Karonhienhawe Nicole Nicholas cultivates the traditions of hunting and fishing in her family, the kinds of activities that help form the bedrock of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and the sorts of things long agreed upon to be the purpose of Tioweró:ton, too.
Nicholas was appointed a lot in Tioweró:ton, the satellite reserve shared by Kanesatake and Kahnawake, which she planned to use to facilitate her family taking part in these activities. As a condition of securing the lot, Nicholas was obligated to build a structure within two years.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Finding a new job around the time she was allotted the cabin site, Nicholas thought she’d have no trouble building, but the cost of materials skyrocketed.
“Our pay never went up to match the price of lumber,” said Nicholas. She did some landscaping, but she couldn’t afford to build.
The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) Lands Unit that apportions cabin sites granted one-year extensions to accommodate pandemic-related delays, but costs remained high.
Nicholas has now run out of time, recently receiving a letter notifying her that she has lost her lot.
“I’m completely pissed off,” said Nicholas.
“We have the right to enjoy that land no matter what. But because we can’t afford to build a little shack there, we get penalized, and we get the lot taken away from us, which is not right,” she said.
Many of the discussions around Tioweró:ton in recent years have revolved around its changing use as more and more people go up for comfort and recreation rather than hunting or gathering medicine, with some building large, luxurious cabins.
“It’s not just to go up for a weekend up north (for us),” said Nicholas. “We live in the countryside – it’s not like we’re lacking that. However, that’s our right to have up there to hunt and fish and trap or whatever, and they took it away.”
She said she could have still made use of the lot, even without a structure, and believes that it is her right to do so.
“This is for Onkwehón:we people,” she said. “We don’t all make big money. That’s my beef. Where is it their right to take that land away because we can’t afford to build anything? We can camp there for sure. We’d still be able to use it.”
According to MCK chief Jessica Lazare, who leads the Tioweró:ton file, the process in place is intended to make sure land is being used since there are a limited number of lots.
“The policy as it is right now kind of ensures fairness for everybody that’s on the waiting list to be able to build their cabins,” she said.
“However, there are camping sites in Tioweró:ton where community members can go set up their tents that are available to all community members from Kahnawake and Kanesatake, so it’s not like they can’t set up their tents anywhere.”
There are approximately 338 cabins in Tioweró:ton, according to Lazare. Four have recently gone through the public posting process, and there are approximately 10 sites available.
Nearly 30 people have signed attestations that they are ready to build, for whom the next step would be selecting a lot by setting up a meeting with the caretakers.
Highlighting how limited space is, cabin sites that are alloted can be passed down to generations in the same family, and some even sell their cabins, even though the lots themselves belong to the community.
Lazare acknowledged that some of the policies around the territory may need to be revised.
“Things have changed, and lots back when policies were written for Tioweró:ton were a little bit more abundant than they are right now, so we have to really reflect the reality of the territory,” she said.
Tioweró:ton has long been a source of tension between Kanesatake and Kahnawake. While the two communities share the territory, Kahnawake has been solely funding its maintenance for years, a cost that currently sits around half a million dollars per year.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, August 4, in issue 32.31 of The Eastern Door.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.