A Referendum is Called

On March 4,1995, committee member Russell Lazore proposed a date of June 3, 1995 for a referendum on the tribal constitution. Head Chief John Loran, Chief Norman Tarbell, and Chief Philip Tarbell resolved to do so on March 31, with the ballot to read, “Shall the Tribal Constitution Proposed by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Constitution Committee be adopted by the Mohawk Community?” The resolution also called for public hearings and discussions to be held in April and May.150

In addition to the hearings, a half-hour video was produced to explain the new set of rules. This was made available for viewing by staff and community members in the first week of May.151

It was decided that the proposed constitution would be presented to the voters at a referendum to coincide with the next regularly scheduled election on Saturday, June 3, 1995. Concerns about the transition from the council elected under the old system to the new system were addressed by consultant Henry Flood:

The first task is to firm up the transition plan. There will of course be a thirty day period between the election and the swearing in of the new government. Is this enough time to transition from the three Chiefs to the Tribal Council form with a tribal Executive? Will the third year Chief automatically become the one year temporary tribal Chief Executive? Alternatively, will the temporary Chief Executive be elected from the three Chiefs to fill this one year appointment? Another question is whether there needs to be a formal transition that lasts more than one month before the Constitution is formally effective?...

…A more important issue is the review and resolution of issues raised under the Tribal Constitution. Some disputes will be institutional between branches of the tribal government. Some disputes will be between tribal members and the tribal government. There are likely to be disputes between Indians and non-Indians or between the Tribal Government and non-Indians. It is also likely that there may be disputes between traditional members and the tribal government over authority and autonomy. Business disputes between the Tribe and State may arise regarding tribal jurisdiction or authority on the reservation.

As you can see, many types of disputes can arise regarding the Tribal Constitution and tribal government authority. While there are no definitive ways to handle these disputes, there are some general approaches to consider. It is good judicial policy to decide cases on other than constitutional grounds when possible. Jurisdictional and procedural bars to hearing or deciding cases should be used where clearly appropriate. Many suits can be dismissed or decided on the basis of sovereign immunity.152

As if right on cue, a local newspaper, Indian Time, published by the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, printed a 3-part opinion piece titled, “Tribe’s Constitution a Threat to the People”.

From the beginning preamble, or stated intent, the Tribe’s proposed constitution promises to worsen existing tensions at Akwesasne.

Those who are legitimate residents of Akwesasne and consider themselves members of the Mohawk Nation are excluded from the constitution. Since they are not part of the Tribe they will not enjoy freedom of religion, may have their individual rights denied, will be excluded from any of the programs administered by the Tribe and will only enjoy “secure educational advantages and vocational opportunities” at the pleasure of Tribal officials.

This preamble states clearly to the people that as a resident of Akwesasne you must belong to the Tribe in order to be secure in your home, property, business or have access to medical programs, tuition assistance, or even visit the dentist.

If you are not a Tribal member you will be considered a non-status ethnic Mohawk whom the Tribe may at any time evict, especially those who might dare to criticize the Tribe. And remember the Tribe has exclusive control over its membership lists and can add and exclude people without notice or appeal.153

The article went on to criticize the document for not recognizing the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs or the elected government of the Canadian side, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. It also dismissed the notion that the Tribe held any legal sovereignty or was a signatory to any legitimate treaty agreed by the Rotinonhsón:ni Confederacy.

The Constitution Committee responded by stating,

Members of the Mohawk Nation and their right to live according to their traditional understandings are specifically recognized and protected in the proposed constitution. Neither the Constitution Committee nor the tribal government has sought to exclude anyone from enrolling in or participating in tribal government and its services.

Article III Section 2 and the civil rights provisions of Article IV provide broad protection for Mohawk Nation members to enjoy freedom of religion, protection of personal rights and participation in the Mohawk tribal government and its services.154

An article in a local non-native newspaper the day before the vote stressed the checks and balances provided by the proposed constitution, as well as guidelines for the new councils to follow once elected. According to committee member Alma Ransom,

Prior to this, people had rights and freedoms, but with this, they will have all those freedoms in black and white…We always assumed we had many things until outside courts said that there’s nothing in writing that says you can do this…With these laws, we will be able to deal more directly with the federal government, because we’re a federally recognized reservation…And the state will not be at our backs for trying to fight tax issues. The tax man is at the reservation and no other system has been able to hold him off.155
150  SRMT Constitution Referendum Resolution TCR #95-115, March 31, 1995.  Index # TC—V—32.
151  SRMT Tribal Courts Program Memorandum, P.J. Herne, Acting Court Administrator, to Tribal Chiefs, Administration, and all tribal employees, May 2, 1995.  Index # TC—VII—4.
152  Memorandum, Henry Flood to the Constitution Committee, Re: Implementing the New Tribal Constitution, May 8, 1995.  Index # TC—VII—5.
153  “Tribe’s Constitution a Threat to the People: Part 1 of 3,” Indian Time, May 12, 1995.  Index # TC—VII—5.
154  Memorandum, Henry Flood to David Sherwood, Re: Mohawk Constitution Documents, May 17, 1995.  Index # TC—VI—5.
155  “Tribal Elections Includes Constitution,” The Daily Courier-Observer, June 2, 1995.

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