Kanaretiio, identified in New York court documents as 51-year old William Roger Jock, serves as the Bear Clan representative of the Men’s Council of the Akwesasne Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne, or, The People of the Way of the Longhouse. This ironworker and grandfather was arrested on December 6, 2011 by Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police at the behest of the Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne by sealed indictment, on the charge of stealing 240 acres of wooded property located in the middle of Akwesasne, which are deeded to Horst Wuersching of Mount Vernon, New York. Wuersching purchased the clouded deed in 1981 from a Massachusetts family at that time for $17,500. Kanaretiio disagreed with all of it, buying or selling, for he considers this land, the birthright of the unborn children of his family, and all indigenous families in Akwesasne, his homeland.
When the Men’s Council became aware of Wuersching putting the parcel up for sale in 2009, the action was seen as a tripwire to action. If “land recovery” was not done “now,” then “when” would a stop be put in place to prevent the further loss of the original Kanienkehaka homeland. The hand-painted “For Sale” sign erected on the property by Wuersching soon read “Not For Sale.” A red Unity flag was raised over the site as members of the Turtle and Wolf Clans contributed to the land recovery effort. A plan to offer the land for free to Kanienkehaka families willing to build homes and make use of the property was publicized. The land is strategically placed, at the top of a feature-defining hill, on the approaches of the expanding Class III tribally owned Akwesasne Mohawk Casino property. The value to land speculators would increase as the casino grew; to the Men’s Council, it was already priceless.
The situation depicted here is as much about where it is taking place, as it is why it is taking place.
The area between Albany and Akwesasne is the traditional homeland of the people historically referred to as “Mohawks,” but known among Onkwehonweh as the People of the Land of the Flint (Kanienkehaka). Land claim lawsuits pursued by the elected Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe have bogged down in court. The frustration of the Kanienkehaka people rose with each setback. Flagging hopes fueled the fire to land recovery.
Let’s Do Something For Ourselves
It is unclear how much Wuersching sought for his 240-acre deed. Estimates between $190,000 and $1,000,000 were recalled by some but the thought of buying the land back outright soured the Men’s Council. Some residents of Akwesasne surely could afford to pay whatever price Wuersching sought, but it was unlikely that the land would then be repatriated back to the Kanienkehaka people as a group. The Men’s Council considered possible commercial applications of the recovered land and developed a limited interest in seeing Wuersching compensated the original $17,500 that he had paid for the property in 1981, upon commencement of that economic development. A go-between messenger neutral and known to both the Men’s Council and Wuersching’s local representative, Malone New York lawyer Brian Stewart, was identified and the man passed word to Stewart that compensation might be a possibility. Nothing was heard back.
It’s possible that New York State might see beyond the criminal charges as a remedy to all injured parties involved. However, the dire economic condition claimed by the state to justify higher taxes might politically derail that approach. A federal solution might also be considered, but the Men’s Council would never agree to the placing of the land into Bureau of Indian Affairs trust status, which would go against the local belief in (Allodial) original title at Akwesasne. The land was never ceded to any of the dominant European influences (Dutch, French and British), and the usurpation of title by the United States on behalf of the Kanienkehaka was rejected outright.
The land-recovery in Akwesasne, though contested by local elected officials, continues. Reclamation of traditional homelands is an extreme exercise of Onkwehonweh freewill. Akwesasronon Richard Oakes (Ranoies), co-founder of the pan-Indian IAT (Indians of All Tribes), a forerunner to the American Indian Movement of the 1970’s, was instrumental in the land-recovery and occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969-1971. He saw not only the opportunity to accomplish this inspired goal, he developed an organization to facilitate its success. Age-old coordination and follow-through.
The basis of successful land recovery efforts in Indian Country focuses on the will of the people, as being something that they demand to be done. Not all land put up for sale in Indian Country will be able to be retained in this way. In that light, reclamation is one part mass protest, and another part group therapy. Be prepared to see the local reclamation group branded as “hostiles” by law enforcement, and possibly as “outsiders” by the local tribal government. Moving beyond those labels, however, allows the dialogue of land rights to be advanced beyond mainstream civil/small claims court, to the saliency of Indian Country today.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War Two veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.