For indigenous communities like the Iroquois the phrase ‘Defend the Land’ has a literal connotation that extends past a basketball court
Quietly, a long-standing lawsuit against the Oneida Indian Nation of New York was recently denied on appeal. Brought by the Central New York Fair Business Association, the attempt was but the latest effortto further divest this Iroquois Nation from their ancestral territory, by any means necessary. This time it was the federal court system, but the motivation to do so remains a tendency of land usurpers to deprive current and future Native populations of the free and fair use of their original land holdings in the name of progress.
While the Oneida Nation (which owns Oneida Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Media Network) was successful in defense this time around, the threat to land base retention remains the number one issue in Indian country today. People without land are fighting historical obscurity at the least. More likely extinction is the outcome.
This attack was filed by confederated Central New York business owners against the Oneida Nation with the premise that the tribal businesses were unfairly positioned as tax-immune entities within their competitive market. The parallel Upstate Citizens for Equality activist group located in the same geographic area alleges that their property taxes are unevenly levied for municipal use while land into trust parcels populate the same tax rolls in an exempt status.
In my opinion, the underlying dispossession of all of these same lands reflects indifference by the surrounding populations and governments as to the pristine original natural state of Iroquoia that European explorer Samuel De Champlain came across in the early 17th century. I particularly take umbrage with the concept of laches, as a legal topic, because it only reflects the needs of the settlers and not the Native sentiment. Declaring that land reclamation will much too greatly upset the status quo of those who have subsequently moved onto the usurped land since Champlain began to wage war against the Mohawk in 1609 is plainly stating a working agenda, via a Eurocentric-based American legal system.
My application of political science in this regard perhaps in part borrows from former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, hence Natives speak on these matters best with a big stick handy. This was confirmed to me by my educator colleague from the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, Kanaretiio the Bear Clan representative. He related a story from his youth and tied it into the current debate on the overall subject.
“When I was a very young man, Akwesasne was threatened with invasion by New York State Police in the late 70s,” Kanaretiio told me. “After the word went out, people from the age of 12 to 80 came out of their homes and offered themselves for the defense of the land. I was posted by an elder to watch over a road with a loaded rifle, a firearm that we would use on the farm against livestock predators. I put a red headband on my forehead and waited for the police to come in. Sure enough, an older NYS Trooper with some rank on his arm drove right up, got out of his vehicle and ordered me to drop my rifle. Personally, I was more concerned about what would happen if I let the officer by than what he would do to me. I stood my ground without getting excited, rifle raised and eventually that policeman backed off and drove away. He and I gained an understanding of each other at that moment. I wanted to save it (the land) more than he wanted to seize it from me. I was home. He wanted to go home…,” Kanaretiio said.
The line blurs between enrolled tribal members and the wider thinking longhouse belief practitioners in the Iroquois Confederacy even to this day when such external threats are identified. It is possibly one of the fundamental reasons that these historic Six Nations have retained so much of their original land holdings to the present time. The ceremonial function of this historic Confederation is at times eclipsed by the sheer grit and determination of standing shoulder to shoulder with those more like you than those standing across from you in opposition.
Kanaretiio goes on to generally state that because people in Akwesasne stand up for land issues more than any other common cause between them, the line is easier to hold onto than for those who have already been pushed until their backs against the wall. “When I would go to other Native communities as a member of the White Roots of Peace traveling cultural group with my mother, brothers, and sisters, some people would come up to us and ask us many questions about what could they do to get back to “The Indian Way” line of thinking we had been taught from. Later after we got back home, we would read about some of these people asserting themselves in trying to make their communities better where they lived, some in very robust ways. For instance, Thomas Cook remains a compelling name across Turtle Island as a leader, not just because he is Kanienkehaka (People of the Land of the Flint), but because he has made a difference wherever he went to and spent time. This leadership style still exists, but a lot of people are too tired to take on this role,” the Bear Clan representative said as he nodded at the potential that he knows exists out there.
“The old warrior spirit is still alive. The people are our military. We come from a lineage of defenders and people that have done so since time immemorial, and what we do is because we still have that spirit. It is still within us,” he said.
“The one that led the men, the war chief, was one whose responsibility was to ensure integrity in our actions. His attention is with the rank and file of the warriors, these young men armed with peace, whose actions would reflect on all of us. Equally, one bad decision had a strong reflection on the rest of us. The war chiefs that I have known have made very strong showings. Joe Swamp, Willie Lazore, and more distantly Standing Arrow were some of their names. These figures set the example. They made us want to be like them. The power they wielded was lent to each of us willing to listen to this example and live by what was being taught. The young people looked up to them to provide guidance. There were old men who were the Men’s Society. They were not afraid to make a stand or to show their face while doing so. They had nothing to hide with the will of the people behind them. Next, the Turtle Clan would raise up the war chief’s sacred title, and they served until they could no longer do so. We always had a standing war chief until the Akwesasne longhouse division stigmatized the practice here,” he continued.
The rally call to ”Defend the Land” has been used recently as a galvanizing force in my urban residence of Cleveland, Ohio, starting with the championship runs of NBA great LeBron James and his Cavalier teammates. When his team eventually won the championship in 2016, the phrase was seen everywhere on tee-shirts. The night the final game was won brought the City of Cleveland together in joyous ways that I still hear people talking about almost a year later. The crime rate had to have plummeted for just one night, because people stood with each other, instead of set against each other, if only for one night, my Cleveland neighbor, Joseph Williams, explained to me.
Kanaretiio completed his thoughts as he told me what “Defend the Land” means to him through his experiences.
“A Native person should not be afraid to speak up for what he thinks is right or wrong. The exercise of our free will as Land Defenders put here on Mother Earth is done to protect and sustain the land for the unborn children still to come. We are their army. It is our duty to be clear with foreign governments with what is on our minds and to effectively convey that message so no one under or overreacts. It might be tough for some of these employees that serve these governments to hear that they are temporarily working out of our land base instead of the matter being settled by this point, but that is the way it has to be. There is no point in accepting concepts that you do not agree with only to burden your children and grandchildren with those same responsibilities to uphold what you let slip away while you were alive,” Kanaretiio concluded. Just make sure to be willing to back your words up with action was his final point.
Holding onto what we value and cherish is a right of all human beings. May none be too greedy to forget that no one can have everything. The hopes and dreams of people always start with pride but ultimately end in necessity. Let that be the yardstick of the future, instead of the tombstone of the forgotten past.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II 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.