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Path to traditional governance

Community members heard the findings and recommendations of the Kahnawake Governance Project at the Golden Age Club last week. Courtesy Kahnawake Governance Project

Recommendations from the Kahnawake Governance Project have been made public, including an ask that the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) accept the ultimate jurisdiction of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and transition into an administrative instead of political body.  

The report was presented at community sessions at the Golden Age Club last week. 

“People came up and said that they were impressed with the process and the results,” said project lead, Gerald Taiaiake Alfred. “Now we want to get the ball rolling on the next phase, which is actually doing the work and putting our minds together to make this transition happen.” 

The report concerns the community engagement phase of the project and outlines the results of opinion surveys and community consultation.   

Consultations included conversations with the project’s community advisory group, individual knowledge holders, elders, political elders, and youth, as well as “kitchen-table” style conversations with individuals, families, and workplace groups, and in public kiosks. 

There were 45 individual interviews, four workplace interviews with 30 participants, four family groups with 25 participants, and two informal discussion sessions of 15 participants. 

Feedback in those settings identified a widespread desire to transition to traditional forms of government, and a need for education related to traditional governance, Haudenosaunee culture, the Great Law of Peace, and treaties.  

“The obstacle has always been the reluctance or inability of the MCK to accept the ultimate jurisdiction of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and I’m recommending that we get through that obstacle by the MCK accepting this objective,” Alfred said.  

The report also outlined results from the opinion survey, which Alfred said serves as more of a snapshot of community opinion rather than a comprehensive review, with 209 respondents submitting feedback. 

Of those respondents, there was strong support (70 percent) for keeping the MCK as an organization in some form, but specifically for it to evolve into an administrative body, with minimal support for either abolishing the MCK or keeping it as it is currently. Respondents overwhelmingly supported a transition to traditional government, with only six percent of respondents disagreeing. 

“I’m hopeful the report will generate discussion and action. It’s about being more action-oriented and changing the status quo system that’s there with the MCK, and replacing that with a more traditional, decolonized form of self-determination,” said Russ Diabo, one of the Governance Project’s advisory board members.  

“I’m hoping more people will get involved and not be apathetic, because it’s important we figure these things our for their kids and grandkids; we need to think about the future of Kahnawake.” 

The report also highlights a need for unification of the community’s Longhouses, something mentioned by many of those who participated in consultations, who are actively involved in the Longhouse system. 

“I think it can be done, but I also know it’s contingent on our presenting a united front and actually being unified. If people want to be restored fully, to be fully integrated back into the Confederacy, we have to resolve the issues of people’s posture relative to the Code of Handsome Lake,” said Alfred. 

“If we can get through that and agree, or even agree to disagree but put aside animosities arising from those things, I don’t think that we’ll have any problems.” 

Attached to the report is a full historical chronology of Kahnawake governance, dating back to 7000 BCE and including details about the formation of the clan system, wars with other Onkwehón:we nations, contact with settlers, the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and modern governance history.  

Alfred said he was struck by one participant at last week’s presentations who had been moved by the content of the report and the visual chronology of Kahnawake’s history.  

“She said her family’s been involved in the Longhouse all her life, but she’d lost hope that things would ever change,” he said. “Listening to this and seeing the pathway laid out gave her hope again that we could actually make the changes that we need to make. I was pretty proud to hear her say that.” 

For community member Brandon Montour, it was particularly encouraging to hear the report’s findings as a young Kahnawa’kehró:non who has pursued a law career focused on Indigenous rights. He hopes more community members will participate in further phases of the project. 

“This project is a precursor to the ways in which we will all be making decisions in the future, and so I think that it’s important for the community to realize that if we want traditional government, it will also entail putting that work in, and everyone must do their part,” he said.  

Montour said that he was pleased with the way the Governance Project has been conducted and hopes that those apprehensive of the project – it was officially mandated by the MCK, though works at an arms-length from the organization – will recognize the fairness of its process. 

“I am quite impressed with it as a document and study. It is well articulated,  transparent, and accessible for all community members to read. Its methodology is clearly set out, and I think it is a model for how community engagement should take place in Kahnawake moving forward,” he said. “The process in and of itself is traditional government when you think of it.” 

He added that he was encouraged to see that the report highlights a need for traditional government to adapt to modern times.  

“A reality for Kahnawake is that much has changed since the last time we had a traditional form of government. Many community members have no clan, and some even have a clan from other nations of the Confederacy,” he said. “The report acknowledges this, and I am happy to see this because it is important that this process is inclusive and respectful of this reality.” 

The report was presented to the MCK this week, and it’s expected that Council will make a decision on whether they accept the recommendations of the report imminently. Alfred said he is cautiously optimistic that the MCK will be on board with the long-term goal to return to traditional governance.  

“We can fix it,” Alfred said. “It’s just a matter of people putting their minds to it.” 


This article was originally published in print on June 14 in issue 33.24 of The Eastern Door.

Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.