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Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawk leaders defend land settlement

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: doug george-kanentio, land claims, mohawk, new york, treaties
     


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

Last week I was able to attend the two public sessions in which the people of Akwesasne had an opportunity to discuss the proposed land claims settlement as presented by the St. Regis Tribal Council and printed in the Indian Time newspaper.

The first public information gathering was on June 11th at the Tekaswenkarorens Elders Center with two tribal chiefs and one sub-chief present. Community members had their first opportunity to ask specific questions about the "memorandum of understanding" dated May 28/2014.

The responses by the tribal leaders to the Mohawk people were fascinating.

Those in attendance learned was that the "MOU" was presented to the Tribe after it had been drafted by New York State and St. Lawrence County. The Tribe was not involved in the initial discussions but only brought in towards the end. No member of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne or the Mohawk Nation Council were consulted during the drafting process either neither was either entity consulted prior to the May 28 declaration.

The Tribe maintains that despite the opposition of the Mohawk Nation Council it was included in the agreement because of the 2005 settlement proposal and that is subsequent silence (despite its exclusion) meant it was agreement.

This statement was made after one of the tribal officials said that the "governor's man" (unidentified) had show them a blank piece of paper which the State said was its settlement offer-meaning New York felt no obligation to the Mohawks as a result of the 2005 Sherrill v. Oneida Nation US Supreme Court decision. The only reason St. Lawrence County and New York State were offering anything at all was to bring an end to 30 years of litigation with no acknowledgment by the State or county for the blatant theft of Mohawk lands or the profits both entities extracted from their actions.

The Tribe repeatedly cited fear as its prime motivation for the agreement: it was afraid of getting nothing, it was afraid of the Sherrill case, it was afraid of losing in court.

The Tribe cited only one tangible benefit coming directly to tribal members and that was the "free tuition" at State universities clause in the MOU with an estimated value of $580,000. Other than 3,400 acres of undefined, highly regulated lands to become part of the "reservation" and a vague promise of reduced electrical rates from the New York Power Authority the people should not expect anything else. As for those Mohawks who live in the soon to be ceded Fort Covington region the Tribe told them to pay their taxes as they are excluded from the MOU. Their taxes, some of which were paid under protest, would not be refunded.

The Tribe will continue to pay millions in casino revenues to Franklin and St. Lawrence counties with millions more to New York State. From that money comes any and all expenditures incurred by those parties to the agreement which means the Tribe pays for its own settlement. When asked what the 9 kilowatts of power meant the Tribe said a 2005 study was done which indicated the community only used 5 kilowatts of power-but had no information as to the casino usage or any other data. It was highly unlikely the Mohawk people would receive the long promised free electricity.

As for the St. Lawrence islands west of Barnhart the Tribe would have first option to buy back Mohawk territory should New York ever elect to sell that property. No assessment had been done as to the actual value of the lands to be surrendered-no dollar amount regarding Barnhart, the St. Lawrence Power Dam, the Massena, Grasse River and Ft. Covington regions was made available.

Instead there was the disturbing "forever" part in the MOU in which the Tribe gives up, for all time, all Mohawk claims but how the Tribe secured such authority from the other six Mohawk communities was not explained. The Tribe affirmed the 1796 Seven Nations of Canada treaty even as this controversial document has been rejected as binding upon the Mohawk people and exposed as a fraud by the Mohawk Nation. As for the 9,000,000 acres stolen by New York? That was brushed aside as if a fantasy. At one point the Tribe denied the MOU was even a settlement even though the agreement clearly states that it is. Read paragraphs 8 and 9 along with sections 1, 2 and part 2, first paragraph and in particular the last section of the MOU. Why the contradiction? No explanation was given.

The Tribe did admit that the MOU existed only because it was anxious to protect its casino revenues and wanted to resolve its withholding dispute caused by its challenge to a small gambling hall at the Ganienkeh Mohawk Territory. The Tribe explained it would not hold a public vote on the MOU since the 2005 settlement had already been approved nine years ago despite one tribal official stating that the State had rejected that offer and the fact that the current proposal was vastly different than the previous one.

So, according to the Tribe, Mohawk approval has already been secured with their May 28 signatures despite opposition from the Mohawk people. To go into effect the MOU needs New York State and US Congressional action and that is it.

Naturally, there are those who endorse the MOU but given the harsh reality that the Tribe pays for the settlement, pays for all challenges to the settlement from other Mohawks, must pay for electricity from Mohawk resources, is given a pittance for education and agrees to a highly conditional return of a few thousand acres of undefined land. But why?

In contrast to the June 11 session the meeting at the Mohawk Nation longhouse was vigorous, free flowing and creative. There was no division among the people-they were firm in their rejection of the MOU and the Tribe's assertion that it had the right to extinguish all Mohawk territorial claims for all time.

The people there also denied that the one signature of a member of the council affixed to the 2005 agreement in any way bound them to the MOU and that the person who put his name to the document did not obtain the support of any of the clans.

The people knew that if the Tribe was informed that the Nation Council had an internal dispute it would exploit this to mean the Nation would not oppose the MOU. This was also denied by the people. Intense discussions were held as to how to stop the MOU and preserve the ancestral lands and rights of all Mohawks.

They knew that any right not expressly cited in any agreement was considered surrendered and that was a trap they would avoid. The session went into clans and continued throughout the day. Firm decisions and actions are pending but the result was a sharp turn away from the MOU and an absolute denial of the Tribe's authority to qualify in any way the aboriginal standing of the Mohawk Nation.

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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