Honoring Nations: James Ransom: Sovereignty Today

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Saint Regis Mohawk Chairman James Ransom provides his perspective on what sovereignty means today, and stresses the importance of using traditional Indigenous teachings in modern Native nation governance.

Resource Type

Ransom, James. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Megan Hill:

"Next, we're going to hear from Chief James Ransom from the St. Regis Mohawk. As we know, Akwesasne Freedom School is a 2005 [Honoring Nations] honoree. Chief."

James Ransom:

"Thank you. I wanted to thank you for the opportunity to speak, and it truly is an honor to be here. I wanted to recognize David Cole from our tribe's economic development staff. He is also here, and you had already met Elvera earlier. Just as introduction to myself, I've been on tribal council now for four years but I've been working for my community for 29 years in different capacities. Akwesasne is pretty unique. We're an international community, half in Canada and half in the United States. And I've been fortunate to work for the tribe, prior to becoming Chief, to also work for the Canadian Recognized Council, as well as to -- I've spent five years working for the Confederacy itself. So I've kind of had a unique life experience of seeing all of our governments in action in different capacities.

What I want to talk about is, to share with you my perspective on sovereignty first. I think that I view it as inherent, as either you have it or you don't. There is no gray area about it. Someone else can't give it to you, and I feel strongly that someone can't take it away from you. I think that the Supreme Court just doesn't get it. They can only suppress it, but it keeps coming back. I think it was [Justice John] Marshall, on the Supreme Court, that called us 'domestic dependent nations,' as you heard this morning. Tell that to, as you heard this morning, tell that to Israel, tell that to China, tell that to Australia, who are looking to us for help today. That's not dependent on anybody. I think that the key to why sovereignty can't be taken away from us is because it's about responsibility. It's about our responsibility to live in peace and harmony with each other. It's about our responsibility to live in peace and harmony with the natural world. As Oren [Lyons] said this morning, it is about our responsibility to ensure that there is going to be a seventh generation.

The one thing that I've learned over the years about it is that it can become the longest four-letter swear word that I know when somebody abuses it. Particularly when individuals defend inappropriate actions by hiding behind it, that's the danger for us. The other thing that I've learned is that if you don't exercise then you can be pretty certain that somebody is going to try to exercise it for you and to your detriment. I wanted to talk briefly about the origins of tribal sovereignty in particular, and I think that -- I've heard a lot of the presentations today -- and the common theme that I keep hearing, resonating, is we need to look inward, we need to look at our culture. And I think the same holds true for sovereignty, that's the key to it. And for the Haudenosaunee, in particular, and I think for all tribes and all nations, we need to turn to our traditional teachings to answer the questions about the origins of sovereignty. And I think that when you're talking about responsibilities that our ancestors knew their responsibilities long before sovereignty was even a word, and that they embodied these responsibilities in the traditional teachings.

For us, you can see it in some of our teachings, like the Thanksgiving address, like the two-row wampum treaty belt, and they serve today as valuable guides on how we should conduct our relationships with others. And when you look at your teachings, look at the principles that underlie them. For us, I think that these principles are based on simple, but powerful words that are just as practical today as they were hundreds and thousands of years ago. For example, in the two-row wampum, there's three principles. The first one is [Mohawk language], or peace, and peace requires action. It doesn't just happen. It means that we have to work at it to achieve it. It means we need to be communicating with each other, always working to maintain the peace. The second principle, we call it, [Mohawk language], or a good mind. And what that means is that we set aside our differences and instead we try to bring our minds together as one and focus on our common interests rather than our problems. The last principle is [Mohawk language], or strength. And strength arises when our words and our actions match. That's what integrity is, that's what ethical conduct is.

In terms of sovereignty today, I thought it was important to set that backdrop to talk about it today. In that, if we look at Indian Country, we are approaching an economic crossroads. Some are already there, some are fast approaching it, others have a ways to go. And I think that the message I try to give on that is that now, more than ever, we need to make sure our decisions are rooted in our traditional teachings. I think it can make the difference as to whether we control our decisions or whether our decisions control us.

I wanted to give Akwesasne as an example to try to convey the message. We've had more than our share of problems, we've had 100 years if not more of industrial pollution. We've seen the destruction of our traditional lifestyles. We have health problems today from this pollution that weren't there before. In terms of education, in the 1950s, we turned over the responsibility of educating our children to the state and the public school systems. Internally, we've struggled as a community. We've struggled in particular to come of one mind as a community.

As I said, we're one community that's international, but we've become a community divided, and it's more than just the border dividing us geographically. Today we have three Mohawk governments. I sit on the elected council on, quote, 'the American portion.' We have an equivalent Canadian federally recognized government on the northern portion of the community, and we have a traditional government, and we [have] a couple of others that are trying to claim to be governments as well. I think to say that we haven't always gotten along is to put it mildly -- anybody who knows our community. If we look at our surrounding area and our region, locally and regionally, we have similar stories to others. We've been marginalized over the years, we've been viewed as being irrelevant, unimportant. We've got the St. Lawrence Seaway and the associated hydroelectric project in our backyard, but we have none of the benefits of that. We certainly have the environmental harm. Our local school district that we send our children to has an arena, has a swimming pool, at one time it had a planetarium, all built with Indian dollars because our students were going there.

So that's sort of a little bit of the past, but today, we're a community in transition, and that's where I want to bring back the traditional teachings. In that, particularly the last 30-40 years, I think we've seen a return to those traditional teachings, an enhancement of them to guide our community. If you look at some of the examples, I don't know if people are familiar with Akwesasne Notes. That newspaper, I think, really was a big part of the renaissance in terms of traditional teachings coming back into our community, and that thinking being reinvigorated. The Akwesasne Freedom School in 1979, and that institution being established. It's literally wrapped in traditional teachings, both in the Thanksgiving address and in teaching in the Mohawk language. What Elvera didn't talk about is the influence the Freedom School has had on the public school system. And what we've been doing the last 10 years in particular is taking back responsibility for the education of our children. I think that we send the majority of our students to a public school system and today over 60% of the students in that school district are Mohawk. It's the only school district in the entire state of New York that has a Native American student population that's the majority. Today, five out of the nine school board members are Mohawk. The curriculum is now incorporating the Thanksgiving address into it. You can go to the school and the Haudenosaunee flag flies alongside the Canadian and American flags, and it has carried over into Onondaga territory and the other territories as well. You can go to graduation now and you can see Mohawks in traditional clothing as an alternative to cap and gown at graduation -- it is a powerful visual sight. If you look at [the] environment, that we've been using the teachings to change relationships with state and federal officials and with industry. We've been using them to explain how we've been harmed from the pollution. We've been able to, by doing this, force -- literally force -- hundreds of millions of dollars of environmental cleanups. We're also using the teachings to restore our agricultural base. We are now planting original Haudenosaunee heirloom seeds in our community. We've planted thousands of black ash trees to support our basket makers. We've now developed an environmental assessment process based on the Thanksgiving address. I think that going forward from here for Akwesasne, and I think for Indian Country, is we need to develop a positive vision for that seventh generation that Oren [Lyons] talked about. In Akwesasne, what that means for us is getting control of our infrastructure.

Right now, we're in the process of forming a tribal electric distribution company and we've convinced the local company to leave our territory and allow us to buy them out and take it over. We're working with the Mescalero Apache, and we hope to form a tribal telephone company. We're working to heal the rift in our community, and that's probably the most daunting task we have. The reason is that, I think it's a trust issue in that the years of distrust work against us and it takes years to build trust. And when I talked about the last principle of [Mohawk language], or the strength, what I've seen is that when our words and actions don't match, it can take years to repair that damage. That being said, I believe our community is well positioned going forward. There is a lot of cooperation going on in the community that wasn't there before. We held a referendum on land claims in 2005, first time in the history of Akwesasne that we held a referendum on the southern portion and the northern portion on the same issue, on the same day, at the same time. And in that same time period, the traditional council held a similar debate over the issue. All three councils came out and the community literally came out in support of the settlement. That's the power of working together. What's changed probably most significantly is how the outside community views us. And I think that we're now getting our respect from our neighbors, our non-Native neighbors, that's been missing for a long time. And in fact we're becoming recognized as the economic hope for the region.

So I wanted to share this perspective with you and again I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak."

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