The Council of Life Chiefs
Ahkwesáhsne oral traditions tell us that when Great Britain and the United States first drew the border through our territory, our ancestors were told that it was not meant to apply to us, that it was “twenty feet above the tallest head.” According to historian Franklin B. Hough, the proceeds from land rentals on both sides of the imaginary line were shared with community members no matter what side of the line they lived on. As he stated in A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York (1853), this was the situation up until the War of 1812:
On the approach of the war, the situation of St. Regis, on the national boundary, placed these people in a peculiar and delicate position. Up to this period, although residing in both governments, they had been as one, and in their internal affairs, were governed by twelve chiefs, who were elected by the tribe, and held their offices for life. The annuities and presents of both governments were equally divided among them, and in the cultivation of their lands, and the division of the rents and profits arising from leases, they knew no distinction of party.14
Ahkwesáhsne and the other communities of the Seven Nations were governed by a traditional council of chiefs that were loosely patterned after the councils of the Six Nations. Chiefs were chosen by clan mothers and appointed for life, but there was also a sense of “federal recognition” by outside authorities in the form of silver “peace medals” worn around the neck. These medals contained a profile of a British monarch in a white powdered wig; this is where we get the term Rotinonhkwíseres or “Longhairs,” our term for the traditional “life chiefs” under the Seven Nations system. Some Mohawks living today recall seeing the old life chiefs with these medals.
On July 20, 1817, an American officer surveying the border commented on the existence of “British” and “American” chiefs at Ahkwesáhsne. Apparently, only one or the other would get involved in any dealings with officials from Canada or the United States, but they do seem to have interacted with each other on areas of mutual concern:
The Priest of St. Regis goes to hold a council with the Chiefs & British Indian Agent at Cornwall. Old Loran the Chief, with some of the younger men, accompany him. Peter and Jacob would not go. They are of the Yankee interest.15
Years after he published his study of Ahkwesáhsne history, Franklin B. Hough returned to the community to add to his knowledge about the workings of our traditional government. We find the following information in his unpublished notes preserved in the New York State Archives in Albany:
In former times there were elected twelve chiefs by the St Regis Indians. Each of the four bands chose three.
Of these, the women chose one head chief in each band The warriors chose one chief warrior in each band, and one messenger, or runner in each. The latter were young men; their place in council near the door, and their duty to act as messengers to assemble their tribe for council, convey intelligence and services of like kind
They were in due time promoted to war chiefs or head chiefs. The practice of election by women was discontinued in St Regis very many years ago. All the chiefs held for life. The Rev Mr Marcoux is not certain that chiefs were ever elected by women in St Regis.
Although there were five of six bands they were only entitled to elect in four parties.
The Plover and the Little Turtle elected one of each kind.
The Bear elected one of each kind.
The Great and little wolf elected one of each kind.
The Great Turtle elected one of each kind.
Vacancies could only be filled by the band in which they occurred. At Caughnawaga the head chiefs alone were recognized by government. At St Regis it was the custom of Mr Solomon Chessley Indian Agent to regard them all of equal power.
Till 1812 there was but one set of chiefs at St Regis and both British and American Indians shared equally in the annuities and presents of the two nations.16
In June of 1898, the life chiefs would describe the workings of their government in a petition to the Canadian government in an attempt to prevent elections from being forced on them under the Indian Advancement Act of 1884.
We have considered the elective system as not being intended for us Indians, and we would therefore return to our old method of selecting our life chiefs, according to our Constitution Iroquois Government. As Your Excellency must know, the ancient custom of creating the chiefs is that they are selected according to the different clans, there being three from each clan, and also three women who select her special chief from among her clan. Of these chiefs, one is considered the head chief, the second is ‘the big man’ and the third is the ‘crier’. As there is four distinct clans, there is twelve life chiefs who hold their offices for life.
But if any misdemeanor shall offend their clans, these women first hold council with the women of their own clan, and if they find his offence of sufficient strength to warrant his resignation, these women will call upon the men members of their clan, and they meet and select another member to represent them. They then turn the newly selected member to the twelve life chiefs for their confirmation and ratification.
The women councillors each watches over her special charge and informs them of the rules of their chieftainship. First that he shall never touch spiritous liquors. Second, never to be guilty of theft from the band, if only twenty-five cents. Third, that he shall not commit adultery. This is according to the old time laws and customs that only fit proper members can hold offices.17
The story of how the traditional life chief council was supplanted by an elected “Indian Act” government on the “Canadian” side of Ahkwesáhsne is well-known in the community: a supporter of the life chiefs, Jake Ice, or Saiowisaké:ron, was shot and killed by Canadian police on May 1, 1899, as they arrested the life chiefs for preventing elections from being held the previous summer. The chiefs were released from jail when they agreed not to oppose future elections and thereupon became something of an “underground” movement with no formal recognition by outside authorities.
As that aspect of our history is beyond the scope of this report, we will now turn our attention to the evolution of governance on the “American” side of Ahkwesáhsne. Specifically, we will examine the rise of the “trustees,” a form of leadership that preceded the existing St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council and its “Three Chief System” of government.