Last year, I lived on Tyendinaga MT as the exit sign on Highway 401 puts it. Why, I would wonder from time to time, don’t they spell out “Mohawk Territory” so people won’t need to ask: “What’s M.T.?” Now you know.
At the time, I wondered why so many people on the territory did not support Shawn Brant. He had his small circle of adherents. Then were those who supported him because they desperately wanted change, and saw Brant doing something, anything. They were tired of watching their lands stolen, their children lose their language and culture, and their collective backbone erode after decades of giving ground.
Personally, he impressed the hell out of me. A couple of years ago, at a community meeting on their land rights around the town of Deseronto, I watched him cut through all the blather from those at the band office that everyone knew was just another dose of do-nothing.
In those few minutes, he summarized the positions of the federal and Ontario governments, the band office, and both the politics and finances of the nextdoor town of Deseronto. He went so far as to propose a solution – take over ownership and administration of the town. It was dying anyway. It was surrounded by Mohawk land and had no means to expand or upgrade. Since the town was under claim, why not? Had not the Seneca done just that in western New York State?
It sounded simple. A lot of people looked up, nodded their heads in agreement. The band council fudged, and then dumped it all onto the lap of Indian Affairs which was conveniently absent. Its officials were at that moment assuring the residents of Deseronto that nothing would happen. Indian Affairs was telling good Canadian citizens that the Mohawks would get nothing. These white citizens could trust Indian Affairs and the Canadian Government to do right by them, and by implication screw the Indians.
Back at Tyendinaga, you could feel the mood deflate. People shook their heads as they headed to the parking lot because they knew that this was how things had been done for decades. Sure they had seen some progress; going from sub-human to “wards of the state,” from denial of human, political and legal rights to “first nation.” It was all the same to them though. The all-powerful Indian agent had evolved into the band council despite claims to the contrary, and they knew that too. In that atmosphere of fog and dark, Shawn Brant stood out.
What most people didn’t realize then was that two parallel universes had crossed boundaries that evening.
Shawn Brant’s proposal to absorb Deseronto and assume administration of the town held real possibilities and mutual advantages to Mohawk and whites alike. They lived side-by-side, shared many services, had both federal and provincial governments supporting them – but separately. Tyendinaga’s businesses were booming for many reasons including a few minor tax advantages (that many whites tried to access on a daily basis). But like many of Brant’s ideas, there was a fundamental reality that he either ignored or failed to recognize.
Ever since contact, there has been a crucial difference between the Indigenous peoples in North America and their philosophical, cultural and legal understandings of land and land ownership, and those of the European settler. Indigenous folks must have been terribly confused by settlers who sunk roots into a piece of ground claiming to own it forever, when everyone knew one could never own Mother Earth. We borrowed time as stewards of the land until our bodies returned to the earth. Still, they understood territory and defended their sovereignty. This is the way things were, at least until the the Indian Act and its reserve system made official the one-sided shift in “nation-to-nation” relations.
So whatever the merits of Brant’s suggestion, and the hope for change that it might hold for some in Tyendinaga, it would require a massive and fundamental shift in not only the attitudes but the economic basis of the surrounding white population – particularly with the staunch conservative and even reactionary rural population in the immediate area around Tyendinaga.
Still, think of the possibilities. Then consider why so many Mohawks view Brant in a very different way than many – if not most – whites.