The 1980’s

With their police force disbanded and the Racquette Point encampment raging, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council could hardly celebrate the advent of a new decade. The 1980’s saw continued conflict on the reservation. Illegal bars opened up in the law enforcement vacuum, resulting in a number of alcohol-related deaths that brought angry community members to the streets in 1986. While protestors marched on one of the “speakeasies,” two patrons left the establishment, climbed onto a motorcycle and left the premises, only to crash several miles down the road. News of the fatal accident reached the protestors, who stormed the bar and burned it to the ground.

The 1980’s also saw the rise of privately owned casinos and the proliferation smoke shops and fuel stations in Ahkwesáhsne, which made their profit by taking advantage of native tax exemptions on the reservation. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, which had its own legal bingo parlor, found itself divided over how to handle the increasing aggressiveness of its growing entrepreneurial class. The resulting frictions splintered the community into armed camps with roadblocks and violence of an unprecedented scale.

The cyclical nature of Mohawk history ensured that the change from one decade to the next would occur against the background of a contentious civil conflict. The years 1989 and 1990, when violence escalated to the point of murder, will not be forgotten in Ahkwesáhsne any time soon. Fortunately, it is beyond the scope of this history to recount these recent events, which have been documented with varying degrees of accuracy by the native and non-native media as well as by scholar Bruce E. Johansen in Life & Death in Mohawk Country (1993).113

Like the Racquette Point encampment ten years before, the so-called “gambling war” at Ahkwesáhsne brought increased attention to the inherent weaknesses of the Three Chief System of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. The annual elections became a source of ever-greater tension in the community because every faction in the community wanted the seeming “unlimited power” of the Tribal Council for themselves. It got the point where a commission of New York State legislators openly chastised Tribal Council leaders in a public hearing, and then proposed legislation to “abolish” their legal existence by repealing the section of New York’s “Indian Law” that governed the operation of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council.114

It was in this atmosphere that the idea of a tribal constitution came back to the forefront of public discussion. We will trace the history of this document—and its effect on both the tribal government and the community for the next ten years—in the next part of this history.

113  Johansen, B., Life & Death in Mohawk Country, North American Press, Golden, 1993.
114  Ibid, p. 161.

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