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‘Get going!’

John was known as Johnny Mohawk when I first met him at Akwesasne in the fall of 1972. He was a cheerful, energetic and very bright ally of the activist “boys” of the Mohawk Nation Longhouse. He seemed to be an endless source of information and history about the Mohawk Nation and the Six Nations, and we joined together in helping the nation to fight back against an effort to drive the longhouse government off the reservation. A few years later he helped to deal with the violent conflict over a Mohawk community at Moss Lake in the Adirondacks.

In 1976 and 1977, John drafted the now-classic statement of the Haudenosaunee to the United Nations, “A Basic Call to Consciousness.” Though John supported and understood the work for international human rights and the campaign to change the terribly discriminatory law affecting Indian nations, he never traveled to the U.N. meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. He much preferred his role in formulating Haudenosaunee positions, drafting papers, and analyzing alternatives and developments.

In 1978, I asked John to join me, Daniel Bomberry, Mario Gonzalez and Terry Sidley in forming the board of directors of the Indian Law Resource Center. John was one of those few people that I always trusted completely and whose judgment I always sought on major issues. He agreed to help me form the new organization, and he served on the board for some 20 years.

A little over a year ago, I turned to John one more time for help only he could provide. As lead counsel in the Onondaga Nation land rights suit, I and our legal team were assembling a small number of history experts to help us prove that the nation has never been guilty of delay in protesting and taking action against New York’s illegal takings of Onondaga land. I reminded John that his unique knowledge of the history of the Haudenosaunee and his unmatched knowledge of the arcane and obscure sources where this history is documented were essential to our effort.

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Of course, John joined our team with enthusiasm and began a long year of research in many different repositories. He helped to shape our historical approach and to guide the research of all our experts. He supervised other researchers and kept a flow of historical materials coming to my desk. His work formed a part of the 900-page submission that we made to the federal court in November documenting the epic efforts of the Haudenosaunee and the Onondaga Nation in particular to defend and assert their rights to the Haudenosaunee homelands.

As important as John’s work has been, I will miss his friendship much more. For more than 35 years I have had his friendship and personal support in my legal work. Like so many others, I will have to learn to carry on my work without him now. John was not one to be borne down or held back by sadness and loss – not for long. He would encourage us all to “get going!” with whatever we have to do.

Robert Coulter, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is the executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, which has offices in Helena, Mont., and Washington, D.C.