My wife, Joanne Shenandoah, and I were preparing to attend the annual Midwinter Ceremony at Akwesasne when we were told of the passing of Ernie Benedict, one of the most venerated of Mohawk elders.
Ernie had reached his 92nd year and lived through the greatest social, technological and political changes in human history. He was born in the second decade of the 20th century when Akwesasne was a community intimately tied to its natural environment, its residents self reliant from harvesting the crops they had planted and the fish hauled from rivers which flow through Mohawk territory. Everyone spoke Mohawk, few had formal education.
Ernie came of age when the Mohawk people were living under the heavy hand of the outside authorities. A few years before his birth the Canadian government would use force and murder to impose an alien administrative entity (the St. Regis Band Council) over the northern part of Akwesasne while south of the international border New York State had fabricated its own colonial government called the St. Regis Tribal Council; both were designed to undermine the ancestral ways of governance, both were meant to splinter the Mohawks into hostile factions while preventing what Mohawks truly desired: unity.
Ernie was not passive about the oppression of the Mohawk people by Canada and the US. As a teenager he came into contact with the great teacher Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens and as partners they sought to change the course of history by reviving the national identity of the Mohawk Nation. They encountered great resistance not only from the external powers but from within Akwesasne itself as many residents were apprehensive about dusting off the so-called "pagan" customs which, they felt, would place the community in jeopardy.
Not so Fadden and Benedict. They organized the teenage boys and girls into the Akwesasne Mohawk Counsellor Organization and took to the road. Over many years they travelled throughout the eastern part of North America, visiting historical sites, meeting with other Native nations, learning about their own heritage while coming to the conclusion that indigenous peoples had meaning and substance beyond the qualifications set upon them by the Europeans. They uncovered a vast treasure trove of Native accomplishments and found that their ancestors had a tremendous impact on the world far beyond canoes and corn. Ray and Ernie's travels would in turn lead to the "unity" caravans of the early 1960's and then to the formation of the White Roots of Peace which in turn lit the flames of Native nationalism across the continent. They would change forever the way in which popular culture and academics would see Natives. And that was most certainly "radical".
Fadden and Benedict brought pride and hope back to the Mohawk people. They were agitators and troublemakers to some. Ernie edited two newspapers at Akwesasne which was not only unique but considered radical for that time. He used his pen to report on the activities of Akwesasne leaders while supporting the concept of Mohawk unification. He sought and obtained a university degree at a time when few Mohawks made it to high school. He used his knowledge about Iroquois treaties to oppose the draft during World War II when almost everyone else simply conceded to it. He spent time in jail and when he won his release he enlisted voluntarily not as a subject of the US but as an ally.
After the war he continued to press for a more aggressive expression of the legal rights of the Mohawk people. He tackled the border problem, sought better health care, waged a long struggled to have the Mohawks control their own social services and helped secure the right to self determination for Akwesasne north. He helped rid the community of the St. Regis Band Council when it became the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne with far more authority over the territory.
Ernie was one of the principal organizers for the journal Akwesasne Notes. He used his experiences as a former editor to begin the most influential publication in Native American history. Notes was, for a generation, the most reliable and powerful indigenous newsapaper on the planet. By creating the means of exchanging information Akwesasne Notes sparked the growth of a vast network of Native writers, journalists and community activists which is what Ernie hoped would happen.
Ernie also saw the dangers of sending our students off to distant schools to become a darker shade of the European education system. He knew the perils of their schools and how they were used to eclipse Mohawk history while demanding serious psychological and cultural compromises on the part of the Native student. He came up with the extreme idea of having a college controlled by Native administrators, taught by Native faculty and composed of mostly Native students mastering disciplines which had meaning not to the outside but for the Native people themselves. The school was Manitou College located northwest of Montreal and while it did not endure the concept of a degree granting institution based upon traditional Native knowledge has not faded and is now being considered by Syracuse University. Another 'extremist' idea Ernie had was that rather than our students learning from them the world must learn from us.
Ernie knew that the greatest potential for Native people was within the minds of is young. He began the North American Indian Travelling College as a continuation of the White Roots of Peace. His efforts to promote a distinct Native identity were directed at Native communities. He used a van and a pile of books in his many years journey, driving across the east, alone for much of the time, carrying a dream and the knowledge obtained from Iroquois nationalists such as Clinton Rickard, George Thomas, Alec Gray, Jake Thomas and so many others. They were, as he was, "agitators and troublemakers" not content to accept things as they were but to stir the pot of political and cultural activism wherever they went and to those who would listen. Ernie found fertile ground wherever he went from a generation ready to do what was necessary to protect their aboriginal lands and rights. He did so with such finesse that even reactionary government agents were persuaded as to the righteousness of his cause.
Ernie did all of this with humility and kindness, using his ever present smile and humor. He influenced the lives of millions of people even if they have never heard his name. He deeply effected each resident of Akwesasne directly not only as a leader but through his children as well. His son Llyod was an influential chief on the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne for many years: it was Lloyd who started the local version of Akwesasne Notes, the newspaper Indian Time. It was his daughter Salli who, with her brother, established CKON Radio through the Akwesasne Communications Society. Salli also directed the North American Indian Travelling College when Ernie's duties took him elsewhere. She secured its first buildings and organized its first permanent staff.
Ernie was also in the thick of the harsh political times at Akwesasne in the late 1970's and early 80's. He saw there was a real danger of his community collapsing into civil war so he intervened by becoming a successful candidate for Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. By doing so he was able to temporize the emotions of that time and lead the people back to their senses. His work on behalf of the people won him the highest praise the Iroquois bestow upon an individual: "peacemaker".
That was the Ernie I knew. Soldier, journalist, provider, educator, political leader and venerated elder to most but to me he was a carrier of light and the conscience of a nation.
Kaientaronkwen is survived by his wife of 58 years the artist Florence Benedict and his children: Salli, Llyod, Rebecca and Daniel along two sisters and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was interred in the Kawenohke district, Akwesasne Mohawk Territory on January 11/2011.
Doug George-Kanentiio, is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is the co-founder of the
Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of
Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of
"Iroquois On Fire". He resides in Oneida Castle with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.
He may be contacted by calling 315-363-1655, via e-mail:
Kanentiio@aol.com or via surface mail: Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421
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