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Kahnawà:ke Mohawk, Haudenosaunee Confederacy

November 29, 2015

I am several posts behind in my year-long journey of reading multi-national literature. From now on I am going to separate these posts from my regular sabbath posts. I am behind on these posts because my last three sabbath days were spent (1) on retreat in the IronBound district of New Jersey; (2) on study leave in Atlanta; and (3) observing Thanksgiving, albeit with a highly critical counter-narrative.

Duke University has just published a splendid little political ethnography by Audra Simpson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, called Mohawk Interrptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (2014). Prof. Simpson is herself Kahnawà:ke and grew up on the reservation in Southwestern Quebec along the St. Lawrence River. At least the reservation was on the St. Lawrence until Canada built the St. Lawrence Seaway Canal right through the reservation in 1954, cutting the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk off from their traditional way of life on the river. In modern times the Mohawk specialized in iron works, many of them building New York City and its bridges up to today.


The Kahnawà:ke Mohawk, whose name means “Keepers of the Eastern Gate,” are part of the League of Six Nations, and in the United States were known as ‘the Iroquois.” The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas and was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision making.

Often described as the oldest, participatory democracy on Earth, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s constitution is believed to be a model for the American Constitution. What makes it stand out as unique to other systems around the world is its blending of law and values. For the Haudenosaunee, law, society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role.

Treaties, such as the Two Row Wampum, are still in effect (if ignored by the U.S) and predicate peace between the Indigenous and Settler peoples on care for creation. In 2013 the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign marked the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum Treaty with a statewide advocacy and educational campaign which sought to polish the chain of friendship established by the Two Row (between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch immigrants) and continued with the French, British and United States. Environmental cleanup and preservation were the core components of this campaign. As I post this, we are on the eve of the COP21 Climate Negotiations in Paris, of which First Nations and Indigenous Peoples worldwide have the greatest stake.


Audra Simpson’s book details the many strategies employed by the contemporary Kahnawà:ke to maintain national sovereignty within the “teeth of settler governance” (i.e., the United States and Canada.) That this is possible is a contention of the book. So, for example,

On April 2010, three Mohawk of the Kahnawà:ke were detained in El Salvador for seventeen days. They were flying back from the International Climate Change Conference in Bolivia and were traveling on Haudenosaunee passports. They refused to allow Canada to issue them “emergency travel documents” (which amounts to a passport). They waited instead for ten more days, and they were permitted reentry into Canada via Iroquois Confederacy passports. (page 18)

This, and numerous other stories in the book, tell a story of steadfast but often misunderstood attempts to retain and maintain sovereignty within the settler states and overarching structures of empire that seek to define the conditions for native existence in their own terms. Other act of “refusal” include maintenance of the sovereign right to determine membership, and the refusal of the Iroquois National Lacrosse Team to appear at the 2010 International Championships as guest of the U.S. or Canada after their Iroquois passports were denied for through-transit in New York. Throughout, Simpson contends that “refusal” is a sovereign political act and savvy alternative to “recognition” on terms defined by the occupying state. This refusal also denies closure to the liberal narrative of occupation in which former inhabitants of the land are either assimilated/accommodated or disappeared. Refusal of any “gift” by the colonial powers enacts sovereignty – even when, or especially when, the indigenous peoples seem to lose.


Simpson’s work was based upon contemporary struggle and extensive interviews. In more traditional literature I also continued to mine the anthology Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing; reading this week pieces by Maurice Kenny, a Mohawk poet; Steven Elm, an Oneida author; Eric Gansworth, an Onandaga writer; Barbara-Helen Hill, a visual artist of the Cayuga/Mohawk; and James Aronhiotas Stevens of the Akwesasane Mohawk, who traces the loss of native language.


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