The Phinney Report of 1942

In 1942, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent Nez Perce scholar Archie Phinney to study the tribal governments of the New York Indian reservations. His report about Ahkwesáhsne’s political situation suggested the federal government take a stronger role:

…for a century and a half the State of New York has, by virtue of default on the part of the Federal government, considerably monopolized the administration of tribes in that State. The assumed jurisdiction, largely based on the doctrine of “States Rights”, has never been widely challenged by the Federal government and has considerable sanction in the scores of treaties between New York State and the Indian tribes. Also, New York, as one of the thirteen original colonies, took title to Indian lands, and it was generally regarded that jurisdiction over the Indians was included. New York State has carried on numerous activities of social welfare while the Federal government has remained aloof.47

Phinney noted that the St. Regis Indians were now governed by a system of three chiefs, three sub-chiefs, and a clerk elected by popular vote for a term of three years.

…This elective system continued to function with practically no political discord or factional strife among the Indians until about 1934.

The difficulties of the present day arose several years ago out of the political ambitions of a small group who were not able to keep in power on the elective council. The ring leaders are Frank Terrance and Alex White, both formerly identified with the elective tribal government…

…Through the past several years this group of recalcitrants took every means of getting recognition among the Indians and from the State and Federal governments as a so-called “Council of Life Chiefs”, having established for themselves a platform of “Indian custom”.

…The “Life Chiefs” have cleverly designed their organizations to capture the support of the rank and file Indians. They speak of the Six Nations backgrounds, of Iroquois social organization, and the Long-house tradition. They validated their appointment as “Life Chiefs” by conjuring up a system of clans in which the so-called “clan mother” has the power of appointing “Life Chiefs”. They relate the “Life Chiefs” to the Long-house, simply for the ceremonial value. It is not correct that the Long-house contingent at St. Regis is part and parcel of the “Life Chief” faction. There are Catholic and Protestant, as well as Long-house people, who support the “Life Chiefs”. In fact, the Long-house ceremonial group, is negligible on the reservation, their main strength coming from Canadian Indians who frequent the reservation.

Probably the most important factor of the influence of the “Life Chiefs” is the weakness of the elective chiefs who are officially recognized council of the tribe. For some strange reason the people are inclined to elect weak councilmen. One explanation found was that they are fearful of strong people in the council. By strong people I mean such persons as Mose Jay White and the late Joseph Tarbell. Another significant fact is that comparatively few people participate at elections. This year, a chief was elected by having only seventeen votes…48

Phinney commented that neither faction commanded the support of the majority, and that the state of agitation against elected chiefs kept many of the more “public-spirited’ members of the community from running for the positions. He recommended that the state and federal governments work together to resolve the political discord in a way that recognized tribal authority:

Instead of a division of state and federal jurisdiction, it would probably be more effective to clothe many of the federal responsibilities with tribal authority. For example, if the Federal government wished to promote certain rehabilitation programs, this could be done in the name of the tribal activity without raising the long-standing issue of State—Federal jurisdiction and at the same time it would make the tribe more conscious of its own responsibilities.49

Phinney also recommended that court action be taken to force one of the former elected chiefs, Frank Terrance, to return tribal records that he took with him when he left office. He also recommended that both the state and federal governments take a firm stand against recognizing Terrance’s faction, the life chiefs:

It is essential that the claims and activities of this opposition group be eliminated as a factor of tribal reorganization from the beginning. This will result in a fiery outburst from this group at the beginning but this will be preferable to a protracted dissension as encouraged in the past. It should be mentioned that I have sufficient material to refute the claims of the “Life Chiefs”.50

Phinney went on to recommend a program of tribal government reform:

The Office should assign a member of the Organization staff to the working out of an outline of a tribal constitution, based largely upon the survivals of “Indian custom” and other features of ancient political institutions of the Iroquois. A constitution, by-laws and ordinances establishing definite powers and procedures is the greatest need at the present time. An attempt should be made to convert the present tribal organization to a more definite and modern form. This should be done without drastically upsetting the present council organization. I believe there is room for revamping the present council within the structure established by State laws. It will be important to preserve the elective system and yet give a more Indian or traditional cast to the organization. Much of this preliminary work can be done in the Washington Office before consulting the Indians about the particular contents of the constitution.

…As soon as this preliminary work has been done, a representative of the Office should be detailed to St. Regis Reservation for educational work among the Indians and for the perfecting of the tribal document…51

Phinney went on to recommend that the agency assign someone to work with all tribes in New York State to not only strengthen their governments but to encourage agricultural activities. He also recommended that the federal government negotiate with the state to take a stronger law enforcement role on reservations beyond the “ten major crimes.”

Most of Phinney’s recommendations were endorsed by the BIA’s New York Agency, who further recommended that he be the one assigned to effect the tribal reorganization at St. Regis.

Our research has not yet uncovered what kind of follow-up took place, or if Archie Phinney ever returned to carry out this work. We do know that the political strife between the elected and traditional elements continued to fester.

47  Phinney, A., A Study of Tribal Government of the St. Regis (Mohawk) Indians of New York, Records of New York Agency, 1938-1949, RG 75, National Archives, Washington, 1942, p. 1.
48  Ibid, p. 5-6.
49  Ibid, p. 8.
50  Ibid, p. 9.
51  Ibid, p. 9.

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