Article 8 of New York State’s “Indian Law”

On March 25, 1915, The Massena Observer had this to say about the government on the American side of Ahkwesáhsne:

The first race of Indians to adopt the Republican form of government is the St. Regis tribe in Franklin county, New York. The only difference between their government and that of the United States is the names which their officials take. Instead of head of the government being called a president, they use the word chief, and for his cabinet he has sub-chiefs. Under the latter there are several clerks. Three chiefs, with their sub-chiefs, hold what they call a tribal court, having authority to settle all disputes and aid the minor courts in exercising the law.

All officials are elected by ballot, and the Indians are known to be clever politicians. They have to be, for there are four parties in the tribe, each one having a separate ticket and emblem. The Iroquois put a horse over their ticket, the Mohawks use a cow, the Redmen an eagle and the Indians a rope and anchor. Elections are held every year, after which there is much excitement, as in any American city. Celebrations and a procession take place when government blankets are handed to the people by the new officials. In this manner they give their pledge to carry out the wishes of the people.33

This article proclaims the St. Regis Indians to be the first tribe to adopt a “Republican form of government.” What rules governed the operation of this republic?

For years a former clerk of the Tribal Council kept close at hand a copy of the “little black book,” also known as Book 25 of McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York Annotated. This book was the “bible” of tribal governance: it contained New York State’s “Indian Law” governing the operation of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and other native communities within the state. The Indian Law was signed by the governor in 1909. McKinney first published it in book form in 1917; another edition appeared in hardcover in 1950, with updates published annually.

The Indian Law, although a part of the scheme of general laws, is but a collection of special statutes relating to the several tribes of Indians remaining in the state. Following this plan an examination has been made of all statutes relating to Indians, and such as were found to be unrepealed but superseded or obsolete have been placed in the schedule for repeal, and those remaining have been added to the law under the article relating to the particular tribe to which they apply.34

Two of the statutes consolidated into the “Indian Law” were those passed in 1892 and 1898 that codified the operation of the trustee system at St. Regis. In the 1950 edition, we see that the term “trustee” is no longer used, replaced by terms like “chiefs,” “headmen,” and “subchiefs.”

Article 8—the Saint Regis Tribe is divided into the following sections: 100. Appointment of attorney; 101. Powers and duties of attorney; 102. Allotment of lands; 103. Consent of chiefs to sale of timber; 104. Indian trespassers; 105. Illegal sales of timber, trees, and stone; 106. Jurisdiction of council to determine disputes; 107. General powers of council; 108. Qualifications of voters; 109. Officers of tribes; 110. Elections of officers; 111. Conduct of elections; 112. Canvass of votes; 113. Vacancies; 114. Repealed.35

For the purposes of this history we will highlight sections 106 through 110:

§ 106. Jurisdiction of council to determine disputes

The Chiefs of such tribe in council assembled may hear and determine charges of encroachment or trespass on lands cultivated or occupied by any Indian, entered or described in the clerk’s book of records; and controversies involving the title to property between individual Indians residing on such reservation. A chief shall not act in any such case where he is related by blood to either of the parties within the fourth degree by the common law, or has any interest in the action or proceeding.

§ 107. General powers of council

The council of the Saint Regis nation may pass by-laws and ordinances not inconsistent with law, for the protection and improvement of the common land of the nation, for the regulation of fences and for the prevention of trespasses by cattle or other domestic animals, and may provide for a penalty of not exceeding five dollars for the violation or disobedience of any such by-law or ordinance recoverable for the benefit of such nation, by any chief or officer thereof in the names of the nation in any justice’s court of the county of Franklin.

§ 108. Qualification of voters

All male Indians of the Saint Regis tribe, who are twenty-one years of age or upwards, who reside on the American side of the line dividing the United States from Canada, and who are entitled to draw the yearly annuity money, shall be entitled to vote for the chiefs or headmen, the subchiefs and clerk of the tribe at the elections of such tribe provided for by this article.

§ 109. Officers of tribes

The chiefs or headmen, the subchiefs and clerk of the Saint Regis tribe in office when this section takes effect shall continue in office until the expiration of the terms for which they were elected. Their successors shall be elected in the manner provided for by this article, and shall have all the powers conferred by this chapter upon such matters. A subchief shall have all the power and perform all the duties of the chief to whom he is elected as a subchief, in case of such chief’s inability to act for any reason whatsoever.

§ 110. Election of officers

The election of the Saint Regis tribe of Indians shall be held annually on the first Monday after the first Tuesday in June. At each election there shall be elected by a plurality of the votes cast by the qualified voters of such tribe, one chief and one subchief thereto, each of whom shall hold office for a term of three years.

At each third annual election dating from that held in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, there shall be elected by a plurality of votes cast by the qualified voters of said tribe, a clerk, who shall hold office for a term of three years.

A successor to such clerk shall be elected at the annual election occurring next prior to the expiration of his term of office. The terms of office of all officers of the Saint Regis tribe shall commence at twelve o’clock noon on the first day of July succeeding the election at which they are elected.36

The elected tribal government evolved at a snail’s pace at the hands of New York legislators in the first half of the 20th century. This is in stark contrast to Ahkwesáhsne’s traditionalist movement, which caught the interest not only of community members but of the outside media, scholars, and government authorities.

33  “Facts About St. Regis Indians,” The Massena Observer, March 25, 1915.
34  The Consolidated Laws of New York Annotated, Book 25, Indian Law, West Publishing Co., St. Paul, 1950, p. 1.
35  Ibid, p. 68.
36  Ibid, p.72-73.

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