Canada | Opinion

Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawks settled into Rockies in 1800s

Some years ago the late Ernie Benedict told me a story about a group of Mohawks from Akwesasne and Kahnawake who had paddled west many generations ago. They were expert canoeists and trappers hired by various fur companies including the Hudson's Bay and Northwest firms who were in fierce competition for animal pelts and needed the Mohawks.

Our ancestors would undertake the long journey across the Great Lakes and then head south to the Mississippi and up the Missouri or go northwest, across Lake Winnipeg and then follow the North Saskatchewan River until they reached the Rocky Mountains in western Alberta.

Explorers such as David Thompson and Samuel Fraser employed Mohawks to guide them into the continental interior since their skills on the waters was without parallel.

Some Mohawks were so impressed with the abundance of wildlife and the beauty of the Rocky Mountains that they returned home only to persuade others to join them and establish a colony where they could live far from the clutches of the Europeans. Even then, during the early part of the 19th century, reservation life was stifling for many who longed to pursue the traditional lifestyle of hunting, trapping and the freedom to go wherever one pleased.

The region they selected was in western Alberta so intrigued by Ernie's story I checked this out and recently had the opportunity to visit an area where the Mohawks settled.Once there, in the town of Jasper, Alberta, I could understand why our ancestors elected to live alongside the pure waters of the Athabaska. It is visually stunning with most of the area in its native state.

I learned that as early as 1801 the Mohawks were in the far west working for the North West Fur Company on three year contracts. They were so efficient at what they did that the local natives reacted in envy and murdered some of the Mohawks but that did not deter others. Mohawks with the names of Cheneyechoe, Nowaniouter, Tisato, Salihony, Cawandawa and Karhiio were listed as trappers at Fort Edmonton. One was known for his blond hair. He was Peter Bostonais and from him came the famous Yellowhead mountain pass as well as Yellowhead County, the Yellowhead Highway and the town of West Yellowhead. There is also a Yellowhead Tribal College in Edmonton-all named after Bostonais, the Kahnawake Mohawk.

I found other intriguing facts which added to Ernie's story.

The Mohawks were hired to accompany the most famous mapmaker in Canadian history, David Thompson. He spent many years charting the Canadian west before returning to the Akwesasne area. It is estimated he mapped 1/5 of the continent including the area between Lake Champlain and Akwesasne after the War of 1812. His home was north of Akwesasne in Williamstown where he and his Cree wife Charlotte raised a dozen children with the Mohawks his regular visitors.

The Mohawks were intrigued by the Rockies and moved into what is now the Jasper region where they hunted elk and moose unimpeded by Indian agents and government bureaucrats. They were, however, Catholics and embraced the missionaries who came in their wake. Small bands drifted further into the wilderness, setting their traps along the Athabaska and Little Slave rivers and along the shores of the Lesser Slave Lake.

Without a large selection of possible Mohawk mates, the men intermarried with the regional native groups particularly the Crees. Two men, Bernard and Karhiio, had many children with their Cree wives. As time passed the Mohawk language was replaced by Cree but their identity as Iroquois did not fade. The settlement in Jasper was relocated east to a place 30 kilometers northwest of Edmonton. There, the group become known as the Michel's Band after Michel Calihoo, as the Karhiio name was listed by the mid part of the 1800's. The males from that family were noted as being particularly tall in comparison to the other Natives, with a robust physique, long hair and strong facial features.

Two generations after Michel's Band took root at Big Lake, St. Albert, Alberta a middle aged man of Mohawk ancestry helped establish the Indian Association of Alberta.

John Calihoo sought to improve Native-non-Native relations in Alberta while created a strong organization to defend the human rights of all aboriginals. He wanted Natives to be free of the constraints imposed upon them by the provincial and federal governments while seeking better educational opportunities. He had a strong interest in developing the economies of native peoples and formed a strong alliance with the non-treaty Metis people. Calihoo directed the IAA for a decade in the 1940's only to see his own community "enfranchised" by the federal government in 1958, an act which stripped the band of its land and its people of their aboriginal status.

Since then, there has been a struggle for the Michel's Band to regain what was lost. They have secured their status as Indians but the return of their lost territory is an ongoing legal action without any end in sight. Over 750 individuals comprise the Michel's Band.

Ernie's story proved to be accurate and right. It might also be the basis for re-establishing formal contact with our relatives and perhaps inviting them to return home where we may, as a community, welcome them to our nation fire.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio resides on Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.

Related Stories:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Iroquois Nationals make sports history (7/18)
Doug George-Kanentiio: The Mohawk people at the time of Kateri (6/18)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Tribes set standards for membership (5/21)
Doug George-Kanentiio: 'Crooked Arrows' scores on the screen (5/16)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Living in a time of predicted changes (5/2)
Doug George-Kanentiio: On Audrey Shenandoah's passing (03/28)
Doug George-Kanentiio: One man's impact on the Mohawks (3/13)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Why ceremonies are vital to Mohawks (2/16)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Solving Canada's Indian 'problem' (2/9)

Join the Conversation