The Akwesasne Council of Life Chiefs
by Franklin B. Hough, c. 1860's
From the Papers of Franklin B. Hough, New York State Archives
When Dr. Franklin B. Hough visited Akwesasne in the early 1850's to gather information for his book A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, he visited the village of Kanatakon, or St. Regis, to ask residents about the functioning of their government and the history of the community.
This is the transcript of what he recorded during a later visit, circa 1860. I say this because he mentions events from the 1850's that occured after his book was published in 1853. This document was found in his personal notes at the New York State Archives in Albany, New York. Compare this with the information that is contained in the Petitions of the Life Chiefs.
In former times there were elected twelve chiefs by the St Regis Indians. Each of the four bands chose three.
Of these, the women chose one head chief in each band The warriors chose one chief warrior in each band, and one messenger, or runner in each. The latter were young men; their place in council near the door, and their duty to act as messengers to assemble their tribe for council, convey intelligence and services of like kind
They were in due time promoted to war chiefs or head chiefs. The practice of election by women was discontinued in St Regis very many years ago. All the chiefs held for life. The Rev Mr Marcoux is not certain that chiefs were ever elected by women in St Regis.
Although there were five of six bands they were only entitled to elect in four parties.
The Plover and the Little Turtle elected one of each kind.
The Bear elected one of each kind.
The Great and little wolf elected one of each kind.
The Great Turtle elected one of each kind.
Vacancies could only be filled by the band in which they occurred. At Caughnawaga the head chiefs alone were recognized by government. At St Regis it was the custom of Mr Solomon Chessley Indian Agent to regard them all of equal power.
Till 1812 there was but one set of chiefs at St Regis and both British and American Indians shared equally in the annuities and presents of the two nations.
Since 1812 there has been until recently 12 chiefs among the British Indians. Of late years, vacancies have not been filled when they occurred, and the number had been reduced to seven. It had been decided by the British government that the number should then be allowed to reduce itself to five. The tenure for life, had for many years been complained of, especially by the young men, who declared that the old chiefs had
abused their power, and misapplied or embezzled the property of the tribe where and as often as opportunity occurred. To redress this, Col. Napier came up from Montreal in company with the Governor's aid and other gentlemen, and on the 26th of June 1855 called a council, arraigned the old chiefs who plead guilty of the charge, deposed them, and appointed five others. (Some of whom however had before been chiefs) and gave them to hold their office on trial for one year. Opportunity to be given for making accusation against them, and they are liable to removal at any time. They are numbered from 1 to 5, in the order of Seniority, and are to sign papers &c. in this order. One chief is to belong to each band. They are equal in authority. The British agent, was saluted by the discharge of cannon (as is the custom) on his arrival. The British Indians have a piece kept for this and similar purposes.
The British Government in 185_ bought of the Indians a large tract of land north of the St Lawrence in Glengarry (which had for many years been leased by the Indians to whites) sold it to the settlers in order to make them citizens and invested the money due the Indians in 6 per cent stocks. There is another tract between St Regis & Salmon Rivers, from which the Indians draw rents regularly and of which the Government has nothing to do. It has been stated that the Government proposes to discontinue their Indian Department at Montreal and to stop paying presents. The agency (of Mr Cahoun) on the north shore opposite St Regis is not supported by the government, but the agent is paid by a percentage in the funds which pass through his hands.
It is now a year since the chiefs at Caughnawaga have been overhauled by Government. There are seven there equal to the number of the bands. The Indians were denied the privilege of electing their chiefs at St Regis, a cause they were very anxious to take. Anticipating this the young men a few weeks since held an informal election which the agent refused to sanction, telling them that he could allow no elections.