Evolution of Tribal Governance in the 19th Century

In the early 1990’s, Professor William Starna documented the evolution of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council in American Indian Law Review. His research supports the view that there was a distinct division of the community of Ahkwesáhsne and its leadership in the 19th century:

In 1835, the New York State Comptroller received a complaint that British Indians were casting votes in and sometimes controlling elections on the American side. No action was taken by the comptroller, who saw no reason to interfere in the process. About 1858, New York stopped making its treaty annuity payments to Indians who were not members of the American tribe. After a census in 1859, the state established an annuity list containing the names of Mohawks affiliated with the “American side.” This became, for all intents and purposes, a tribal roll. It was undoubtedly this list that had the effect of limiting political participation in the elective government to those enrolled in the American tribe, thereby thwarting one source of interference in its affairs.

There have been several disputes at Akwesasne, beyond the current one, regarding its elective government and opposition to it. The most notable took place in the 1880’s and the 1940’s. The first arose in response to the Kansas claims. In 1888, the St. Regis Indians were “adopted” by the Iroquois Confederacy to succeed the Mohawks, who were considered to have abdicated their membership by moving to Canada following the American Revolution. Confederacy members apparently believed that “if there were less than six tribes it would work against them in their efforts to uphold their perceived rights under treaties entered into with the United States,” thereby weakening their claim. At the same time, nine chiefs and nine subchiefs were installed by those opposing the elective system, although they were said to be “practically and legally” without power. Two were trustees under the 1802 act. Although confronted by what appears to have been a reconstituted or possibly rejuvenated traditional form of government, the Tribe’s elective system remained intact.26

While elements of the Ahkwesáhsne community sought to revive a more traditional system of governance in the late 1800’s, the “trustee” system in place on the American side of Ahkwesáhsne was undergoing an evolution of its own. This occurred in the form of laws passed by New York State. A special commission appointed by the New York State Legislature in 1888 to investigate the “Indian Problem of New York State,” described chapter 226 of the Laws of 1875 as “an act providing for the election of trustees and prescribing their duties and terms of office.”27  Their report provided this description of what constituted “governance” under the trustees:

Since 1813, they have elected as their officers three trustees, who held office for three years, one being elected each year. They also elect a clerk each year. For a long time it was made the duty of the district attorney of Franklin county to act as attorney for the nation. Under the Laws of 1861, chapter 325, provision was made for the appointment of an attorney for the tribe, whose duty it is, among other things, to receive and pay over to the Indians the State annuities.

There is very little left for the trustees to do and they have very little power. They have a kind of ex-officio relation to the Indian schools, as will be seen by reference to the evidence of one of the teachers, Mrs. Hattie Terrance. One witness said all the trustees did was to advise, and that he was inclined to think their advice purchasable.

Although they have no chiefs, they send men who act as chiefs to represent them in the councils of the Six Nations.28

One of the trustees, John Cook, provided testimony to the 1888 commission which confirmed that there was a distinction between chiefs and trustees, at least in his eyes.

Q. Do you have any chiefs now?

A. No; just trustees, they call them on this side.

Q. Do they have chiefs on the other side?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. How long have you had trustees?

A. I could not say exactly.

Q. Since you could remember?

A. I guess for a good many years.29

Cook was questioned later in his testimony about his own experiences as a trustee. He explained that the elections were held each year at a school-house—they did not have a council-house—and the chiefs held office for three years.

Q. Does your nation have any money?

A. No.

Q. Do you have any treasurer?

A. Yes.

Q. What do these trustees do, Mr. Cook?

A. Well, we keep watch of the land and the wood, and such things as that.

Q. And see that no one steals the wood?

A. Yes, sir.30

Cook was questioned about leases and annuities. He stated that the New York annuities came to about “two dollars and four cents a head.” When asked if there were courts among the Indians, he replied that there were not but they did have meetings to deal with any troubles.

Q. Supposing two men should get to disputing about a piece of land and both claim it, what would you do in such a case?

A. We would have to fix it some way; it goes to the trustees when they have trouble like that.

Q. It goes before the trustees?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What do they do?

A. They have to decide which it goes to.

Q. They would go before the trustees and each man would tell them how he came by that land and then they would make a decision?

A. Yes, sir; they have witnesses, you know.

Q. Take evidence?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Suppose they decide against you, if you were one of the parties, what would you do; could you do anything about it, only to give up the land?

A. You mean, if I was taking land from them?

Q. No; I mean if two men here should dispute about a piece of land, and both claim it, and they went before the trustees and the trustees made a decision in favor of one and against the other, could the man that got beat do anything about it?

A. No, sir.

Q. He would have to give it up?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. He could not go anywhere else to have it tried again, could he?

A. No; why, there is some they don’t believe the trustees, why, they law it.

Q. Go into a white court?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Do the trustees always decide right about these matters?

A. When they are lawing it?

Q. No, when they make their decisions about land between the parties?

A. O, Yes, sir.31

Cook’s testimony demonstrated how poorly defined the trustees’ authority was—and how little recourse there was for those who had to live under it. The flaws of this system no doubt fed the fire of the traditionalist revival that took place in that era.

The trustee system was modified under New York State’s “Indian Law” of 1892. Article 8 outlined the operation of the “Saint Regis Tribe,” including its manner of elections of officers, qualifications of voters, and their duties, among other things. This was modified again in 1898, as described in a newspaper article from The Massena Observer on June 23rd of that year:


Over A Law Doing Away with the Law of Hereditary Chiefs

The St. Regis tribe of Indians of Franklin County claim that they were buncoed by the last legislature, and are so incensed that an outbreak at the reservation is feared.  Joseph Wood, the head chief of the tribe, and William Reep, an interpreter, were in Albany last week to see Governor Black and Attorney General Hancock in relation to the matter.  The cause of the trouble is the passage of chapter 642 of the laws of 1898, which does away with hereditary chiefs in the tribe and provides for their election every three years.  The Indians are opposed to this because it is contrary to their traditions and from the fact that they were unaware of its passage by the legislature until a few days ago.  Chief Wood said that the young bucks of the tribe were hot-headed over the matter, and that he has had a hard time keeping them from creating a demonstration on the reservation.  He feared that there might be an outbreak at the election Monday.  The attorney general’s department informed him that there was no way to test the constitutionality of the law until after the election was held.  The chief claims that the treaty entered into between the tribe and the state is violated by the law.32

As Ahkwesáhsne entered a new century, tensions between the “hereditary” and elected forms of government would continue to create conflict. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the government of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe would continue to evolve.

26  Starna, W. “The Repeal of Article 8: Law, Government, and Cultural Politics at Akwesasne,” American Indian Law Review, vol. XVIII. no. 2,  1993, p. 305-306.
27  New York State Legislature, Assembly 51, Report of Special Committee to Investigate the Indian Problem of the State of New York, Appointed by the Assembly of 1888, Albany, 1889, p. 83.
28  Ibid, p. 58.
29  Ibid, p. 875-876.
30  Ibid, p. 879.
31  Ibid, p. 880.
32  Lopez, Andre. Pagans in Our Midst, Akwesasne Notes, Rooseveltown, 1980, p. 10.

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