Courtesy Nathan Lashomb, Forevermore Studio
Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief.

Beverly Cook: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief.

Can you share your Native name with us?

Kiohawiton is my name, and I am a Wolf Clan Mohawk woman. The translation is She Brought It with Her. It is a name given to me by my mother’s mother.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation, or Akwesasne territory, is located in northern New York State approximately 200 miles north of Albany. Our reservation is bisected by the border between the United States and Canada and by the great Saint Lawrence River. From east to west, it’s approximately equal distance between Montreal and Ottawa. There are several other sister Mohawk communities throughout Quebec and Ontario provinces.

Where are the Mohawk people originally from?

The territory we reside on is our original land. The Mohawk are traditionally the Keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Our original homeland is the northeastern region of New York State extending into southern Canada and Vermont. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Mohawk settlements populated the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Through the centuries Mohawk influence extended far beyond this territory and was felt by the Dutch and English who settled on the Hudson River, the French in Montreal, the Cherokee in the south and west to the Mississippi.

Is there a significant point in your tribe's history that you would like to share?

There are certainly many points in history that have influenced or otherwise altered the course of history for the Akwesasne Mohawk community. Below is one such point in our history that is illustrated by Sub-Chief Eric Thompson:

A pivotal moment in the history of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne—the Land Where the Partridge Drums, the traditional name for what would become known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation—was the execution of the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, negotiated on behalf of the community of Akwesasne by representatives of the Seven Nations of Canada. This U.S. federal treaty recognized and reserved lands within our traditional territory that had become surrounded by the newly formed United States.

This treaty fortified the foundation that previous colonial governments had formed with the Mohawk nation proper and the seven communities, which made up “the seven fires” of the colonial era, and is reflected in the title of the treaty.

The agreement set aside an area of six miles square, as well as meadows along a local river and two one-mile-square plots that became surrounded by two local towns built up around them. The importance of this treaty and the reservation of land that it recognized and ensured was pivotal in the history of our community in regards to recognition of sovereignty and delineation of federally protected territory (which becomes very important in the area of land claims and environmental protection, among other important areas).

The federal recognition of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is also inextricably linked to the treaty, which recognized the people and tribal government and, importantly, the obligation of the federal trust relationship Chief Justice John Marshall elucidated in his trilogy of cases setting the foundations of federal Indian law. This recognition has been critical in the development and cultivation of programs and services provided for the community, as well as going to the exercise of inherent sovereignty and the exercise of jurisdictional arguments in all legal and political spheres.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Tribal Council is comprised of three Chiefs, three Sub-Chiefs, and a Tribal Clerk. Tribal elections are held each year on the first Saturday of June to choose one Chief and one Sub-Chief for a three-year term. The Tribal Clerk is chosen every third year.

The Sub-Chiefs receive their authority from the Chiefs. If the Chiefs are unable to fulfill their duties or are incapacitated, a Sub-Chief may also be called upon to substitute at a meeting, function, etc., for a Chief who has other commitments.

Is there any other functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Yes, there is the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs whose members continue to conduct our traditional ceremonies and to uphold the three principles of our traditional government, called the Great Law of Peace—peace, power, and righteousness. Mohawks have three clans—Turtle, Bear, and Wolf. We have a long history of welcoming and adopting other nations and individuals who follow the White Roots of Peace to their source seeking refuge under the Great Tree of Peace (a symbolic representation of our government). Such was the case of the Oswegatchi who were absorbed into our community, resulting in a large number of Mohawks at Akwesasne who are Snipe Clan. Each of the three Mohawk clan families should have three Condoled Chiefs who are selected and raised up by their respective Clan Mothers with the support of the people. Our Clan Mothers have the power to depose a Chief who is determined not to be acting in the best interest of the people.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

We serve three-year terms and are elected on a yearly, rotating basis.

How often does your government meet?

We meet with the community regularly on the first Saturday of every month. In addition, Council meets weekly in public work sessions and later in executive session. Throughout the week we have regularly scheduled meetings with our chief financial officer, legal counsel, compliance officer, communications staff, Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) coordinator, Division of Social Services (DSS) commissioner, and education director, and our executive director’s administrative team. We also have meetings as needed with community members and groups, as well as outside agencies.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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