The 1970’s

Like the decade before, the 1970’s began with tragic loss for Ahkwesáhsne: Clifford L. Tarbell, 20, was killed in action in Vietnam on April 11, 1970.102

Politically, the age-old conflict between supporters of the traditional and elected systems would come to a head by decade’s end.

The Seventies started off as a decade of milestones for Ahkwesáhsne. Louis Bruce, the half-Mohawk United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was honored by Syracuse University’s centennial year commencement on June 6, 1970.103  Our first ordained priest, the Reverend George White, O.M.I., celebrated his 25th year of service the next day. Father White had served for seventeen years (1945-1962) as a missionary in South America.104  This was the summer that Tom Laughing opened the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian Village in Racquette. This village was noted for its wooden longhouses that evoked the traditional Mohawk dwellings of long ago.105

In 1971, the Akwesasne Library was opened with “century old ceremonial Mohawk Indian dances expertly performed by the young braves of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of Akwesasne.”

“I now declare the library open,” Jacob Cook said, after he beat out the last sounds on the Indian drum for young boys and girls in Indian attire who had completed several ceremonial dances. It was the Indian way of opening the building, rather than cutting a ribbon, Mr. Cook remarked...

...Chief Lawrence Lazore, one of several speakers, thanked the creator for the beautiful day. He said that all of the visitors at the library for the dedication ceremony, more than 200 filled the hall, believe in the library’s big future. The library will be the Mohawk identity wherever they go in life.106

The building that housed the Akwesasne Library would also serve as the headquarters of the Tribal Council as well as a clinic for community members and a museum to celebrate our cultural heritage. (This building, which has since been torn down, stood in what is now the parking lot of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s community building and health center.)

In 1972, the first Mohawk Jesuit priest, Father Michael Jacobs, S.J., of Kahnawà:ke, celebrated his Silver Jubilee (50th anniversary) at the St. Regis Mission.107  This was the same year that Lincoln White took over the St. Lawrence University Upward Bound Program and Chief Lawrence Lazore earned his bachelor’s degree there.108  1972 also saw the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council awarded a $17,000 grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration:

The project goal at Akwesasne is to provide organized law enforcement capability for the St. Regis Indian Reservation. A peace officer will be hired and trained at the Bureau of Indian Affairs School prior to assumption of duties. A radio patrol car will be purchased to enable patrolling of the entire reservation and direct communication with the New York State Police…109

The expansion of the Tribal Council’s police force was symbolic of the way the government had expanded its powers and services to the community after achieving federal recognition in 1971. Unfortunately, little had been done to improve the way the government itself conducted business. It still operated under the loosely-defined Three Chief System, where two out of three chiefs called the shots, subject only to the ballot box each year.

The Longhouse, on the other hand, gained momentum in the 1970’s, a period of renewed native activism throughout North America. The decade began with the Mohawk-led occupation of Alcatraz Island. This was also the era of the “reclamation” of Ganienke, also known as the occupation of Moss Lake, wherein traditional Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke and Ahkwesáhsne took over an abandoned Adirondack campground in May of 1974. The occupation ended in the summer of 1978, when the Mohawks agreed to move Ganienke to its current location in Altona, New York.

The decade that began with conflict ended with it as well, as documented by writer Peter Matthiessen in Indian Country (1984):

When the conference ended, I was introduced to Bear Clan Chief Tom Porter and Wolf Clan Chief Jake Swamp, and also Bear Clan subchief Loran Thompson, a good-looking young Indian with a baseball cap and a big smile who lives in one of the two permanent houses here on the riverbank. The besieged camp lies mostly on Thompson land, where in 1979 the episode occurred that was blown up into this confrontation a year later. That morning, May 22, 1979, Loran Thompson and his friend Joe Swamp found a work gang cutting down trees on a family property; the woodcutters were members of the federally funded Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) engaged in a “boundary-delineation project” for a proposed fence around the reservation, and they had already cut a swath eighty feet long, and two hundred feet wide by the time he arrived. Since any fence delimiting the reservation symbolically weakened Mohawk claims to their ancient territories, the traditionals were very much against it. “Maybe I ought to confiscate your chain saws,’ I told ‘em; I didn’t really know what I ought to do. I looked at Joe, and he just shrugged. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think I better confiscate your equipment.’ And those kids helped me put their stuff in the back of my truck!” Loran Thompson laughed, shaking his head, as if still marveling that this good-humored episode should have led to twenty-three indictments, an armed siege, and the expenditure of millions of dollars of public money.110

Thompson was arrested by Tribal Council police accompanied by an officer of the Bureau of Criminal Investigations and several state troopers. During his arrest, Mrs. Mary Tebo, 73, the woman who defied Tribal Council eviction years earlier, was knocked down by a police officer and had to be hospitalized.

The day after Thompson’s arrest, the Akwesasne police were informed by the Mohawk Nation Council that in attacking and arresting Loran Thompson, they had attacked the laws and sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee, and that their presence on Mohawk territory as agents of a foreign government could no longer be tolerated; they had twenty-four hours to resign and disband for the good of their people. When they refused, they were given the second of the traditional three warnings, on the assumption that they had not understood the serious implications of their actions. When the second warning was ignored, chiefs from all of the Six Nations convened here for an emergency meeting. On May 29, to the sound of drums, several hundred unarmed Indians walked in procession from the Akwesasne Longhouse in Hogansburg to police headquarters in the elective system’s building, not far away, where five chiefs, including Porter, Swamp, and Thompson, asked the police for the last time if they meant to disband. When they refused, the chiefs informed them and their supporters that the matter was now in the hands of the Mohawk people, who rushed and disarmed them after several minutes of fighting, then took over the building. The state police made no attempt to intervene, despite an invitation to do so from their deposed colleagues. Later that evening, the traditionals abandoned the building to an armed crowd of tribals, who later accused them of minor thefts and damage.111

Tribal Council supporters recall that the “traditionals” were removed from the community building by force. Matthiessen didn’t bother getting their side of the story, but instead gives the impression that the occupiers simply “abandoned” the building to an “armed crowd of tribals.”

Matthiessen went on to describe the encampment that formed around Thompson’s house in Racquette when 21 people were named in sealed indictments. The ensuing standoff continued into the summer of 1980, pitting brother against brother and leaving lasting scars in many Mohawk families. In the first week of August, a “demilitarization” was attempted and roads were opened back up. Three Ahkwesáhsne police officers lost their status as Franklin County sheriff’s deputies in November. Indictments against the traditional chiefs were finally dismissed in the winter of 1981.112

102  “Clifford Tarbell, 20, Killed in Vietnam War,” The Massena Observer, April 14, 1970.
103  “Louis R. Bruce To Receive Award From Syracuse U at Commencement June 6,” The Massena Observer, June 4, 1970.
104  “Father White to Note 25th Anniversary In Priesthood with 10:30 Mass Sunday,” The Massena Observer, June 2, 1970.
105  “Mohawk Indian Village Opens on Reservation,” The Massena Observer, June 29, 1970.
106  “Century Old Indian Dances Open New Akwesasne Library,” The Massena Observer, September 28, 1971.
107  “First Iroquois priest marks 50th milestone,” The Massena Observer, August 10, 1972.
108  “Lincoln White To Conduct Upward Bound,” “Chief Lazore Earns Degree from St. Lawrence,” The Massena Observer, June 29, 1972.
109  “$17,000 Grant Made to Tribal Council,” The Massena Observer, August 1, 1972.
110  Matthiessen, P. , Indian Country, The Viking Press, New York, 1984, p. 138-139.
111  Ibid, p. 140-141.
112  Ibid, p. 162-163.

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