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Remembering Kakwirakeron, a modern Mohawk icon

Photo provided

Many Mohawks are mourning the loss of a high-profile and often times controversial, leader. Born in Buffalo, Kakwirakeron - also known by his English name, Arthur Montour Sr. - died on October 31. He was 75 years old and left behind 59 grandchildren.

Kakwirakeron became politically active during the Native American power movement of the 1970s. He was a figurehead – and lightning rod - during some of the most complicated chapters of modern Mohawk history.

From ironworker to traditionalist and activist icon at Moss Lake

Montour was born in Buffalo in 1942. He grew up on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near Montreal and, like so many other Mohawk men, went to New York City to work the high steel.

"A lot of people knew him as an ironworker," says Montour’s son, Teyonienkwataseh, who goes by Nokwa. "He was one of the youngest foremen, he told me. At 24 years old, they told him to run a job. They saw his efficiency and getting the job done and getting it done on time."

Montour’s leadership took a different turn by the time he was 30. He took the name Kakwirakeron, Mohawk for “shaken branches.” He taught himself the Mohawk language and embraced his people’s traditional ways. He was part of the group of Mohawks that occupied the empty Moss Lake Girl Scout camp near Old Forge in 1974.

As a confrontation with state police escalated, including gunshots fired from both sides, Kakwirakeron became the group’s eloquent spokesman. "And on top of that, he was a good looking man," says Nokwa. "He looked the part with his long hair and his braids. I guess the visual went with what he was saying. He really looked like a traditional Mohawk warrior."

Credit Photo provided / NCPR News
Kakwirakeron, born Arthur Montour Sr. in 1942, was known as an uncompromising leader for Mohawk sovereignty.

Kakwirakeron’s face became iconic in the media. Chaz Kader is a Mohawk writer and traditionalist who considers Kakwirakeron a mentor. "I believe he was as recognizable in New York State as the ‘Crying Indian’ was in the commercials of the 1970s."

"Worse ways to die than by a bullet"

Melissa Hale-Spencer covered the Moss Lake conflict for the Lake Placid News, and interviewed Kakwirakeron at the encampment. She is now co-publisher of the Altamont Enterprise and Albany County Post.

"I just remember him as a very forceful man, but not in an aggressive way," Hale-Spencer recalls, chuckling. "He was almost courtly in his mannerisms. I remember he got me a stump to sit on and conduct the interview from."

Hale-Spencer was so moved by the interview she turned some of the quotes into a poem:

Destiny Unhinged

What are the pathways that we choose?
What we call fate could be embrace
Of where we are and who we are,
Accepting limits of time and place.

When modern Mohawks had had enough,
They took back land they claimed as theirs
To live a life steeped in the past;
They meant their children to be their heirs.

“Worse ways to die than by a bullet,”
A warrior said. “The drugs, the drink,
Despair that leads to suicide.”
So on they pushed, up to the brink.

The Land of Flint is now their home —
Rock hard, they cling to ways of old.
A desperate move unleashed the hold
Of history — its grief untold.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

Diplomacy at the highest level of NY state government

The Moss Lake stand-off lasted three years. In 1977, Kakwirakeron helped negotiate a peaceful settlement with Mario Cuomo, who was then New York’s Secretary of State. "In New York State, he understood and was recognized by the highest levels of state government," says Kader, with Cuomo sometimes talking with Kakwirakeron at political events.

Kakwirakeron’s diplomacy earned the Mohawks a piece of land in northern Clinton County, now known as Ganienkeh. His son, Nokwa, says he was the first boy born there.

"His reputation was as a warrior - strong, fierce, maybe almost scary man," says Nokwa, "when in real life, he’s really a peacemaker, a peacekeeper."

Credit Photo provided / NCPR News
Kakwirakeron helped build the tribal tobacco economy. He also started a fishing lure manufacturing company.

Kakwirakeron went on to become a leading figure in other conflicts, including Akwesasne’s intra-tribal war over gambling in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was arrested by the FBI on federal charges and served ten months in prison before his release.

During the conflict, Kakwirakeron was a spokesman for the militant Mohawk Warrior Society, also known locally as the Mohawk Sovereignty Security Force, which some other Mohawks called “armed thugs.”

In NCPR's 1991 documentary about the time called "Fractured Family," Kakwirakeron said that despite the divisions within the tribe, he believed all Mohawk leaders wanted the same thing.

"Every one of them, inside their heart, inside their minds, they firmly believe that they are sovereign, that we are a free and independent people," Kakwirakeron said, "and that we have a right to our own nationality, to our own nationhood, particularly right here on this continent, where we have existed for thousands and thousands of years."

Credit Akwesasne Today
Mourners for Kakwirakeron processed under an iron beam on Rt. 37 in Akwesasne.

Helping Mohawks 'rebuild themselves'

Kakwirakewon was uncompromising in his ideas about sovereignty. He pushed for the Mohawks’ historic right to trade tobacco tax-free, even across the international border. That revolutionized tribal economies, while also creating further tensions with New York State and Canada.

His son, Nokwa, says Kakwirakeron helped teach Mohawks to rebuild themselves. "We’ve been robbed of our culture, of our prosperity, of our economy, and we’re still here in this world and it’s up to us to relearn our culture, our language, to keep these things alive, because that’s what makes us who we are."

Kakwirakeron’s life was honored in Akwesasne earlier this month. A line of cars on route 37 drove under an iron girder dangling from a crane. Hanging from the girder were three Mohawk Warrior Society flags, symbols of who Art Montour was and who Kakwirakeron had become.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.