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First Nations Leaders Mourn Pioneering Akwesasne Mohawk Elder

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Mohawks up and down the St. Lawrence River are mourning the death of renowned elder Ernest Kaientaronkwen Benedict, one of the first Canadian First Nations people to earn a college degree.

Official condolences poured out after he passed away Jan. 8 at age 92.

“His distinction as a college graduate marked the beginning of a long, courageous and innovative journey,” Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) spokesperson Brendan White said in a release, according to the Standard Freeholder out of Cornwall, Canada.

White said Benedict served in the 50 Signal Battalion in World War II and later taught elementary school and worked as an electrician.

“He was also a chief, a writer, a university professor, a defender of Aboriginal rights and a historian among other things,” the Standard Freeholder said.

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“Like his teachings and his voice, his passing will be felt around the world and by people of all ages and cultures. To those who were fortunate enough to sit and talk with Ernest, or to learn from him, or to have him laugh with you, we offer our sincere sympathies and we hope that his inspiring words stay with you always," White said on behalf of the MCA.

First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo called him a pioneer, especially in the field of education. Besides being one of the first First Nations people to earn a university degree, he “dedicated much of his life to ensuring education was a tool and a vehicle to advance the aspirations of the Mohawk Nation and First Nation peoples everywhere,” Atleo said in a statement.

“Ernie was a strong believer in the rights and sovereignty of the First Peoples,” Atleo continued. “He was a strong advocate for First Nations border crossing rights as well as the right of First Nations to control their own affairs and make the decisions that affect their lives and communities. Ernie taught all of us so much in so many areas, yet everything he did was guided by an unwavering belief in the inherent rights of First Nations.”

Benedict won a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1995 for his work in education, community and social development, and enhancing and strengthening traditional culture, Atleo noted.

Atleo called the current push to enact education reform in Canada as “very much a legacy of the work and life of Ernie Kaientaronkwen Benedict, who was one of the first to articulate the principle of First Nation control of First Nation education.”