The Mohawk Nation Struggles for Peaceful Ways

Linda Champagne was born and raised in the Adirondack mountains of New York State. She has been a journalist and social activist for 30 years. In 1989-90 she worked with a state government agency established to research and train in the area of nonviolent solutions to social problems. She spent months working with leaders and people at Akwesasne at the invitation of chiefs of the two elected governments and the traditional Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs of the Confederacy. Anti-gambling barricades were established in late March of 1990 to halt gambling until peace forums and a community-wide referendum could be held on the issues of gambling and government for the territory. Champagne also served as one of many outside observers at the barricades in a round-the-clock monitoring of events. When machine guns and AK-47s were used by Warriors to drive the unarmed anti-gambling, anti-Warrior people from the barricades, she was on-site and escaped with about 100 people from the Eastern Door on Route 37. She aided the people of Akwesasne in establishing relationships with the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus of the New York State Legislature, which called for hearings on the violence at Akwesasne. Those hearings led to findings by three major legislative committees that the State of New York should repeal the 1802 law establishing the St. Regis Tribal Council an imposed elective system on the "American" side of Akwesasne territory. Further recommendations covered gaming and stated that "implementation of any (gaming) compact be made subject to a reservation-wide referendum, so that all Mohawks may participate." Since it was on the "American" side of the territory where the casinos existed and where the barricades were established, the legal relationships with New York State government have serious impact on conditions at Akwesasne.

By Linda Champagne | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

The night was cold and the Mohawk people on the barricades took turns seeking shelter inside vehicles. But I was seeking a particular person that night. I climbed on a yellow school bus and looked along the rows of seats for Brian Cole's face. There he was, on the left side, with a bandage on his upper lip. When our eyes met, a crooked smile crossed his face. "See where your nonviolence got me!" he said.

I laughed, part in delight in seeing him in fairly good shape, part in embarrassment that my encouragement in non-violent action had brought another person injury, while I was untouched. He was also missing a tooth from his encounter.

But what did he feel, really, beyond the joke about his injury? Mohawks

joke a lot, kid about themselves and each other. They test your sensitivity, your fragile ego, and measure your character by their teasing words. It felt comfortable to me, like my own small town, upstate background.

Brian Cole is a tall, solidly built man, He is a natural leader through his spirituality and his intelligence. Nonviolence was not his normal response to aggression. It was an experiment with him and I wondered if he was ready to toss it aside. I didn't ask. Time would reveal if it was his choice.

I came to know that this incident was the start of his painful and dangerous journey to a total commitment to nonviolence, in a community of 9,000 people who were close to a civil war. His was not the only such journey I watched in the months at Akwesasne.

Many people took nonviolence on in an aggressive way, talking peace and love to their fellow Mohawks who drove by the barricades with hostile shouts, guns shooting in the air, drunk, drugged and angry. I watched people like Lee Ann Jock, Doug George and others talk to yelling, bat-waving people, letting them smash some lights and equipment to vent their anger. Calming them down, off their vengeance-high, to exhaustion, if not reason.

I saw people who would say to me that they weren't nonviolent. However, they used all the techniques of nonviolence to try to prevent injury and death to their Mohawk people. They put away guns and some hid bats that many had brought when the barricades went up. The appeal to nonviolence within the anti-warriors, anti-gambling people was met with, at least, respect by most Mohawks because it is part of their teachings as Iroquois people. The Great Law is based on peaceful resolution of differences within the Confederacy. The Peacemaker is a vital force in the minds and hearts of most Mohawks. The worst crimes merit banishment from the nation, not execution. It is recognized by the Iroquois that even the most evil beings can become valuable community members through a change of mind and heart. That is why it was so shocking to the people of Akwesasne for the traditional chiefs Tom Porter, Jake Swamp and others to be publicly targeted for execution, in newspaper advertisements taken out by the Warriors. Warrior philosopher Louis Hall, who lives in a Mohawk community in Canada, said, "Yes, the chiefs should be executed, Mafia style. No body, no case." When we talked to the Warriors and their leadership, they ignored our offer of nonviolence training or work among them. Other peace groups also made offers which were rebuffed. Our work with the "Antis," as they were called, was because of their interest in nonviolent techniques for change.

"I'm not nonviolent," one woman kept telling me. Yet she pursued her Warrior son with a dedicated love, attempting to bring him out of the circle of warriors who were using guns to intimidate everyone from their elders to the little children of Akwesasne. This woman stood at the barricades night after night, in sight of passing

vehicles of Warriors, so that her son wouldn't shoot at the group if he saw his mother there. She told him, "We didn't raise you to injure other people. If you are going to shoot anyone, shoot me and shoot to kill. She researched all aspects of the dispute. She studied the Mohawk culture. She talked and she listened to people around her. When the time came, she traveled to the capitals at Albany and Washington to describe her experiences to governmental leaders. She visited local communities to explain her heritage and experiences, to further understanding and lessen the hostility against Mohawks as a whole.

Despite her protests to the contrary, she was acting in a nonviolent way. She knew she was angry. She knew she wanted the threats to stop. She used talk and reason all day and night to help bring about justice and peace. She was indeed nonviolent. The anger and depression that comes when you work in

such tension does cloud your mind. That is why, as part of the everyday process, the Mohawks used the tobacco burning ceremony to unify people and make them of one mind. Hate and anger block reason's pathway to solutions. The struggle this woman had within herself was common to those dedicated to achieving solutions and unity at Akwesasne.

During the evening when both barricades, at each end of Route 37, were destroyed by the men shooting at us with machine guns, the people ran to their cars and trucks to escape the bullets. I was able to get to my car quickly and probably was about 15th in line driving away. Later people told me about a more dangerous situation as they crawled from parked vehicle to vehicle, hearing bullets hit the dirt near them. I photographed bullet holes in a couple of cars that gathered at the firehouse that night in the Snye section of Akwesasne. And over twenty vehicles that were abandoned in that escape were torched by the Warriors who took over the area. Finally, many months later, some Warriors have been charged with serious crimes connected with that assault. Trials will be underway this spring in New York State courts. The question of sovereignty is answered for some Iroquois leaders by their 1792 Treaty of Canandaigua, which calls upon New York State government to deal with outside influences affecting the nations. Those outside influences include the outside investors in gambling, the suppliers of deadly weapons to Mohawks, and other forces involved in blocking the people from using their consensus government's power.

From my discussions with the leadership at Akwesasne, its valuable location for certain activities involving a billion dollar potential is thought to be one part of the cause of community-wide trouble. The running of guns, cocaine, and other contraband is worth millions a month. The bigger moneymaker according to some analysts, if control can be wrested from the people as a whole, could be a deep water port. I asked a businessman and casino owner why that would bring in big bucks. He pointed to the differences which could be charged for import tariffs at Akwesasne for goods or materials slated for the Canadian or American markets. These are serious considerations and many eyes, not all of them kindly, are on the developments at Akwesasne. If the governments controlling Akwesasne can be brought under the backroom rule of a few powerful people, the money from all ventures, legal and illegal, can serve the "lesser good" rather than all Mohawks. So the various claims of the warriors -to be concerned with sovereignty and the welfare of the people, and to that end, the need to execute the traditional chiefs and destroy the current Iroquois Confederacy-must be examined with at least a critical if not a jaundiced eye.

Peace people need to be economically aware and informed, for nonviolence will not serve to bring justice if that justice is not connected to a viable economy. Brian Cole, who was nearly beaten to death by Warriors when he searched for a missing man after the barricades fell, has recovered and is now working on his Masters in Environmental Studies in Guelph, Ontario. He knows that many inter-related factors are involved in the survival of the Mohawks as well as the planet as a whole. He is one of the many fine examples of the dedicated, informed leadership that make Akwesasne a place of hope for the future of Mohawks. Indeed, with their experiences of the past hundreds of years dealing with international relations, with their respect and love of Mother Earth, these men and women could well be a source of wisdom and leadership for the North American communities. Their difficulties in countering the armed forces of the Warriors should not be interpreted as a lack of competent leadership by the majority of Mohawks. Many webs must be untangled to solve these issues fairly. The complicated influences of several outside governments on Mohawk affairs over several centuries is a challenge few people could withstand and remain effective.

In August, 1990, in Albany, a second day of New York State Assembly hearings occurred on the crisis at Akwesasne. Brian Cole presented his experiences in testimony to the Assemblymen present, the press and Iroquois people in the audience. Some of his words seem appropriate to close this article:

"The bulldozers were moving and heading our way.. .Those of us who were going to be on the front line gathered together and proceeded to our location, the middle of the bridge. As we reached our destination we linked arms together and fanned out across the bridge. I kept thinking, 'If (William) Sears's group runs over us it's going to be an all out war with hundreds being injured and even killed. Was this all worth it? Why didn't they want to listen to reason? Is money all that important? If they go through us, didn't they know wounds would never heal? Are they willing to live with the warfare that would be created because of tonight's action?'...

"I saw Fabian Hart standing there with an assault rifle. I saw William

Sears standing behind the bulldozer with an assault rifle.. 'All we are asking is give peace a chance' was repeated [by the people on the bridge] over and over. After some time, which seemed to stand still, I felt nothing was going to happen. One by one our opponents started to drop their weapons, turn around and leave. When our opponents started to leave in small groups, the front line knew we had won a small victory in the name of peace.

"We stopped a war with a song. That's all that kept going through my mind. By our opponents refusing to go through the front line, it showed that maybe reason had a chance to resolve the issue.. all of us knew that our work was just beginning.. .1 instinctively agreed that yes, the Creator was a big help, that all the spirits we asked to help us should be given thanks to, and that our grandfathers' teachings of peace and reason were stronger than violence...

"That night was a big turning point for many. Peace is powerful. Many of us began to see the situation as it was when the Peacemaker traveled and spoke of peace among the Six Nations. We realized the power of the people believing in peace. We realized what the Martin Luther King Institute people were trying to tell us. We realized the importance of peace that the observers were trying to tell us when they arrived

I saw people in the front line that I figured would never, ever place their lives in danger, especially to be slaughtered. I grew to love my people and cherish their staunchness in the heat of turbulent times.

"What you should be aware of is the final stand the people opposed to lawlessness took, and that stand was to try in their utmost to settle the issues effecting the community through peaceful solutions."

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 24. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Linda Champagne here

Peace Magazine homepage