Doug George-Kanentiio: Victory with Mohawk land claim in Canada

An aerial view of Mohawk land that is now a part of Dundee, Quebec. Photo from MRC du Haut-Saint-Laurent

Tsikaristisere/Dundee Return a Victory for all of Akwesasne
by Doug George-Kanentiio

I recall my uncle, the late Angus George-Sohahiio, talking about the lost area of Dundee and how he believed the Mohawk people had that area of Akwesasne stolen from them but the actual proof demanded by the Canadian government was hard to find.

He said that he was driving in Kanatakon and happened to go by the residence of one of his friends and noticed there were people there burning what they thought were meaningless papers. He stopped his car and asked them if he could look at the papers before they were thrown into the flames.

Having been raised to read and write in Mohawk he realized the papers referred to Tiskaristise. He turned the papers over to Salli Benedict, the late historian/researcher for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. Those documents, along with others uncovered by Ms. Benedict and her team, formed the basis for the formal land claim that has now been accepted by the federal government in Ottawa.

Having any lands returned in a community which is rapidly expanding in terms of population is a necessity and should be a priority for all three governing entities at Akwesasne. Lands such as Barnhart Island, the Massena Springs, the Grasse River corridor, Ft. Covington, the St. Lawrence islands to the west and the Hogansburg triangle were clearly taken in beach of existing US and Canadian laws for which their return is clearly warranted along with reparations and damages. It should also mean that these lands are returned without condition and as regions within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Mohawk people.

The Dundee area was lost when Akwesasne was governed by the Mohawk Nation Council and the "life chiefs" or the "longhairs." Those representatives governed under traditional Mohawk laws and followed the clan system. Four years before Dundee was lost the Grand Council of the Rotinosionni Confederacy acknowledged Akwesasne as the central council fire of the Mohawk Nation and returned its fire wampum to reignite the embers upon the ancestral territory of the Kaiienkehaka.

Leaders of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. Photo from Facebook

There was no question that the Nation Council was the singular government for the north part of Akwesasne. In the southern section the people also sought to remove the hated "trustees" and restore the Nation only to be undermined when New York State formally empowered the current "tribal" council in 1892 followed by the forcible imposition of the St. Regis Band Council (now the MCA) in 1899 for which John Fire gave his life in opposition.

The question is then who is the actual legitimate claimant for the Dundee section? Should it not be the Mohawk Nation Council since it was then the actual governing agency at that time? And when those lands (18,285 acres) are returned with compensation ($239 million) would it not be best that it be under the jurisdiction of the Nation Council without the restrictions that placing it in "reserve" status brings?

For decades the Mohawk people and other nations have claimed that our lands are not either Crown or US federal lands but must be acknowledged as our own. In New York State this is the current condition as all Iroquois lands are held in common and are not "reservations" or "trust" regions -- at least not until recently when the Oneida Nation of New York breached this when it applied to have its recent purchases ceded as US federal property which "allows" Natives the "right" of occupancy although underlining title is held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in "trust."

The Mohawk Nation Council has, along with the other members of the Rotinosionni, claimed that "reserves," "reservations" and "trust" lands stem from the Catholic Church's decrees called the "Doctrines of Discovery" which states that all non-Christian lands are forfeit as pagan and subject to the ownership of whatever Christian sovereign who "discovers" them. This is the simple, and cruel, basis of both American and Canadian laws in regards to all Natives and has been used to alienate our territories from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island.

What may strengthen actual Mohawk title (exclusive of reserve condition) is the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to acknowledge aboriginal title exclusive of the Doctrine. Should this be applied by the Mohawks to Tsikaristisere it would greatly enhance the economic, environmental and residential potential of Dundee.

A map of the Tsikaristisere / Dundee claim area. Image from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

So tender to the Mohawk Nation Council those lands and the $239 million in compensation. A stronger Mohawk Nation is of the greatest tangible benefit for all Akwesasnorens. It would mean we have the possibility of advancing our long term economic plans and empower our community to design a new community based upon our ancestral values. It would free our leadership from having our laws and customs filtered by bureaucrats in Ottawa and open a new era in which we are free to truly reconstruct a working Mohawk Nation.

The MCA to its credit has been exploring "nation building' but we already have all the elements to do so within what now exists. The longhouse has that potential if it had the resources to truly function as a government. It was never meant to be a strictly ceremonial place nor were the rotiianeshon, roterihonton and kontiianeshon purely spiritual leaders (the Mohawks deliberately avoided creating a caste of priests) but wielded true political powers. This can once again work if they had the resources and since Tsikaristisera-Dundee was stolen from them it makes sense that it should be returned to their actual descendants.

As a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation Council I always favored direct action and the physical presence of our people on lands were knew to be ours. It is reassuring that the MCA has managed to secure a preliminary agreement which, I trust, does not involve the ceding of our ancestral lands as a condition to the return of Dundee but acknowledges that the loss was for a specific area only. Prior to submitting this to the community open discussions should be held with the Mohawk Nation Council and the MCA to determine how to use the lands, under what conditions and as soon as possible.

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

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