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St. Regis Mohawk chiefs Ron LaFrance, Beverly Cook, and sub-chief Eric Thompson are hoping to build support for the land claim settlement among tribal members. Photo: David Sommerstein.
St. Regis Mohawk chiefs Ron LaFrance, Beverly Cook, and sub-chief Eric Thompson are hoping to build support for the land claim settlement among tribal members. Photo: David Sommerstein.

Mohawk chiefs: "The most important thing is our land"

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Mohawks in Akwesasne are trying to absorb the terms of a deal to end their historic land claim.

Last week, tribal chiefs signed a framework agreement with New York State and St. Lawrence County. It would allow the Mohawks to buy almost 5,000 acres of land and add the parcels to the reservation. In return, the Mohawks will pay a share of their casino revenue to New York. And St. Lawrence County and the towns of Massena and Brasher will share a payment of $4 million a year.

Talks are ongoing with Franklin County, where several thousand more acres are part of the 32-year-old land claim lawsuit.

The proposed settlement is huge news in Akwesasne. And it's very controversial. David Sommerstein and Martha Foley sort out why.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Martha Foley: So, David, we've been following the twists and turns of this disputed land – 12,000 acres in northern St. Lawrence and Franklin counties – for decades now. Let's remember – what is this all about? What is the basis for this land claim lawsuit?

David Sommerstein: This goes back more than 200 years, to the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. The Mohawks fought on the side of the British. So during and after the war, they were attacked and punished by the colonists - the "new" Americans. The Mohawks were pushed back from settlements throughout what is now eastern New York State to Akwesasne and the surrounding area.

So when we talk about the land claim, the "claim" is that during this time, New York State took possession of thousands of acres of land in northern New York illegally. The argument is that a series of treaties from the 1790s said the U.S. federal government had to approve the land transfer, and that it didn't.

MF: So the Mohawk land claim was filed in the courts in 1982. Since then, settlements have come and gone. There have been court rulings on parts of the land claim.

Now there's this proposed agreement, that Mohawks can buy about 5,000 acres in Massena and Brasher from "willing sellers" and add that to the Akwesasne reservation.

You went to Akwesasne Wednesday to meet with the St. Regis Mohawk chiefs. What did they say about this deal. Why now?

DS: I spoke with two chiefs, Ron LaFrance and Beverly Cook. We were at the tribal government building on Route 37 in Hogansburg in a typical conference room. Chief LaFrance was joking because he had just gotten a buzz-cut.

But he was very serious when he began speaking about the land claim. He said his father, Ron LaFrance, Sr., helped start this land claim, and he himself has been working on it for years. He said this deal accomplishes the big, ultimate goal – to expand the Akwesasne territory.

"That's the most important thing to us, our land," LaFrance said. "You can always go through money. To us money is not…yes, there are a lot of good things about it. But in the end, you can always lose your money. When you have your land and you have a base, you have that forever."

Now you heard that part about the money. That's important here. Because nine years ago, in 2005, there was another proposed land claim deal. George Pataki was still governor. The Mohawks would have gotten the right to buy all this land, and also $100 million.

MF: That sounds like a better deal. But it fell through. What happened?

DS: What happened was later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling against the Oneida Nation, known as the Sherill case. It basically said too much time had passed for the Oneida Nation to claim its land. So legally speaking, that land claim died instantly. So did the Cayuga claim in New York. And the Onondaga claim. And so some of the parties in that Mohawk deal under Governor Pataki pulled out.

Chief LaFrance Wednesday called the Sherill case "a stab in the back." It was a huge blow to native tribes seeking their ancestral lands. And the Mohawks lost bargaining power.

The land claim proposed settlement, known as the "MOU" (for memorandum of Understanding) is hugely controversial around Akwesasne. Meanwhile, a tribal election will be held on Saturday. Photo: David Sommerstein.
The land claim proposed settlement, known as the "MOU" (for memorandum of Understanding) is hugely controversial around Akwesasne. Meanwhile, a tribal election will be held on Saturday. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Now the Mohawk case has survived because a judge recently said that at least part of the land claim is still valid. He ruled that's because the area is "mostly native" in character.

La France says this deal preserves the most important part – the land. Chief Beverly Cook added that there's another big part of this deal worth millions of dollars – free SUNY tuition for all Akwesasne residents. She said there are a lot of young families in Akwesasne.

"There are a lot of young people that want to go back to school but can't afford to," Cook said. "There are many things within the agreement that are going to enhance the life and education and the welfare of our people, and they see it."

MF: But not all Mohawks see that, of course. Longtime Mohawk activist Doug George wrote a letter calling the settlement "a terrible, fatal blow to Mohawk aboriginal rights." You spoke with members of the traditional longhouse. What do they say?

DS: I kept playing phone tag with Tewakierahkwa, who is the Bear Clan Mother of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. We finally connected over the phone as she was driving home from work.

She said the 12,000 acres here in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties is just a small part of a much larger claim to millions of acres – the aboriginal Mohawk territory that the traditional Mohawk Nation believes was never ceded to New York or to anyone.

"We were the first people to live on these lands and on these territories," Tewakierahkwa said. "It's an indigenous claim, an indigenous title that was fraudulently taken away from us. And so, it's unbelieveable to think that we have to buy back land that was stolen from us."

I heard that a lot in Akwesasne, people asking, 'why would we buy back land that was stolen from us?' Tewakierahkwa said that her responsibility is to think on behalf of the next seven generations. The land, she says, is the Mother. And no deal with a foreign government like New York State, and no ruling from a foreign court, like the Supreme Court, will change that.

It's also important to note that the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe can only legally resolve this land claim on behalf of its members. The traditional Mohawk Nation and the Canada-recognized council, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, are also parties in the lawsuit. It's unclear what would happen if they wanted to continue the legal fight.

MF: So what happens next?

DS: Well, it just so happens that there's a tribal election tomorrow. And Ron La France is running for re-election as chief against two women. I was cautioned not to read into the results as a referendum on the land claim deal. But it will be interesting to see what happens.

There are still so many questions – how will buying land from willing sellers actually work? How will prices be set? And there remain many other issues regarding the terms of the deal as it pertains to St. Lawrence County and its towns.

The next official step is that Franklin County has to enter into this agreement for it to move ahead. Talks are ongoing. And eventually, Congress will have to sign off. The Mohawk chiefs say they're already starting to talk with people in Washington about that.

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