Iroquois make peaceful journey to new homeland

Doug George-Kanentiio

From the Syracuse Herald Tribune, Sunday, July 11, 1993

After 117 years and seven generations the idea of going back home is a powerful one. The Mohawk people want to go home, to join their ancestors in the Mohawk Valley.

In 1776, when the United States of America was born, the Mohawk Nation was entering into eclipse. Caught in the middle by the military and political struggle between the 13 colonies and Britain, the Mohawk people tried in vain to preserve their neutrality only to be torn apart by the manipulations of Joseph Brant.

The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, led by speaker Little Abraham, realized the risks of becoming involved in what was essentially a civil dispute. Brant argued the interests of the Mohawk people would be best served by actively fighting for the British and thereby confirming an historical alliance which had served the Iroquois Confederacy well.

Besides, Brant maintained, the British government had taken steps to protect Mohawk lands against encroachment by turf-hungry settlers, an action land speculators such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington could not do.

The debate was settled in favor of the British when the American general Philip Schuyler invaded Mohawk territory in 1776 to arrest Sir John Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and a suspected military agent.

Pressed by this breach of sovereignty, Mohawks by the score fought with the English army to defend their homeland at such battles as Oriskany and Saratoga. They helped lay waste to upper New York by sustaining a guerrilla war campaign against their former neighbors which would have continued indefinitely had not the British shocked the Iroquois by surrendering at Yorktown in 1781 and signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

No mention was made of the Iroquois in that treaty. Abandoned as refugees along the St. Lawrence River, the Mohawk people could only watch in dismay as their homes and farms were taken over by the Americans. Appeals were made by some Mohawks to New York to return home but their ancestral territory had already been divided up by land agents eager to make quick profits.

Two clearly fraudulent "treaties" were signed which supposedly extinguished Mohawk title to millions of acres of pristine lakes, forests and valleys, but to this day the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs has never signed any land cession document and is now pressing for a resolution of its claims to a slice of New York which stretches from the Delaware River in Schoharie County to the Canadian border and beyond.Included is most of the Adirondack Park and the Mohawk Valley-Lake Champlain regions. An equitable and just settlement of the Mohawk claims would involve billions of dollars and the return of much land. New York would be bankrupted.

Realizing our claims are more than Gov. Cuomo cares to handle and that Albany is already bleeding state taxpayers while, the Mohawk Nation is offering partial solutions which, if accepted, would guarantee the survival of a Native people now besieged by professional gamblers, cigarette smugglers, drug dealers and gun runners.

On July 17, a traditional group of Mohawk people who still believe in the traditional disciplines of hard work, material simplicity and love of land will bid for a former senior citizen's residence in Montgomery County.

Referrred to as Montgomery Manor, the site is on the north bank of the Mohawk River some five miles east of Canajoharie. It is the location of an ancient Mohawk village and was farmed in the 18th century by Johannes Fonda, the ancestor of the famous actors Peter and Jane Fonda.

It is an appealing place, with a stream coursing through the property. There is also a small pond, fertile meadows and two hills covered with pines. The buildings at the Manor have been well maintained and stand ready for someone to once again fill their halls with laughter and life.

After examining many places over the past three years the Mohawks feel this might well be the place to heal their wounds and begin walking a more sane and peaceful road. They want to get away from a reservation life where drug abuse, alcoholism and violence has scarred an entire generation.

Unlike times past, there will be no hostile statements, no militant stances, no weapons. If all goes well, the Mohawks who return home will do so with plows, horses, wagons and seeds. They will go home after seven generations believing the people of New York will help to support the continued existence of a distinct Iroquois society and will work with the Natives to keep Cuomo and his associates at a safe distance.

This "new" place will not have a casino, bingo hall, gas station or cigarette stand because these Mohawks are different Tested by adversity and tempered by tragedy, they have a powerful dream: that the destructive effects of our collective civilization can be muted and those who have strong spiritual, historical and physical connections with a given territory might return to a way of life defined not by capricious consumerism but by a genuine and intimate relationship with the earth.

On July 17 the Mohawks will make their bid for Montgomery Manor on behalf of the next seven generations. In Iroquois life, true leaders are supposed to make decisions with the well-being of the seventh generation in mind. Many have used this law casually, but for the traditional Iroquois it is central to an entire way of life. It means you must carry on and persevere, to take adversity and make new opportunities for those yet unborn. It is stability in heart, clarity of mind and peace in action.

By going to the Valley, the Mohawk People hope to revive the ancient disciplines. New Yorkers can do no better than wish them well on their journey to the

Doug George-Kanentiio is a writer and lecturer. He is chairman of Round Dance Productions, a non-profit cultural foundation on Oneida Territory.

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