The 1948 Referendum and Election Protest

As the Phinney report had pointed out, there were distinctions between the life chiefs faction and the Longhouse followers, even though they were both opposed to elections.

The line between the two would continue to blur. On December 12, 1947, Ahkwesáhsne’s first local newspaper, Ka-Weh-Ras!, reported that the life chiefs had put their support behind the growing traditionalist movement:

The Life Chiefs of St. Regis met in St. Regis Wednesday, Dec. 10th. They showed great concern over the troubles of their people south of what they term “the white man’s boundary line.”

The chiefs at their meeting made an appeal to the whole reservation to become as one mind, to work as one group in the important days coming. “The only hope for our people lies in the Six Nations Confederacy (and) in the hearts and minds of its people. If we can work as (one, our) united voice will be strong enough to be heard in both Washington and Ottawa. The people should petition their chiefs to clasp hands with their brothers across the border.”52

In the January 24, 1948 edition of the same newspaper, it was reported that a delegation from Kahnawà:ke had come to support this “merger” of traditional elements:

Last weekend, a delegation of five, made up of elected councillors and Six Nations chiefs came from Caughnawaga to see what ways there might be for an even closer cooperation among the Mohawk settlements.  They urged a strong union of reservations under a single central government which would be the Mohawk Nation.  The delegates were very well received at St. Regis village, but at Hogansburg, the local chiefs took the matter under advisement and are to report their decision on the matter to Caughnawaga soon.53

On May 29, 1948, Ka-Weh-Ras! reported that the matter had been brought a vote:

Monday, May 24th a referendum was held at the Forrester's Hall on the subject, What kind of government do you want on the reservation?  At a previous council, it was decided to make the selection by ballot.  The paper slips gave space to the “Elected Chiefs,” the “Seven Nations Chiefs” and the “Six Nations.”

Eighty-four votes were counted by three men selected in open council at ten o'clock Monday night.  Eighty-three fell to the Six Nations.  The Elected Chiefs received one vote.

A letter was immediately written by the elected chiefs which follows:

                                                                                            St. Regis Reservation

                                                                                                        May 24, 1948

To Whom It May Concern,

We, the Undersigned, who are known as the Elected Chiefs of St. Regis Reservation, heretofore operating under the New York State code of Indian Law, hereby act in accordance with the wishes of the adult residents of the St. Regis Reservation, as evidenced by the referendum held on May 24, 1948, and do renounce all claim to authority.  Any correspondence hereafter concerning the tribe should be addressed to whomever shall be designated by the Six Nations Chiefs for the purpose.  Signed--(by the Elective Chiefs)54

The referendum and the letter signed by the elected chiefs had little effect.  Outside authorities refused to recognize the “Six Nations” chiefs as the government of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.  New York State, in fact, mobilized to re-instate the elective system, as the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs described in 1982:

On June 7, 1948, the “tribal attorney,” Milton J. Valois, an employee of the State of New York, accompanied by two State Troopers arrived at the Council House to conduct an election.  He found the doors to the Council House padlocked and guarded by the clan mothers who refused to permit the elections to be held.

On September 30, 1948, attorney Valois appointed an “elective” government for St. Regis, and on June 13, 1949 conducted an election under State Police guard.  The election was held in Hogansburg, one of the former Mohawk lands earlier ceded or leased by the “trustees,” and thus outside the present boundaries of the reservation, in a building donated for the purpose by the missionary, and under an armed police guard.55

The elected chiefs who signed the letter surrendering their authority were eventually replaced by men who supported the continuation of an elective form of government…assuring that the struggle between the two forms of governance would continue into the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the two forms of government, elected and traditional, did put aside their differences to act together from time to time. On June 7, 1949, less than a week before the contentious election mentioned above, both the elected and “hereditary” chiefs signed a franchise agreement with Central New York Power Corporation allowing for the establishment of electrical lines and facilities on the reservation.56

At the same time, the tug-of-war between the state and federal governments for jurisdiction over the Indian tribes had seemingly come to an end…with the federal “guardians” leading the charge to hand over civil and criminal jurisdiction to the states.

52  “Life Chief Meeting,” Ka-Weh-Ras!  December 12, 1947.  
53  “Delegates From Caughnawaga,” Ka-Weh-Ras!  January 24, 1948.
54  “Referendum,” Ka-Weh-Ras!  May 29, 1948.  
55  National Lawyers Guild Committee on Native American  Struggles (CONAS), Rethinking Indian Law, Advocate Press, Inc. New Haven, 1982.  
56  Personal communication from Chief Jim Ransom, December 4, 2006.

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