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Inner Voice and Environmental Action

On December 11, 2012, Kanietakeron (Larry V. Thompson) of Akwesasne, an area in Indian country also known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, made an appearance in St. Lawrence County New York criminal court for his actions on August 12, 2011 at the former General Motors Plant, located adjacent to the reservation. The industrial area, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Cleanup site now administered and marketed by the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust (RACER), was already a flurry of activity that 2011 morning when Kanietakeron showed up with his backhoe and began to excavate a mound of piled earth. Kanietakeron entered a guilty plea to a reduced charge of criminal mischief for his deeds, a fourth-degree misdemeanor in New York. But, in reality he undertook a call to action to cleanse Turtle Island and challenge the system that had poisoned it with reckless disregard

Kanietakeron had grown up on the land that the General Motors plant had been built on. In speaking to me, he recalled as a youth picking through the constant dumping that took place there, for scraps of wood and metal. Little did he know at the time that the waste was all contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and so was the entire industrial complex.

Later in life, Kanietakeron would come to know the danger that had been unleashed on his family’s ancestral land. Many members of his family came down with life-altering diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, and internal organ failure. He lost a brother at a relatively young age. Loss of quality of life became a continuing theme.

For several years, Kanietakeron worked away from Akwesasne as a union ironworker. Upon his return, he settled down and married Kakwerias, a Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) woman from the sister Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) reservation of Kahnawake. Together, as they grew their own family, they would embark upon a shared life of resistance and self-determination in their home community.

One of the challenges Kanietakeron and Kakwerias had taken on was the rejuvenation of his family land on Racquette Point, in an area known as Ahnawate (“Where the Rapids Are”).

Kanietakeron knew when he started the backhoe that day in 2011 that he was moving further along a littered path towards his own destiny. He chained himself to the steering wheel, after opening a locked gate and re-entered his own childhood domain, fully aware of the consequences of his intended actions. He had waited until the last moment to contact reservation compatriots; like-minded clan members that would stand by his deeds and actions. They had come and watched from the periphery of the tree-line and mounded ridges as he began digging into the topsoil of the mound of contamination.

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RACER Trust officials began to notice that something was different that August 2011 morning. A black pickup truck with a “Mohawk Security” sign on the door appeared in an overlook position above the property perimeter, according to testimony by the RACER site administrator David W. Grant. Subsequently, he received a report that an unidentified backhoe had begun to excavate the rear property landfill. A total of over $70,000 in clean-up costs restitution entailed by RACER Trust may have been passed along to Kanietakeron, had he not accepted the tendered plea agreement.

When the New York State Troopers asked Kakwerias about speaking with Kanietakeron during the digging activity, she informed them that they were responding 32 years too late, referencing the 1984 Superfund designation.

In his 2012 comments to Judge Jerome J. Richards, Kanietakeron entered his plea in the Kanienkeha language, before stating it as a translation in English. He admitted that he had no regrets in doing what he did at the GM Plant landfill. He maintained that he saw himself as a sovereign being while standing in the chambers of a foreign government. The judge cut off Kanietakeron and advised him that he would see him bound over for trial with a specifically available prosecutor if he persisted with his stated beliefs, in light of the proposed plea agreement. The State’s point had been made.

Kanietakeron maintained throughout his statements that he always worried about others in his community, throughout his life. For instance, he felt that his persistent landfill backhoe actions may have caused others to act with anger if he had been forced out from his operator’s cab when he was confronted by larger RACER Trust excavation equipment on the property. No one else should be hurt, Kanietakeron told me later.

One stipulation of the agreement is that Kanietakeron cannot renter the contaminated area for five years following his sentencing. In a surreal way, that is like a firefighter being kept from a five-alarm blaze. There can never be enough like Kanietakeron, I say.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.