The Siege of the Mohawks
By Peter Matthiessen; Peter Matthiessen is the author of “The Snow Leopard” and other books. Washington Post, September 14, 1980
This ongoing crisis, the state says, is a struggle for power between supporters of the state-sponsored elective system on the St. Regis Reservation, known as the “Tribal Council,” and those who call the reservation “Akwesasne Territory” and follow traditional Mohawk ways; the two factions were being protected from each other by the state police.
The state police role has been so ambiguous as to warrant an investigation: on June 13, or so it appears, the police were on the point of joining “the tribals” in an assault on the armed camp of “the traditionals,” which has been in a state of siege since August 1979. New York State itself is an interested third party whose efforts to circumvent the traditional Indians and their claims to sovereignty over vast areas of the state have been the source of trouble for 200 years.
The traditional Indians, at least, believe that the state has encouraged the present dispute to keep the Mohawks from uniting in a common cause, but because their camp is now blockaded by police, few observers have made any attempt to visit the traditionals and hear their views. According to Oren Lyons, a traditional Onondaga chief and a spokesman for the Six Nations (Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora) who alerted me to the crisis in May, it was important that their side of the story get out as soon as possible, before people were killed.
On June 13, I telephoned Chief Lyons to find out how I might reach the besieged camp. That day, as it turned out, hundreds of armed tribals (“the Concerned Citizens of St. Regis”) erected a barricade at the head of Racquette Point Road, threatened to storm the well-armed camp of the traditionals with the stated purpose of protecting “the tax-paying and law-abiding citizens of the reservation, and to show support for the state and local police.”
To the police, the crowd declared, “If you don’t go in there and clean ’em out, we will,” whereupon a messenger was sent into the camp with an ultimatum: Unless certain Indians under indictment were delivered to the police, and all “outsiders,” Indian or otherwise, were removed from Racquette Point, action would be taken in two hours. When the police made no effort to disarm or disperse the crowd, despite its disruption of highway traffic, the besieged traditionals had to assume that New York State supported the proposed assault.
The ultimatums, threats and preparations did not really subside until late next day. “Friday was a situation that almost exploded,” Oren Lyons told me when I caught up with him by telephone a few days later, “and it could go bad again at any time . . . It’s like Pine Ridge before Wounded Knee. They want to put us under state jurisdiction, right down to the county level, and the feds are standing by to back them up. When this crisis came down, the Onondaga and the Tuscarora issued warnings to all the power companies, the police, the hospitals, that if the state troopers invaded Akwesasne, we would cut all the power lines and gas lines that cross our reservations. Last Friday, the authorities understood for the first time that the Six Nations are really united; if they attack the Mohawks, they attack us all.”
Chief Lyons said that he would get word to the Akwesasne camp that I was coming and gave me a contact number number but no name.
On Saturday, a young Mohawk named Francis Boots met me at Massena, N.Y., the site of Alcoa and Reynolds Metals Co., a General Motors foundry, the Moses-Saunders power dam, an international bridge and two locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, all of tem located on the original Mohawk land claim, which has never been invalidated by the courts. Leaving the airport, Boots took a back road along the Racquette River (“Polluted,” he said. “All the rivers around here are polluted.”) because Highway 37 had been blocked off by a series of police barricades. We drove over the Seaway International Bridge and through the U.S. and Canadian customs.
Boots turned off eventually on a dirt road that led to a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence. “He’ll take you over,” he said, indicating a young Indian in an outboard skiff at the river landing below. I got into the skiff, which set off across the swift broad river toward Racquette Point.
On this first day of summer, in a light summer haze of fluoride effluvium from the Reynolds plant, gulls lifted and settled, picking at the scraps of eels killed lin the locks, and a big freighter churned upstream on the gray surface of the river. On the far shore, the General Motors foundry sat like an unnatural gray city near the bank; beyond, above the Seaway Bridge, rose the high stacks of Reynolds and Alcoa.
Across the river in Cornwall, Ontario, is the Domatar pulp mill, a division of Reed International, which has been sued in recent years by the Ojibwa of the White Dog and Grassy Narrows Reserves of western Ontario for massive mercury pollution of their water that led to a kind of “Minimata disease” among the Indians.
Since then, fish in the St. Lawrence also have been found to be toxic, and the Mohawks, for whom fish have always been essential, have been told not to eat the few survivors in this part of the river. Here mercury, Mirex and PCBs are only a few of the numerous poisons from the industries and sewer outlets that line its banks, all the way upstream to Lake Erie.
On the far bank, where the GM foundry looms over the western edge of Akwesasne, I was waved past by a security man with a pistol on his hip who had been alerted about my arrival from Cornwall Island; eight days after the crisis of Friday the 13th, the phone lines to the besieged camp were not yet repaired.
Climbing the bank — originally spill banks from the Seaway dredging, dumped like the locks and customs buildings and factories onto Indian land — I entered a compound of makeshift buildings surrounded by three outhouses, a pig pen, a shed with a NO SMOKING sign, a vegetable garden, a few small tents and two hay wagons carrying plywood siding to screen off the view of the Akwesasne camp from police on the GM foundry roof.
Because it was Saturday, a number of relatives and friends of the camp families had crossed over the river from Cornwall Island, bringing in food, medical supplies and equipment.
A young Indian assigned to security let me look through his binoculars at the policemen posted on the GM foundry roof; when I raised the binoculars, one of the three men in gray uniforms raised binoculars of his own. “Usually five of’em up there,” the boy said.
A middle-aged Indian with rifle, cartridge belt and a paper bag of food walked through the compound, headed for one of the outlying bunkers. “That’s our oldest warrior,” the young Indian said, and laughed affectionately. Most of the older men were in the Council House, a half-finished building that has gotten no farther than the tarpaper sheathing between studs. On this hot afternoon, a consensus was being reached in the Indian way about what the spokesmen were to say at next week’s meeting with the state.
When the conference ended, I was introduced to Bear Clan Chief Tom Porter and Wolf Clan Chief Jake Swamp, and Bear Clan subchief Loran Thompson. The besieged camp lies mostly on the Thompson family property, where more than a year ago the episode occurred that was blown up into the June 13 confrontation.
That morning, May 22, 1979, Loran Thompson and his friend Joe Swamp found a group of youths cutting down trees on his late father’s property; the woodcutters were members of the federally funded Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) engaged in a “boundary-delineation project” for a proposed fence around the Akwesasne Project” for a proposed fence around the Akwesasne Reservation, and they had already cut a swath 80 feet long and 200 feet wide by the time he arrived.
“Maybe I ought to confiscate your chain saws,’ I told ’em; I didn’t really know what I ought to do. I looked at Joe, and he just shrugged. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think I better confiscate your equipment.’ And those kids helped me put their stuff in the back of my truck!” Loran Thompson laughed, shaking his head, as if still marveling that this good-humored episode should have led to 23 indictments, an armed siege and the expenditure of millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money.
Although the trespass and destruction of the trees (“There were some big sugar maples in there, too,” Loran Thompson told me) was illegal under both New York State and Six-Nation law, Thompson could not take his complaint to the police, since the traditionals do not recognize police jurisdiction on the reservation; nor could he expect any satisfaction from the Tribal Council, which had promoted the fence project in the first place. Since any such fence delimiting the reservation symbolically weakened Mohawk claims to their ancient territories, the traditionals were very much against it.
On the afternoon of the chainsaw confiscation, Akwesasne Police Chief Harris Cole and the YACC supervisor agreed that a meeting to settle the matter would be held a few days later, by which time Chief Thompson could have consulted with Chiefs Swamp and Porter and other members of the Mohawk Nation Council.
Yet that same evening, although no violence and no threat of violence had occurred, nor any damage except to the Thompson land, Chief Cole, accompanied by a Bureau of Criminal Investigation officer and a state trooper, returned with a warrant for Thompson’s arrest; why the authorities had chosen to escalate the episode was not yet clear.
Thompson informed them that he was not subject to New York State law while on Mohawk territory, which is not a part of Franklin County; it was therefore his duty as a leader of the Mohawk Nation to refuse arrest. Massive reinforcements arrived quickly and Thompson was subdued and seized in a brief skirmish with 12 policemen in front of his frightened children; a 73-year-old neighbor, Mary Tebo, knocked down by one of the police, had to be hospitalized. Taken under heavy police escort to Malone, N.Y., this man, whose person, property and household had suffered the damage, was arraigned as a criminal and spent the night in jail.
Much more serious, a matter that should have been settled by the Indians themselves had been turned over to “foreign” jurisdiction; the Tribal Council had subjected a traditional chief of the Mohawk Nation to illegal, forcible arrest on sovereign Mohawk territory, and to the criminal justice system of New York, which took quick advantage of this chance to affirm a finding by the Franklin County Court that the Mohawk Nation no longer existed, that these people were simply “St. Regis Mohawk Indians” whose lands and persons were subject to state laws.
The day after Thompson’s arrest, the Akwesasne police were informed by the Mohawk Nation Council that in attacking and arresting Loran Thompson they had attacked the laws and sovereignty of the Hodenausaunee (Six Nations), and that their presence on Mohawk territory as agents of a foreign government could no longer be tolerated: they had 24 hours to resign and disband for the good of their people. When they refused, they were given the second of the traditional three warnings, on the assumption that they had not understood the serious implications of their actions.
When the second warning was ignored, chiefs from all of the Six Nations convened for an emergency meeting. On May 29, to the sound of drums, several hundred unarmed Indians walked in procession from the Akwesasne longhouse in Hogunsburg to police headquarters in the elective system’s building, not far away, where five chiefs, including Porter, Swamp and Thompson, asked the police for the last time if they meant to disband. When they refused, the chiefs informed them and their supporters that the matter was now in the hands of the Mohawk people, who rushed and disarmed them after several minutes’ fighting, then took over the building. When the state troopers arrived, they made no attempt to intervene, despite an invitation to do so from the deposed Indian police. Later that evening, the traditionals abandoned the building to an armed crowd of tribals, who later accused them of minor thefts and damage.
The elected “chiefs” and their supporters were incensed by the ouster of their police and the occupation of Tribal Council headquarters, which they saw as a breakdown of law and order; refusing to negotiate, they insisted that the state carry out its laws. On June 20, although the chainsaws had been confiscated pending negotiation, and not “stolen,” as everyone knew, Loran Thompson and Joe Swamp were indicted by a special grand jury called by the Franklin County district attorney on charges of grand larceny in the third degree. Thompson, identified in the local papers as a tool thief, was also charged with resisting arrest. The Mohawk chiefs instructed Swamp and Thompson not to appear for their arraignment on July 5, or otherwise recognize the court’s authority; as Chief Tom Porter told the court, “One of our chiefs will not be taken by another nation to be judged.”
“Alien law” was represented by the criminal court system in the person of Franklin County District Attorney Joseph Ryan, who had referred in court to the Mohawk traditionals who disarmed the police as “a bunch of animals,” and who seemed strangely eager to prosecute the case, despite its trivial circumstances.
But these circumstances bothered Judge Jan Plumadore, who granted the defense request that no arrest warrants be issued when Swamp and Thompson ignored the second arraignment on July 27; the Department of the Interior and even the White House, the defense said, might intervene. On July 30, an agreement was reached whereby the Department of Interior, which owned the chainsaws, would request the state to drop the charges against Swamp and Thompson, would replace the destroyed trees and would apologize to the people of the Mohawk Nation, once the two saws and the bush hog were returned.
This sensible solution did not satisfy Ryan, who declared he would press the resisting arrest charge against Thompson, even if the theft charge were withdrawn; perhaps his intransigence had been encouraged, or perhaps he harbored an unusual vindictiveness toward the Mohawks, who get their land, so he complained, “courtesy of the U.S. government — the same government they blame for their troubles.”
On Aug. 2, after Washington had failed to act on the agreement, Ryan prevailed upon Judge Plumadore to sign arrest warrants, and announced that he would also prosecute certain unnamed participants in the occupation of the community building two months before.
On Aug. 13, an estimated 21 Indians were named in sealed indictments (which made the defendants subject to arrest without their knowledge) and those who suspected that they might be on the list began to gather with their families in a defensive camp centered around the house of Loran Thompson.
Meanwhile Tribal Council Head Chief Rudy Hart had “deputized” 40 supporters and threatened to arm them if the state police did not execute their warrants, while the state police announced that they would not serve the warrants until the strong emotions on the reservation had calmed down a little.
The first meeting between the Mohawk Nation and the State of New York occurred in Massena on Aug. 27, over three months after the small episode that started the jurisdictional dispute; besides Chiefs Tom Porter and Jake Swamp, the Indian negotiation team included four Mohawk people and two editors of the traditional newspaper Akwesasne Notes, which has its office on the Thompson property. Raymond Harding, lawyer, lieutenant colonel in the New York National Guard and special consultant to Gov. Hugh Carey on military matters and Indian affairs, declared that “the court mandate will be enforced . . . The time has come where we have made a judgment to minimize, to mitigate loss of life, the letting of blood; it is more responsible, it is in the long run less painful, for the state to execute those warrants rather than to stand by and let others do it. . .”
The “others” referred to by Harding were the acculturated Indians organized and armed by the elected chiefs in support of the Akwesasne police. Harding seemed to be acknowledging that although its very jurisdiction here was in dispute, the state preferred to let a little blood than to reason with a county district attorney or to deter the tribals from carrying out their own ideas of justice; and that this vigilante group would not be disarmed by the state troopers, merely replaced by them.
The next morning at 5 a.m., the state police invaded the reservation, accompanied by the Akwesasne police and supported by a police airplane and paramilitary Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units which surrounded the camp; they burst into houses and they marched Chief Swamp’s wife around in her nightgown as they searched the premises for her husband.
A frantic telephone campaign directed at Gov. Carey’s office warned the outside world to keep an eye on New York State, and perhaps for this reason as much as others, the police stopped short of a bloody assault on the inner enclave and withdrew about midafternoon, taking along three of the indicted Indians who had been found in outlying houses. Meanwhile, they sealed off all the roads leading to the encampment, placing it effectively in a state of siege like the one at Wounded Knee six years before. That siege lasted 71 days, whereas the Akwesasne Siege has lasted more than a year.
After the dawn raid at Akwesasne, the tension between Mohawk factions was too rigid to dissolve through negotiations. Within a few weeks the state police had withdrawn their large force from the perimeter of the Thompson property, but because District Attorney Ryan had insisted upon sealed indictments, those who thought they might be prosecuted did not leave the camp.
With the roads blockaded, the besieged camp was supplied by small boats crossing the St. Lawrence from the Canadian side of the reservation on Cornwall Island; meanwhile emergency housing and defense bunkers were constructed to protect the inhabitants during the winter. Before long, the emplaced traditionals were as well armed as the Christian Indians who wished to throw them out, and a December meeting with Harding did nothing to resolve the crisis.
As the siege continued through the winter, a number of tribal Indians felt increasingly uncomfortable about those relatives and former friends, and increasingly they resented the elected chiefs. While most still complained that non-Mohawks and non-Indians had brought most of the trouble to the reservation, and that a nest of armed resistance to authority encouraged atmosphere of lawlessness, especially among the young, which increased every day that the state police failed to execute the warrants, they nonetheless resented the fact that the elected chiefs had invited state troopers onto Mohawk ground, and that fathers and uncles and cousins and brothers (and mothers, aunts, daughters, and children, too) might be killed at any time because of a minor political dispute that had never justified the August raid nor the heavy police presence ever since.
A growing feeling that, “after all, we are all Mohawks” found dramatic expression in a spontaneous “unity march” on April 19 — the strongest expression of Mohawk unity since 1948, when the people attempted to vote out the elective system.
Chief Tom Porter said, “There were over 1,000 people; relatives came here from as far as 400 miles away! We greeted them at the gate, we brought them in here for a big feast, a big dance — oh, the feeling here! I cried, it was so powerful! Such a powerful demonstration of what our people are just beginning to do, for the first time in maybe 250 years.”
On June 5, State Police Maj. Robert Schneeman appeared at the gate to Racquette Point Road, where he warned the traditional chief of the possibility of a state police assault upon the camp. Two days later, Dr. Solomon Cook (whose nontraditional supporters got more than 1,000 signatures on a petition requesting the district attorney to drop all charges against the traditionals in the name of a peaceful solution) was elected to the Tribal Council. On June 9, after an outbreak of lawless incidents in the community, the traditionals issued a public warning that an assult on the camp appeared imminent.
The next day, 61 women met with Maj. Schneeman, and after describing 30 years of harrassment, violence (including the fatal beating of an Indian man) and sexual molestation (including rape) from his state troopers, they pleaded with him not to launch an attack on Akwesasne. The next two days, Schneeman allegedly held meetings with the “Concerned Citizens,” and the following morning, the telephone lines were cut and a big, angry crowd threw up the barrier across the road to the encampment that was later taken over by the state police.
“The tribal faction started to get nervous after April 19, and they began to reorganize,” Tom Porter says. “We believe that the state police helped them to organize, that Maj. Schneeman suggested to them that state troopers would back them up, and that the state police would be backed up by the National Guard, if necessary. We think Schneeman is somewhat excitable, and maybe District Attorney Ryan, too, and Harding, too; instead of talking reason, and finding a peaceful way, they always talk in terms f force.”
In New York, I had interviewed Harding, who was eager to lay out the state’s version of the case and his own role in it.
Harding told me that “the Indians think Ray Harding is a prick, but they trust his word: ‘Ray-Harding-he-talk-truth,'” he said, giving me his idea of Indian speech.
Since August 1979, the state police had settled on the policy of executing warrants when and if they caught someone outside the camp while stopping short of an armed invasion; they are not anxious to get people killed, Harding explained, police included. There matters stood until early in June 1980.
“I wanted to stage another meeting on June 2 in Albany, using Howard Rowley as arbitrator, and the good offices of the chiefs at Onandaga. But the traditionals cancelled the meeting, and on the 13th, all hell broke loose, because the other side had decided that the police weren’t doing enough. All those barricades and guns were unbearable, and in exercise of their tribal rights, they wanted to throw the non-Mohawk people in that camp off the reservation; Friday morning, there were 200-250 people ready to storm the Thompson property.
“Since last August, we’ve had a hot line set up, to clarify incidents and keep them in perspective, try to avoid shooting, and that morning, calls started coming through that if the state police didn’t stop the electeds, shooting was going to start. So the police decided they had better step in, and positioned themselves between the two sides. But around 2:30 Friday afternoon, I was getting the impression that the state police might not be able to control the situation; there was a 3 o’clock ultimatum from the electeds, and we weren’t sure that the police could prevent the action from taking place.”
Harding and I were beginning to communicate. He was no longer responding to tough questions by telling me that my head was screwed on wrong. Other tough questions occurred to me later (Why had the state police never made any attempt to disarm an angry, dangerous crowd? Why hadn’t Harding told me [or denied] that for a brief period, at least, the state troopers were preparing to accompany, and perhaps lead, the assault on the camp, and who issued the original authorization to do so?).
“It so happens that in terms of the current situation since last Friday (June 13 ),” Harding concluded, “it is my best opinion that if the state police were withdrawn from the reservation totally, within a very short period there would be a civil war, with many people killed or injured, and the state police would have to return, to put down massive violence. Their continued presence there serves to keep peace, in the best sense of the word.”
Lt. Lee Hunt furnished the police perspective on the crisis of Friday the 13th. Rumors of impending trouble had started to come in by Thursday evening, and Hunt, a local man on a friendly basis with many of the Indians, was in charge of about 18 troopers assigned to the Racquette Point Road area, where he arrived at 5:30 or 6 on Friday morning. By about 10, he said, a crowd of about 160 tribals had assembled — not “vigilantes,” Hunt assured me earnestly, that was only what the traditionals called them (the traditionals usually call them “the mob”) but “supporters of the elective system and reservation residents.” By whatever name, this herd of people came well armed; there were even women there with bats and clubs.
I asked Hunt the question I had neglected to ask Harding: Why hadn’t the police simply dispersed an armed and angry crowd that had forced them to blockade all the nearby roads and tie up traffic on Highway 37? “It’s not against the law,” said Lt. Hunt, “to walk around with a gun on New York State roads.”
Howard Berman, the attorney for the Mohawk Nation, is small, slight and soft-spoken. Asked about Harding’s complaint that “outsiders — the wrong people” were speaking for the traditionals, notably Berman himself and two “loudmouth” young Senecas, John Mohawk and Mike Myers, Berman explained that the best Mohawk speakers, such as Tom Porter and Jake Swamp, could not go to the meetings because they would be arrested, as Harding knew; and “anyway, the spokesmen are not those who had led in the decisions, they are just spokesmen, appointed to that job.”
John Mohawk agrees. A volatile, swift-speaking man, well-informed on all Indian matters, Mohawk is the editor of Akwesasne Notes, the best known Indian newspaper in America since its inception in 1968. The paper had moved its offices to Loran Thompson’s place not long before the siege, and now occupies the second floor of the kitchen building.
“Harding likes to throw around big words that you have to have three years of college to understand,” John Mohawk says. “So the leaders say, ‘You go over there because you can understand him.’ So we go in, Harding calls us a bunch of idiots and things degenerate from there.
“It’s in the interests of the state to obscure the issue, reduce it to a conflict between Indian groups struggling for power. But it isn’t a struggle for power; the issue is sovereignty. What would happen if they had to deal with a united, sovereign Mohawk nation? The Indians might want clean water out there, in that stretch of river that runs through their territory, or clean air in that sky over that factory.”
He points at the GM foundry. “Akwesasne used to be a fishing place, but all these locks and power dams cut off all the anadromous fish, and raised the water levels, which ruined the trapping and fish spawning grounds and waterfowl nesting in the marshes — there is no hunting and fishing anymore. The flying ash and fluoride from the Reynolds plant has ruined the dairy farming; the cattle’s teeth grind down, they starve, they live four years and everybody here is being poisoned. Over there on Cornwall Island, which is downwind from Reynolds, skin lesions and nervous disorders began to occur simultaneously with the fluoride pollution, but because the companies are on the U.S. side, and the people are Indians, the Canadian government takes no interest.”
Meanwhile, the island’s bees have vanished, wild game and crops are drastically depleted, the conifer forests are dying away from tip necrosis, the starving cattle, disabled by bone afflictions, often had to lie down to graze and crawl from one place to another. In 1959, the year that Reynolds began its operation, there were five times as many cow barns on Cornwall Island as there are today, and meanwhile, a healthy high protein diet of fish, meat and Indian corn has been replaced by an unhealthy one of potatoes, macaroni, gravies and bread.
Obviously this situation will affect human health at Akwesasne, which is being studied by a medical team from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York; the need for this study is one of the few things that tribal and traditionals can agree on.
Francis Boots had said that he might leave Cornwall Island, where the fluoride contamination from Reynolds and Alcoa is most serious of all. “When I was a kid, this island was a beautiful place, and all the families helped each other, worked together; now other people’s ideas have been imposed upon us.” He did not have to say who those “other people” were.
At dark, we went into Loran Thompson’s house on the river bluff, where we were joined in a little while by Chiefs Thompson, Porter, Swamp and others.
In the general talk about the crisis, Chiefs Porter and Swamp had sat quiet, saying nothing. Both are gentle and soft-spoken men, still in their 30s, who are listened to with much respect, and Porter especially is eloquent, even by the standards of a people who prize eloquence as the great gift of the oral tradition.
At last Chief Porter said quietly, “Mohawks have been referred to as Rattlesnake People by the other tribes. But the rattlesnake is a very peaceful creature, raising its offspring on its own homeland; if its territory is large enough, it will run away. But if you persist, it warns you with its tail — please stay away! If you come closer, it warns you more loudly, and if finally you give him no choice, then it will strike you. We are called Rattlesnakes because we have that character, and this is what Gov. Carey and Mr. Harding are finding out in 1980.”
“We’re all ironworkers here,” Jake Swamp said. “The tribals, too — most of them are hard-working guys . . .” His voice trailed off, and he shrugged unhappily, as if upset all over again by the division of his people. “Harding’s playing a chess game with our lives,” Swamp resumed forcefully, close to anger. “Because of the power that he has. He even tries to tell us who should negotiate for us, and when he doesn’t get his way, he takes dangerous actions.”
Loran Thompson said, “Maybe they were just trying to bluff us, and it didn’t work. And now they’ve lost all their momentum, they’re not psyched up any more, they’ve had time to think.” John Mohawk nodded. “Even if they were bluffing, they could have gotten a lot of people killed; we weren’t panicked that day, we were just outraged that it was so out of control.”
Boots had said that more than half the vigilantes had been Quebec Catholics, organized around the Hogansurg Fire Department by former Head Chief Rudy Hart, whose son, Rudy Hart Jr., the HUD planner, had recently ordered a $50,000 fire truck for the community. “A lot of my cousins are from over there, and I asked them, ‘How come you guys went up to Loran’s with guns?’ And they were ashamed; they didn’t even know why they went. And they admitted that a lot of people were juiced up — it was Schneeman and alcohol. It’s like Rudy Hart told somebody, ‘Give those guys two beers, and they’ll do anything.'”
Lloyd Benedict, who has started a good small newspaper called the Rezz, is doing his best to remain neutral. He acknowledged that whatever they might say publicly, everyone here had actually chosen one side or the other. “A lot of the people are starting to think, ‘Hey, this isn’t politics any more, it’s a question of right and wrong.’ That’s when they chose.”
Like every family on the reservation, the Benedict clan is painfully split by the whole controversy. Lloyd’s counsin, Brian Cole, is a security “warrior” in the defense bunkers of the traditional camp. “My cousin carries a 30-ought-six with heat-tempered bullets that supposedly can pierce a bulletproof vest. When I reminded that our Uncle Joe was over there with the vigilantes, he really started to sweat; a lot goes through your mind out there, he told me. See, it’s not a fight between political factions, it’s between your uncles, your cousins, maybe even your brother!” Brian’s brother Harris is the head of the Akwesasne Police, the man who first attempted to arrest Chief Loran Thompson. The two have not spoken since last summer, and their mother blames what she regards as the unrealistic attitude of the traditionals, whom she belittles; all the real traditionals, says Mrs. Cole, are long since gone.
Of the three elected chiefs who served on the Tribal Council before Dr. Cook replaced Rudy Hart Sr., the most articulate was said to be Leonard Garrow, who seemed disconcerted when I asked my question about the bothersome discrepancy between the alleged offenses of the traditionals and the violent retribution that may yet be carried out by the Concerned Citizens.
“They fail to tell you that theirs was the first offense — hell, we don’t even know for sure that that was Loran’s property, and anyway, I was born and raised here. Loran Thompson has no sugar maples down there.
“For a year, we’ve been trying to damp things down, and avoid shooting. The group that threw up the barricades, they went on their own; they said, ‘We’ve been listening to the elected chiefs for 13 months, now we want something done.’ I didn’t agree because I didn’t want to see people killed, but I could see why they were just sick and tired of this damned thing, of a reservation without law and order.
“Those people down there — I mean, those politically-motivated Indians — those people are masters at getting out their story, they even have their own newspaper, Akwesasne Notes. They make it seem like they’re surrounded, they put out land mines, they have AK47s that must have come from communist countries somewhere. Hell, we can’t have that!”
Toward midnight, I fell asleep on Loran Thompson’s sofa, awakening about 5:30 next morning to the sound of chants and drums — the sunrise tobacco-burning ceremony in the Council House that takes place every day.
The dawn was beautiful and cold and clear, with a northwest wind that quickened the dying river. Drinking coffee in the early sun, Jake Swamp told me that this land has been a hunting and fishing area of the Ganeinkehaga — the “People of the Flint” — for many hundreds of years; even in 1779, the soldiers of Gen. Sullivan had noted that fish were so plentiful that in places the bottoms of the clean, clear streams could not be seen.
From the river bank, Jake Swamp pointed at the Reynolds Plant upstream, the long plumes of smoke from the stacks blowing down on the northwest wind across Cornwall Island. “Six thousand tons of fluoride a day come from those stacks — that’s what they tell us.” He pointed at the General Motors factory. “Loran’s brother is suing them for poisoning his water by dumping metallic and aluminum waste there on the boundary; GM says that they can’t send test drillers in here to check the water for fear of their lives.”
“This is a highly polluted area,” Tom Porter had said the night before, “and we have many children, so our main concern must be their safety and health. Our attachment to this place where our great-great-grandfathers lie buried is very strong, but our children’s future and wellbeing is at stake. Even though it is poisoned, it is difficult for us to exchange this land for somewhere else. We’re not permitted by our beliefs to deal with the earth as a material thing, because the earth is our mother.
“After 1492, immigrants came here who were in a very bad way. They asked if they could live here, and our ancestors welcomed them and fed them, brought them back to health, and we said, ‘This earth is very large and there is plenty, and you are welcome to be here and share with us.’ There are still elders among us today who remember this sharing attitude of our people, a very humanistic and moral attitude, and it is still solid and firm among traditional people: we still want to share. We have many white friends, many black friends, and we are all human beings.
“I used to wonder why white people got so paranoid about our land claims; then a white person explained that they expect to be treated as other whites would treat them; they would be asked to leave the land and go back to England, France and Sweden. Well, Indians don’t think that way; there is no need to talk about clouded titles. The land wasn’t given to us as a commodity but entrusted to us; we are its custodians, you might say, so that our children will have a place to put their little feet upon this earth. The Creator still sees the native people as custodians of this land; we think so, too. It is our duty to take care of it. If the people of the U.S. and Canada wish to ease their consciences with the Indians, they can’t do it with monetary awards for the vast territories taken illegally, they must have the honesty to admit a mistake. Then white people and red people could get together and discuss what would be best to do, how we can share things.
“Until the white people, the state, are ready to share with us, we are left faced with the realities of New York State policies. We can’t hope for any real justice from the state — not the people of New York State, but their leaders — and they leave us no choice but to go to the international courts. We don’t really want to go to the United Nations, the World Court, but we are forced to do so in order to survive. They pretty near came in and massacred us the other day: they admit the police were ready to go; they have told us that. And they would have gotten most of our leaders, too. I can’t stress it strongly enough: It’s a matter of life and death that the truth come out about that day.”