Indigenous Nationhood: Kahnawà:ke Mohawks

How can you be a nation when most of your initial territory is taken? It is difficult to model independence and self-governance as a nation when you are given “land reserved for your ‘use and benefit,’ with regulations on how you use that land, who gets to use it, what the terms of that use are.” (Simpson 10). Under these conditions, how does a group of indigenous peoples proceed as a sovereign nation? What is the appropriate compromise between indigenous peoples and settler nations? For the Kahnawà:ke Mohawks, the answer lies not in acceptance of that fate, but in their refusal to be dissolved into the colonial system. Audra Simpson, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Native rights activist, argues there are three key ways in which the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke have refuted full immersion into settler society, and those ideologies pave the way for indigenous peoples of the future.

Refusing ties to Canadian and American citizenship, the Kahnawà:ke Mohawks “insist upon the integrity of the Haudenosaunee governance.” (Simpson 7). They try to live in a state of nationhood, a complicated combination of being both indigenous peoples and occupying a territory overrun by colonialism. The struggle beginning in 1996 is best defined as the “question of membership,” an ongoing issue in which the Kahnawà:ke Mohawks attempt to balance both “political membership and formal recognition within their community” that is independent of the Canadian state (Simpson 8). Membership talk plays a large role in the community because although there are limited peoples on the reserve, it is crucial to understand why and how other members are connected to one another. While settler government seeks to absorb and control the Kahnawà:ke, “their political form predates and survives ‘conquests’; it is tangible (albeit strangled by colonial governmentality) and is tied to sovereign practices.” (Simpson 2).

To fully define their nationhood, the Kahnawà:ke want the local government to recognize a sovereignty within a sovereignty, which means acknowledging a Kahnawà:ke legal system within that of Canada’s. Although they identify as Kahnawà:ke Mohawks under Haudenosaunee governance, they are often forced to conform to many of the settler state ways, including registrations and international travel. What citizen are they? What authority do they answer to? “One challenges the very legitimacy of the other.” (Simpson 10). A society nested within another society will only work if one acknowledges the authenticity of the other. To make their culture and government defined, the Kahnawà:ke have fought to validate items such as a Confederacy passport for travel and politics apart from settler governance. However, their sovereignty can only be recognized if it legitimized in some way.

Therefore, the Kahnawà:ke want more than their culture to be recognized; they want their political sovereignty legitimized. Colonial governments often want to simply distinguish indigenous culture and traditions instead of declaring native governances to be successful and flourishing societies apart from the government, and so the “Iroquois [specifically the Kahnawà:ke] peoples remind nation-states such as the United States (and Canada) that they possess this very history, and within that history and seized space, they possess a precarious assumption that their boundaries are permanent, uncontestable, and entrenched.” (Simpson 22). This fleshed out through the Preamble to the amended Kahnawà:ke Membership Law in 2008, where it specifically rejects assimilation into the Canadian government and expresses the value of individual rights over collective rights (Simpson 14).

Finally, the Kahnawà:ke want detailed research dedicated to the history of their cultural and political systems so they can better govern themselves by their original ordinances. While the field of anthropology has paid attention to the histories of native peoples, little has been done to research their culture and background in light of political science, and both fields have failed epically in regards to a proper accounting of political theory because the research has been inclined to cultural traditions (Simpson 11). The assumption that indigenous nations are stable because they have been given land and allowed to keep their traditions is a dangerous one, and the Kahnawà:ke understand that much of their identity lies in defining their own self-governance. Research is required to evaluate what has and has not worked historically and paves the way for societal success.

By refusing to be eliminated from history and seen only as cultural memorabilia for tourism, Kahnawà:ke people are breaking ground for indigenous peoples all over the world. Native peoples cannot thrive under colonial sovereignties put into effect by settlers. They are more than their traditions and the meager amounts of land allotted to them. A society is not one or two aspects, but a medley of culture, people, and practices that give it the freedom to thrive under self-governed ordinances. If more indigenous peoples fight their assimilation into settler governments, refusing to adopt colonial mindsets, and more immigrants support the independence of these peoples, the world will see thriving native cultures in action for years to come.

Works Cited

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States.

Durham: Duke U Press, 2014. Print.


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