(A man stages a solo protest against a land claim agreement between St. Regis Mohwak Tribe, New York State and St. Lawrence County. Photo courtesy of Charles Kader.)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
AKWESASNE–It dropped like a bombshell in the middle of the election.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, which administers the U.S-side of Akwesasne, announced Wednesday it has signed a memorandum of understanding with New York State and St. Lawrence County for a land settlement agreement.
The announcement met its first small protests Thursday from those in the community who see the deal as selling out their rights and land. The issue is now on almost everyone’s mind.
Akwesasne members of the St. Regis Tribe will be voting June 7 for one chief and sub chief. The tribe staggers its votes for its three tribal chief and three sub-chief positions. Each serves for a three year term.
First-time candidate for tribal chief Jean Square said she visited about 50 homes Thursday evening and the majority of people wanted to talk about the issue.
“It is a tough one,” said Square, Thursday. “I have been out meeting with a lot of people and a lot of elders and they’re saying we lost so many things, it’s time some of our people got something back to help them.”
Square said she feels a sense of unease about the agreement.
“Well, in my gut, I have a nervous feeling about it,” she said. “I hope are no finer details we are missing or things we’re are not thinking about that could impact the generations to come.”
Square is running against incumbent Chief Ron LaFrance Jr. who is solidly backing the agreement.
LaFrance could not be reached for comment. He was effusive in praise for the agreement in the tribe’s press statement.
“We are proud to stand here with our neighbours from St. Lawrence County,” said LaFrance, in the statement. “The settlement of our land matters will benefit our entire region, just as the benefits of our tribe’s economic expansion have reached far into our neighbouring communities.”
Others, however, rejected the agreement as a betrayal not just of Akwesasne, but of all the Iroquois communities.
Akwesasne journalist Doug George said the “historical” agreement should be met with an equally “historic” response from the Mohawk. In an essay sent to APTN National News, George contrasted the tribe’s leadership to the great Shawnee war leader Tecumseh.
“Unlike our “leadership” Tecumseh demanded that the US be held accountable for its actions and its breach of aboriginal rights. In the current “land claims” negotiations at no point does New York State or the US acknowledge any wrongdoing. No official or agency is held responsible for the theft of millions of acres of Mohawk territory, the death of thousands of Mohawks or the damages to our culture and health,” said George. “Making this worse is that all monetary expenditures resulting from a “settlement” would come from resources generated on Mohawk lands. As for the “free tuition” it is merely a tactic to impose alien education standards on our people and further diminish language and our ancestral bonds to the natural world.”
Under the deal, if finalized, tribal members will get free tuition to attend any New York State university or college. It would also allow the tribe, on a willing seller willing buyer arrangement, to obtain lands in St. Lawrence County. Local municipalities would then be compensated by the state for lost property taxes. The tribe would also pay the county $3.5 million.
The tribe would also receive annual $2 million payments from the New York Power Authority for 35 years and nine megawatts of power at the authority’s lowest rates.
Square said dissenting voices need a full hearing before any decision is made on a final agreement.
“We have to listen to all the people on it and if this is the time to hear what the people have to say and if the people are speaking out against it, those people need to be talked to,” said Square.
She also may be uniquely positioned to handle and mediate an issue that triggers such strong emotions against the tribal government.
The tribe was involved in the prosecution of her husband, Tom Square, over Three Feathers Casino which was operating without a federal license in Akwesasne. Square was eventually found not guilty in US federal court this past December, but he spent nearly 11 months in jail. The ordeal was rough on Jean Square, who was left to care for the many family members that reside in their home.
The ordeal convinced her to run politically.
“I am hoping that the impact I can have would be my different thinking,” said Square, who works for the tribe’s social services with families in crisis. “I have worked for 20 years with families in this community…I want to know what the people want. Are the issues on the tribal meetings are what they want? Why don’t they go to the tribal meetings? I know what the Akwesasne I want to live in looks like.”
Kallen Martin is also running for tribal chief.