Termination by Emancipation

Scholar Laurence Hauptman acknowledged that Ahkwesáhsne, like many other Iroquois communities in New York and Canada, did more than its fair share to help the Allies win World War II. Nine of our young men, in fact, made the ultimate sacrifice. In his book The Iroquois Struggle for Survival: World War II to Red Power (1986), Hauptman describes how the United States repaid the sacrifices of the Iroquois by fast-tracking efforts to assimilate them into the mainstream:

World War II had ended the New Deal for Indians. Experimentation and community building by administrators in the Indian world had now given way to budget-cutting, conformity, and mainstreaming. Fighting off the new congressional threats to cultural separatism and federal-Indian treaty relationships soon became the first order of business for those servicemen and women who returned to the reservations after the defeat of Japan…One war had ended while a longer war, more directly threatening to Iroquois existence, had just begun.57

At the heart of these threats were efforts to transfer jurisdiction over Indians from an under-funded federal agency to the individual states. A joint legislative committee was formed to pursue these initiatives. They invited representatives of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, and Tuscarora to Albany on January 4, 1945 to discuss the transfer.

Only one of nine Indians, Moses White, a Mohawk from the Saint Regis (Akwesasne) reservation, voiced support for an extension of state jurisdiction. His testimony was challenged by his brother Alec. The historic, often tragic, divisions among the Mohawks, that exist right down to the present day, were revealed in this confrontation between the White brothers. While Moses defended the state-recognized elected system and the need for jurisdictional changes, Alec opposed both. Despite the fact that Moses White represented a minority position among the Mohawks and that even many who supported the elected system opposed jurisdictional transfer, his testimony in 1945 was used to rationalize New York State’s assumption of paramount jurisdiction in Iroquois matters.58

The Joint Legislative Committee on Indian Affairs acknowledged that the majority of Iroquois would never support their recommendations, described in two draft pieces of legislation, which recommended a transfer of criminal and civil jurisdiction to New York State.59 This came at a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was being assailed on Capitol Hill for its inefficiencies and even its own officials were calling for its liquidation.60

While legislators often used terms like “emancipation” to describe this trend, there was no mistaking that it meant “termination.” Senator Hugh A. Butler of Nebraska introduced three bills in 1947 that dealt directly with the Iroquois of New York State, prompting this statement by a young Ernest Benedict of Ahkwesáhsne:

Masquerading under the high-sounding cover of “setting the Indians Free” are a series of Bills which strike at the very roots of Indian economy, and if passed would reduce whole Indian populations to poverty and dependence. These bills, which might, to an unsuspecting friend of the Indians, sound like pro-Indian legislation because of the holy guise of “emancipation” wrapped about them, are actually being pushed by the big business interests who want to get hold of Indian property. These interests are many and greedy; the big cattlemen of the Plains who want Indian grazing lands; the liquor industry that wants a free hand to debauch and exploit Indians; the mining interests; the timber barons; the fishing industry. It is significant that the proposed legislation affects mainly those tribes still having valuable assets left to their own ownership. There seems to be no particular haste to “free” those tribes whose lands are worthless and who own no valuable property.61

At a Senate hearing in 1948, Chief Moses White was among the minority of Iroquois leaders who endorsed the legislation. As we noted earlier in this history, White supported the measures New York State had taken in regard to the welfare of the St. Regis Mohawks. In his view, as wards of the federal government, his people were saddled with an inefficient, outdated system of governance. He told the hearing: “Our Indian courts conducted by our chiefs are both incompetent and inadequate; that is in settling land disputes and personal property and probation of wills.”62

The support of White and other “progressive” Iroquois leaders helped the Senate and Congress overlook the opposition of the majority of the Iroquois. The criminal jurisdiction bill S. 1683 was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on July 1, 1948.63 Attempts to transfer civil jurisdiction to the states and to commute the terms of the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794 prompted the Iroquois who opposed these measures to campaign even harder. When a “compromise” bill was passed in 1950 that gave the tribes a year to submit to the courts any tribal customs that they wanted to retain, not one complied. Finally, in 1953, House Concurrent Resolution 108 was introduced and passed:

That it is declared to be the sense of Congress that at the earliest possible time, all of the Indian tribes and individual members thereof located within the States of California, Florida, New York, and Texas, and all of the following named Indian tribes and individual members thereof, should be freed from Federal supervision and control and from all disabilities and limitations specifically applicable to Indians.64

Senator Butler continued in his attempts to commute the Canandaigua Treaty to a lump sum payment. The Iroquois continued to fight such attempts. Butler died in 1954. As Hauptman points out, the bills he promoted “left a bitter legacy” among the Iroquois of New York.65 At Ahkwesáhsne, the termination threat served to galvanize the factions vying for supremacy—steeling them for storms yet to come.

57  Hauptman, L.  The Iroquois Struggle for Survival: World War II to Red Power, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1986, p. 14.
58  Ibid, p. 38-39.
59  Ibid, p. 40.
60  Ibid, p. 42.
61  Ibid, p. 49.
62  Ibid, p. 55.
63  Ibid, p. 61-62.
64  Ibid, p. 62.
65  Ibid, p. 64.

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