On the local Six Nations political battlefield there is a hundred years long war that is still waging: elected leadership vs hereditary leadership. Some see the implementation of elections within the Six Nations as a coup inspired by the Department of Indian Affairs, using community fault lines as an opportunity to depose an indigenous system of governance. Others will tell you they can see the need for the removal of an inherited, life long position of leadership restricted to only some of the male gender and only to those in certain families — marginalizing the entire female population and those with an interest in civic leadership and business acumen.
Whatever a person’s perspective is on the issue and however it has been approached throughout the years it has endlessly been promoted as a “divide”. You can hear it in the rhetoric about the difference of opinion on leadership. “This community is so divided” some will complain. Others will go further and say things like, “we all need to get together into a room and resolve our differences”.
It’s confounding — and its wrong. Differences and our diversities are the things that make our community so great. They should be celebrated, not condemned. And if we can learn anything from history — maybe we can shift the perspective away from conforming to everyone believing just one thing and one way.
Recently, we came across an old letter found in the Department of Indian Affairs archives from the Mohawk chiefs. It is undated and unsigned but the context of the letter, titled “A Speech from the Mohawks regarding religious denominations” is addressing the beginnings of the Methodist ministry at Grand River, which was starting up in the early days of our ancestors settling along the Haldimand Tract in the early 1800s and would have been around the time the Mohawks were still settled around the Mohawk Chapel.
The letter, is an appeal written to an unnamed authority but likely a leader in the church or Indian Department, claiming to be the consensus of all the chiefs of the Mohawk Nation at that time — asking for assistance in ending religious diversity by restricting what religious societies may minister among the people and naming the Church of England the only religious society permitted at Grand River.
For context, the Church of England was the religious society that set up the Mohawk Chapel and Mohawk Institute. And the Methodists were an emerging religious movement in the Christian faith that started around the 1780s and was taking root with those who were frustrated with the old Church of England, now known as Anglican, ways.
The Mohawks write in their letter, “Now, brother here this is our wish, that the two religious societies should be but one; that the Church of England, which was first established amongst us by our King should be that, the only religious society.”
The letter goes on to say, “Our nation has embraced the faith of the Church of England, more than 100 years ago, and at length they have learned that it is the purest and best creed they can hold…It is now seven years since the Methodist society commenced amongst us, and up to this time it has only interrupted our peace.”
The letter outlines that the introduction of the Methodist faith had brought about divisions amongst the Mohawks that were stalling the conversion hopes the Christian Mohawks had for their “heathen brethren” and that the removal of the Methodists would definitely be the answer to everyone joining hands and becoming united.
The letter begs the question — is our expectation/traditional standard of coming to a consensus an impossible task? Does it expect too much on the part of certain individuals to sacrifice their own autonomy and conform to a cultural standard under the guise of attaining peace? And if this was the necessary standard that was sustainable during wartime pre-contact — pre American Revolution — is it a practise we can retain from the old ways? Or is it time for something new?
The hereditary chiefs themselves moved away from consensus and voices from every clan being involved in governance matters. By 1870-1880 minutes from the Council show there were several motions put in play by the hereditary leaders trying to resolve the problem of consensus by dehorning other specific chiefs and reduce the number of people involved in community governance, and also to transition from the consensus decision making model to one ruled by a vote. That however, does not appear that it was successful. By 1894 there are still 70 hereditary chiefs on record as being a part of the Six Nations Council, though the chiefs do seem to have transitioned away from consensus and made at least some of their decisions in that era by a majority vote.
The struggles even in that first century of finding our footing as a community and as a people, post-genocide, starting over from scratch economically with just our memories to guide us politically and half of our people lost to death, starvation and sickness in the war — half of those still over in the United States. The expectation of finding consensus in the light of the trauma we and our parents and grandparents at that stage of our community was maybe an impossible one.
Considering that, at that fragile stage of resettlement and trying to rebuild, faced with traumatic memory and poverty and exhaustion, we then had a new enemy growing in the shadows around us that was determined to marginalize and confine those who remained to a small reservation of Indians — how could our grandfathers govern effectively under those conditions?
It seems that the governance solution to centuries of strife among our people has always been to take efforts to force everyone to do the same thing. Clearly, that is not working. Clearly, it has only worked to fissure the community more and by human nature — we have all settled into diverse little pockets of systems of belief and family history.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe the concept of consensus needs some loving care, framed in context with the incredible journey we have taken from the Mohawk Valley to the Grand River Valley — without the angry rhetoric of the things that have offended us muddying the waters.
Perhaps it is time for the descendants of the warriors who built this place along the Grand for all of us to call home — to listen and learn from the mistakes of our grandfathers — take care to celebrate our diversity and embrace one another’s differences — and see where that takes us as a Nation.