History & Culture
It is Our Custom - The Persistence of Kahnawake’s Council of Chiefs in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
By: Gerald, F. Reid, Ph.D.Sacred Heart University
Note: This is an ongoing work in progress on the organization and evolution of local government in Kahnawake in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The last quarter of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century stand as a time of considerable pressure on the traditional political institutions and practices of Haudenosaunee communities in Canada. With passage of the Indian Act in 1875 and its subsequent revisions over the next several decades, particularly in the form of the Indian Advancement Act of 1884, the Canadian government sought aggressively to transform native political institutions by replacing traditional governments with an elective band council system. At Tyendinega, Grand River, Akwesasne, Kahnawake, and elsewhere traditional councils rooted in the clan system were abolished, almost always amidst local resistance and community division, sometimes accompanied by violence, and frequently followed by persistent efforts to revive the traditional systems. In this paper I focus attention on the Mohawk community at Kahnawake and the persistence of its traditional council of chiefs after the establishment of an elected band council system on the reserve in 1889. As background for this discussion, I first describe the organization of Kahnawake’s traditional council of clan chiefs and the circumstances under which it was replaced by a band council system. In addition, I discuss in a summary way efforts in Kahnawake during the 1890s by a large segment of the community to terminate the band council system and restore its traditional council of chiefs. I then discuss the evidence for the persistence or revival of Kahnawake’s traditional council as an underground or “shadow” government within the community during the 1890s and early twentieth century. I conclude with some thoughts about the evolution of this “underground” council of clan chiefs with the development of a Longhouse movement in the community during the mid-1920’s.
Kahnawake’s Council of Clan Chiefs and the Indian Act System
From at least the early 1840s until 1889, Kahnawake’s council of chiefs consisted of seven chiefs representing seven different clans or clan segments within the community. These seven clans or clan segments were the Turtle (Ratiniáhten), Wolf (Rotikwáho), Great Bear (Rotiskeré:wakekó:wa), Old Bear (Rotiskeré:wakaká:ion), Snipe (Rotinehsí:io), Deer (Rotihsennakéhte), and Rock (Rotineniothró:non). A chief was male, selected by some part or all of the members of the clan he represented, and held his term for life, unless he voluntarily retired or was deposed. Once selected, a clan chief was officially recognized as such by the Indian Department with the presentation of a silver medallion bearing the likeness of the British sovereign on one side and the English coat of arms on the other. Typically, a chief belonged to the clan he represented, but it was possible for a clan to “borrow” a man from another clan to serve as its chief if it had no suitable candidate of its own.
Pressure on the Kahnawake community from the Canadian government to abandon its council of clan chiefs and institute and elective system of government began with the passage of the Enfranchisement Act in 1869 and intensified with the enactment of the Indian Act in 1875. In addition, beginning in the early 1870’s and continuing through to the late 1880’s, there were internal pressures for abolishing the chiefs’ council and establishing an elective system of government, a movement that was lead by more assimilated, prosperous, and politically ambitious young men within the Kahnawake community. At the same time, there was a large and diverse segment of the community that opposed the Indian Act system and worked to maintain the council of chiefs. Thus, during this period the Kahnawake community was split over the Indian Act system and its council of clan chiefs.
By 1889 the division within the community over these issues, combined with pressure from the local Indian agent, the death and removal of several of the chiefs, and the lack of timely appointment of new chiefs in their places had rendered the council of chiefs deficient of members and inactive. These circumstances, combined with a recent survey and subdivision of the reserve, provided the Indian Department with the opening and leverage it needed to initiate the kind of political transformation on Indian reserves that it had envisioned with the Indian Advancement Act o 1884. In 1888 an elective system was designed for Kahnawake, the reserve was carved into voting districts, and in March of 1889 the Indian Advancement Act was officially applied to the reserve, thereby abolishing the council of clan chiefs and establishing a band council system. The newly implemented band council system, which supporters of the chiefs’ council continued to actively oppose right up until the time of the Superintendent General’s recommendation to apply the Advancement Act in January of 1889, consisted of six councilors, each elected by the adult males residing in the six different voting districts within the reserve.
The Persistence of Kahnawake’s Traditional Council
Given the internal divisions over the traditional council and the Indian Act system, it is not surprising that discontent and frustration with the newly established band council system plagued the Kahnawake community throughout the 1890’s. There were persistent calls from within the community to abandon the Indian Act system and restore the traditional council of clan chiefs. The first formal, organized effort to this effect came within about a year of the establishment of the band council, when in 1890 one hundred and twenty-one Kahnawakehronon petitioned the Indian Department, stating that they did not approve of the “republican form of government of electing persons” and found it “injurious” to the interests of the band. The sought to restore their “Hereditary Chiefs,” they stated, “because it is our custom.” Other petitions followed – another in 1890 by women of the Bear clan; one in 1894 signed not only by Kahnawakehronon, but also by representatives at a Grand Council at St. Regis from Akwesasne, Kanehsatake, and Grand River; another in 1894 signed by 245 Kahnawakehronon; and others in 1896, 1897, 1901, and 1905 – all to no avail.
Despite these failures to do away with the band council system and re-establish the council of clan chiefs as the officially recognized form of government on the reserve, supporters of the traditional system do appear to have succeeded in either maintaining or reviving the chiefs’ council as an “underground” government, by which I mean an organized and functioning council operating with legitimacy and authority in the eyes of many in the native community, but without the approval of and official recognition by government authorities. Evidence of such an “underground” council of clan chiefs is provided by a letter written to the United States Congress in October of 1898 by forty-four women from Kahnawake. In the letter the women identified themselves as makers of “beadwork and Indian novelties” and implored the members of Congress to remove recently enacted tariffs that had threatened the sale of their wares in the U.S. In an apparent reference to the Jay Treaty of 1794, they based their plea on the “treaty made by our forefathers and your Government worded in a sense as if there was no boundary for Indians.”
What is significant about this document for here is that the signatures of the forty-four women are witnessed by the “Chiefs of Caughnawaga.” There are seven chiefs, each of whom is identified by name and who has signed with his “mark.” One of the chiefs was Saksarie Tires. From other sources he can be identified as Frank Walker, who at the time was 55 years old. Another chief was Ennias Hoskenontona, also known as Angus Daillebout, who was also 55 years old. A third chief was Atonwa Thakeritontie, Thomas Deer, who was 74 years old, and a fourth chief was Wishe Thaionroniote, also known as Michel Deer, 53 years old. A fifth chief was Sose Kentaratiron, Joseph Beauvais, was about 84 years old. The two remaining chiefs were Sose Atawakhon and Moses Karekohe. The clans that these seven chiefs represent are not identified in the letter, however, on the basis of other sources, Saksarie Tires (Frank Walker) can be identified with the Old Bear clan, Ennias Hoskenontona (Angus Daillebout) with the Wolf clan, Sose Kentaratiron (Joseph Beauvais) with the Turtle clan, and Atonwa Thakeritontie (Thomas Deer) with the Snipe clan
None of the seven chiefs who witnessed the 1898 letter were chiefs on Kahnawake’s council at the time of the establishment of the Indian Act system in 1889, however, there is evidence in petitions to the Indian Department and other government officials that nearly all were active in supporting the traditional council before it was abolished and in attempting to restore it as the official form of government after the establishment of the band council system. The fact that these seven men are identified as the “Chiefs of Caughnawaga” and that they, not elected band councilors or the Indian agent, are presented as witnesses for petition sent to Congress on such an important matter, argues that they constituted an organized body with legitimate authority, at least in the eyes of the 44 women who signed the petition. In other words, Kahnawake’s council of clan chiefs was an organized, functioning body with legitimate authority in the community in 1898.
Did the chiefs’ council persist over the decade since the establishment of the band council system or was it revived in the late 1890s? The evidence is not clear on this point, but it seems most likely that there was a brief period in which a fully organized and functioning council did not exist. None of the four chiefs remaining on the council in 1889 were council chiefs in 1898 – two, in fact, had been supporters of the Indian Act system and had held elective positions on the band council, while the other two were very elderly (they had served on the council since at least 1853) and in all likelihood were dead or unable to fulfill their duties. Thus, after a brief period of dormancy and the community’s divisive transition to the Indian Act system, an entirely new council of chiefs had to be selected. Most likely, the supporters of the chiefs’ council took this action as their petitions in the early 1890s to abandon the elective system failed to move government officials.
One additional piece of evidence for the persistence of Kahnawake’s traditional council of clan chiefs comes from 1923 in the form of a newspaper article from the Montreal Star, which reported on a rivalry for the position of chief of the Turtle clan in Kahnawake between Dominic Two-Axe and his uncle, Karaienton. According to the article, during the course of the rivalry the chiefs of six other clans had called the community into council some weeks earlier to discuss what appears to have been a rather nasty feud between Two-Axe and Karaienton. At the time of the publication of the newspaper article, the six chiefs had called for another council of the Kahnawake clans in attempt to resolve the dispute. These six clans are identified as the Wolf, Black Bear, White Bear, Plover (Snipe), Rock, and Deer clans; including the Turtle clan to which Two-Axe and Karaienton belonged, these are exactly the same clans that were the basis of the chiefs’ council prior to 1889 and of the underground council in 1898. In addition, the article identifies Sose Kentaratiron (Joseph Beauvais) as the 84 year-old “veteran chief and wise man of the tribe” for whose position Two-Axe and Karienton were vying. Apparently, Kentaratiron had recently stepped away from his position as chief of the Turtle clan and was supporting Two-Axe as his successor. Kentaratiron was one of the seven chiefs who witnessed the petition that Kahnawake beadworkers sent to the U.S. Congress in 1898. These facts provide evidence suggesting that the council of seven clan chiefs was an organized political body that had been functioning at least since 1898. Indeed, the chiefs’ council may have been functioning continuously throughout the period since the establishment of the elective band council system three decades earlier.
What happened to Kahnawake’s council of clan chiefs after this point in time?
At about the time of the rivalry for the position of Turtle clan chief, Dominic Two-Axe and a small number of activists in Kahnawake had became involved in an effort to establish a formally organized Longhouse within the community. Based on oral histories, it appears that the beginnings of this effort preceded the rivalry for the position of Turtle clan chief and that in 1923 this nascent Longhouse movement was at a critical stage of its formation. Further, it appears that the rivalry between Two-Axe and Karaienton may have been part of a larger division and struggle within the Kahnawake community over the establishment of a Handsome Lake Longhouse and the maintenance of the traditional council of clan chiefs. The newspaper article that reported on the rivalry noted that Two-Axe had declared himself “Tekarihoken,” despite a rebuke from the majority of his fellow clan members, some of whom apparently regarded him as a troublemaker because of his “repeated charges of ill-treatment” of Indians by the Canadian government. By 1927 the Longhouse group had organized itself around three clans (Turtle, Black Bear, and Wolf), each with a chief and clan mother. At this time Two-Axe was the chief of the Turtle clan and his wife, Konwakeri Kentiokokta, was the “mother chief’ of the Black Bear clan.
When a Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was held in Kahnawake in the summer of 1927 to discuss the immigration case of Paul K. Diabo, the Kahnawake Longhouse, its chiefs and Dominic Two-Axe in particular, played a prominent role in the organizing the Grand Council and in its proceedings. Indian Affairs documents and newspaper accounts that report on developments in Kahnawake during this time period make only infrequent reference to any clans other than the Turtle, Bear, and Wolf clans. Only the Deer clan and its chief, Angus Montour (American Horse), receive mention. There is no mention of Kahnawake’s traditional council of seven clan chiefs. By the early 1930’s, when Longhouse membership had grown to perhaps one hundred or more and split into two and then three Longhouse groups, it was by this time to have been organized around just three clans: Turtle, Bear and Wolf. Thus, it appears that as the Longhouse movement in Kahnawake succeeded, the council of seven clan chiefs was superseded by the three clan system that would emerge at the center of the Kahnawake Longhouses in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In conclusion, there is good evidence that Kahnawake’s council of seven clan chiefs persisted or was revived soon after the establishment of the Indian Act system in 1889. It continued as an organized, functioning body, with legitimate authority in the community into the mid-1920’s, when it appears that it was absorbed by the local Longhouse movement organized on the basis of three clans.
“Big Chiefs at Caughnawaga Pow-Wow,” Montreal Star, 27 June 1927.
“Bitter Rivalry in Fight for Job as ‘Tekarihoken’ at Indian Reservation,” Montreal Star, 26 March 1923.
Iroquois Women of Caughnawaga, “Letter to U.S. Congress,” 3 October 1898. NYSL, 12836.
National Archives of Canada. Records relating to Indian Affairs, Record Group 10, Volume 2320, file 638212-2.
--------, Volumes 7921, file 32-5, pt. 1.
--------, Volume 8970-71.
Reid, Gerald F., Kahnawà:ke: Factionalism, Traditionalism, and Nationalism in a Mohawk Community. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
“Three Chiefs Who Protest Against Present Indian Act,”