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Ganienkeh celebrates 50th 

Courtesy Samantha Pepin

Mitch Deer grew up in New York City feeling disconnected from his culture and community. That’s why he considers Ganienkeh Territory – which he first visited in 1974, the year it was re-established – as his home. 

He stayed in Ganienkeh for the next 10 years, where he learned all about the history, the language, the songs, the laws and constitution, and the way of life. 

“I was dying to find out what we’re all about. Because I didn’t know anything,” he said.  

“I didn’t understand how it was to be with my own people,” he said, adding he was surrounded by a plethora of ethnic backgrounds in New York City – except Onkwehón:we. “So I made my journey from there to go north. 

“That was where I really got my education of being Native, being who I am really, my real identity,” said Deer, who now lives in Kahnawake.  

Last weekend, he went back to Ganienkeh for its 50th anniversary celebration, held on May 11.  

Ganienkeh – which translates to Land of the Flint – part of the sovereign traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, was re-established in May 1974, with a wave of Onkwehón:we moving back as a show of independence and sovereignty with the goal of rebuilding their traditional lives.  

The territory, which now spans about 600 acres near Altona, New York, is governed under the Great Law of Peace.  

Returning 40 years later, it’s a much different landscape than what Deer remembers from the early days of the territory’s re-establishment. “They’re like a little small city now. They got all kinds of things going on,” said Deer, adding a whole range of businesses have opened since he first got there.  

The day-long event began with tobacco burning, a medicine game, and smoke dance and continued into the afternoon with a presentation and speakers, wrapping up with a social. 

Speakers, including Deer, shared their stories of Ganienkeh with attendees, resurfacing memories from the earlier days in the territory and piecing together how Ganienkeh came to be what it is today. 

“We were relearning a lot of our ways, trying to collect what was lost,” said Dawn Delaronde, one of the event’s organizers, adding that much of reclaiming Ganienkeh was anchored in the desire to reconnect with traditional ways.  

“It was so we don’t forget who we are as a people and to bring back as much culture, language, and living with nature – it’s really a peaceful way to live when you actually understand it,” said Delaronde, who moved there from Kahnawake at age 12 with her family. 

Adapting to a new life and building up the community from scratch with no electricity and plumbing had its fair share of challenges, she recalled. “We just did what we had to do. We all pitched in. And it was pretty rough,” she said. “But there was a lot of laughing and working together. It’s a big difference.” 

Courtesy Samantha Pepin

She remembers the burgeoning community relied heavily on donations in its early days.  

That’s something Deer also recalls, having first arrived in Ganienkeh with a truck loaded with food and clothes.  

He’d spent a couple of months on the road, passing through Syracuse, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Chicago, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a group of other Onkwehón:we. “I was always constantly around Native people. It was great, it was beautiful. Because I was discovering how they are, how they talk, what they go through.” 

Returning back to New York after his first trip to the territory, Deer was struck with a feeling he couldn’t shake off.  

“I don’t feel this is my home anymore. I don’t want to be here no more. I found out being with Indian people was better, I felt more comfortable. I felt closeness with them.” 

Over the summer, he’d return to the territory to bring food and clothes every couple of weekends and felt more at home there than he ever did in New York.  

In 1974, he settled down in Ganienkeh, where he spent the next decade of his life.  

“It was a great reminder to myself and probably many others of the sacrifices the ones who are no longer here had to take in order for us to still have the strength to carry on their legacy and to try our best every day to continue to carry our identity as independent Onkwehón:we of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Russell Delaronde, a vendor at the event.  

To him, getting the chance to enjoy the celebration with like-minded people and connect with friends and family, some whom he doesn’t see all too often, was the highlight of the day.  

The event was a heartfelt gathering and a nod to Ganienkeh’s progress over 50 years with the contributions of countless people who have passed through the territory or built their lives there.  

“Up to today, we’re still building on it. There’s always learning, no matter what,” said Dawn, adding that five generations of her family are now part of Ganienkeh’s history. “I’m very proud of that.” 


This article was originally published in print on May 17 in issue 33.20 of The Eastern Door.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.