An interview with Kanenhariyo, Bear Clan Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.

How should Onkwehon:we people develop a system for cannabis rules and laws?

Cannabis rules and laws should follow the same format as our customs and usages in other parts of our economy. We shouldn’t start creating new rules and new ways of making rules and systems that will make our way of life confusing. We have to maintain our continuity. Especially since we’re saying we’re a sovereign people. We have a right to be independent and to be our own unique people, and we have to stay true to who we are. We can’t be making whole new systems that don’t fit our culture. 

I’m watching all these band councils making regulations, they’re basically adopting European models for policy and governance and rules. They’re trying to mimic European laws written by European lawyers. That’s not following our laws. 

We already have the rules for medicine. They already exist. Fully. It’s just a matter of adding cannabis to that same set of rules and applications. Now, because people are seeing the cannabis industry as an opportunity to make some money, we’re looking at adding or implementing an aspect to our culture that we haven’t followed in a long time and that’s giving back to the group. For a long, long, time people were so poor they couldn’t afford to do that or they stopped doing it on a community-wide basis. 

What about the issue of paying for medicine?

People forget that there’s lots of different ways in which we pay for things. There’s this mystical nonsense from people who don’t understand our cultural practices. They will say things like, “you’re not supposed to charge for medicine.”

But we charge for everything in our culture as a beneficial exchange. And there’s a payment. It’s not that we charge, it’s that we pay. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s not that you’re supposed to charge, it’s that you’re supposed to pay. The one who’s accepting the payment isn’t supposed to be setting the price. It’s the one who pays based on their honor and how much it is of value to them. They want that person to be around to be able to provide that product or service again, so they pay.

How should cannabis be regulated in your culture? 

Not all parts of Onkwehon:we culture survived in all of our communities. In some of our sister communities, there’s different things that survived – certain songs and dances or ceremonies. But not all of our communities remembered everything, and not one of our communities forget everything. However, none of them know it all. In Tyendinaga our fishing economy, and the rules and culture around it survived. Our relationship to the fish can inform how we think about cannabis.

When I think about our fishing culture, there are rules about it, and it’s not rules that are regulated by some kind of fishing police – it’s that the people regulate it themselves because it’s the moral and ethical rules associated with fishing. It’s environmental rules, the ecological rules, the economic rules that are all embedded in our culture.

The rules say that everyone has an equal right to access those fish. No one is told they’re not allowed to have fish or that they have to go and fish. The only time that that could happen is when someone has broken the rules. When someone has broken the rules, then the people can come together and say you’re being hurtful to the fish population or harmful to the people. Maybe you stole all the fish and hoarded them for yourself. And in that way the people could come together and address that issue. 

What about enforcement?

We have a society where everyone is the police. How do you enforce the rules? You don’t let them get broken. If someone breaks the rules, you don’t tolerate it. You throw them in the river. It depends how much they don’t listen, and the people could enforce all the way to the point that they evict the person from the nation – it could go all the way to there. 

The hardest problem is when people come who don’t believe in our rules or don’t care and then grab the European law to protect themselves so they can’t be punished, and the issue can’t be addressed. If you’re acting up and you get thrown in the river, you don’t call the police, you go and sulk, you should be embarrassed. Or they take your spear away, or they take your nets and fish.

I think we need to be looking at the cannabis industry in the similar way. There’s this talk about ‘oh, we’re only going to have a certain number of dispensaries.’ That’s contrary to our cultural practice. Everyone has equal rights to be involved in the industry. If they want to do this with their industriousness then they have a right to do it. If they want to be a dispensary owner then they can. No one has a right to interrupt that. If there’s somebody who wants to grow it then they can. 

Is harvesting the wallets of the Canadians coming down the highway to shop in your community kind of like harvesting the fish coming down your rivers?

It’s a similar issue in terms of the collection of resources to support the people, if the road is the stream and the traffic that’s coming is the fish coming up the river, then in our way, you do things to make the stream nicer and encourage more fish to come. You make the ecology thrive. You also help one another to harvest the fish in the river together. Our cannabis laws need to be thought about in that way. It should be a rule that you should help one another to harvest and make sure that everyone has what they need. Everyone should have the opportunity to sell to people that want it. They should have the opportunity to participate. There’s an issue that some locations or fishing spots are better than others, and that’s true, so there’s different ways in our culture that we address that. 

Sometimes certain families or fishermen will have one specific spot that they know how to fish and they stick to it. They’ll know it and learn it well, and they’ll pass it on to the next one that they train and teach. That’s the old way of doing that. It’s not that they had a permit or a license or even a deed, but everybody knows that ‘that’s where those Hill’s fish,’ and you don’t go setting nets over there. And if you do, they might take your nets and cut them off. And they’d be in the right to do that because you were setting nets where they fish and interrupting what they were doing. They weren’t bothering anyone. 

But there needs to be room for everyone so that we can make space for everyone to have the opportunity. If there’s not enough space we need to meet together and figure where else we can fish. That kind of mentality needs to be applied to the cannabis industry. 

What about the issue that not everyone has access to space along the roads to ‘set nets’ for the wallets of those customers driving by?

Even in the cases when you get to the point where people just don’t have access to a particular land base that’s good for selling, there’s still opportunities to get involved. Just like in fishing. You might not have the physical ability or the tools to be able to get into the river, but you can still get fish down by the river. You can take some bags down to the river and ask. You could also be some person like my grandmother. My grandma never got in the river to fish but her freezers were always full of fish.

My grandmother would offer services and trade. She would offer to clean your fish and in exchange she would be paid in fish. My Grandma was super good at cleaning fish. Fast, no bones, everything was trimmed, frozen, you just dropped it off and came back the next day. She got paid in fish. That was her way. It was easy, you would just come back the next day and it was done. My grandma always had fish in her freezer and fish for sale, and she didn’t have a single fishing pole, spear or net. She had an access point that she allowed people that didn’t have a spot to use and she cleaned their fish. She participated in the industry.

There’s always a way to participate. People shouldn’t be complaining that only this one or that one has a spot. There’s always a way. Grow it. Make oils. Make signs. Do things that support the industry.  Get in the business of making driveways and fix up the parking lots. There’s lots of ways to participate in a cannabis economy that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a dispensary. 

In terms of cannabis rules and law, we need to look at it from within our cultural framework. Who’s allowed to grow corn? Everyone. Who’s allowed to cook corn? Everyone. Who’s allowed to eat corn? Everyone. Who’s allowed to sell corn? Everyone. Whose genetics are they? Everyones. Nobody can capitalize to become owner of genetics cause we all do it all together. 

What about the issue of wealth disparity? 


Who gets to be super rich and super poor? That’s a choice. It’s about how much initiative and energy and desire you want to put into it. Some people will go down to the river and get three fish and come home. Others will stay all night and fish until morning.

We never taxed ourselves in thousands of years of being here. But we do have some customs for economic sharing and some redistribution. You can’t say no if someone comes and asks you for food. But if someone chooses to starve themselves to death, that’s their choice. If someone wants to live in poverty that’s up to them. Unless they’re causing harm to you or someone else. Our custom is that you have full freedom unless you’re harming somebody else by what you’re doing. 

The question is, when does it becomes a negative issue? That’s when the community needs to get together and talk about things. But that’s a different thing, and just means people need to get together to talk about their issues. 

The ways that we set up our laws and rules should be congruent with our culture. It shouldn’t be be these authoritarian councils, groups or committees. It’s not our way of doing things. It’s not our organic human family way of doing things. It needs to be organized around the family, not a government institution – family is as organic as trees. 

Can you explain more about your customs?

Custom is about how you do it here. It’s our custom that the children and old people eat first. Then the people who didn’t cook, and then the cooks eat last. That’s our custom. When someone’s going to die we turn their bed to the west so they can fall asleep and die and leave with the setting sun. 

Customs have purpose and meaning and they help society function. We’ve got a lot of these rules or customs. And we have a reason for why we do it the way we do it. When an outsider comes and says they have the right to fish, but they don’t know the rules and customs for fishing, they disrupt the ecosystems and the people’s systems. The same thing is true for cannabis.

Each community needs to set up its own customs about how it’s going to deal with cannabis. Maybe even each family. We have the right to do that because that’s our custom. It’s our custom that everyone has freedom, and every community can do it the way that they want to. That’s why each longhouse is a little different.

There’s been some fanatics running around saying that we’re all the same. That we’re all Haudenosaunee. That’s new fanaticism, that’s not the old way. We don’t need to have laws that are all the same. 

In Kahnawake, cannabis is banned with a moratorium and the Longhouse is saying they don’t support it. In Tyendinaga it’s Longhouse people running the industry and it’s huge. At Kanehsatake it’s a mixture of attitudes. At Six Nations it’s almost all longhouse people in the industry, but the Band Council is trying to monopolize it. So each community has the responsibility to follow its own customs and to adapt new things to those customs. 

When we’re talking about building cannabis laws and frameworks we’ve got to build them so they’re congruent with our customs and our world view. There’s no sense in making one congruent with what Europeans expect it to be. We keep hearing from European lawyers that we need our own laws in place or else Federal or Provincial law will apply. But if we have our own customs, then it’s racism for them to impose their own. It’s not that we have a lack of rules. We have a whole procedure about how things are done, and what’s appropriate and what isn’t. We need to be prepared to articulate our own rules and customs. We don’t have to make one that looks like the Europeans.