The High-Flying Braves Of Caughnawaga

KEN JOHNSTONE October 15 1954

The High-Flying Braves Of Caughnawaga

KEN JOHNSTONE October 15 1954

The High-Flying Braves Of Caughnawaga

Luxury cars glitter in the twisting streets of this Mohawk village on the St. Lawrence when the braves bring home their high wages from the “high steel.” While their kinfolk happily count the paleface tourist dollar, they also stay warm on the warpath against every government in sight

NINE MILES above Montreal, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River just before it plunges into the swirl and roar of Lachine Rapids, lies the home of Canada’s most remarkable redskins, the proud and defiant Mohawks of Caughnawaga.

The highway from Montreal slices in an arc through the village, and its sides are lined with booths offering the wayfarer genuine factory-made Indian handicrafts—pottery from Toronto, birchbark canoes from Chicago, feather headdresses from Kansas, wampum belts from Detroit, bows and arrows from New York, pennants from Montreal, and a smattering of beadwork and wicker basketware actually fashioned by the Caughnawaga wives and daughters. Interspersed with the booths are squalid shacks, empty abandoned barns, a few well-kept clapboard homes and the offices of the RCMP and the Indian Agent. As the road winds up a small hill leaving the village it passes a crowning achievement of the wily Indian for the entrapment of the paleface, the stockaded “genuine Indian Village” of “Chief” Poking Fire, the only one of its kind anywhere.

But the highway and the “Indian Village” of Poking Fire do not reveal the real Caughnawaga. For that you must leave the main highway and stroll down a side road leading to the river. You will come to the main street of the village and there you will see some fine old stone homes that date back to 1720, when the village was first founded. You will see prosperous clapboard and brick homes too, with large well-kept gardens. You will see the lovely old stone church, its silver spire rising above the village, built by the Jesuits with Indian labor and-still kept in excellent repair.

There is the modern air-conditioned Catholic school and the older but well-tended stone hospital, the Protestant school and the training school. Down at the dock you will see tawny-skinned children splashing in the water and hawk-faced fishermen casting for whitefish and perch. And you will see shabby shanties with primitive outhouses and people pumping water from community wells and carrying it home in buckets. Then on week ends you will see the back streets filled with cars, one or two parked in front of nearly every house, no matter how humble; big expensive shiny

Cadillacs and Lincolns, Buicks, Hudsons, Mercurys —most of them bearing U. S. license plates. These are not the cars of visiting tourists. They belong to the celebrated Caughnawaga structural steelworkers, whose sure-footed ease and swift dexterity in high places have won them ready employment with major Canadian and U. S. construction companies.

These are no broken-down demoralized aborigines trying to eke a living from the white man’s charity and childish credulity. They are proud, self-reliant, wealthy, bright and tough, jealous of their rights and ready to fight the instant these rights are challenged, whether the opponent be the RCMP, Premier Duplessis, the Government of


Canada or the United States of America. They laugh good-naturedly at John Macomber assuming the title “Chief” Poking Fire. There hasn’t been an authentic chief of the village since the tribal system of government was abolished by Ottawa in 1890. But, as they point out, there’s nothing to stop anyone from calling himself “Chief,” and Poking Fire has his own little tourist village where he parades around in Hollywood Indian costume to the delight of the tourists and the enrichment of fellow villagers who operate stalls within his compound.

The blue-eyed “Chief” is admired too for the tenacious way he built up his village from a shaky start in 1929 when, with twelve dollars to his name,

he refused to ask for government help. Instead he built a wigwam and advertised with a crude sign the Indiancraft he and his wife made—they didn’t have the money then to buy the factory product. Today, thirty-two families take part in Poking Fire’s tourist village, and when the weather is good they do a thriving business.

Any warm summer day around four o’clock will find from one to six buses drawn up on the side of the road near Poking Fire’s tourist trap and on week ends the tourists’ cars line the side of the road for half a mile in both directions. Most of the day visitors can just walk in, but when the buses roll up there is a sudden scurry within the enclosure, the gate is swung partly closed and

passengers from the buses pay twenty-five cents each for the chance to acquire rare Indian lore.

Inside, some thirty-two booths, dominated at one end by a large barnlike structure, ring the enclosure. The booths offer the cream of factory-made Indian handicraft. Poking Fire himself, before he steps forth in the resplendent headgear of a Sioux chieftain (it is far more dazzling than the relatively modest attire of a Mohawk chief), may be found in simple flannels behind the counter of his “Medicine Man” booth, dispensing alleged Indian remedies at a dollar a throw: skunk oil, snake

oil, bear oil and beaver oil that all smell the same, and dozens of different herbs all neatly factorypackaged and labeled. Continued on page 78

Continued on page 78

High-Flying Braves of Caughnawaga


There are mysterious roots too. Shaking them in a bottle he informs the members of his wide-eyed audience that they must concentrate on a wish. Only if they concentrate will two of the roots cross each other in the bottle as he shakes it. The uppermost twig forming the cross may then be purchased for a dollar. It must be sewn in a black cloth and carried at all times. It will ward off the evil spirit.

But Poking Fire’s tourist village has little to do with the rest of Caughnawaga, although other residents occasionally come up to look curiously at the milling tourists and to talk to relatives manning the booths. Boasting an automobile for every five inhabitants, Caughnawaga’s average is exceeded only by the wealthiest communities in Canada. Most of the cars bear U. S. license plates, but Indians and their personal possessions are permitted to pass the border unmolested by custom charges.

About 3,500 Indians are listed in the Agency office as members of the clan, and more than two thirds of the adult male population works in high steel. Pursuing their dangerous calling they travel in all directions from Caughnawaga to help erect the steel framework of skyscrapers, bridges, grain elevators, dams and skyways. These are the men who worked on the Quebec Bridge, the Thousand Islands Bridge, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, New York’s George Washington Bridge, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Boulder Dam and Kitimat and the grain elevators at Church-

ill—wherever the steel is high, the work dangerous and the pay good.

The challenge of high steel has also led them to South America, the Middle and Far East. But their instinct and a fierce loyalty always bring them back to their village beside the St. Lawrence, with its twisted narrow streets, swarming shadflies and outdoor plumbing.

They take a pride in their calling, these Caughnawaga Mohawks, and it shows as much in their confident bearing as in the expensive cars they keep gleaming at all times. It shows in their keen interest in village affairs and in their eagerness to lock horns with government authority over any issue that threatens their inherited rights. It shows in Poking Fire’s gracious condescension with tourists and in Frank MacDonald Jacobs’ quiet assertion that the State of New York owes the Mohawks of Caughnawaga exactly $1,341,587.90.

They Didn’t Like Farming

This dignity and assurance that set the Mohawks of Caughnawaga apart from others of their tribe and in fact from most Indians and palefaces on the continent comes in part from the fact they are able to earn a respectable living (anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a year) in one of the most spectacular fields of the white man’s endeavor, and in part from their unique origin. For the Caughnawaga Mohawks, known three hundred years ago as the “French Praying Mohawks” (they had been converted by French Jesuits at a mission later called Caughnawaga), warred against the English while their pagan brothers of the Mohawk valley were enlisted by the English to scalp the French.

The Caughnawagas adopted most of their English captives instead of roast-

ing them at the stake, and such names as Rice, Tarbell, Stacey, Hill, McGregor, Jacobs, Williams and Macomber attest to the large proportion of white men’s blood in their veins. From their earliest history they were supremely independent in their relations with the white men and white men’s wars, although their harassing tactics helped the British defeat the Americans at Beaver Dam in the War of 1812.

Warlike and restless, the Caughnawagas never had much liking for farming and found an outlet for their adventurous spirits in the 17th and 18th centuries by accompanying furseeking expeditions into the west. As these operations waned they turned to piloting boats and rafts down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers.

Ia 1870 sixty Caughnawaga braves accompanied Lord Garnet Wolseley s Red River expedition. So well did he remember their skill running rapids in their canoes that when he was faced with the task in 1884 of relieving the siege of Khartoum by penetrating the Upper Nile he appealed to the Caughnawaga Mohawks for aid. Transported to Egypt, fifty canoemen from the village proceeded to prove to the British army that the Upper Nile could be traversed in both directions. Following their example, the soldiers took to the water and the Upper Nile was conquered. Reminded of this proud fact today, Caughnawaga Mohawks sourly point out that two Indians were drowned making the Nile safe for British soldiers.

But it was in 1886 when the CPR cantilever bridge was started across the St. Lawrence River from Lachine to the south bank at Caughnawaga that footloose Caughnawaga Mohawks finally found a vocation that met their need for activity and danger. The intention was to employ them as laborers in return for the right to run a railway line over reservation land, but riveting gangs on girders a hundred feet above the St. Lawrence were constantly finding Indians peering over their shoulders and wandering over the structure with all the unconcern of flies on a ceiling.

The sight inspired the construction superintendent to try them out as riveters; after a brief apprenticeship three gangs of four men—heater, riveter, bucker-up and sticker-in—were formed. The Mohawks took to the new game with all the zeal their ancestors had displayed in taking a batch of English scalps. The superintendent was delighted and when a new job opened at Sault Ste. Marie he took them along. They trained more of their tribe and by 1907 there were ninety-six Caughnawaga Mohawks working on the new QuebecBridge. When, on Aug. 29 that year, a span of thq bridge suddenly collapsed thirty-five Mohawk steelworkers met a sudden death in the water below.

The calamity wiped out more than a third of the steel-working manpower of the village. The population turned out in full force to escort the broken bodies to the village graveyard, and over each grave a cross made of two pieces of structural steel was raised. The effect on the younger boys of the village was the exact opposite of what might have been expected. They clamored to take up the hazardous calling, and they looked upon the Quebec Bridge victims as heroes who had died in battle. The elders of the village nodded their heads in solemn approval of this typical Mohawk spirit. But the wives insisted that in future the riveting teams must scatter on different jobs so that the village would never again be confronted with such a disaster.

In 1916 one Caughnawaga Indian

died in the construction of Hell’s Gate Bridge in New York, and his body was brought back to Caughnawaga to join his fellows, and since then the number of crossed steel beams has grown slowly in the cemetery. The building boom of the Twenties attracted Caughnawaga steelworkers to New York and the list of buildings whose frameworks have borne their catlike tread since that time reads like a tourist guide to Manhattan and greater New York.

Apart from the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the George Washington Bridge, they have played

their vital part in the construction of the Fred H. French Building, the Daily News, Chanin, Bank of Manhattan, City Bank Farmers Trust, the Waldorf Astoria, London Terrace, Knickerbocker Village, the Bayonne Bridge, Passaic River Bridge, Triborough Bridge, Henry Hudson Bridge, Little Hell’s Gate Bridge, Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. Shades of their ancestors who portaged the Richelieu, fought their way across Lake Champlain and down the Hudson must have grunted their surprise to see their descendants carving out the Marine Parkway, the

Pulaski Skyway and the West Side Highway as modern Iroquois trails.

In Brooklyn, Buffalo and Detroit they have formed colonies of which the Brooklyn settlement of four hundred is the largest. They travel from job to job in their own cars while their wives remain at home and work on Indiancraft which they peddle at fairs, amusement parks and in Caughnawaga booths when they return home. The braves earn top pay for they select jobs that offer overtime with double pay. They spend lavishly too, on fine clothes and new cars. When the urge moves

them, they quit their jobs and return to Caughnawaga for weeks and sometimes months at a time. There they would rather drive a block than walk it.

A few years back an enterprising publicity man for the motion picture, Iroquois Trail, conceived the original idea of having a band of Mohawks take to the water in war canoes along the ancient Iroquois Trail of the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson to simulate an attack on Albany. He found Caughnawaga braves willing, but none of them could paddle a canoe. “Take away their Cadillacs and they’re lost,” he cracked bitterly.

Rack at home the holidaying steelworker spends his time fishing, washing his car, going to church and joining any one of the dozen controversies and grievances that keep village politics in a turmoil.

The spiritual welfare of most Caughnawagas is attended by the Jesuit Father George Brodeur and his assistants at the Church of St. Francois Xavier, which is a regular port of call for tourist buses. The Jesuits, who founded the mission in 1667 and were compelled to leave it in 1793, returned again in 1903. They do an efficient job of keeping the church and mission property in shape and looking after the education of three hundred children. They are currently devoting their efforts to the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indian maiden who led a saintly life at the Mission and died on April 1 7, 1680.

While the great majority of the Caughnawagas are Catholics, 500 of them are Protestant. Fewer than a hundred are listed in the census as pagans. This latter figure is hotly disputed by the pagan or “Long House’’ Indians, who claim much more of the population.

Singing in the Springtime

This trend back to ancient beliefs was proclaimed in 1924 by “Chief” Dominick Two Axe who declared: “The

nationalist tendencies among my people are becoming more and more manifest. Numbers of us have gone back to our own religious rites which date far back beyond all known civilizations. We are throwing off the artificialities which the white man has constantly endeavored to impose upon us. We hold our land from time immemorial and our rights were recognized under the French regime and were confirmed by solemn treaty with George III. Why should we not be left alone?” No statement on any dispute or issue at Caughnawaga is complete without reference to the French regime and George III.

The Long House Indians claim three hereditary chiefs for each of the three clans represented, the turtle, wolf and bear clans. Thus they list Joe Martin, John Diabo and Joe Diabo as chiefs of the wolf clan, Eddy Lalonde, Tom Diabo and Frank Diabo as chiefs of the bear clan, and John Jacobs, Frank Hollowleaf and Silas Square as chiefs of the turtle clan. Silas Square is dead and they haven’t yet replaced him. The Long House Mohawks stage seasonal festivals with songs and dances. These festivals centre around the running of the maple syrup in spring, the ripening of wild strawberries in June, the ripening of beans in August and the corn dance in October. The first and last of these festivals go on for four days and are the envy of many Christian Indians. But most Christian Caughnawagas deride their pagan brethren: “They want to go back to

the old days, but they drive cars and look at television.”

If the Mohawks have minor religious differences among themselves they pre-

sent a united body when they tackle the paleface lawmakers of Canada and the U. S. And they never admit defeat. Their battle with the State of New York is a classic example.

In 1794, when the boundary between Canada and the U. S. was drawn, it was discovered that the land of the St. Regis Mohawks, an offshoot of the Caughnawagas, lay partly in New York State, extending into what is now the city of Massena. The state negotiated a deal with Mohawks on the U. S. side of the border for the purchase of the land which, according to the Caughnawagas, belonged to the tribe as a whole. The Canadian Mohawks had been granted a tribe annuity of $266 at that time in recognition of their claim, but with the war of 1812-14 this was discontinued. However in 1820 Father Joseph Marcoux succeeded in getting the annuity renewed for a brief period. It again lapsed in spite of sporadic representations.

But a Caughnawaga never forgets, and fifteen years ago the case was put into the hands of Caughnawaga’s astute and venerable Frank MacDonald Jacobs, a small, soft-spoken man with great endurance. Five times in the past fifteen years he succeeded in having a private bill brought before the New York State legislature to permit the case to come before the New York Court of Claims. Each time the bill passed the legislature and four times it was killed by the governor’s veto. Jacobs’ fifth effort last year failed to reach the governor before the close of the session.

Meanwhile the control of Indian lands in New York State has passed from Albany to Washington. Jacobs promptly demanded that the Canadian government, as guardian of the Indians, take up the case with Washington. Turned down, he has asked Ottawa’s permission to sue the U. S. himself. He now awaits an embarrassed Ottawa answer. At eighty-five, Frank Jacobs figures he has a fool-proof case if he ever gets a chance to present it to the proper court. He has computed that the Caughnawagas are owed $1,341,587.90.

Jacobs has been a thorn in the flesh of Canadian officialdom ever since he quit his job as a bookkeeper in a New York firm at twenty-four to return to his village as schoolmaster in 1893. He lobbied in Ottawa at that time for compulsory Indian education which was introduced in 1896. He lobbied successfully in World War I for the protection of ancient Indian rights regarding wartime taxation and conscription. They were exempted from both then, but in World War II they received short shift. “Taxation without representation and a violation of the sacred word of the British Crown,” Jacobs castigates these temporary setbacks. “Justice must finally prevail.”

Last year the Caughnawaga Indians launched another assault, this time against the State of Vermont, claiming they are entitled to overdue annuities on land rented from them around Montpelier. They set the figure of their claim at $1,300,000 and though the basis of it is clouded in obscurity, a deadpan Vermont Committee to Give Vermont Back to the Indians promptly leaped to their defense. Led by Poking Fire a delegation was given a hearing by the Vermont legislature with completely negative results. However, they took part in a local celebration at Rockingham, Vt., and the townsfolk deeded them a strip of land in appreciation. This gesture, together with a five-dollar payment by a conscience-stricken landowner has confirmed Poking Fire in the belief that he and his brothers have a valid claim.

I Now the Caughnawagas are busy with

lawyer Roland Stevens, of White River Junction, Vt., drawing up a legal ambush for the State of Vermont.

The Caughnawagas have not fared too well in brushes with the Province of Quebec and Premier Maurice Duplessis. Although provincial law forbids the operation of drive-in theatres, the village council, reasoning that their land did not come under provincial jurisdiction, decided to grant permission to local tribesmen Joe Horne and Harry Beauvais for the construction of drive-in theatres on their properties. Duplessis promptly announced that the

Indians would not be permitted to break Quebec laws. The council pointed out that its decisions were subject only to the veto of the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. The department promptly withheld its permission and the Shawinigan Power Company advised that it would nothe able to supply electricity. “Ottawa is afraid of Duplessis,” observed one disgusted brave. “Besides, we wouldn’t have been able to get any films anyway. Duplessis controls that.”

A minor victory was registered for the village council when Quebec pro-

posed to cut a new road through the village in an attempt to avoid trafficcongestion between the village and Mercier Bridge. The council rejected the plan on the ground the new road would merely duplicate the congestion. They wanted the village bypassed. Ottawa supported this view and the Quebec Department of Highways indicated that it would propose a new route. Poking Fire is not worried about the bypass. He figures he has a better mousetrap.

The Caughnawagas have enjoyed a long and lively feud with the Mounties,

marked by frequent clashes over the Mohawks drinking forbidden firewater. The Indians refuse to be treated like minors in this respect. Then during World War II it was ruled that the Indians were subject to selective service and the Mounties went into the village looking for delinquent draftees. The Caughnawagas resented what they considered a betrayal of the government’s pledge of World War I, and they obstructed the search at every turn. Meanwhile nearly two hundred braves enlisted voluntarily in the Canadian and U. S. armies.

A few years ago two members of the RCMP were severely beaten trying to arrest two allegedly drunken Indians. When police reinforcements arrived to rescue them their attackers had vanished. One of the Mounties was treated in hospital and when he got out, it is said, he looked up his attackers individually and beat them up, much to the delighted admiration of the rest of the tribe. Although he has since been transferred to another district that Mountie is remembered with the peculiar affection and regard that the Iroquois bestow on a brave foe. Had it been possible they might have adopted him into the tribe.

However, since 1951 forays against the RCMP have come to an end. A change in the Indian Act now provides the band council with the power to furnish its own police, and to that end big Tom Lahaehe of Caughnawaga was appointed special constable attached to the RCMP for the Reserve. Mohawks never attack their own. Even in the French-English wars when the Christian Mohawks fought for the French and the pagan Mohawks for the English, legend has it that the Christian Indians wore masks so their pagan brethren could distinguish them from the Hurons and Algonquins who were considered fair game.

Some Wanted Home Rule

The Indian Agency on the reserve, which covers 12,000 acres of scrub land, is headed by acting superintendent J. A. Laplante, who has two members of the reserve, A. T. Snow and F. Pinnseault, on his staff. The agency acts for the Indian Affairs branch of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration and for the Indian Health Services of the Department of Health and National Welfare. The former department pays for teachers, books and upkeep of the three schools as well as repairing roads. It also doles out a certain small amount of relief. The Caughnawagas receive no treaty money. The latter department looks after the hospital, provides free hospitalization and medical care and, in the case of serious operations, sends the patients to larger Montreal hospitals. The Indian Agency also implements decisions of the local council after they have been approved by the Indian Affairs branch in Ottawa. It supervises the annual elections.

The council promises under the 1951 Indian Act to solve a long-standing grievance with the Caughnawagas and other Indians. As far back as Dec. 27, 1922, the Caughnawagas went on record for home rule. At that time some 2,147 of 2,500 Mohawks signed a petition condemning the Indian Act and demanding freedom from the white man’s interference. It declared that the Indian Act of that time created “injustice and bribery. The elective form of government is injurious to our nationality in that it creates division among us. It has so far caused riots and hatred against brothers and sisters.”

The petition continued: “The Indian Act law is an instrument used by the Canadian government to acquire all the

lands from the Indians for nothing, as it puts us to sleep and forgetful of our property.” It added the thinly veiled threat: “We hope that very soon our

troubles will be smoothed off without bloodshed.”

Again, on Feb. 28, 1938, at a Grand National Powwow held at Caughnawaga. the government got another going-over. Chief Cheney Garlow said that the palefaces had “made a mess of this country and their ways led only to trouble.” He warned: “If you

become Canadian citizens you must shoulder the white man s debt. 13efoie the white man came to this country there was not a dollar of debt. Phe white man’s civilization has ruined Canada, burying it deep under a mound of public debt.”

Mayor J. K. Delisle, chairman of the Pow Wow, declared that the Indian treaties and concessions were ignored by the government, that the Indians were being victimized by the few and unspecified non-Indians on the Reserve, and that the Indians were not receiving their fair share of government relief. He stressed the fact, however, that it was not a war council, but a powwow of peace, and he demanded a royal commission.

Whether in answer to such representations or whether it was in the cards anyway, a royal commission did sit on Indian Affairs following World War II. and its recommendations were in most part adopted in the Indian Act of 1951. Subject to the approval of the Indian Affairs branch, the local council was given much greater control over activities in the reserve.

The increasing number of whites in the village is a sore spot with the Indians, although many Indian landlords make money out of them. They are permitted to rent to the whites but they cannot sell their houses or land to them. In 1938, when there were only eight white families in the village, t he Indians decided to evict them and carted them across Mercier Bridge into Ville La Salle, where they dumped them on the street and left them. Then, a week later, feeling ashamed of their un-Christian conduct, they went over and brought the evicted families back. They don’t quite know what to do about the present situation, where more than a thousand whites are taking advantage of the low-rental housing. They say that white tenants are creating a class division by building up a landlord class in the village. They claim the whites tend to lower the village’s social status, and they claim also that the whites are taking advantage of the village’s immunity from certain sales taxes. But nobody has come up with a solution yet.

A further problem lies before the village council in the shape of the St. Lawrence Seaway. They have been advised that new locks surmounting the Lachine rapids will be cut through on their side of the river, wiping out one twelfth of the village and destroying sixty homes. The Caughnawagas want to make sure that the home owners affected will not be hurt by the change. Past experience convinces them that if it is left to the white man to dole out justice the Indian will likely be short-changed.

But these issues are not likely to send the Caughnawaga Mohawk digging for his hatchet or beating his war drums in earnest. He knows quite well that the growth of the white man’s civilization has provided him with a chance in high steel to make a better living than most of his race in a way that appeals to his daring and to his pride. He may occasionally lose his temper with the paleface and address stern words to him, but he doesn’t really want the paleface to go back home.