The Jake Ice Story
by Darren Bonaparte
In 1888, the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy met in grand council at the Cold Springs reservation and decided that Akwesasne would from then on hold the Katsista or "Fire" of the Mohawk Nation. This was an honour for Akwesasne, which had gone from being one of the smallest Mohawk communities at its inception to one of the largest in only a century and a half of time. Nine chiefs were "raised up" at Akwesasne in addition to six alternates, or sub-chiefs. These men were entrusted with wampum strings that symbolize Akwesasne's status as the "capital" of the Mohawk Nation.
The fire of Mohawk nationhood continues to burn at Akwesasne, despite enormous amounts of wind and rain that have come in the form of external oppression. Those that keep the fire burning are our traditional leaders, known as the chiefs, faithkeepers and clan mothers of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. They coexist at Akwesasne with elected councils on both sides of the 45th parallel. These elected councils, conceived by Canadian and American authorities and imposed by force in the 19th century, have evolved over time to reflect the wishes and aspirations of the community. All three councils, to varying degrees, share the responsibility of keeping the fire of Mohawk nationhood burning at Akwesasne, but they have inherited this responsibility from an earlier form of traditional government known as the Council of Life Chiefs.
The life chiefs were known among the Mohawks of Akwesasne as the Rotinonkwiseres, which translates literally as "They Have Long Hair." The "Longhairs" got this name because they wore medals that bore the likeness of a British king wearing a long, powdered wig. Although most of these chiefs were Roman Catholic, the Rotinonkwiseres government was based on traditional Iroquoian practices dating back to the era before European contact. These men were chosen by the clan mothers and held their office for life.
The Canadian government saw the life chiefs as a hindrance to their plans to assimilate the Indians into the mainstream of society. They were also opposed to the surrendering of lands leased to white settlers. To undermine their power, the Department of Indian Affairs formulated the Indian Act (and its various amendments) to gradually institute municipal-style elections among the Indians. Among the Iroquois communities of Kanesatake, Kahnawake, Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, and Six Nations, the plans of the Canadian government met stiff resistance by the traditional leaders.
Resistance began with petitions by the chiefs and clan mothers that were usually ignored by the bureaucrats in Ottawa. This led to various "grand councils" in which the various communities got together to strategize. When the elections were held, they were often boycotted or physically prevented from occuring. Ottawa's reaction to this opposition went from withholding annuity and lease money from the "resistant" Indians to the threat of arrest and imprisonment of their leaders.
The conflict over leadership came to a head at Akwesasne. While Ottawa learned that the Mohawks were willing to give their lives to preserve their ancient leadership customs, the Mohawks learned that Ottawa was more than willing to give them that chance. One man in particular would pay that price in full. While a century of time has passed since the story I am about to relate took place, it is remembered by the people of Akwesasne as if it happened only yesterday.
The Jake Ice Story
It was shortly after nine o'clock on the morning of Monday, May 1, 1899. A thick fog hovered over the rivers around Akwesasne. In the village of Kanatakon, or St. Regis, a small tug, the Beaver, moved slowly toward the wharf closest to the Indian agent's office. One of the passengers was a Mohawk man from St. Regis Island by the name of Angus Papineau. The others were Dominion Police officers led by their chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Sherwood. Although Papineau was under arrest and understandably annoyed, the imposing size of the police officers and the stern looks they wore convinced him of the wisdom of keeping quiet. When the officers were ready to disembark, one of them stayed behind to guard Papineau in the boat, while the others calmly made their way up the path to the office of Indian agent George Long. Confident that they had not been noticed, they went inside the office and closed the door. Moments later the Indian agent went outside to spread word that he wanted the chiefs and principle men to come to his office to discuss some business.
In due time, two or three of them began to make their way down the old dirt road to see what was up. One of those was a man named Chief Ohnehtotako, or "Pine Tar." Whites knew him as Jake Fire. Although he was a slightly-built man in his 40's, Ohnehtotako was a man of considerable influence among the Mohawks. He was the spokesman for those who were opposed to the Indian Act and its alien system of elections.
In a nearby house lived Ohnehtotako's brother, Saiowisakeron, or "The Ice Is Floating By." The 52-year-old Saiowisakeron, who was also known as Jake Ice and John Fire, was a solidly-built man of average height. He had somewhat mellowed with age, having put his earlier life of aggressive behavior and drinking behind him. With his young wife Mary, or Teioshirake, or "Two Blankets," he was looking forward to living the peaceful life of a Mohawk elder and watching their daughter Sarah grow up. He had even sold a tract of his land for the construction of a schoolhouse in the village.
While his brother Ohnehtotako was meandering down the road to the Indian agent's office, Saiowisakeron was having a chat in his house with his wife and several other women. What they were talking about, we have no way of knowing. It may have been about politics, since the community had only several weeks before prevented an unwanted Indian Act election by locking up George Long in the schoolhouse, but it may have well been about the task of planting gardens. What we do know is that everything came to a halt when they heard a loud commotion coming from the Indian agent's office.
Upon entering the office of Agent Long, Ohnehtotako immediately recognized Colonel Sherwood and another officer, Chamberlain, as the two officers that had been sent by Ottawa for security at the ill-fated election. Seeing two other chiefs already in custody, he backed out the door, let out a loud warning cry, and made a break for it. Before he got very far he was tackled from behind and dragged back to the office, but not before several women heard his warning and ran to the house of his brother, Saiowisakeron.
Saiowisakeron immediately bolted out of his house and, letting out a mighty shout of his own, ran to the Indian agent's office and pushed his way through the door. Other Mohawks had also heard the noise and were on their way as well. Sherwood's testimony of what took place inside the office has Saiowisakeron coming at him and sneering "Shoot! Shoot!" when told not to come any further. He grabbed Sherwood and pushed him back against a stove. Sherwood then fired his gun, wounding Saiowisakeron in the arm. Saiowisakeron then pushed Sherwood on top of the stove while other Mohawks grappled with the other officers. While the other officers used their guns as billy clubs on the heads of their Mohawk opponents, Sherwood fired his second shot into Saiowisakeron's chest. Saiowisakeron finally let go of his grip on Sherwood and collapsed to the floor, dead.
Everyone stopped fighting at this point, so shocked were the Mohawks to see that the officers were willing to kill. Taking advantage of the stunned silence, the officers hustled their prisoners out of the building and down to the wharf with their guns drawn. The body of Saiowisakeron was left on the floor of the Indian agent's office, his arms above his head in what looked to be his final act of defiance. When a coroner finally came to take the body to Valleyfield, the assembled Mohawks refused to let him have it. They eventually gave in when they were assured that it would be brought back for a proper burial. A large procession accompanied the body as it was carried to the wharf in a rough, wooden coffin. From the banks of the St. Regis River, the assembled Mohawks watched "the ice float by" for the last time.
The killing of Saiowisakeron and the arrest of the life chiefs were a big blow to the people of Akwesasne. Since so much time had passed since the ill-fated election with no reprisals from the government, they had assumed that Ottawa was letting the matter drop. This was clearly not the case. The rest of the chiefs were rounded up and arrested, as were two men who went to Valleyfield to secure the services of a lawyer. While Sherwood and his men were absolved of any wrong-doing in the incident, the chiefs and a number of their supporters spent over a year in Beauharnois jail before they were even given a trial. Eventually they were released on the condition that they allow the Indian Act elections to proceed unencumbered.
The fact that Saiowisakeron had turned his life around was lost on the Indian agent, who saw him as the "muscle" behind the life chiefs and went to great lengths to single him out as a threat to the public good. He dredged up the details of Saiowisakeron's troubled past to any newspaper reporter that would listen. He even refused to spend $7.50 of the band's funds to pay for the tolling of the church bells in his memory.
Despite the efforts of the Indian agent to sully the good name of Saiowisakeron, the sacrifice he made on that fateful day in 1899 has not been forgotten by the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. It is still spoken of by the elders and taught to the youth in the school system. Although a century has passed since that fateful day in Akwesasne history, we continue to honor the memory and spirit of this noble defender of Mohawk custom and law. Although not a traditional leader himself, he stood behind them with everything he had and gave his life for a way of life that was given to us by the Creator. It is due to the sacrifice he made that the fire of Mohawk nationhood burns as brightly as it does.