There is a certain stigma associated with leaving the reservation in most Native communities. The sense of loss extends both ways. Some would describe it as an act of betrayal, while other views are expressed and reserved for when the wayward individual returns to the reservation. The implication is psychologically revealing of both the individual and the group. Change never comes easy for some.
I was personally aware of my blood quantum as young as five-years of age. Upon learning that I was not 100-percent Mohawk, I quickly came to the conclusion that a blood transfusion might take care of my youthful predicament. This outrage elicited some quiet chuckles from my elders who I was visiting in the Kahnawake Territory where my grandmother was born, south of Montreal, Quebec.
Being born in Erie, Pennsylvania myself, I grew up in an urban setting almost wholly absent of Native cultural opportunities. So when I graduated college in 1993, the opportunity to change that occurred and a group called Native Americans of Erie County formed with family and friends participating. We produced televised content that appeared on the basic cable television public access channels, spoke to students from kindergarten to university level, and designed attire worn at pow wows. As word spread of the group, I was invited to join a statewide Native organization based in the capital of Harrisburg and developed media contacts that sought our members out for comment on stories. This minor contribution showed some advancement from the way that things had been previously.
On a personal level, for years I had sought membership in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which is the only such recognized entity located in the United States for those of the Mohawk heritage. Eventually, I enlisted the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to provide my dormant membership application a reference letter. Possibly this distinction aided my plight, as I became a tribal member in August 1999.
Anything that I could do to align myself with the rank and file tribal membership I did. I was a subscriber to the seminal Native publication called Akwesasne Notes. Additionally, I subscribed to the local newspaper called Indian Time and participated in tribal elections via absentee ballot. Allowing the ink to dry on my membership card, I finally secured employment at the tribal casino in 2005 and relocated my wife and cats to the area.
That was when the rules of the road were made clear to me. Don’t even think of moving a non-Native woman onto the reservation, because that would be the wrong way to introduce myself. Despite that understanding, I was able to briefly find an apartment there that we stayed at for a short period. Eventually, it was just easier to move onto the older tracts of the larger original St. Regis Indian lands spread over the local neighboring townships.
I had a long and winding professional experience working on the reservation, starting with the tribal government. My proudest day during that period was when the husband (“Jerry”) of an elected chief told me that he recognized me as the “best one” serving his wife at that time.
Capping my tribal employment was the simultaneous membership on the Tribal Governance Committee, loaded with both past and future local politicos, including one who would soon win an elected chief position, running on a platform of “Born Here, Stayed Here, and Never Left Here.” I was unable to run for the same office due to the residency requirement that left me in a catch-22 proposition. Live by myself on the reservation apart from my wife (and cats) for a calendar year, or incur the wrath of the local unwritten custom of racial division. During my time there, I saw one casualty of the non-Native resident policy when the Mohawk husband died, and the longtime white tribal employee wife was soon pressured to abandon her reservation home. I could not risk that possibility and would have begun some political activism in amending the tribal office residency requirement had my life not taken a surprising turn around that time.
One of the guardians of the unwritten rules I was loathe to run afoul of what was pointed out to me on several occasions. Known to me then only as Roger Jock, I was led to believe by these staunch tribal members that he was a demon incarnate, intent on the overthrow of the tribal government and reducing civilization to dust, or at least back to the stone age. Little did I know that I would spend the next six years at his right arm when I came to know him as Kanaretiio, the Bear Clan representative of the unelected traditional body known as the Men’s Council.
As I got to know Roger as a human being, his story hit me like a wave of reality. His mother, Ann Jock (Karoniahnoron), was clearly his source of inspiration. For the entire cultural renaissance underway in the Akwesasne Territory today, it had to have a starting point. And for Roger’s sake, it started with his mother and her students.
Ann was a dutiful mother, one like all of the residents of Akwesasne, who had been heavily affected by Catholicism since her youngest days. Because of the social activism that she had participated in and was made aware of since her youth, she made a singular decision to pull her children out of the formal education system and start a school. Called the Indian Way School, she taught the children in her backyard in a rustic house constructed from the reclaimed beams of an old barn from down the road, with her WW2 veteran husband and very few other adults assisting. The historic barn timbers collapsed on a young Thomas Cook (the cousin of ICMN Opinion editor Raymond Cook), who crawled out from under it amazingly and then went back to being an eager volunteer helper. His survival staved off disaster at such an early juncture in the educational experiment and was seen as a blessing by all present.
As much as she was challenged for opening this school with threats of imprisonment by the formal school system, internally, she was also the subject of a whisper campaign by other tribal members who called her a “latecomer” for her involvement with the Mohawk Longhouse. Due to her Catholic roots, it was akin to saying she was an outsider in her own community. And according to Roger, it was a direct attempt to derail her goal of empowering a whole generation of Mohawks who could speak their own language and discuss their own history with it.
Her involvement in literally every significant event in both local as well as continental Native gatherings during her middle years stands her apart. Traveling in a station wagon filled with young activists in a well-known group called the White Roots of Peace, she made her way to be part of the Longest Walk, the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Occupation of Wounded Knee, and the Occupation of Moss Lake / Ganienkeh. She helped to operate the same Akwesasne Notes of which I was a former subscriber, hand-pasting Native-related news she clipped from newspapers, all by hand, aided by an energized generation of young people, who seemed to be her lifeblood.
Despite the positive karma that she brought with her, she pushed the envelope, and like all things human, Ann became reminded of her own frailty. The biggest heart who gave all to her people so much that it burst one day. Only in her mid-50s, she would not live to see the ripple effect of her Indian Way teachings as the 21st Century dawned.
At her husband’s funeral a few years ago, I heard many stories about her by her loving children and over 200 grandchildren. Roger’s words still ring in my ear. “If it were not for her, we would not know who we are.” As he said this quietly, the man so feared by any number of uneasy neighbors looked to me a son who missed his mother. The process of coming and going is another metaphor of change. Ann Jock had made me realize that my journey in coming here was very modest. Because everywhere I looked once I got here; surrounded by her accomplishments was a veritable Nation of Mohawk speakers. Not bad at all for a latecomer, or early-goer, depending on how one looks at it.
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.