Mainstream American society looks upon the 1960’s as a time of momentous social transformation. For Ahkwesáhsne, that era had begun several years earlier when workers began to carve the St. Lawrence Seaway out of our landscape. With the advent of industrial development upstream and upwind from our community, our way of life was radically changed. Men who were farmers and fishermen left to become ironworkers while others went to work in the factories. Like some kind of ironic tribute to our myths and legends, giant steel monsters now prowled our waterways.
The 1960’s began with a tragic sacrifice: Francis Robert Cole, 28, and Michael William Caldwell, 41, were killed when a span of a bridge over the Racquette River collapsed during construction on September 9, 1960.93 Before the decade was over, Charles R. Martin, 21, would lose his life in the Vietnam conflict.94
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council began the year with a success of sorts: their eviction of a “Canadian” Mohawk, Mrs. Mary Tebo, from the “American” side of the reservation was upheld by the court. Her discrimination suit was also dismissed. Tebo, the mother of five children, was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to leave the land she claimed was hers.95
A local Akwesasne newspaper described Tebo’s case in her 1991 obituary:
In 1960, at the age of 59, she was put in jail for six months by Franklin County Judge Lawrence. The judge put Wenniseriosta in jail for refusing to abide by a tribal eviction order.
The Tribal Council wanted Mary off her land because she was a “Canadian born Mohawk.” As a longhouse member, Mary did not recognize the American-Canadian border and refused to leave the land given to her by her Uncle.
The actual charge that sent her to jail was that of contempt of court. If Mary had agreed to move, she would have been freed at any time. She steadfastly refused and after her release six months later, moved back to the home where she lived the rest of her life.96
The elected chiefs of the “American” and “Canadian” side of Akwesasne rarely conferred with each other, as a newspaper account of a meeting between the two councils suggests:
“The first of its kind.” These are the words of Ralph Whitebean, Band secretary for the Canadian section of the St. Regis Reservation, in describing the special meeting of the Band Councils on Saturday.
This was the first time chiefs from both Canadian and American sides of the reservation sat in to form a joint meeting of the Band Councils.
Chief Alex Oakes, Band leader of the Canadian side of the reservation, said this meeting represented a great step forward in improving relations within the reservation.
He also proposed that these meetings be held regularly in a concerted effort to remedy the present “touchy” situation between the Canadian and American Band Councils. This proposal met with unanimous approval from all present.
Thomas Laughing, chairman of the American Band Council, asserted his approval of the idea, say this was the only way to achieve the progress needed.97
The first item of mutual concern was the lack of bridge passes for community members, which had been promised by the Seaway Authority in 1957. They also felt that the community should get some of the shipping tolls since the ships passed through our territory. A possible game preserve on the territory was also discussed as well as a mutual claim for Barnhart Island:
The Band Councils plan to unite in an effort to secure proof that Barnhart Island belongs to the reserve. The State of New York has claimed that it owns Barnhart Island. The Band Councils state that this is impossible because the island has never been sold to the State.
It was also asserted that the Indians dislike being referred to as either Canadian or American Indians. They feel they are North American Indians and should be referred to as such.98
The Massena Observer also documented the opening of the Kateri Hall, a community center in Hogansburg named in honor of “The Lily of the Mohawks,” Kateri Tekakwitha, in 1964, and the dedication of a statue to Kateri the following Easter.99
The ceremonies of Longhouse followers also caught the attention of the local media in the 1960’s. In January of 1966, The Massena Observer profiled the visit of 49-year-old Huron Miller of the Six Nations Reserve to participate in mid-winter festivities:
“It is the way we give thanks to our Creator,” Mr. Miller said. “The Long House religion is our Great Law and includes original Indian ceremonial. All of our religion is handed down by tradition without words on paper. It is traditional knowledge as it comes from the elders.”......Mr. Miller said the Indians of the Long House persuasion have no interest in politics. “When the white man gets into politics he wants a big position and makes promises to get votes. Here we are all equals,” he related. Queried on his people’s attitude toward Christianity, he replied that true Long House person could not be anything else at the same time. “Nevertheless,” he said, “we allow perfect freedom. If someone wants to go to any church, that is all right. If they want to come back to the Long House, that is all right. They are welcome back.”100
By 1967, the elected council on the Canadian side of the reserve was accused of not being forceful enough in dealing with the Department of Indian Affairs over the leasing of reservation islands. A petition was signed by over 400 community members seeking their removal. In December of 1968, many of these same “discontented” residents, angry that they were being charged duty on household goods they purchased and brought into Canada, took matters into their own hands and blocked the Massena-Cornwall International Bridge. 48 were arrested.
In August of 1969, an “Indian Unity Convention” was held at the Longhouse in Hogansburg. An official statement was issued:
“The Traditional Indian Unity Convention was held at the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian Reserve. At a meeting consisting of 62 Indian nations, bands and tribes held the 26th day of August, 1969, in our first day of convention, we unanimously and strongly protest against the position that the government of Canada has been recently and illegally denying our North American Indian people of their inherit right to freely travel anywhere on this continent. The imposed border that has been recently and illegally been created by the United States and Canada has caused grave hardship and has divided our families and has always disrupted our spiritual, traditional way of life.
This denies us our religious freedom. Our Indian people throughout the North American continent are now joining hands in support of the Six Nations effort to preserve the free movement of the aboriginals of this land.”101
The end of the 1960’s did not bring an end to this period of renewed native activism. Instead, there was a bold statement that this was really only the beginning. In November of 1969, an Ahkwesáhsne Mohawk, Richard Oakes, accompanied by “Indians of All Tribes,” chartered a boat to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco and reclaimed it. The occupation lasted until June of 1971.
Not content to trust the outside media to convey their
traditional Mohawks established a newspaper, Akwesasne Notes,
as well as a cultural center, the North American Indian Travelling
College, during this era. The end result was that the traditionalist
viewpoint about politics, history and culture came to dominate the
public discourse over time, and this viewpoint was frequently at odds
with the views of those who supported the elected governments. These
conflicting ideologies would eventually bring about a dramatic
confrontation in the decade to come.