The Rise of the Longhouse

As noted by William Starna in a previous quotation, the Rotinonhsón:ni Confederacy appointed the St. Regis Mohawks as the “successors” to the Mohawks who left for Canada at the end of the American Revolution. This is described in The Six Nations of New York: The 1892 United States Extra Census Bulletin:

The old or pagan element among the Onondagas, supported by Chief Daniel La Forte, Thomas Williams, keeper of the wampum, and others, maintained that their right to lands in Kansas and similar rights rested upon treaties made between the Six Nations (exactly six) and the United States, and at a general council, held in 1888, the Saint Regis Indians were formally recognized as the successors of the Mohawks, thus restoring the original five, while, with the Tuscaroras, maintaining six. The theory was that an apparent lapse from the six in number would in some way work to their prejudice. The same element at once proposed the revival of the old government by chiefs, which had become obsolete among the St. Regis Indians. A meeting was held, even among the Cattaraugus Senecas, with the deliberate purpose to ignore or abandon their civilized, legal organization as the Seneca nation and return to former systems. The election through families, after the old method, of 9 chiefs and 9 alternate or vice chiefs was held, and these were duly installed in office by a general council, representing all the other nations. Practically and legally they have no power whatever. Two of them, Joseph Wood and Joseph Bero (Biron), are still trustees under the law of 1802.37

While some have hailed the historic significance of this event as having designated Ahkwesáhsne as something of a Mohawk “capitol” for the Rotinonhsón:ni Confederacy, it should be noted that this decision did not involve the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario, who maintained a “parallel” Grand Council there and did not lack for Mohawk representation. The “titles” conferred upon the St. Regis Indians apparently died out with the men who held them, because a second attempt at reinstatement was begun in September of 1932, as evidenced by this newspaper account carried by the Associated Press:

For the first times since they seceded from the confederacy more than 150 years ago, the Mohawk Indians today asked for reinstatement in the Six Nations.  With their travel-stained automobile parked around the council house of the Seneca nation on the Tonawanda reservation, the Mohawks entered into a powow regarded as one of the most important inter-Indian councils since they forsook their brethren to join the British forces operating in Northern and Eastern New York during the revolution.

The deliberations struck a snag almost at the outset over the question of religions.  
The Mohawks, living on the St. Regis reservations on both sides of the St. Lawrence river, have been Christians while the traditional chieftans of the Six Nations are staunchly pagan, as are most of the tribes.

Indian orators, using the ancient language of the tribes, debated the point for hours but only the Indians know what they said for whites were barred from the long house.

However, Thomas and Bright Fire Thunder Skye, brother St. Regis Indians, afterward said decision to return to the old Indian religion may be taken before the council ends tomorrow or Sunday…38

In 1945, Mary Rowell Carse visited Ahkwesáhsne to research her manuscript, St. Regis: An American Indian Community. Of particular interest was the growing “Longhouse religion” in the community:

So about fifteen years ago, there was a sufficiently large group of interested people on St. Regis to start a Longhouse there. To continue to quote from one of the members: “This was in the fall of 1932, about September. They met in the council house, down on St. Regis Road…They said, ‘We can’t go back to our old religion unless we have a long house.’ So they all contributed money and bought the materials and everyone pitched in to help build it, just as they had built the church for the Jesuits long ago. They then had the dedication, and a delegation of singers came from the other tribes. There was much ceremony and much talking. They thanked each other and the great Creator for restoring the Long House to the Mohawks. We danced, and then about six o’clock there was some trouble. One Onondaga said that the Indians would all have to relinquish their church affiliation. Some of the Catholics said they would never do this. The others said, ‘We can get along without you. That’s the white man’s religion, what do Indians want of it?’ So there was almost a fight, and some walked out, but those in favor of the Longhouse remained. The man who leased the land the Longhouse was built on hadn’t known to what use it was going to be put. He was one of the ones who walked out, but he had signed over the land to the Longhouse, together with a path through his pasture to it, and he couldn’t get it back.”

This Indian claims that there are about 150 Indian members of the Longhouse at St. Regis, but some of them are away in the cities working. The Longhouse people are scattered throughout the reservation, but the largest concentration of them is on Racquette Point, in the States, and on the tip of Cornwall Island, in Canada, as well as a few in the Village.39

Carse noted the political undertones of the “new” religion:

While it will probably never completely supercede in numbers and importance the Christian elements of religion have on the reserve, it may well bring about a political coup for the Life Chiefs.40

Carse was no prophet. The Longhouse movement already had a long history of political activity by the time she came onto the scene in the 1940’s. As Laurence Hauptman points out in The Iroquois and the New Deal (1982), Ahkwesáhsne traditionalists had joined with their counterparts from across Iroquoia to oppose the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This bill, which was introduced in Congress in 1935, was a radical overhaul of tribal government, education, and land management. Hauptman writes that among the tribes of New York, “age-old Iroquois concerns and perceptions, both real and imaginary, were central to the IRA’s rejection.”41

Lingering fears and one hundred fifty years of distrust of the dominant non-Indian world could not be removed overnight by one piece of comprehensive legislation designed to help all tribes in the United States however different from each other they may have been.42

Hauptman notes Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier sent Indian agent W.K. Harrison and anthropologist William N. Fenton, then an Indian Service community worker based at Tonawanda, to the communities to promote the bill. They were joined by Henry Roe Cloud, the superintendent of Haskell Institute and a noted Indian educator.43 Fenton and Roe Cloud witnessed the rejection of the bill at Ahkwesáhsne:

The furor over the IRA culminated with the holding of the first referendum on June 8 at St. Regis. On that day, the plebiscite was temporarily halted when Mohawk clan mothers prevented the opening of the election site by threatening to remove the clothing from the janitor who had the keys if he foolishly decided to cross their path. The elected chiefs called in New York State troopers and two members of the border patrol. The referendum was shifted from Forrester’s Hall to the Mohawk school. The women, however, refused to abandon their plans. State and federal police kept the mob from seizing the ballot box. The women were eventually placated when ballots were taken to a number of handicapped Indians unable to reach the polls and when Roe Cloud diplomatically recommended to the women that they wire the commissioner about their objections.

Despite the eventual resumption of voting, few eligible Mohawks participated since, as Fenton described it, they identified “casting a ballot with citizenship, taxes and ultimate loss of their lands.” Once again, suspicions of the non-Indian world based upon historical factors of land loss produced a situation unfavorable to acceptance. This Mohawk boycott was also conditioned by local factors that went well beyond the IRA itself. Fenton attempted to explain one of these reasons to his superiors in Washington: “At present, about twenty-five percent of the people elect the chiefs. The others do not recognize the legal government, insist on the old life chiefs, and refuse to come to the polls. Hence they object strenuously to coming to the polls, and voting for or against the IRA. Many will stay home and still violently oppose the act.” Since 517 out of 800 eligible voters did not participate, the Mohawks, because of Section 18 of the act, technically accepted the legislation. Nevertheless, Collier, realizing that only forty-six Mohawks voted for the act and now fully aware of the predominant New York Iroquois attitude against it, wisely never pushed for Mohawk tribal reorganization.44

The life chiefs and their Longhouse allies continued to express their political ambitions in the years that followed, as evidenced by a newspaper account from April 16, 1938:

…For several years now the St. Regis Mohawks, once “the fiercest, the cruelest and the bravest, as well as the mightiest of any of the tribes of the League of the Iroquois,” have been split on the question of tribal government.  The faction headed by three elective chiefs controls the tribe at present, this democratic form of government having been in existence on the reserve since 1892.

Seeking to overthrow this regime is the faction that would go back to the system of the Long House, with life chiefs named by the clan mothers ruling the tribe.  Both sides claim to be in the majority.45

According to the article, the life chiefs favored a stronger relationship with the federal government, while the advocates of the elected system defended New York State’s role at St. Regis:

…The elective chiefs believe that the best future for the tribe is to continue under the protective wing of the state.  The life chiefs’ group would throw the state overboard for a federal guardianship…

…Mose White, regarded as an intellectual of the tribe in both state and federal courts, where he has appeared frequently as an advocate of the Indian, is now championing, in spite of ill health, the cause of the elective chiefs, who are headed by Chief Joseph Tarbell, a Carlisle graduate and direct lineal descendent of the first Indian chief of the reserve.

Both of these men believe that the best future of the tribe is bound up with the state, morally, educationally and economically.

“Even if the Indians get back all of Hogansburg village would that measure up to what the state has given us?”  Mose White asks, declaring that the state spends annually between $200,000 and $250,000 on the tribe.

“The state has maintained our highways, our schools, including teachers, books and buses, school clothing for his needy, direct relief for unemployment, medication and hospitalization, services of a nurse and a doctor, care of Indian orphans in state schools, in fact every form of assistance possible…What has the federal government ever given us?  Not one cent had been received up to the time of the ditch drainage project three years ago.”

…Monday was election day on the reserve and a group of life chief adherents attempted to prevent the election of a chief by the elective group by staging an impromptu referendum outside the council house.  In spite of this referendum, carried by the life chiefs 200 to 5 in the absence of the other faction, the election was held.

The presence of a federal observer at this election prompted charges of bias by the supporters of the elected system, a charge the man, C.C. Daniels, denied. In the coming years, the federal government would send another representative to study the political situation at Ahkwesáhsne.

37  Venables, R. ed., The Six Nations of New York: The 1892 United States Extra Census Bulletin, Cornell University Press, Ithica, 1996, p. 40.
38  “Mohawks May Heal Old Split,” The Buffalo News, September 21, 1932. (Found online at
39  Carse, M. R., St. Regis: An American Indian Community, unpublished manuscript, New York State Archives, Albany, 1945, p. 219.
40  Ibid, p. 221.
41  Hauptman, L. The Iroquois and the New Deal, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1982, p. 58.
42  Ibid, p. 59.
43  Ibid, p. 65.
44  Ibid, p. 68-69.
45  “Issues Going Back Centuries Joined with Title to Village in St. Regis Reservation Split,” The Buffalo News, April 16, 1838.
46  Ibid.

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