Mohawk Institute
The Mohawk Institute Residential School operated in Ontario, Canada, between 1831 and 1970. The Woodland Cultural Centre is now located on the grounds. Photo: Illustratedjc
Our Mohawk Councils Failed to Protect the Residential School Children
Monday, June 14, 2021

Where once the Mohawk Nation exercised its authority over 11,000,000 acres of territory from the St. Lawrence River to the Delaware, a land which included all of the magnificent hunting grounds of the Adirondack Mountains, a region of beauty and natural riches, occupied by a people of power and influence whose technologies and philosophies forever changed the world-these people of strength, intelligence and confidence-now diminished to a condition in which they willfully surrendered their children to the horrors of the residential-boarding school system.

We as Mohawks on the Akwesasne territory located 100 km southwest of Montreal knew nothing of our remarkable heritage when we were students at the St. Regis Catholic School. The Sisters of St. Anne and the parish priest, a Mohawk Jesuit, impressed upon us the oppressive guilt because, they alleged, our ancestors had burnt, clubbed or tortured to death nine Catholic priests and laypersons-the North American Martyrs and only by the act if submission were were saved from eternal damnation.

These teachings and attendant literature almost eclipsed the truth, We would learn later, through the intrepid work of Ray Fadden-Tenahatorens, a Mohawk instructor in a public school on the “American” side of the reservation that there was another version.

Mohawk Institute Residential School
The Mohawk Institute in Branford, Ontario. Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-043613

Fadden told of the days when the Mohawks were supreme, unequalled as forest rangers, unique in their powers of reason. He said the colonists were so impressed with the Mohawks they dressed as our people when they threw the caskets of tea into Boston Harbor, that we were the ones who advocated colonial unity and it was our people who created truly democratic states unified in the world’s first union of free nations, the famous Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He said we almost broke the back of the American Revolution and saved what was to become Canada in the War of 1812. He also pointed out all the things Native people invented-maple syrup, canoes, chocolate, pineapples, corn, tobacco, team sports, hockey, lacrosse and the first forward pass in football.

So how did we degenerate into a people who gave up the children without a whimper?

I was a Mohawk child sent to the Mohawk Institute, one of the worse of the 139 such schools across Canada which housed over 150,000 Natives from their inception in the 1830’s until the final closure in 1996. These places of confinement were paid for by the federal government but managed by various Christian entities; ours was controlled by the Anglican Church. As brutal and raw as the stories coming from the victims of the Catholic Church the Anglicans were no better.

The kidnapping of Native children and their confinement could not have taken place without some degree of compliance by our local Mohawk band council. That entity was imposed upon Akwesasne in 1899 when a contingent of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers invaded to install the colonial Indian Act of Canada system against the wishes of the people, then content under the ancestral government. In this attack one man was murdered and the traditional leaders jailed without cause for over a year.

The St. Regis Band Council was able to replace the Nation Council and had learned its lesson as to opposing any directive coming from officials in Ottawa. So with the policy of removing children to distant schools, the Band Council complied and actually assisted in physically disrupting the families. Being Mohawk meant restrictions as to movement, residence and education. It was a burden made worse by the blatant racism of that region. As a Native one was afflicted with shame given the many humiliations of life on and off the reservation.

As children we were told there was no good reason to retain the Mohawk language and we should become wage earners, consumers, good citizens. We should be resilient and bear the most serious of assaults in silence. That is what I did during my time at the Mohawk Institute. I witnessed sexual abuse, I did nothing as the victims were selected and taken to their shame, I took the strap and endured months of hunger. I developed a “strike first” reaction to any threat and came to suspect and despise any and all authorities Native or not.

I also listened to the stories of my classmates, of the pressing need for human contact even if it meant giving up their bodies. I heard of the midnight burials in a backyard gully, of the supervisors who smothered the newborns resulting from their raping of the Native girls, some pre-teen.

Now that the 215 child bodies have been found, an action based upon those dark night stories, others may be found and a slimmer of justice brought about.

When I am asked about what could work for us, the survivors now in our 6th decade I say this: the entire residential school scheme was to divorce us from our culture which in turn was intertwined with our ancestral lands. To “heal” give us back our lands that we might be restored to the embrace of the earth.


Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.