By: Doug George Kanentiio, Akwesasne-Mohawk
There are presently three types of administrative agencies on Iroquois reservations within New York state: elected, of which there are two, and traditional, which number four and two others which were empowered by the US federal government.
The elected councils select representatives by popular vote using secret ballot much the same as in the United States. These representatives hold office for a fixed number of years and are subject to various New York state laws regarding local officials. The Seneca reservations of Allegany and Cattaraugus south of Buffalo have a single governing body called the “Seneca Nation” which broke from the Iroquois Confederacy in 1848. It has its own constitution, court and police systems.
Upon the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne government is a little more complicated. Divided in half by the international border, Akwesasne was until this century governed by a traditional Mohawk council sometimes called the “life chiefs.” In 1892 New York State created an entity called the St. Regis Tribal Council which is legally a type of county government under state law. The Tribal Council holds annual elections on a rotating basis for three “chiefs” and three “sub-chiefs” along with a tribal clerk.
The St. Regis Tribal Council does not have a constitution nor a justice system. Despite repeated attempts by the community to disband the Tribal Council, the latest was in 1991, it is supported both financially and militarily by New York State. The Tribal Council does not have treaty status (meaning it is not a sovereign Indian government and is not protected under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, the 1976 Jay Treaty or the 1784 Treaty of Ft. Stanwix all of which define native rights and recognize Iroquois independence) nor is it a part of the Iroquois Confederacy.
There is a similar elected council on the Canadian side of Akwesasne called the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. It was created in 1899 by the Canadian government and imposed upon the Mohawks by force of arms. It is also elected, holding a popular vote every three years for 12 chiefs and one “grand chief.” It has its own regulations and a justice system but is not a member of the Confederacy.
The Mohawk Nation Council, as the traditional government, claims jurisdiction to all of Akwesasne although it lacks a financial base and has not secured the formal recognition of either Canada or the U.S. It is, however, part of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Cayugas are presently attempting to secure land within their ancestral territory around Cayuga Lake in Seneca and Cayuga counties. They are now under the administration of an individual who has secured a peculiar status called “representative” with federal recognition.
In central New York, the Oneida Indian Nation has a Men’s Council led by a “representative” with US federal recognition. Neither the Cayuga or Oneida “representatives” have any standing within the Iroquois Confederacy.
Traditional Iroquois representatives must meet very specific qualifications before being considered as candidates for public office. The potential leader must demonstrate knowledge as to the ancient beliefs of the Iroquois since they function both as civil and spiritual counselors. They must take an active part in the many ceremonies held throughout the year and in fact, are required to speak on behalf of their clans during these important events.
A candidate must also be married and demonstrate he or she has taken good care of their spouses and children. The Iroquois believe one who has failed to adequately maintain a family cannot be trusted with the well being of the nation. If an individual has problems with alcohol or other substances then that person is excluded from office since a leader must have a clear mind at all times. Since they represent their respective nations their behavior must be of the highest caliber.
A candidate must be patient and willing to sacrifice their time and possessions for the good of the people. A leader must not be enriched while in office but must maintain a humble lifestyle. The Iroquois have always been apprehensive about the lure of material wealth and are fairly strict about representatives prospering while on the council.
A candidate must also be of the right clan which was inherited from his or her mother. There are nine Iroquois clans but not all nations have all clans. The Mohawks and Oneidas have three: Bear, Wolf, and Turtle. A candidate must be from one of these three but it is possible for the clan members to “borrow” an Iroquois form another nation to hold office temporarily if they can find no one otherwise qualified within their own territory.
Perhaps the most important quality and Iroquois leader can have is a lack of personal ambition with regards to power and prestige. Iroquois customs dictate keeping power away from any individual who actively seeks it. There is no such thing as lobbying for office in Iroquois society; there are no declared candidates or primaries. The Iroquois distrusted such aggressiveness believing it led to corruption and took power away from the clans.
Candidates were nominated by the female leader of a clan, called the clan-mother. The clan-mother could be a woman of any age but was usually an elder. They were appointed for life by an assembly of the clan and were required to meet the same standards as the men. They did not have the authority to engage in any activity which affected the clan without its approval. Among the most critical tasks of this female leader was to carefully select male representatives to the national council, monitor their behavior and when warranted apply discipline and upon serious breach of duty remove the male leader from his position as chief.
Once selected by the clan-mother, a leadership candidate was brought before the clan for approval. All clan members had a right to express their support or rejection of the proposed leader but if they were in opposition they must give good cause. If but one person was adamant in their belief that the candidate was unsuitable then the nominee was considered rejected.
If the candidate was by virtue of consensus approved by the clan the nomination was passed on to a gathering of all the people. With each person sitting in their respective clan areas, the candidate was brought before a popular assembly. Again, if there was well-founded opposition the candidate would be forced to withdraw but if the people were in agreement their decision was brought before the national council for approval.
Finally, the candidate was required to go through a ritual called the Condolence Ceremony. This involved the formal installation of the candidate as a chief of the Iroquois Confederacy through an ancient and sacred rite at which all the leaders of the Confederacy were assembled. The Confederate representatives had the option of withholding recognition by refusing to conduct the ceremony but this was very rarely done.
During the ceremony, the candidate was again reminded of his duties to the people under the Iroquois constitution called the “Great Law of Peace”. He was considered as officially sworn into office when a set of deer antlers were placed upon his head. From that moment on he held one of the fifty Iroquois Confederacy title names given to the original representatives when this first league of nations was formed a thousand years ago.
An Iroquois chief is prohibited from engaging in acts of violence nor do they have the right to declare war. They are “peace” leaders who must do everything in their power to achieve reconciliation. They do not possess the authority to sign any agreement or engage in any activity which affects the clan without full clan approval. They also must speak on behalf of the clan at gatherings of the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy, called the Grand Council. They may be impeached by the women for dishonesty, greed, dereliction of duty, abuse of women and/or children.
There is no greater shame in Iroquois society than to have one’s antlers (or “horns”) removed for violating the trust of the people. By this act, the chief is expelled from office and shunned by the people. In Iroquois terms the removal of the antlers causes the former chief to figuratively bleed from their forehead until the day they die.
Among the Oneidas, there has been a desire to return to traditional governance which is opposed by the current regime. There is no such entity as a “men’s council” in Iroquois history. Under the Great Law of Peace (the Iroquois constitution) a Oneida Nation Council would consist of nine chiefs, nine sub-chiefs, nine clan-mothers and 18 faithkeepers. Faithkeepers are the cultural and spiritual advisors to the chiefs and clan mothers. A Oneida Nation Council would then be composed of 45 democratically selected individuals but this form of government does not exist today.