Amidst the sacred lands of my Mohawk ancestors — return to Kahnawake

The blood that runs through my veins carries the memory of my relatives
Cory Bilyea
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I recently had the chance to visit the ancestral territories of my Iroquois (sometimes also referred to as Mohawk or Haudenosaunee) relatives located nearly 1,700 km from where I live in Alberta. It was a long-time dream come true and it happened in a whirlwind. A whirlwind guided by a thirst for reconnecting to a home I’ve never been to. The blood memories of my family line beckoned me there to walk amidst the sacred lands of my Mohawk ancestors.

The ancient village of Kahnawake located on the south shore of the oceanic St. Lawrence River holds an enigma and history connected to my very DNA. It was a deeply personal, overwhelming experience to visit Kahnawake near so-called Montreal.

So, how am I connected to this far away region? I belong to the Michel First Nation. The Michel are descendants of a great Mohawk leader named Chief Louis Kwarakwante (the Sun Traveller). He was born in Kahnawake on October 17, 1782 and grew up to be an expert fur trader, trapper, and hunter. In his teen years, he worked as a voyageur guide for the North West Company, which brought him west to the mountains where he settled in what is now Alberta. There he married a Cree woman and a Sekanaise woman, fathering an alliance between these tribes along with a legacy of descendants. He was a leader, a dreamer, a traveller, and a reconciler. He is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. Although by blood quantum I am more Cree and French than Iroquois, I still feel Kwarakwante’s spirit profoundly intertwined with mine. Because I too am a dreamer, a traveller, and a reconciler with the work that I do as a storyteller.

I’ve had cousins visit Kahnawake and must admit I envied them, until now. I longed to reconnect with that part of my heritage and it finally began to unfold. How many people can trace their ancestral line back hundreds or thousands of generations on this side of the world? If you’re Indigenous, you can and it’s incredible to walk on the lands and breathe in the same air that your forefathers once did.

I was in Montreal attending the Canadian Association of Journalists Conference when it dawned on me how close I was to Kahnawake. My friend Christopher Curtis offered to lend me his car after the event ended and I jumped at the chance to go.

Summer was dawning, the air was fresh, the landscape green with life and a variety of flowers bloomed that day. As I drove through the community with manicured lawns, turn-of-the-century style brick and stone houses, some modern and dozens of signs advertising discount cigarette shops, I was in awe and took in numerous deep breaths to ground myself in the wonder of it all.

I thought of my beloved Kohkum who passed in 2008 and how she’d be so happy I was here.

One of the first spots my colleague Cory Bilyea and I stopped to check out was an old building with a large wooden thunderbird seemingly keeping watch on the center top. The grass was overgrown and old brick stones encircled a former ceremonial fireplace. There was a beautiful choir backdrop in the form of charming blackbirds gathering around to welcome and sing to us. I took it all in, thanking them for their hospitality. Yet, I was nervous, did I belong here? I didn’t know anyone from here personally that’s alive today… but I felt a knowing inside anyway.

We went to an old church that dons a massive portrait of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Algonquin-Mohawk, the first Indigenous person to be canonized. Known as the Lily of the Mohawks, she is revered around the world in the Catholic religion. The church is nestled on the banks of the Saint Lawrence and once served as a fort to protect Christian Mohawks from other Indigenous tribes who were angry about their conversion.

Yet it was peaceful there. I strolled down to a walkway by the water and prayed. At that moment I wondered if Kwarakwante or his parents Thomas Anatolia (Kanakonne) and Marie-Anne Tekonwakwehinni had once prayed there too. Did Kwarakwante pray for me? Did he dream of his future generations and ask the Creator to guide our footsteps and help us if we lost our way? I believe he did.

You see, we carry the blood memory of our ancestors. The blood that runs through my veins carries the cellular and genetic memory of my relatives, including a connection to our language, our songs, spirituality and teachings.

Indigenous Peoples have always known this. We know our actions of today affect the next seven generations, and the previous seven generations paved the way for our survival.

In recent decades modern science has caught onto this. Dr. Darold Treffert writes in Scientific American about how animals possess an inherit instinct passed down from their predecessors.

A mural at the Kateri long-term care, where Billy Two Rivers lives.
Brandi Morin

“The animal kingdom provides ample examples of complex inherited capacities beyond physical characteristics. Monarch butterflies each year make a 2,500-mile journey from Canada to a small plot of land in Mexico where they winter. In spring they begin the long journey back north, but it takes three generations to do so. So no butterfly making the return journey has flown that entire route before. How do they “know” a route they never learned? It has to be an inherited GPS-like software, not a learned route.

Oscine birds such as such as sparrows, thrushes and warblers learn their songs from listening to others. Suboscine species, such as flycatchers and their relatives, in contrast, inherit all the genetic instructions they need for these complex arias. Even if raised in sound-proof isolation, the suboscine birds can give the usual call for their species with no formal training or learning. There are so many more examples from the animal kingdom in which very complex traits, behaviors and skills are inherited and innate.”

"You see, we carry the blood memory of our ancestors. The blood that runs through my veins carries the cellular and genetic memory of my relatives, including a connection to our language, our songs, spirituality and teachings."

I believe the experiences of our ancestors are transferred to us. For example, I was carried in the womb of my grandmother before I was ever born. A woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have in her lifetime. So, I was wrapped in my mother’s fetal body as it developed within my Kohkum’s body, my mother was carried in her grandmother’s womb and so forth.

Kwarakwante was with me that day, through my blood DNA, as well as my mother who was back home in Alberta, the spirit and blood memories of my Kohkum and her father and grandfathers.

Kwarakwante died sometime between 1845 and 1856, but he is not forgotten. His ancestry is recognized as one of the oldest lineages of tribes in North America. It is believed that he is buried somewhere in the Rocky Mountains near Jasper, Alberta. It is another a dream of mine to one day find his grave so I can pay my respects.

Brandi Morin

I also want to have his ancestral land (and mine) reinstated. The Michel First Nation has no official land, or even status, with the Canadian federal government. Our ancestral land had been protected on a reserve, located west of St. Albert, Alberta known as “Michel I.R. 132.”

Starting in the late 1930s an Indian agent representing the Canadian government convinced Michel members to assimilate in exchange for farming tools and training (which in many cases never came about), along with the promise that they wouldn’t have to send their children to residential schools. The Indian agent’s agreement meant that he bought the land — for next to nothing — and promptly sold it to European settlers. The final blow against Michel First Nation came in 1958 when the nation was involuntarily enfranchised and most members lost their Indian status and “assimilated into the mainstream.”

Our people’s connection to the land, to each other and community was severed. The nation dissolved and its reserve lands were sold by the feds. Since then, the descendants of the Michel First Nation have been fighting for recognition and reinstatement of our rights for years in Canada’s court systems. We have an elected Chief and council with upwards of a thousand members and are recognized by the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations. Many Michel people have regained their Indian status. My Kohkum regained hers before her death and her children and grandchildren, including me, are in the process of reinstatement. I’m doing this to honour her legacy and to stand in my sovereignty, not because I want to become a ward of the Indian Act.

"The nearby town of Oka wanted to expand a golf course in a former Mohawk burial ground called the Pines, so Kanesatake took up arms to fight for their land and their rights."

My curiosity to find a tangible link to Kahnawake drew me to an old Catholic cemetery in another area of the village. I wanted to find the resting place of Kwarakwante’s parents. Cory and I spread out and combed through the headstones, but dozens of them were illegible and some so old the markings had worn off. I didn’t find them or other relatives but was encouraged to learn I can contact officials that oversee the graves registry at another time to inquire about where they may be buried.

My cousin in Alberta and a member of the Michel Band, Jodi Callihoo-Stonehouse recommended I visit an elder named Billy Two-Rivers. She said I could just show up at his long-term care unit at the Kateri Memorial Hospital and tell him I’m a Michel Band member.

Billy is 87 and was a world-famous champion professional wrestler in his younger years. He went on to serve as a tribal councillor and chief of Kahnawake in a political career that spanned over two decades. He played a key role in blockading the Honoré Mercier Bridge during the 1990 Oka Crisis and appeared in several Hollywood movies. He was also familiar with Kwarakwante and the large family he fathered in Alberta.

“We lost one Mohawk,” Billy declared, laying in his hospital bed, his shoulder-length salt and pepper hair slicked back as he told me of Kwarakwante. He pronounced Kwarakwante’s name differently, as it had been corrupted down the line. It was soothing to hear his name pronounced the original way. I was nervous — I didn’t know if Billy would accept me, but I listened intently.

“Our people here went to Alberta and they got scattered away when they (white man) took the territory over…the Michel,” he recounted.

“Do you still accept us even if we are not from here, like not a member but having our relatives from here?” I boldly asked him. Tears rimmed my eyes when he answered.

“Our people were the same at one point in time, we were one. But now it’s like — just trying to bring it back together. And it gives you a feeling of association. This is the community that holds the key,” he explained.

Brandi Morin looks out over the St. Lawrence River.
Cory Bilyea

“It would be interesting if we had a couple of days for your people to come down. And make the information to the community members available (here) because they’re not up to date on that part of the history and it’s a learning thing that we’re in a state of recovering our language and our culture. From here all the way to Alberta is a part of our history and our culture.”

After a few good laughs to break up the weightiness of our conversation, and Billy delightfully showing us pictures of his family tapped to a corkboard on the wall, we said our goodbyes. I hugged him and thanked him for welcoming me and telling me more about my relatives.

Cory and I then drove about an hour away to Kanesatake, another Mohawk community many are familiar with as it’s where the Oka crisis, AKA Kanesatake Resistance, took place in 1990.

The Oka Crisis AKA Kanesatake Resistance

The nearby town of Oka wanted to expand a golf course in a former Mohawk burial ground called the Pines, so Kanesatake took up arms to fight for their land and their rights.

The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy or the six nations of the Haudenosaunee.
Cory Bilyea

It was a standoff that drew the world’s attention. It lasted 77 days. Quebec’s police tactical unit deployed tear gas and concussion grenades against land defenders. A gunfire exchange followed and a Quebec police officer was killed, however, it was never discovered who shot him.

Natives from Canada and the U.S. showed up in droves to support Kanasetake and staged protests across the country in solidarity. Kanasetake set up blockades and Kahnawake blocked the Mercier bridge, which is the main access route between Montreal and the south shore communities.

On August 28, LaSalle community members threw rocks at vehicles carrying Mohawk elders, women and children who attempted to leave the bridge following a negotiation between the Mohawk and police officials. As the crisis heightened, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa requested military support via the National Defence Act and troops were deployed along with mechanized equipment and aircraft.

Then 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller, who grew up to win a gold medal at the 1999 Pan American Games with the Canadian women’s water polo team, was stabbed in the heart by an officer and nearly died.

Soon, the golf-course expansion was cancelled and the disputed land was purchased from the developers by the federal government. Kanasetake still have not got their land back.

The pines and the community of Kanesatake are beautiful nowadays. I couldn’t help but feel honoured to be in the presence of warriors who fought for freedom there. But, I was reminded that the fight is still going on. There are Indigenous nations battling to protect their territories from harmful industry projects continually and I cover them all the time. We still have a long way to go on this so-called reconciliation journey as a whole.

Cory and I took in some of the Kanasetake Land Back powwow and visited with a friend before heading back to Montreal that evening. I vowed to return and continue my journey of connecting and remembering amidst the sacred lands of my Mohawk ancestors. Hopefully next time, I’ll discover more pieces to the captivating puzzle of Kwarakwante and our family line.

** Photo of the Mohawk territory sign taken by Cory Bilyea. Second image, of Ruth Chalifoux Petrin, is by Brandi Morin

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