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Kahnawake's Council of Chiefs:1840-1889
By: Gerald F. Reid, Ph.D
Sacred Heart University

Prior to the establishment of a band council system in the late nineteenth century, Kahnawake was governed locally by a council of chiefs. When the Indian Advancement Act was applied to the reserve in 1889 Kahnawake’s council of chiefs had a structure perhaps only about a half century old, but still rooted in the Iroquois system of clans and the community’s traditional form of government. Part 1 of this report focuses on the organization and composition of the council of chiefs during the second half of the nineteenth century. Part 2 is concerned with divisions within Kahnawake over the issues of the council and the Indian Act. Part 3 focuses on the circumstances under which the chiefs council was replaced by a band council system in 1889.

The following discussion is based on a variety of primary and secondary source materials. The most important of these are files of the Indian Department and Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). These files contain reports, letters, and memoranda of Indian agents and various government officials, but they also include correspondence, petitions, and other documents authored and initiated by Kahnawakehró:non. Several files, in particular, were crucial in the research on which this report is based. These files date to the period from 1872-1889 and are included in Record Group 10 of the National Archives of Canada. These sources, along with a number of other references and suggested readings, are identified at the end of this report. The files were consulted at the National Archives in Ottawa and at the Kanien’kehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center in Kahnawake. I want to thank Kanatakta, Brian Deer, and Roy Wright for their helpful comments, Gunther Michelson for alerting me to Joseph Doutre’s Les Sauvages du Canada en 1852, and Matthieu Sossoyan for information relating to the Kahnawake council in 1840.

The Organization and Composition of Kahnawake’s Council of Chiefs
Some writers of Kahnawake’s history have suggested that during the nineteenth century Kahnawake was governed by a council consisting of nine chiefs, with three chiefs from each of the three Mohawk clans. However, evidence contained in the files of the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) and other sources suggests a somewhat different form of organization. This evidence indicates that prior to the establishment of a band council system in 1889, Kahnawake was governed locally by a council of seven chiefs, with each chief representing one of seven different clans in the community. The seven clans were the Ratiniáhten (‘Turtle’), Rotikwáho (‘Wolf’), Rotiskerewakaká:ion (‘Old Bear’), Rotiskerewakekó:wa (‘Great Bear’), Rotinehsí:io (‘Snipe’), Rotineniothró:non (‘Rock’), and Rotihsennakéhte (‘Deer’). In some of the Indian Department files Ratiniáhten is also referred to as "Bande la Tortue" and Rotikwáho as "Bande du Loup". In a series of petitions to the DIA in 1889 the Rotiskerewakekó:wa are also referred to as the "Big Bear Band" and the Rotineniothró:non as the "Stone Band". These petitions also make reference to the Rotiskerewakaká:ion as Onkwaskeré:wake, which is translated as "Small Bear Band".
The chiefs of the seven clans held their position for life, but the manner in which they were selected is not entirely clear. Indian Department records often refer to chiefs as being "elected", but this term may be misleading because there is no evidence that they were selected by a majority vote, as would have been the case under the Indian Act system. One observer of the time period indicates that a chief was chosen by the general consent of the clan (Doutre 1855). If a clan did not have a man they considered capable of representing them in council, they could select a man from another clan as their chief. For example, in June of 1877 Sose Taioronhiote resigned as chief of the Rotihsennakéhte. When the members of the clan met the following February to select a replacement, the local Indian agent reported that they desired to choose a chief from the "Bande du Loup", "Bande la Tortue", or "some other" because "they had no man capable of representing them".

Once a chief was selected his appointment was confirmed by the colonial government. In the early 1850s, at least, this act apparently was symbolized by the presentation of a silver medal bearing a likeness of the Sovereign on one side and the English coat of arms on the other. When a chief died this silver medal passed to his mother and was held by her until a new chief was selected. If the mother had already died, the medal was held by one of his brothers or sisters or next maternal relative (Doutre 1855: 205).
A council of chiefs based on the clan system probably existed in Kahnawake since the late 17th century, but a council of seven chiefs representing seven clans may have dated to only about 1840. In that year a government inquiry into complaints by some community members about some the chiefs recommended that the commissions granted to the "Caughnawaga" chiefs be canceled and "that the number of Chiefs be reduced to seven…one to each band as they are presently constituted…"

As indicated by an inscription deposited in the cornerstone of the St. Francis Xavier Mission Church in 1845, the seven chiefs at that time were Martin Tekanasontie, Thomas Tiohatekwen, Charles Katsirakeron, Thomas Sakaohetsta, Jean-Baptiste Saonwentiowane, Joseph Tenihatie, and Pierre Atawenrate. Unfortunately, the inscription does not indicate the clans to which these seven chiefs belonged. Indian Department records from the mid-1870s indicate that at that time Sose Kentarontie (Joseph Delisle) was chief of the Rotiskerewakaká:ion, Francis Otonharishon was chief of the Rotiskerewakekó:wa, Sose Taioroniote was chief of the Rotihsennakéhte, and Rowi Shatekaienton (Louis Beauvais) was chief of the Rotineniothró:non. Atonwa Assenase (Thomas Deer), Martin Sakoriataka, and Rowi Tehorakaron were also chiefs, but it has not been possible to identify the clans to which they belonged. It appears that these seven chiefs were confirmed in their positions sometime in the early 1850s.

In 1878 Sose Kentarontie resigned as chief and was replaced by Atonwa Karatoton (Thomas Jocks), who remained chief of the Rotiskerewakaká:ion until the establishment of the band council system in 1889. Also in 1878 Sose Skatsienhati (Joseph Williams) replaced Sose Taioronhiote as chief of the Rotihsennakéhte following his resignation the previous year. Skatsienhati remained as chief until his death in 1885, but no chief was selected to replace him. Francis Otonharishon died and was replaced by Tier Kaheroton (Peter Murray) in 1878. Kaheroton was deposed and replaced in 1881 by Wishe Sakoientineta (Michael Montour), who remained chief of the Rotiskerewakekó:wa until 1889. Rowi Shatekaienton remained as chief of the Rotineniothró:non throughout this entire time period.
Atonwa Assenase held his position as chief until about 1886 or 1887. Martin Sakoriataka resigned as chief in 1878 and was replaced by Atonwa Onharakete (Thomas Rice), who remained as chief until about 1886. Finally, Rowi Tehorakaron held his position as chief until his death sometime around 1886. It appears that none of these three chiefs were replaced when their positions were vacated. Thus, at the time of the establishment of the band council system in 1889, Kahnawake’s council of chiefs was composed of only three sitting chiefs: Wishe Sakoientineta (Rotiskerewakekó:wa), Atonwa Karatoton (Rotiskerewakaká:ion), and Rowi Shatekaienton (Rotineniothró:non).

Division within Kahnawake Over the
Council of Chiefs and the Indian Act System
During the 1870s and into the early 1880s Kahnawake appears to have been divided over the council of chiefs and the Indian Act system. There were frequent complaints against the chiefs and several efforts to re-organize the council along lines more consistent with the model of Native government that Canadian authorities were attempting to establish through the Indian Act system.

For example, in 1872 complaints against the conduct of some of the chiefs lead to a meeting of the community to consider electing new chiefs. According to the Indian agent assigned to Kahnawake at the time, the complaints had been made by "young warriors anxious to be made chiefs." The majority of those who attended the meeting supported the sitting chiefs and did not want to elect replacements. In response to the outcome of the meeting, Atonwa Karatoton (Thomas Jocks) wrote to government authorities to complain that the Indian agent had not properly determined the sentiment of the different clans on this issue. He suggested that each clan should have been consulted separately and stated that the Rotiskerewakekó:wa were "almost unanimously willing to proceed to an election".
The issues of the chiefs and the chiefs’ council surfaced again three years later. In 1875 the Indian Department was petitioned to hold new elections for chiefs, reduce the number of chiefs from seven to three, and limit a chief’s term of office to three years. The petition did not state why these changes were sought and the Indian agent at the time said that he saw no reason why the number of chiefs should be reduced. In the end, the petition was denied, but it is significant for at least two reasons. First, the changes sought in the petition would have brought the council of chiefs into conformity with the Indian Act of 1869, which introduced the three-year elective chiefs’ council system. Second, the petition was signed with the names of 134 Kahnawa’kehró:non, representing about 35% of the adult males living on the reserve at that time. One of the petitioners was Atonwa Karatoton. Following the petition Karatoton wrote to the Minister of the Interior and stated that the chiefs did not have the confidence and respect of the people and that there was a "strong and general desire among the Indians for elections."

These issues arose yet again in 1877 when Sose Taioroniote resigned as chief of the Rotihsennakéhte. Following his resignation the Indian agent for Kahnawake was directed by the Minister of the Interior to determine if a replacement was to be selected according to the Indian Act of 1876 or according to Kahnawake’s "old rules". The Minister did not specify what was meant by Kahnawake’s "old rules", but it appears that this refers to the system in which chiefs were selected by general consent of the clan and held their positions "for life". Like the Indian Act of 1869, the Act of 1876 sought to establish the three-year elective chiefs’ council system on Indian reserves. The election provisions of the 1876 Act called for the election of chiefs by a majority vote of the adult male members of a band and terms of office of three years.

The Indian Department took no action on Taioroniote’s resignation until early the following year, when a referendum was held to determine the community’s preference with regard to Kahnawake’s "old rules" or the Indian Act system. According to the Indian agent’s report, the meeting at which the referendum was held was well attended, but only 42 people actually voted. Of this number, 24 voted "For Life" and Kahnawake’s "old rules", while 18 voted "For 3 Years" and the Indian Act system. The division within the community over this issue appears to have been quite sharp. Following the referendum the Indian agent informed the Minister of the Interior that in response to the outcome there was "a party in the Tribe who wish to separate" and that he took down the names of about 60 who "are determined to force a division."

Two months after the referendum, in March of 1878, three new chiefs were selected. By this time, in addition to Taioroniote’s resignation, Sose Kentarontie (Joseph Delisle) of the Rotiskerewakaká:ion had also resigned and Francis Otonharishon of the Rotiskerewakekó:wa had died. The three new chiefs were chosen according to Kahnawake’s "old rules." Atonwa Karatoton (Thomas Jocks) was selected chief of the Rotiskerewakaká:ion, Sose Skatsienhati (Joseph Williams) was selected chief of the Rotihsennakéhte, and Tier Kaheroton (Peter Murray) was selected chief of the Rotiskerewakekó:wa. With this Kahnawake’s council again had a full complement of seven chiefs
Interestingly, the three new chiefs, along with the Indian agent, took the view that they had been elected to terms of three years and attempted to proceed in their new positions as if they had been elected under the provisions of the Indian Act of 1876. They and the Indian agent were reminded by the Minister of the Interior that in accordance with the earlier referendum they had been selected according to Kahnawake’s "old rules".

Two years after their selection as chiefs Karatoton, Skatsienhati, and Kaheroton were the subject of a petition to the DIA seeking to remove them from office and select new chiefs. The petition was signed with the names of 159 Kahnawa’kehró:non, representing about 40% of the adult male residents of the reserve. Several charges were made against the three, but the main issue appears to have been related to the presence of "squatters" on the reserve. The petitioners stated that at a meeting of a large number of the members of the community it had been decided "almost unanimously" to expel squatters from the reserve and to require the chiefs to carry out this decision. They indicated that Karatoton, Skatsienhati, and Kaheroton refused to take carry out the decision and that the three were actually profiting from the presence of squatters on the reserve. No action was taken by the DIA to replace any of the three chiefs at this time. In 1881 Kaheroton was removed from office for unrelated reasons and replaced by Wishe Sakoientineta (Michael Montour). Skatsienhati remained as chief until his death in 1885 and Karatoton remained as chief until the band council system replaced the council of chiefs in 1889.

The Indian Advancement Act and
the Establishment of the Band Council System

The division within Kahnawake over the council of chiefs and the Indian Act system was a prelude to the application of the Indian Advancement Act to the reserve and the establishment of the band council system. In November of 1887 fifty-four Kahnawa’kehró:non petitioned the Minister of the Interior to apply the Indian Act of 1880 to the reserve. A copy of this petition can be found in the Official Report of the House of Commons of April 18, 1888. The petitioners stated that the chief’s council had become "defective" because several of the chiefs had died and that some of those remaining on the council were not fit for their duties. In addition, they made clear in their petition that they wanted to modify the council to bring it into line with the Indian Act. The petitioners specifically asked that Section 72 of the Indian Act of 1880 be applied to the reserve. Section 72 limited the number of chiefs on a reserve to a maximum of six and their term of office to three years. Such a change would have significantly altered Kahnawake’s council, but no action was taken on the petition by the federal government at this time.

In January of 1888 the issue arose again when, according to DIA documents, some members of the community met to consider seeking application of the Indian Advancement Act of 1884. Compared to previous Indian Act legislation, the Advancement Act was an even more aggressive attempt to change Native political systems. Its central aim was to replace Native governments with a municipal system like that of Euro-Canadian communities. The means for accomplishing this was the one-year elective band council system.

Under the provisions of the Indian Advancement Act an Indian reserve would be governed locally by means of a council of representatives elected by and from the adult male members of the band living on the reserve. For the purposes of electing this band council a reserve would be divided up into sections, each with an equal proportion of the reserve’s population. One or more councilors would be elected by majority vote to represent each section. Together the councilors elected one of their own number to serve as "chief" councilor. Under the Advancement Act clan chiefs would no longer be recognized as such by the federal government. They would have no automatic right to a seat on their reserve’s band council, but they could stand for election.

According to a report of the Indian agent for Kahnawake, the January 1888 meeting held to consider application of the Advancement Act was called by him at the request of a "certain number of the principal Indians of Caughnawaga." The agent did not identify these "principal Indians", but he did state that the meeting was a "numerous one" and that it was "unanimously decided" to request that the Indian Advancement Act be applied to the reserve.

In his report on the meeting to the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs the Indian agent suggested that there were several reasons for granting this request. First, echoing concerns expressed in the November 1887 petition, he noted that several of the chiefs had died, only three remained on the council, and that it had been difficult to get the remaining chiefs together for meetings. Second, because the Walbank survey and subdivision of the reserve was underway, he pointed out it was an opportune time to divide the reserve into sections as required by the Advancement Act. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Indian agent argued that if the DIA did not quickly grant the request to apply the Advancement Act, there would be pressure "to give satisfaction to a portion of the band to go on with the old system and elect chiefs to replace those who died."

Within days of the January meeting a new petition was sent to the Minister of the Interior, but the wording of this petition is perplexing. This petition sought to elect chiefs to the chiefs’ council while the band was waiting for the government’s decision on the request for application of the Indian Advancement Act. A copy of this petition also can be found in the April 18, 1888 report of the Official Report of the House of Commons. The petition could be interpreted as support for the Advancement Act and simply to have a fully functioning council of chiefs while waiting for it to be applied. Or it could be interpreted as an effort to re-constitute a fully functioning council and to head off application of the Advancement Act. The interpretation has important implications because the petition was signed by 160 Kahnawa’kehró:non, about 35% of the adult male population of the reserve. Because a number of the signers of this petition also signed the November 1887 petition, this petition is most likely an indication of support for the Advancement Act, or at least increasing acceptance of it.

In February of 1888 the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs responded to the Indian agent that the petitioners’ request for selecting new chiefs was denied, but that the Department looked favorably on the request to apply the Advancement Act. He directed the agent to proceed with preparations for band council elections. The division of the reserve into six sections was completed by April 1888, but by January of 1889 the Advancement Act had not yet been officially applied to the reserve.
In early January of 1889 the Indian agent reported to the Deputy Superintendent General that "the people of the village are again agitating the question of the election of councilors or chiefs." He also urged the Deputy to move forward with the matter. In mid-January yet another petition was sent to the Minister of the Interior. This petition had wording similar to the petition of January 1888 and was signed by 210 Kahnawa’kehró:non.

This petition is especially interesting because it actually consists of seven petitions, one from each of the seven Kahnawake clans. As written on the petitions, the names of the clans are Rotinesiioh, Rotisenakete ("Deer Band", Ratiniaten ("Turtle Band"), Rotiskerewakekowa ("Big Bear Band"), Rotikwaho, Onkwaskerewake ("Small Bear Band"), and Rotineniotronon ("Stone Band").

In addition, each of the seven petitions contains the names of the clan members supporting the request of the petition. These petitions are located in File 32-5, Volume 7921 of Record Group 10 of the Public Archives of Canada and copies are located in the vertical file of the Kanien’kehá:ka Raotitióhkwa Cultural Center library. Following this petition, the Deputy Superintendent General directed the Indian agent to recommend a date and location for band council elections.

On January 31, 1889 the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs made his recommendation to the Privy Council of Canada for the application of the Indian Advancement Act to Kahnawake. On March 5, 1889 the Advancement Act was officially applied by an Order in Council. With this action Kahnawake’s council of clan chiefs was abolished and the band council system was established in its place. On March 16 elections were held, six councilors were elected, and one week later Kahnawake held its first ever band council meeting.

Though a significant portion of the community appears to have been supportive of the Indian Act system, it is also evident that an equally significant part was opposed to it and supportive of Kahnawake’s "old rules" and the council of chiefs. This division was evident through the 1870s and 1880s and would continue to characterize the community after the band council system was established in 1889.


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