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Akwesasne representation: time to rally behind active leaders

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The Akwesasne community in Upstate New York has been plagued by disputes between contending governmental entities for more than half a century. The sole secular and democratic system is an elective government called the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. This elective system, which was originally established by a small group of Mohawks and much pressure from New York state, has been controversial and contested, but has grown and brought into the community numerous positive social programs and now enjoys the jurisdictional power to launch a very promising economic initiative.

The elective form of government is a contentious and conflictive system - as all electoral politics must be - but that is its very promise. Slowly but surely, the people of Akwesasne have improved this tribal council system, and these days the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe serves the community in many ways. For one thing, it is the federally recognized government, and it is the only transparent, democratically-elected entity on the New York reservation, where each adult is equally empowered to choose its leadership.

There are as well two long-house councils, also seeking legitimacy as governments, at Akwesasne. These two longhouses, based on the ancient clan systems, have been contending with each other since before 1990 and with the tribal council since its inception. They also both assert claims that contest the representational power of St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council for the Akwesasne community. However, it is the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council that provides the bulk of government services including strategic planning, economic development, justice system, health and education.

A recent move by the Akwesasne longhouse councils challenges the authority of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. Both longhouses are now issuing their own cigarette tax stamps, in defiance of the legitimacy of the tribal government to exclusively issue such licenses. The actions tend to weaken the tribe at a time of contested negotiations with New York State. The three Mohawk Tribal Chiefs - James W. Ransom, Margaret Terrance and Barbara A. Lazore - criticized the longhouse moves for, "undermining the Tribal regulatory system, creating disunity in the community, and endangering the funding of essential community services."

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe chiefs and counselors, for several years now, as the only democratically elected government on the Mohawk reservation, have been doing their best to design a sound political process of community discussion and policy making. Through open and quite vocal community meetings and by the ballot box, they are accomplishing this goal.

A commendable level of attention to community education is obvious these days at Akwesasne. The present tribal council, in particular, has stepped over backwards to gather the community opinion on major policy matters. At the latest monthly tribal meeting, a clear tribal budget was made available and the community at large has been surveyed on the main elements of the negotiations with New York State. It is a community process that has finally placed Akwesasne in good communications and bargaining position with the negotiators and legislators from New York. The chiefs are hammering out long-term agreements that could finance a major economic foundation for the Mohawk community for generations to come.

Thus the jurisdictional dysfunction could not have come at a more inappropriate time. With the longhouse councils now stepping in to claim a jurisdiction over the most fundamental of governmental functions - licensing and taxation - the careful negotiating process with one representative government firmly at the helm can be endangered to the point of disarray. The simultaneous moves by Mohawk Nation longhouse senior chiefs and by the heads of the Kanienkahaka longhouse are completely regrettable. They open both longhouses, which are at their best places and sources of spiritual ceremony, to charges of irresponsible obstruction. This comes at a moment when the legally-empowered government needs to be supported by the most united voice possible from within the community.

There are several crucial issues before Akwesasne, beyond the continued improvement of services and accountability in government. They include: getting the most advantageous settlement of long standing land claims; developing the economic planning portfolio (which could see a lucrative casino in the Catskills region of the state), and; defend the tax-protected tobacco and oil products enterprises that form the present backbone of the reservation economy.

In all these issues, the present tribal elected chiefs, who took over this past July, have taken the bull by the horns and gone toe to toe with the Governors' negotiators. Of significance is their renewed coalition with the Seneca, Cayuga and Oneida governments, which took the state by surprise and strengthens a united Haudenosaunee front.

To gain momentum behind a continually improving strategy and teamwork, the Mohawk Tribal government needs the well-focused creativity of its whole community. Representations, such as those the two adversarial longhouses are making at this time, drive even more serious wedges in the political unity. One can only hope that the political dysfunction will go unrecognized by the state, as it tries to bolster the steady Indian governments with which it can achieve mutual win-win results.

No doubt both of the Akwesasne longhouses have many serious adherents, and their spiritual bases have great traditional worth. But the longhouse political machinery has these days edged toward fundamentalism and all too often misconstrues pragmatic realities and possibilities. At best they are guided for a time by some noted and respected elders, but they also can break down into arbitrary interpretations of oral tradition. The ensuing contentions spill into the political field as negative obstructionism.

The present times require active, constant leadership that can guide the nations through the most important Indian empowerment negotiations in 100 years. Too much is at stake and all internal dysfunction works to disqualify Indian positions - even before they face their true opponent, which in the Mohawk case, as with most Haudenosaunee, is New York State. Chief Ransom and all other active democratically elected leaders deserve support in these days of intense negotiations with New York State. As with all the major tribal nations, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council is endeavoring to set up an opportunity that will allow the young generations to overcome and succeed. It deserves all the unity it can get.