Akwesasne, moment of truth

Editors Report
5/30/03

Akwesasne Territory, or St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, is a highly embattled Indian community, with a governance system of crisscrossed jurisdictions and a long history of internal political strife. It is also a recognized bellwether community that has often signaled futuristic visions and courses of action to national Indian country.

A major casino deal with New York state, likely to be approved by the feds, could see Akwesasne the owner of a lucrative gaming establishment in the Catskills region of New York. This would be one of three such casinos that New York's Republican Governor George Pataki is looking to deal out to New York tribes ready to make the big leap to well-resourced economic recovery. The Akwesasne Mohawks, as represented by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal government, are in line for one of the Catskills casinos, a very promising site that could rival the Pequot and Mohegan casinos in Connecticut. However, other tribes are quickly elbowing their way into the regional package. The deal even as presently contemplated is quite unique. The line up of players is not likely to occur again and the Mohawks are at the crossroads of a major decision with stakes unlikely to be as high again.

Intense negotiations between the tribe's negotiators and the state this past season have produced a Memorandum of Understanding, which will be voted upon in referendum by tribal members this summer. The MOU was substantially discussed at tribal information sessions last week. It comes in the company of several major issues that New York is desperately seeking to settle with the Mohawks, principally a long-standing land claim and the more recent and very heated question of price parity between reservation retailers and surrounding non-Native businesses.

Land and taxation are thorny issues that pull much emotional and economic investment for many tribal members. Nevertheless, their convergence with a comprehensive economic package for the Mohawks is fateful, as all future trends are against successful settlements of Native land claims via the higher courts. Only the present circumstances in New York, with a Republican governor facing severe economic shortages and a state long tormented by decades-old land claims, open the way for serious win-win negotiations and deal-making. The potential agreement is conflict-resolution of historic proportions and the present leadership, if it handles it correctly, could catapult their tribe into a position of major economic recovery and influence in two regional economies within New York.

On the American side of the reserve, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is the federally recognized government. This is the government that has negotiated so far with New York. It faces a sweeping election in three weeks. Two of the present three chiefs are stepping down and the third, Alma Ransom, is campaigning for re-election. This government faces challenges for comprehensive representation by two other governments, the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs (Longhouse) government and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (Canadian side of the reserve). Neither has legal standing in the present deal as offered. One represents the traditional clan system, which conducts ceremonies at two rival longhouses on the reservation. Some marriages and births are registered with the Nation. The other government is Canadian-based with no jurisdiction in the U.S. land claim cases.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has had its ups and downs. Corruption, perhaps not endemic but frequent enough, has taken its bites. Community confidence in the tribe is not high. A community war over business policy and practice resulted in two members killed in a shoot-out in 1990. The present government, beleaguered and not always cogent, nevertheless transitioned the tribe from much more splintered times. It is about to retire, at least by two thirds, as a new generation arches to its feet.

This is important. The new generation at Akwesasne looks good (which is also true for Indian country at large). The new educated generation is idealistic yet pragmatic and well trained. Native nations do well to aggressively incorporate their college graduates in their home operations. At Akwesasne this became obvious in the information sessions, as young professionals asked good, sound and unemotional questions about the deals being proposed. Not for this young Indian crowd the basking in old feuds; they were looking for practical answers. It gave one the sense that a well-reasoned application of tribal sovereignty, one that works to improve people's lives, is being sought. From the quality of young professionals at the Akwesasne session, we believe it will be found.

The U.S. side tribal government, as well as the Longhouse and Canadian-side governments, all have grounds for improvement. All hold firm in various areas and all move forward in their own way. The new generation that takes over these institutions, we believe, could bring refreshed notions of community improvement and community unity.

Advice to young leaders: keep your jurisdictional base, keep your territorial integrity, keep your distinctive culture, never waiver on the issue of your inherent sovereignty. But strive for an economic base, without which all the rest becomes a far-off dream. A nation with professional and political resources can resolve issues and can solve problems. A nation with economic resources can enhance and improve health and education services for its people, employing the best trained among them in the best possible working conditions. A nation with resources can create a land acquisition office that couples new families and young people with lands in the expanded vicinity of the present nation. It can support its traditional culture with passion. It can support entrepreneurs and capacity building among all of its people and institutions. It can rebuild and expand itself, giving its new generations a good opportunity to compete and thrive as communities and cultures of people. The jealousy that often divides us is dissipated when benefits can be shared.

But it has to be done right. It requires a truly committed, honest and high-minded work force and good, practical management. This is for a new generation's time and creativity. The deal proposed by the Mohawk tribal council has its weaknesses. The price parity agreement required a bit more backbone. The protection and support of private sector family businesses within the reservation is also crucial in future nation planning. The Mohawk people based in other jurisdictions need more generous treatment, a more inclusive approach to their well-being. Land acquisition is a key issue; it needs more detail and strength. Traditional crafts need continued protection from taxation, even if retail businesses are taxed by the tribe. But these are issues to be re-designed and adapted within a good-minded approach. They need not be deal-breakers.

The next few weeks are a make-or-break time for the Mohawk people, as several tribes are lined up on the Catskills casinos. Akwesasne's chance for this lucrative and long-term revenue stream could easily go by. The coming shakedown of local and state governments due to a stagnated national economy, plus the impending serious cutbacks in federal subsidies to health and education give all tribes pause as to their security of place and potentials. All tribal communities will be severely challenged to effect the economic planning and resolution needed to carry their people through the next several generations. Times are getting tough.

We hope Mohawk voters will choose to leave their new generation with the proper resources. These are times that call for decisive action. The moment is ripe for another Haudenosaunee nation, a well-deserving one, to choose the route of economic growth. Land can then be secured, politics can be re-strengthened and future generations will have the opportunity to speak for the lives of their communities.

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