APTN National News
AKWESASNE-Standing on the back of a tow truck as police hauled away an increasing number of Mohawks protestors, Ernest “Kaientaronkwen” Benedict called for his people to remain calm and regroup before flaring tempers led to a violent confrontation.
It was 1969 and the Mohawks had blocked the border crossing on Cornwall Island between the U.S. and Canada to protest Ottawa’s refusal to allow the Akwesasne Mohawks duty-free passage of personal purchases.
“Now at this point things are beginning to go wrong,” said Benedict, speaking Mohawk. “The tempers of the police are becoming short. They no longer care if they break things or if they hurt people…From now on if anyone else is arrested, there is a danger that he may be hurt, because now they are much more easily angered.”
After his speech, the Mohawks walked away from the police.
Throughout the protest, which was immortalized in the film You Are on Indian Land, Benedict acted as peacemaker and voice of reason amid the more fiery personalities of younger Mohawks like John Boots, who later became a spokesman for the Mohawk Warrior Society, and Mike Mitchell, currently the grand chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Council.
Benedict, who died at 92 this past Saturday, embodied the often overlooked and highly valued Mohawk characteristic of a peacemaker, the calming voice, said Doug George Kanentiio
“I can’t remember once when he raised his voice in anger. He was always that kind of human being that we select as our diplomat and our spokespeople, because he had that patience, tolerance and gentleness of character,” said George Kanentiio.
Benedict died this past Saturday in a hospital in Cornwall, Ont. His funeral was held Tuesday in Akwesasne.
Grand Chief Mike Mitchell said Benedict was a mentor who gave Mitchell his first car ride as a nine-year-old on a trip to witness a Seneca ceremony.
“It became a lifetime of friendship. Him being a mentor to me, guiding me through different careers,” said Mitchell. “I always respected his vision.”
Benedict also had an iron will when it came to defending Mohawk customs and traditions. He spent time in jail because he refused to answer a call to serve in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. Benedict said he would not serve in a military before it had officially declared war against an enemy.
When the U.S. finally declared war, Benedict became a radio man in the Signal Corps and was recruited as a code talker before the Navajos took over the role.
Benedict was also one of the first First Nations men to get a university degree, earning a BA in Sociology from St. Lawrence University in 1940. He also earned an honourary doctorate in 1994 from Trent University where he taught and also served on the doctorate committee for the Native Studies department.
Benedict not only taught at colleges and universities, he helped start his own: the North American Indian Travelling College, which is still operating today.
Benedict was also the editor of Akwesasne’s first newspaper, the War Whoop, between 1939 and 1941. He also started Akwesasne Notes, which gained international prominence under George Kanentiio.
Benedict, who was named traditional life chief, served as a Mohawk Council chief and grand chief through the 1950s and 1970s.
Benedict is survived by his wife of 58 years, Florence, four children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grand children and two sisters.