There are dates in every person's life by which they mark the passage of time and events. Some are wonderful: the birth of a child, a birthday, graduation and marriage. Others are far less pleasant: the death of a parent, an accident or a natural disaster.
There are also dates which have communal importance. It may be a spiritual gathering, a political rally or an athletic contest while others are controversial and may be so traumatic as to cause us discomfort, even anguish.
May 1 across the world is "Worker's Day" in which the labor of those who are wage earners is acknowledged and celebrated. At Akwesasne that date has been set aside not to hold parades or light up the sky with fireworks but to take time and reflect on events which have shaped the reality we all live in.
May 1, 1899 is when Saiowisakeron, otherwise known as Jake (also known as John) Ice, was fatally shot by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer named Percy Sherwood as the Mohawk man came to the defense of his brother Jake Fire-Ohnehtotako. Lt. Colonel Sherwood and a contingent of Mounties were called to Akwesasne by the Indian Agent who had his plans to impose a band council system frustrated by the people's desire to retain the life chief governance methods.
When Sherwood tried to have Ohnehtotako arrested his brother intervened and was shot twice at close range inside the agent's office. Saiowisakeron died and the band council was set into place. But the traditional methods of governance were not lost and continues to this day in the form of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, the successor to the "long hairs".
May 1, 1990 is another date defined by tragedy which we cannot forget. Most of the people involved are still with us. They each have their distinct memories as to where they were, what they were doing and who they were with. Many would rather we ignore that date as it reminds us of terrible crimes committed by Mohawks against other Mohawks, acts which have not been resolved or laid to rest.
Everyone who was old enough to remember May 1, 1990 has their own version depending on individual circumstances but what is beyond dispute is the fact that two Mohawk men, Mathew Pyke and Harold JR Edwards died in the early morning hours of that day. To date, no one has been convicted for their deaths and in the case of Mr. Pyke no one was ever arrested. The investigations of the external police as to these killings were incompetent, casual and unprofessional in every instance.
But Mathew Pyke and JR Edwards have loomed large in our history. What happened to them changed the course of our lives and would directly effect events of a summer of troubles not only for Akwesasne but in Kanehsatake and Kahnawake. Many of those involved in the four day gun battle in the Snye district would go to our sister communities, carrying with them the same weapons used here.
The Surete du Quebec would respond by sending in a massive police force at Kanehsatake in order to prevent a recurrence of the Akwesasne situation, a bad decision resulting in the death of one of their own. That killing, also unresolved, casts a shadow on relations between the Mohawks and Quebec. It remains a source of shame to a provincial police agency which has a long history of conflicts with our people. Because of the way in which the Surete botched the Akwesasne shootings no one here had any confidence in their investigative methods, a fact which would carry over into Kahnesatake.
My personal story as to what I did and witnessed twenty years ago is in a book I wrote entitled "Iroquois On Fire". It is a narrative I hope others will use in compiling their own stories. We need other perspectives while our minds are clear as to what happened.
To acknowledge May 1 we should expand the day to include Mathew Pyke and JR Edwards. Their lives must be formally recognized as having importance for the Mohawk Nation and not just Akwesasne. They should be known and discussed. The events which led to their deaths must be recalled and understood as significant in our collective history. They have influenced everyone in ways we must acknowledge.
Some may say they don't need to relive the spring of 1990, that the wounds are not entirely healed, that by writing about this I am causing needless pain and exploiting the situation for some kind of perverse benefit. I believe that history is a powerful force in all of our lives and we have a duty to speak about our life experiences as ultimate legacy to those who will follow. Our history will determine their fate and I think it is critical to have that destiny deeply rooted in the truth.
It is why I urge the people not to obsess about the past but to give those events, and the people involved, the recognition they warrant. Jake Ice would understand.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is an editor, columnist and author.
He is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the
American Indian. Kanentiio is the author of three books including, "Iroquois on
Fire", recently published by the University of Nebraska. He is the husband of
the singer Joanne Shenandoah.
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