In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief. Photo by Nathan Lashomb, Forevermore Studio.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief.
Can you share your Native name with us?
Kiohawiton is my name, and I am a Wolf Clan Mohawk woman. The translation is She Brought It with Her. It is a name given to me by my mother’s mother.
Where is your tribal community located?
The Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation, or Akwesasne territory, is located in northern New York State approximately 200 miles north of Albany. Our reservation is bisected by the border between the United States and Canada and by the great Saint Lawrence River. From east to west, it’s approximately equal distance between Montreal and Ottawa. There are several other sister Mohawk communities throughout Quebec and Ontario provinces.
Where are the Mohawk people originally from?
The territory we reside on is our original land. The Mohawk are traditionally the Keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Our original homeland is the northeastern region of New York State extending into southern Canada and Vermont. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Mohawk settlements populated the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Through the centuries Mohawk influence extended far beyond this territory and was felt by the Dutch and English who settled on the Hudson River, the French in Montreal, the Cherokee in the south and west to the Mississippi.
Is there a significant point in your tribe's history that you would like to share?
There are certainly many points in history that have influenced or otherwise altered the course of history for the Akwesasne Mohawk community. Below is one such point in our history that is illustrated by Sub-Chief Eric Thompson:
A pivotal moment in the history of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne—the Land Where the Partridge Drums, the traditional name for what would become known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation—was the execution of the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, negotiated on behalf of the community of Akwesasne by representatives of the Seven Nations of Canada. This U.S. federal treaty recognized and reserved lands within our traditional territory that had become surrounded by the newly formed United States.
This treaty fortified the foundation that previous colonial governments had formed with the Mohawk nation proper and the seven communities, which made up the “the seven fires” of the colonial era, and is reflected in the title of the treaty.
The agreement set aside an area of six miles square, as well as meadows along a local river and two one-mile-square plots that became surrounded by two local towns built up around them. The importance of this treaty and the reservation of land that it recognized and ensured was pivotal in the history of our community in regards to recognition of sovereignty and delineation of federally protected territory (which becomes very important in the area of land claims and environmental protection, among other important areas).
The federal recognition of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is also inextricably linked to the treaty, which recognized the people and tribal government and, importantly, the obligation of the federal trust relationship Chief Justice John Marshall elucidated in his trilogy of cases setting the foundations of federal Indian law. This recognition has been critical in the development and cultivation of programs and services provided for the community, as well as going to the exercise of inherent sovereignty and the exercise of jurisdictional arguments in all legal and political spheres.
How is your tribal government set up?
The Tribal Council is comprised of three Chiefs, three Sub-Chiefs, and a Tribal Clerk. Tribal elections are held each year on the first Saturday of June to choose one Chief and one Sub-Chief for a three-year term. The Tribal Clerk is chosen every third year.
The Sub-Chiefs receive their authority from the Chiefs. If the Chiefs are unable to fulfill their duties or are incapacitated, a Sub-Chief may also be called upon to substitute at a meeting, function, etc., for a Chief who has other commitments.
Is there any other functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, there is the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs whose members continue to conduct our traditional ceremonies and to uphold the three principles of our traditional government, called the Great Law of Peace—peace, power, and righteousness. Mohawks have three clans—Turtle, Bear, and Wolf. We have a long history of welcoming and adopting other nations and individuals who follow the White Roots of Peace to their source seeking refuge under the Great Tree of Peace (a symbolic representation of our government). Such was the case of the Oswegatchi who were absorbed into our community, resulting in a large number of Mohawks at Akwesasne who are Snipe Clan. Each of the three Mohawk clan families should have three Condoled Chiefs who are selected and raised up by their respective Clan Mothers with the support of the people. Our Clan Mothers have the power to depose a Chief who is determined not to be acting in the best interest of the people.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
We serve three-year terms and are elected on a yearly, rotating basis.
How often does your government meet?
We meet with the community regularly on the first Saturday of every month. In addition, Council meets weekly in public work sessions and later in executive session. Throughout the week we have regularly scheduled meetings with our chief financial officer, legal counsel, compliance officer, communications staff, Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) coordinator, Division of Social Services (DSS) commissioner, and education director, and our executive director’s administrative team. We also have meetings as needed with community members and groups, as well as outside agencies.
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council presenting community seniors with a new van for use by the Office for the Aging transportation service. Council members and government officials (standing, from left to right): Sub-Chief Michael Conners; Sub-Chief Eric Thompson; Chief Beverly Cook, Lora Lee LaFrance, director of the Saint Regis Mohawk Office for the Aging; and Tsiorasa Barreiro, executive director of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
Since graduating from nursing school in 1974, I have been deeply involved in my people’s struggles to defend our inherent sovereign rights. Eventually I had to concentrate on supporting my family and raising my three beautiful daughters. I focused on my work as a family nurse practitioner at our medical clinic. For 29 years it was boots on the ground with my people. Bearing witness to their health issues, their social struggles, their emotional traumas, as well as their joys and triumphs over adversity, was my privilege.
From that experience I learned patience, compassion, and how to confront an issue at its roots, though that is not a popular approach. Spiritual and emotional healing is not always readily accepted in medical or political circles, and I learned paradigms are extremely hard to shift. I can see how the layers of grief, trauma, hardship, and struggle that our people endure even as children affect their physical and emotional health later on in life.
It’s abundantly apparent to me that if the people are not well, then everything else we do as leaders is moot. It’s a slow process to change attitudes, but clearly, if we continue to do things the way we’ve always done them, then we’ll continue to get the same results. In order for our people to recover and overcome the ramifications of historical and intergenerational trauma, leadership needs to understand that wellness of body and wellness of the mind are inextricably linked. The required shift to trauma-informed approaches cannot stay isolated in individual programs but must become an integral part of policy from administration and government on down.
I think leadership needs to strike a balance of its own that flows and has a broad vision, as opposed to a one-track mind. Economic development, political fights, and sovereignty issues are certainly important. We shouldn't forget that sovereignty also includes child safety, education, food security, and the prevention of and recovery from addiction and violence against our women.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
All Native leaders bear the responsibility of the coming generations’ well-being. A long vision is necessary to weigh the risks and benefits of any action we take no matter how small. In the long run there is no greater obligation than to our planet, mother earth, to our inherent sovereign rights, and to the safety and well-being of our women and children.
The Tribal Council Chiefs are responsible for setting policy and making major decisions on behalf of the tribe. They oversee the operation of the tribal government and assure that quality programs and services are made available to the Mohawk people. More specifically, the Chiefs review and approve grants, contracts, and new programs; and assist tribal members with governmental problems; and preside over monthly meetings.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My father, the late Julius M. Cook—who was a Tribal Chief, as were two of his older brothers—is my inspiration. My father was a devoted husband and loving father, an ironworker, artisan, silversmith, musician. He was an articulate orator and proud patriot of the Mohawk Nation.
Today, I am continually inspired by the powerful women of Konon:kwe Council—Katsi Cook, Randi Barreiro, Karonienhawi Thomas, Jessica Danforth, Louise Herne. Together we co-founded a Mohawk women-led grassroots organization that encourages collaborative approaches to the care, empowerment, and transformation of a traumatized community.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
Our Creation Story describes the descent of Otsitsison (Mature Flower), also called Sky Woman. Her journey to this world is the root of all female life. She brought the earth and seeds from where she came and laid the foundation that all Creation is dependent upon.
She and all women are gifted with the power to create life along with the male side of creation, but it is only she who can carry life, give birth, and sustain life even unto a cellular level. Her story is the story of all women.
Through telling the story of her journey I’ve seen women come to realize and appreciate, in a new way, their own capacity to create and sustain life’s essence and spirit in the form of a human being. They are renewed in their commitment to carry that responsibility the best they can, with strength, dignity, and grace, and most importantly, believing themselves worthy of honor and respect. I am proud to be a descendent of a historical leader—Otsitsison—and all the powerful women who came after her.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
We have about 15,000 enrolled members; however those who live on territory number around 5,000.
What are the criteria to become a member?
To become an enrolled member, we currently accept one-quarter blood, but we are in the midst of restructuring our membership code. The tribal members will have final say on any future changes to the requirements of membership to the tribe.
Traditionally, we are a matrilineal society and follow the clan of the mother. Our ancestors also made the provision for adoption of people into one of our three clans (Turtle, Bear, and Wolf) if theirs was lost to them along the way.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, we are fortunate to have many speakers who range from completely fluent in the Mohawk language to just learning. Fortunately, there have always been pockets of families and neighborhoods that have kept the language alive.
Thirty-five years ago I was fortunate to be one of the founding parents of the Akwesasne Freedom School that rose out of a struggle over sovereignty. We wanted our children to learn the truth of their culture and their language. We wanted them to be able to understand and contemplate what they hear in the Mohawk language without having to rely on someone else’s translation or interpretation. Freedom meant the ability to draw your own conclusions and form your own opinions, to think freely. We encouraged the children to ask questions about everything.
There is now a second elementary school in the village of St. Regis, Quebec, that is total Mohawk immersion. In Mohawk country we are actively turning back the effects of the destructive policies of termination and assimilation promoted by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Mohawks have the highest percentage of fluent speakers among the Haudenosaunee nations.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe operates two gaming enterprises that serve as a primary revenue source for the Tribal General Fund, which helps fund essential community services and other benefits for tribal members. The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort is a class III gaming operation that opened in 1999, while the Mohawk Bingo Palace is a class II gaming facility that has been in operation for 30 years. Together, they are the Mohawk Gaming Enterprises, and they employ nearly 1,000 people, with more than 41 percent being tribal members. The addition of a seven-story, 110-room hotel at the casino in 2013 has helped bring more than 1.6 million guests to Akwesasne—people whose visits support our community’s economy.
These efforts were complemented in 2014 with the tribe’s rollout of broadband Internet services that support the community’s ongoing economic and educational growth.
What annual events does the tribe sponsor?
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is proud to host, or support, a number of annual events in the community of Akwesasne, such as the Akwesasne International Powwow, Ironworkers Festival, Akwesasne Winter Carnival, Akwesasne Wellness Day, Community Roadside Cleanup, Hogansburg–Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department Fire Prevention Week, Kids for Fishing, Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service’s Racing against Drugs, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe's Senior Olympics, and our tribe's participation in the North American Indigenous Games, as well as numerous other athletic, cultural, educational, and community organizations’ annual event. Our community is also especially proud of the Akwesasne Freedom School Annual Quilt Auction and Survival Race, as well as Oherokon Rites of Passage.
The Akwesasne community gathers to receive the return of young people from the fast that marks their fourth year as participants in the Oherokon Rites of Passage. Photo by KrystalBluePhotography.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The community of Akwesasne is situated along the picturesque St. Lawrence River on the international border between the United States and Canada. It encompasses nearly 100 miles of waterways with more than 400 islands of assorted sizes, which makes it as an ideal location for sports fishermen. For gaming enthusiasts, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort is located in the heart of the community and boasts more than 2,500 gaming machines, high-stakes bingo, and the new hotel. Adjacent to the tribe’s gaming operations is the Comfort Inn & Suites. Together the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort Hotel and Comfort Inn offer 180 rooms for guests to visit Akwesasne. Both accommodations are located just minutes away from the Mohawk International Raceway, which features exciting dirt track racing in various categories. To learn more about Akwesasne, visitors are encouraged to visit the Akwesasne Cultural Center and the Native North American Traveling College.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Relationships between Indian nations and other governments are complicated, some more than others. Ours is compounded by the need to work with two countries, two provinces, two counties, and three governing councils on our territory.
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council is committed to open communication between our own community governments and outside agencies and governments in order to maintain jurisdiction over our tribal lands and protect our sovereign right to do so. This requires constant vigilance and scrutiny of political and enforcement actions taken or contemplated by outside agencies on or near our territory. We maintain government-to-government relations through open dialogue and diplomacy with New York State and the federal government.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
I would like our youth to know how important their opinions are. They’ve had a voice all along, and I’m always sad when they don’t feel they can use it. What they think and feel matters. They see the world through different eyes, a different lens, than we adults do. Their opinions are refreshing and deserve to be heard.
My wish is for them to step forward and question what doesn’t make sense to them. Question what seems wrong to them. Ask, Why? Ask, Why not?
Ask for help when you need it. Ask for what you need.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to say that I am grateful for the sacrifices of our ancestors who have gone on before us. Niawe:kowa—big thank you—to those who left us long ago and for the prayers they laid down on our behalf, so that we could continue to live as Onkwehonwe (real people or human beings), so that our Onkwehonwe ways remain intact for our benefit. I extend my gratitude to our ancestors, our relatives, who have left us more recently for their courage and steadfastness in carrying that prayer forward to today.
Niawen (thank you).
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.