Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

The Power of Names: Truth and Common-Sense Demand Changes

 


By Doug George-Kanentiio

As we all know there is great power in what we name, in what we elect to use to identify who we are. We are taught by traditional custom that the natural world is attune to the human voice and is aware of our presence as we walk upon Mother Earth. We are told that the food crops, the medicines, the animals, the winds, the plants respond to our aboriginal names and that healing is affected when we use those names to address the spiritual beings and within the circles of the various medicine societies. 

The use of Mohawk names geographically was also important since it gave us a sense of place. Almost all children, Christian or not, were given Mohawk names until the late 1950’s when the language was placed in jeopardy by the destruction of our traditional, earth-based economy. A revival of “nationalism” in the late 1960’s and 70’s led to a restoration of the usage of Mohawk family and clan names along with an examination of our history and how foreign names were imposed upon us without the consent of the people.

I was raised in Kana:takon within the shadow of the St. Regis Catholic Church. I attended the St. Regis Catholic School. I served as an altar boy when the Rev. Michael Jacobs and Francis Arsenault were the attending Jesuit priests. My teachers at the village school were nuns from the Order of St. Anne. I did not think of the territory as ‘Akwesasne” until I returned home following a sentence at the notorious Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario over 600 kilometers away. 

While at the institute, rightfully called the “mushhole” for its serving of watery gruel and a near starvation diet, we were called the ‘St. Regis Boys”. We were troublemakers, fighters, thieves and runaways, infamous throughout Brantford for our bad behavior. We were banned from the local stores and banished from the local movie theatres. We were busted by the Ontario Provincial Police, kicked out of markets and labelled as no good punks by the people of that city. We were so bad that the Institute expelled us from the school-the first group to ever have been thrown out of any residential school in Canada. We are proud to carry that distinction.

When we came back home we learned profound changes were taking place. Teenagers in our generation were rejecting Christianity generally and Catholicism specifically. We were reading the bible and noticing the contradictions in that book. We were learning our own history and had come to realize we were not savages but our ancestors were highly intelligent and creative, that they were democratic and advocates for universal liberation. We learned our ancestors were biologists, engineers, foresters, philosophers, farmers and hunters. We were nothing like the screaming maniacs portrayed in the popular Canadian-American histories and literature.

This new appreciation for our culture naturally led to the rejection of other instances of colonial oppression including names. We travelled about and saw the beauty of our language in such places as Canada, Ontario, Toronto, Kentucky, Saratoga, Schenectady, the Adirondacks. Why, we reasoned, are we continuing to accept nonsensical names like “St. Regis” when the Canadians and Americans were using our words?  We learned of Francis Regis, the 17th century priest, known for his over-zealous missionary efforts and his care for the poor and marginalized, especially prostitutes and orphans. He was also known for his admiration for the native inhabitants of North America and desire come to this continent to convert our ancestors.

He never made it. He died in the tiny village of Lalouvesc north of Lyon, France on December 31, 1640. We’re attached to the name because a priest arrived at Akwesasne on the day named after Regis, his liturgical day is June 16, a very nice time to bank a canoe at the point in Kana:takon but not a reason to bury our beautiful native name. 

As with the standard practice of the Catholic Church the name was meant to replace the aboriginal one. Akwesasne was eclipsed. By the late 1960’s the “longhouse” people elected to challenge that and Akwesasne became a source of pride soon known throughout the world through the White Roots of Peace touring group and Akwesasne Notes, the most effective Native publication in history. Other changes were taking place: the renaming of the St. Regis Band Council to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the change from the St. Regis Village School to Kana:takon, Kawehno:ke from Cornwall Island, Tsi Snaihne from Snye. 

Yet some elements of colonialism have resisted the assertion of Mohawk identity. The St. Regis Tribal Council has yet to adopt a name which is distinctly Mohawk and it remains a source of irritation to be referred to as “St. Regis Indians” or “St. Regis Mohawks” neither of which makes any sense since we do not belong to Francis Regis. In a step forward, the SRMT has taken a step to name the community building as “Ionkwakiohkwaróron”.

So too, Salmon River Central. That is a school heavily subsidized by Native money and is mostly Native. Its moniker the shamrock is Irish, not Mohawk. That name must be changed and can be done easily now that the majority of the Board of Education is Mohawk. It should be renamed after one of the greatest teachers in our history Ray Fadden Tehanetorens.  None of the cultural content now taught at Salmon would exist without the efforts of Tehanetorens and we should have sufficient pride to formally acknowledge this. I propose that one of our people submit this as a formal resolution at the next meeting of the “tribal” council and that of the MCA. 

I suggest another resolution-since the “St. Regis Tribe” is a political and legal qualifier the name should be changed to the Regional Council of Akwesasne. This name does not infringe on the Mohawk Nation Council or the MCA and sets a distinct area to which it administers. It also clarifies the treaty status at Akwesasne of which the MNCC is the only such entity which may lay rightful claim. Then let us then hold a formal gathering to retire St. Regis and return it back to the French by having a delegation travel to Lalouvesc and thank the kin of Francis Regis for its usage. 

 

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