On today’s 51%, we visit the Akwesasne Nation near the U.S. – Canada border to learn about indigenous women leaders.
Driving north from Albany, New York to the U.S.- Canada border, I almost don’t notice crossing over into the Akwesasne nation. The only indicator in this rural town is a red and purple sign that says “Akwesasne – land where the partridge drums.” Just as I turn my head to get a longer look – a new sign catches my eye: three indigenous women with red paint on their faces. On their arms in black paint: “stop the violence.”
“Break the Silence” the billboard says, with a phone number.
I turn onto a gravel road and pass through a community of small houses. The gravel ends at a beautiful log home with farm equipment and a pristine yurt behind it. Just past a raised bed garden, rolling farm fields stretch out as far as I can see, and meet a lush wood line. The air in this place, so close to the Adirondack Mountains, is crisp and clean. It reminds me of when I lived in Alaska.
I park out of the way of incoming tractors and am immediately licked to death by the friendliest dog I’ve ever met, as a woman greets me.
Mama Bear has welcomed me to the Akwesasne Nation, which straddles Ontario and Quebec, to learn about indigenous women. The U.S. government recognizes the land as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation – Mama Bear recognizes it as the land where women hold power.
“My saltwater name is Louise,” Mama Bear says. “My father's last name is McDonald. And my husband's last name is Herne. So, as part of the decolonization process, and the patriarchy, I leave that out. So I prefer to be called “Wakerakatste.” And for those that have a hard time saying it, you can call me Mama Bear.”
Wakerakatste says she is third generation bear clan, and is the bear clan mother. She has six children and soon to be 15 grandchildren.
Wakerakatste says tribes were created at a time when her people were warring with one another, and needed a division of power. She says a man named “The Great Thinker” created the clans.
“He threw a vine across the river and asked the women to cross,” Wakerakatste said. “And as they were crossing, the vine broke, and half of the group was on the other side of the river. And the other half remained on the shore that they were moving from.”
She says The Great Thinker told the women to go to the river at daybreak and report back what they saw.
“And one woman would say, ‘Well, when I got to the river to take a drink, I seen a wolf.’ Now the one reported she'd seen a turtle. The other one said she'd seen a bear. The other one said she'd seen a deer, and so on, and so on,” Wakerakatste said.
Wakerakatste says they don’t use the word “clan.” Instead --
“We use the word that would mean, ‘Where is your earth? What earth do you come from?’ Which means, what is the landscape like or what is the land like where you live,” Wakerakatste said. “And so that you either refer to it as the valley, or the fields. So all of us we have high reverence for Earth, land, water, air, sky.”
Wakerakatste says the religion reveres women. She tells me about the Sky Woman, whose daughter gave birth to two male twins – one of whom is the Creator.
“But even he, even though he could be referred to as a God, is still accountable and responsible to the original mother, which is a Sky Woman,” Wakerakatste said.
Wakerakatste says she speaks at high schools and universities. And when she explains the reverence for women in her culture, she says white women often ask her how they can fight the inherent oppression of a male-dominated society.
“And I said first, stop taking your husband's last name,” Wakerakatste said. “Stop taking your father's last name. But we're in such a system, we're so wired, to take pride in that. It's about possession. We are a possession of man. And we'll continue to be as long as we adhere to those paternal rules. And moving forward, you know, my message to all young women is you don't have to stand in anybody's light in order to shine. You’re your own luminous light, the moon doesn't stand in the light of the sun. She's her own light.”
Wakerakatste says when a man called The Peacemaker came along, he cemented the matriarchal structure within tribes.
“And so in his own brilliance, recognized that this old system of women had women and structure founded in a matriarchal community, he seen the brilliance of that, and he didn't erase it, and he didn't dismiss it, he espoused it by saying that the male leadership will rise from the uterine voice that puts it in place,” Wakerakatste said. “So, men become our leaders or chiefs. Women have the right of nomination. She has the right of recall, which means if our leader acts up, Chief acts up, she has the right to remove them and replace them.”
Wakerakatste says the women are the foundation of their society, and the men are the walls and roof.
“So their leadership can't exist unless the women are in balance, unless they're holding them up. So that's how I become a clan mother,” Wakerakatste said.
Wakerakatste says her people have been tested by colonization, government termination policies, and residential schools.
“Our children were ripped away from the homes and taken away from the families by force by the RCMP, or whomever, and brought so many miles away by railroad or horse and buggy to these schools that were meant to strip culture and language from the children,” Wakerakatste said.
Residential schools were set up by the Canadian government and Christian churches to educate Indigenous children but also to indoctrinate them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living. The residential school system operated from the 1880s into the late 20th century.
“It hacked at our roots, and there was a revival in the beginning in the 1930s, to the 40s, to the 50s to 1961,” Wakerakatste said. “My grandmother returned from Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario. She was taken away at the age of 6. And she didn't return here till she was 17.”
“As a matter of fact, just this week, news came out of 215 mass grave was uncovered at a residential school,” Wakerakatste said. “Native children being murdered at a residential school, at the hands of the government and the church. So when I talk about our nation being great, our greatness has been tested. But we still exist. And that's the resilience to have the ability to withstand something so horrific. It's pretty much an indigenous genocide that occurred here on these lands, but people don't know that happened. Because it's been censored.”
Chief Rosanne Casimir announced the discovery after ground penetrating radar confirmed the remains of the children, who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School, in the southern interior of British Columbia, was one of the largest in Canada and operated from the late 19th century to the late 1970s. It was run by the Catholic Church until the federal government took it over in the 1960s.
According to the U.S. Census, more than 5.2 million American Indian and Alaska Native people live in America and 573 federally recognized Indian nations across the country.
Wakerakatste says there were 50 original chief titles, and 49 original clan mothers in the United States. She says in the Akwesasne nation, there are supposed to be nine clan mothers and they have five seats filled, so there are some vacant titles. But she says it’s a process to raise a young woman up to that position.
“And when my mother died at her 10 day feast, my sisters decided to give me her wampum strands, which is her strands of authority,” Wakerakatste said. “And I held on to it for about nine years when I finally created a nomination and put up a chief. So ever since then, and I think I'm now 15-16 years into being a clan mother for the bear clan under the title name which means ‘he drags his antlers’ and his portfolio is to look over the lands and to be awoke to impending danger.”
Wakerakatste says her people believe in karmic debt.
“We're living in a pandemic,” Wakerakatste said. “We never thought or imagined that such a thing could happen to us. But Mother Nature, you can't take her for granted. You cannot take women for granted and dismiss them and think that there's not going to be some kind of retribution. That's by their nature, giving it back to us and we've been humbled, and will continue to be humbled until we learn our lessons. We can't be frivolous, and we can't be wasteful. So part of that karmic debt is now we witness before the eyes of the world, an insurrection on January 6. And not that I found some kind of glory in that, but as an indigenous person sitting back watching white people beat up white people, their own government, you know, that was prophesized it was going to happen. Capitalism is falling, you know, and the democracy of the United States is failing, because it centers around dead white men. And it centers around -- the United States Constitution only advances white land-owning men. It left out its own women, it left out people of color, you know, so, you know, every day we hear of racism, and every day we hear about the hate. And every day we hear about the supremacy. That's the illness.”
Wakerakatste says when the indigenous people of Turtle Island North America – first met Europeans, they made an agreement.
“We allowed the first wave of white settlers to stay,” Wakerakatste said. “We helped them to learn about cultivation. We helped Columbus fight scurvy that they had on his ship. We taught them our ways. And we made an original agreement with them. And we said we will share the resources, the wealth and abundance of this land, side by side -- equally. We will not interfere in your business or in your governance or your people, nor will you ours. And immediately the Europeans wanted to be referred to as the father, and the indigenous people as the son. They said, ‘No, we'll be brothers.’ And so there's been a long history and a long relationship. And every treaty that was ever written by the United States government has been broken.”
From the Revolutionary War to the aftermath of the Civil War, some 370 treaties were made between the United States and Native Americans. All of them were violated.
Through the Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the General Allotment Act, the federal government forcibly converted tribal lands into small parcels for individual ownership, usually without compensation to the tribes. As a result, nearly two-thirds of reservation lands were taken from tribes and given to settlers.
Between 1887 and 1934, 90 million acres were taken by the U.S. government. 56 million acres are still held “in trust” by the government for various tribes.
In the 1940s and 50s, a time dubbed “the Termination Era,” huge amounts of reservation land were lost.
The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has about 12,000 acres – roughly 300 of which belong to Wakerakatste.
What You Made Us To Be
Wakerakatste says her community of about 12,000 people is struggling.
“Our kids are on drugs,” Wakerakatste said. “I'm not going to say all of them, but it's prevalent here. You know, a lot of our men are incarcerated. And because we want to create an economy, we're criminalized for selling the very thing that we introduced to the world, which is tobacco. And, you know, the government takes issue with our medicines, and deems [them] as hallucinogenics and criminalizes us. And whenever we try and protest, to protect our waters, to protect our lands to protect our children, we're the antagonist. You know, we're the bad people.”
She says the United States has cultivated racism against indigenous people.
Wakerakatste says indigenous youth are struggling with addiction because they are taught by society to hate themselves and their heritage.
“When you go to school, and you're taught the statistics, and they tell you that your people are upon scum of society, and you have the highest statistics in diabetes, incarceration, heart attack, fatality, you know, that you're just the worst of the worst? How would that make you feel,” Wakerakatste said. “And so then our youth have to struggle, first of all, going into a world that doesn't recognize them, and going into the world that they don't know. And then to be told that you're the worst, you have the highest worst rates of all the social ills. You know? How do you recover from that?”
She says she remembers how that feeling of self-loathing started with her: the movies.
“I remember when we first got a TV, and all we could watch was one station. And they played these westerns every weekend. And it was about John Wayne being the hero,” Wakerakatste said. “And I remember sitting there one time and rooting on John Wayne and saying, ‘kill those Indians, those bad Indians’ and I was about 6 years old. And my mother had to break the news to me that I was an Indian. And I was devastated and I cried. I said, ‘I don't wanna be an Indian and I don't want to be a bad person,’ you know. So that was -- that's the depth of the brainwash that music and movies have. I had to work really hard for a very long time to accept that I am an Indian and that John Wayne is not the hero.”
Wakerakatste says to combat the cycle of addiction and incarceration, she has implemented a yearly youth retreat.
“We did something here 18 years ago, in our community, when through the prayers in the hearts of our mothers, we reconstructed an ancient ceremony which is our puberty rite for our adolescence,” Wakerakatste said. “So, we understand that adolescence is a very turbulent time in this stage of human development. So when we can grab our youth before they make these hard decisions, that change can affect their entire lives. We give them better information we give, we equip them with truth, and understanding, but most of all, our love and our acceptance. And we would put them in like 16 to 20 weeks of teachings, talking about our ceremonies, our language or medicines, and then we would put them in a guided state of deprivation, which would mean no water, no food for an integrated number of nights, sitting upon our Mother Earth, to be with themselves, and to begin to understand why they were born into this world, and what their purpose is.”
She says since the program started, they’ve started to see a drop in the juvenile crime statistics. The next retreat is this fall, and through word of mouth the program is spreading across the country, to other tribal nations.
“A young girl would go through the ceremony, and she would tell her friends, then her friends would want to come and then they'd see and they’d say, ‘I want to do that,’ you know, and then the little girls would see their older sisters and say, ‘Oh, when I get to be that age, I'm gonna do that,’ you know. And so it was only through the voices of the children that it grew,” Wakerakatste said.
Wakerakatste says white people ask her about reparations a lot. They feel guilty, she says, and powerless to make it better. She has some ideas.
“Bring the truth into your educational institutions, create curriculum around it, Canada's finally making the step toward it, they're writing nursery books about residential schools, and it's the universities are mandated by the government now to have inclusion of indigenous people. And now they're doing land acknowledgments,” Wakerakatste said. “They're small steps. But the only way that you're going to truly right the wrongs of yesterday is to tell the truth from the eyes and the voice of the indigenous people that suffered it. History was lived by two different races. Well, several different races, but only told from the one point of view. And it's the white view, and how unfortunate it is for mankind, to have only one perspective. Kind of dumbs everybody down.”
She says indigenous people can’t truly move on and heal their relationship with descendants of white settlers until the government acknowledges the history of genocide and broken promises.
“This country has no integrity,” Wakerakatste said. “It thinks it's a superpower, but it has a legitimate assumption of authority and superiority vested in white men's egos. I'm not going to paint every white man with that one brush because there's good white men out there. There is good men, but it's the mentality. It's the mentality that we have to change.”
She says another great place to start? Return all the stolen artifacts.
The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington has one of the most extensive collections of Native American artifacts in the world—825,000 items.
The issue is highly contested. Museums argue for preservation and education while indigenous people contend since most of the remains and artifacts were taken forcibly as spoils of war, museum possession of them condones “colonialism, dehumanization, and racism against Native American people.”
Wakerakatste tells me that despite the betrayals of white people against her people, she still has hope for the future. She believes all races can help each other to save the planet and create a more peaceful world.
“We can live in harmony, we can live in beauty, we can live in understanding and celebration of one another's different senses, but yet we choose to place judgment.”
She says the epidemic of disappearing indigenous women challenges her hope daily.
In 2018, the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute found that there were over 5,700 missing Alaska Native and American Indian women and girls, and only 116 were registered in the Department of Justice database. Using data from 71 cities, the report showed thousands of missing Indigenous women are being ignored. 280 were murder cases.
Jurisdictional issues between state, local, and tribal law enforcement make it nearly impossible to investigate, so the women fall through the cracks.
Given the worse health outcomes and missing women, Wakerakatste says it feels like the United States does not care if indigenous people live or die. She sees no campaign to reverse the inherent racism in the country, further leading to more of her young native people dying.
According to the CDC, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 20- to 44-year-old American Indian and Alaska Native women between – nearly 10%.
“We carry the wisdom of our ancestors,” Wakerakatste said. “And we take seriously our position in the world. Because we speak a different language. And we're, we're very unique to the relationship that we have to this entire hemisphere. And it's unfortunate that the world don't see that it's been cheated. You've been cheated of the beautiful culture that we have.”
Wakerakatste says the one thing she really wants the world to know: indigenous people are not extinct. Her people are not extinct.
“We need to stop being referred to as something of the past,” Wakerakatste said. “We're alive and well. We're still recovering, but we're well on our way.”
Before I leave her yurt on her rolling acres of green fields, Mama Bear asks me where my people are from. She tells me, “Don’t say ‘the United States.’”
So I answer Dublin.
She says we are all originally from somewhere, and we will forever be tied to that land. And I loved that she said that because even though I’ve never been to Ireland, I do feel called to go there. When I hear Celtic music, I feel home.
And then, as I’m walking to my car, I wonder what it would feel like to have my home stolen, parceled, sold, and then polluted. I wonder what kind of reparations or apologies would satisfy me. I wonder if I would welcome them into my yurt for an interview.