Akwesasnoron. First, who owns the power carried across Mohawk territory? Since it comes from our river, the Kaniatarowanenneh, the Mohawk Nation has a well established legal right to take a part of that resource for its own use (see the US Supreme Court cases Winters v. US 207 US 564 (1908) and Arizona v. California 373 US 546 (1963)). It is also a question of property.

Akwesasne is not federal trust land despite the Tribe's efforts to make it so. The land is owned by the people insofar as any land can be held by human beings under Mohawk law. This means that any thing placed on Mohawk property is possessed by the individual land owner and any device physically attached to a home cannot be removed without the permission of the owner which includes electrical lines, meters and poles. The Tribe has no rights to use eminent domain-that power used by governments to attach property for public use-since it is not sovereign but an agency of New York State created in 1892 to deliver services and mend fences-nothing else.

If National Grid is sending out bills with any external taxes attached it is also in the wrong as Akwesasne is exempt from these assessments and if there is no clarification on the bills as to this right than the bills themselves are suspect. National Grid has an obligation to secure the permission of the Mohawk people, not the Tribe, before it places any device on their land. This must be done in the form of a specific contract acknowledging the status of Mohawk territory and with a benefit for the landowner. Without this, National Grid has no right to enter on Mohawk territory.

Besides the above there is another issue: why should Mohawks pay anything for electricity generated from their waters and taken across the unceded section of Akwesasne we call Niionenhiaseko:wane (Barnhart Island)? It would cost nothing for National Grid to do so-especially when the company pays its CEO Steve Holliday an annual salary of $7,800,000 and generates a profit of $1,900,000,000 from its New York State and New England operations. It can afford to do what is legally and morally right.

Other entities have reached agreements with Native nations which respect aboriginal sovereignty. In Montana the Salish and Kootenai nations announced on February 5 they had a compact with the State providing them with $55,000,000 to protect their homelands and irrigate their farms using water which crosses their territory to be directed by a special management board of five members of whom the majority will be Native. In return they cede nothing. Why can't the three Mohawk councils do likewise?

Sometimes it takes an incident like the one on Jock Road to get people to thinking and acting on those thoughts. Kanaharonton took the first step and others will follow. The challenge for the Akwesasne leadership is to decide if they will walk in step with the people or stand before them in opposition.

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.

Join the Conversation