Why Mohawks are evicting non-Natives

By Doug George-Kanentiio,
News From Indian Country March 2010

Native people, like all Canadians, have been, in this generation, caught up in a whirl of social, economic, ecological and political changes over which we have only marginal influence.

We have lost critical elements of our former status as nation states and as a result become dependent upon federal and provincial governments for our health, schooling, housing and employment, all of which are subject to the whims, plans and objectives of bureaucrats and politicians who are, in Mohawk terminology, “faceless ones” detached from us and to be feared.

But what we retain in the way of culture and land we embrace with, some would say, suffocating intensity.

Membership in a Native community is one thing we can control and we do so in defiance of contemporary Canadian social standards, perhaps even at the risk of being labeled racist.

At Akwesasne, as is true on other Mohawk territories, having “status” is as precious as it is precarious.

Precisely who is considered a Mohawk is a four-step process involving blood quantum, family relations, quality of character and communal standing. At Akwesasne a person may be 100-per-cent Native genetically but if they do not adhere to the social standards of the community they may be excluded or expelled.

Membership requires at a minimum four aboriginal great-grandparents and a 50-per-cent blood quantum. The quantum is to ensure that there is genetic, communal and familial continuity.

For all Mohawks, who you are as an individual is determined by your family and, to a lesser extent, the specific place in which you were raised. In former times clan association was vital since social standing, political association, residency and resource distribution flowed through a person's clan of which the Mohawks have three: bear, wolf and turtle.

Since the Mohawks were matrilineal a person was of their mother's clan. These days the clans carry on with important functions such as names, marriage, leadership titles and ceremonial functions as well as the pride of collective identity. Those who marry non-Natives undermine the clan and diminish traditional values.

In an era of transition, having communal bonds and a sense of belonging to a place and people is vital.

We as Mohawks take pride in our heritage with as much enthusiasm as a Glengarry Highlander or an Athenian Greek.

Yet we have more than a powerful sense of ancestry for we know we are of a specific place on this Earth; that while all else may shape-shift we remain in place and largely intact.

In former times we had an inclusive immigration policy which has been adopted by the U.S. and Canada. We required a person who sought Mohawk citizenship to have an extensive knowledge about our nation, that they live in peace with the people, speak our language and reside on our territory for a number of years.

At the conclusion of this trial period they went through a formal ceremony in which the immigrants rejected their former nationality; they were then “adopted” into a clan and given Mohawk names. The process of naturalization was essential to the survival of the Mohawks given the many deaths caused by wars and disease.

As a result, the Mohawks became a genetic blend of many nations and many peoples: Irish, Scots, Germans, Abenaki, Algonquin, Odawa and Huron. In time, all of these people were completely absorbed by the Mohawks but such is not the case today.

For this generation the Mohawks are concerned about being overwhelmed by external factors. Hence there is the need to be assertive in our identity.

We need to make sure we are distinct since everything we have and do on the reserve is determined by our biology. We are relevant only insofar as we have genetic integrity, hence the imposition of rules which discourage marriage to non-Natives. As our elders would say, it is those children who will carry the burden of alienation and may well, in anger, turn upon their relatives who do have status.

In recent days a number of non-Natives are being evicted from the reserve at Kahnawake in Quebec, with much discussion in the national media. It will no doubt effect Akwesasne as well in time, but expect the Mohawk councils to hold firm on membership rules even if it causes a few broken hearts.

Doug George-Kanentiio, an Akwesasne Mohawk, is a columnist with News From Indian Country. He is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association.