I live about a half drive away from a different world. Just to the west of Kingston Ontario is Tyendinaga, home to this region’s United Empire Loyalist Mohawks. It’s nothing special, not much bigger or smaller then the other reserves that dot southern Ontario, but you can tell you’ve crossed a boundary the moment you get out of your car.
The Ganeagaono (“The Flint Based People,” hence all the place names around here either begin with “Ga” as in Ganaoque or “Ka” which is pronounced “Ga”) or Mohawks are part of The Six Nations, The Iroquois Confederacy (Iroquois is an Algonquin word meaning “enemy”) or as they refer to themselves, The Hau-de-no-sau-nee (“people of the long house”). They were originally from upstate New York (Mohawk Valley) but stayed loyal to the British in the Revolutionary War of 1776. They, along with other Loyal subjects (hence the name Loyalist), were awarded land in Canada.
Although it was Captain John Deserontyon, a Mohawk serving in the British army, who led the original twenty families, the reserve was named for his more famous fellow officer, Joseph Brant. Tyendanegea (the actual spelling of Brant’s name) literally means “placing the wood together” and was chosen for the symbolic reference to gaining strength through unity.
The original deed of 1793 was for land the size of a township, approximately 92,000 acres. The actual size of the reserve now stands at 18,000 acres. The official Tyendinaga web site refers to land alienations and surrenders as being the cause of this reduction in size.
It was long thought by historians that Tyendinaga was the first Iroquois settlement in this area (they never seem to ask those who might know – the Indians themselves), but cartographic evidence and recently found remainders of long houses date villages back more then a hundred years prior to the Loyalists’ arrival. If you want more history and info check out the
Tyendinaga Web Site.
Although at first glance it just looks like any other rural community, the differences are there if you look. The obvious ones are the faded warning signs that you are on Mohawk territory. Old, tattered, and with paint faded by the years, they still carry a certain authority, letting you know you’re in a different Canada now.
Then there’s the fact there is no town. No collection of houses gathered around a general store or congregation of people. The closest thing to a population centre are a couple of small housing developments consisting of rental units for people who want to move back to the reserve. Although, in theory, each band member is entitled to a tract of land, there just isn’t enough land left for that contract to be fulfilled.
Over the years, some families have lost their inheritance through one means or another, so when they move back there’s nothing for them in the way of housing. Others are children of people who gave up status back in the sixties to gain the right to vote. Recent changes in the Indian Act have allowed some families to reclaim their status. These people move back to take advantage of the favourable tax laws and cheaper rents to be found on the reserve and to be closer to their people in the hopes of reconnecting to their culture.
Then there are the carloads of disappointed, camera-carrying tourists who show up looking for Indians. Unfortunately for them, they have to settle for taking shots of strip malls filled with tourist shops selling plastic Indian artifacts made in Japan. Ironically, the only “Indian” sights are transplanted totem poles and faux plains nation’s regalia.
Driving around the territory gives you hints at the poverty that pervades. Although Tyendinaga is better off then some, it still has limited economic opportunities. The few steady jobs available are controlled by the Band Council, and there have always been rumours of nepotism not far from the surface on the reserve.
Although the political climate seems somewhat less antagonistic than in former years, as recently as 1994 the council offices were occupied by dissatisfied band members. Throughout the nineties, allegations of misappropriation of funds were leveled at the Chief and his council more then once. In this small community of 2,000 people (more than twice than the amount living off-reserve) where everyone knows everyone, it’s hard to keep anything a secret, so even a whisper of impropriety gets blown up to the size of a mountain.
One of the loudest voices on the reserve is the independent newspaper, The Mohawk Nation Drummer. With no government subsidy, tribal or otherwise, they feel free to speak their minds on any issue. Local, national, and even international tribal news is prominent.
Picking up a copy of The Drummer emphasizes that you are in a different world. Aside from the predominance of ads whose sales it depends on, the similarities between it and other newspapers are slim. The news items are all related to native issues. Not once are any of the stories that so predominate our papers even mentioned. How many community papers do you know that publish excerpts from the laws that govern their chiefs (though it may be a good idea if we followed that example and published excerpts of our constitutions on a monthly basis) or supply you with such historical facts that the honey bee is not native to North America?
The Drummer not only serves its community by keeping it up to date on news, but it acts as a repository of history and culture. As the oral traditions have died out, the paper is stepping in to fill the role of story teller, ensuring that important information is kept in circulation. It’s one thing for the children to learn about it the schools, but another altogether for it to be a daily way of life. Reminders such as those offered by The Drummer instill life and relevance into their people’s ways and past.
Visit The Drummer here and continue your education in all things Hau-de-no-sau-nee.
I have a friend from the territory who I haven’t seen for years, but it’s not a good thing to be asking about him when I go out there. He and his family have been thorns in the side of the Chief and his cronies for too long. I’m a stranger there and I don’t know who’s who on the political debate side of things. When you’re just visiting the territory to buy cheap cigarettes, you stay out of those matters.
My friend works hard at being as traditional as possible, while fighting for his people in the modern world. He always consults his grandmother, who is his clan chief, on important decisions; refers to bleached flour and tea as two of the biggest poisons brought over by the Europeans, even though they have become “traditional” foods; is periodically thrown in jail for occupying places he shouldn’t; and has standing in courts across Canada to speak on native issues, even though he’s not a lawyer. (He once got a group of Mohawks off on a minor trespassing charge. They had been arrested for setting up camp on Parliament Hill. My friend argued that since the Supreme Court of Canada had recognised the land underneath the Parliament buildings as belonging to the Algonquin, and since they had permission from Algonquin elders to be there, what right did the police have to chase them away?).
People like him will bring about a better life for his people. One of their biggest heartaches is fighting the inertia that can set in when a people have been down so long. Each victory, no matter how trivial, is one more thing to be celebrated. After so many years of defeats, victories are important, if only to show that they are possible.
On sale in one of the gift shops the last time I went out there was something a little out of the ordinary. It caught my eye as being different. Spread out on a table were four plastic covered documents with signatures scrawled across them. They were autographed copies of a judgment from the Supreme Court of Canada. It was the case that gave full status rights to the Metis (mixed bloods) of Canada.
There’s a sense of pride that wasn’t there even ten years ago when I last visited the territory. Instead of catering to the tourists by wearing plains Indian buckskins, people at last year’s powwow wore Mohawk regalia. The Iroquois Confederacy flag now flies on every flag pole, when before it was rare to see. Still missing, though, is the flag of the Mohawk people.
The brave’s head in the yellow circle on the red backdrop was misrepresented in the press as a warrior cult flag when they saw it at Oka in 1990. During that standoff between police, the army, and individuals from that Mohawk reserve, connotations were put on the flag that makes it unhealthy to fly it. Now associated with rebellion instead of the nation, too many people are nervous about displaying it openly, for fear of repercussions.
I don’t get out to visit my neighbours down the highway as much as I used to. It’s a healthy thing to do, get a different perspective on the world and see it from the eyes of the people who were here before us. If you go to a territory don’t expect anything much in the way of excitement or “Indians.” Take your time and look closely, the signs may not be obvious, but there can be no doubt that you’ve crossed over into a different world.
Enjoy it, and hope that it continues to survive, and maybe soon, start to thrive.
Edited: LH and bhw