Kahnawà:ke residents are learning about their past – so they can pave a way for their future

Academic and author Gerald Taiaiake Alfred is managing the Kahnawà:ke Governance Project (KGP), offering information sessions on the history of Kanien’keha’ka (Mohawk) governance. This, he said, will help community members have informed discussions and debates about what their government should look like.

“We have a problem in the community, which is that we don’t have a unified way for people to make decisions, we don’t have a unified system of selecting leaders and so forth, said Alfred.

“What we’re trying to do is give the people of the community a chance to discuss this, to learn about their history, and to vision forward beyond this system where we have a divided set of institutions to one where they can work together,” said Alfred.

Many residents of Kahnawà:ke want to return to traditional longhouse government, with a clan system and consensus-based decision making. Right now, the community’s funds and services are managed by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK). It’s the elected band council system imposed during the Indian Act.

“The people who see the long-term vision of colonization and decolonization is rooted in spirituality and cultural revival and so forth, they tend to focus on the longhouse,” explained Alfred.

“The people who see helping the people deal with colonization in the practical sense tend to focus on the MCK, because they’re meeting everyday needs.”

Finding common ground has been difficult in the past, said KGP’s community engagement coordinator Linda Delorimier.

“I think it’s really hard for people to be vulnerable, given the history that we have, and I think that’s the missing ingredient for building trust,” said Delorimier, “so we’re looking for ways to provide the opportunity to do that safely, regardless of where they come from.”

As Kahnawà:ke has pushed for language and cultural revitalization over the past decades, many want to return to their governance roots as well – the longhouse, which runs on a philosophy of connection with others and nature, according to Kahnawà:ke Elder Kevin Deer.

“If you look at our community and every community across, we’re all grappling with the same thing. There’s unrest on many different levels, and then even the social issues that we have,” said Deer.

“To me, all of that is the result of the separation from Spirit, whatever you want to call it.”

Deer is on the KGP’s Elder advisory board. He said the way things are working now is unsustainable and says the community has needed a blueprint for a new government for decades.

“In 1979 … there was a community meeting where the majority of the people said ‘Well, let’s go back to a traditional government.’ But what does that actually mean? Does it mean that we’ll all come back to the longhouse, that we’re going to have [clan] chiefs, clan mothers, and everything functioning according to the protocols of the longhouse?” he said.

“Me personally, I’d like to say yeah, that’s how it will be, but I’m only one person. The community will decide what they think that is.”

Deer said coming from a place of non-judgement is part of the process of returning back to their roots.

“We inherited all of this mess, and we can’t be coming from this position of us against them,” said Deer.

Despite Deer’s traditionalist attitude, he said he’s supportive of his daughter Kahsannahawe Sky-Deer, the grand chief of MCK.

Sky-Deer says MCK is providing the funding but taking a hands-off approach to the project.

“I’m very much open to what the community says and how we’re going to move towards something, if they’re not happy with the system that we have today,” said Sky-Deer.

“But I think a lot of people don’t understand the way the system has evolved. over time. We don’t have the Indian agent, we’re not pawns of the federal government, we don’t take direction the federal government, this is really community governance at its core.”

Alfred also says that consensus is something that is ingrained in everybody in Kahnawà:ke, including band council officials.

“The idea that you can’t just have 50 per cent plus one and you can’t just have an administrative tribunal that makes a decision and moves forward, that there needs to be worked that goes into hearing all voices, considering all voices, and then taking the best option that most of the people support while still respecting those that have a divergent opinion, that’s the way Kahnawà:ke’s run,” he said.

Delorimier hopes this project will ultimately unify Kahnawà:ke.

“We’re all coming from a place of trauma, from colonization, you know hundreds of years of all of the effects of colonization, and so there’s a place where there’s a need to heal,” said Delorimier.

The next phase will involve community consultations and debates. The KGP aims to release a new government framework in 2024.