Ernest Kaientaronkwen Benedict: (1918-2011) ?Akwesasne?s Conscience?
My wife, Joanne Shenandoah, and I were preparing to attend the annual Midwinter Ceremony at Akwesasne
when we were told of the passing of Ernie Benedict
, one of the most venerated of Mohawk elders.
had reached his
92nd year and lived through the greatest social, technological and political changes in human history.
He was born in the second decade of the 20th century when Akwesasne was a community intimately tied to its natural environment, its residents self reliant from harvesting the crops they had planted and the fish hauled from rivers which flow through Mohawk territory.
Everyone spoke Mohawk, few had formal education.
came of age when the Mohawk people were living under the heavy hand of the outside authorities.
A few years before his
birth the Canadian government would use force and murder to impose an alien administrative entity (the St. Regis Band Council) over the northern part of Akwesasne while south of the international border New York State had fabricated its own colonial government called the St. Regis Tribal Council; both were designed to undermine the ancestral ways of governance, both were meant to splinter the Mohawks into hostile factions while preventing what Mohawks truly desired: unity.
was not passive about the oppression of the Mohawk people by Canada and the US.
As a teenager he
came into contact with the great teacher Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens and as partners they sought to change the course of history by reviving the national identity of the Mohawk Nation.
They encountered great resistance not only from the external powers but from within Akwesasne
itself as many residents were apprehensive about dusting off the so-called ?pagan? customs which, they felt, would place the community in jeopardy.
Not so Fadden and Benedict
Fadden and Benedict
brought pride and hope back to the Mohawk people.
They were agitators and troublemakers to some.
edited two newspapers at Akwesasne
which was not only unique but considered radical for that time.
pen to report on the activities of Akwesasne leaders while supporting the concept of Mohawk unification.
He sought and obtained a university degree at a time when few Mohawks made it to high school.
knowledge about Iroquois treaties to oppose the draft during World War II when almost everyone else simply conceded to it.
spent time in jail and when he
enlisted voluntarily not as a subject of the US but as an ally.
After the war he
continued to press for a more aggressive expression of the legal rights of the Mohawk people.
tackled the border problem, sought better health care, waged a long struggled to have the Mohawks control their own social services and helped secure the right to self determination for Akwesasne north.
helped rid the community of the St. Regis Band Council
when it became the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne
with far more authority over the territory.
was one of the principal organizers for the journal Akwesasne Notes
experiences as a former editor to begin the most influential publication in Native American history.
Notes was, for a generation, the most reliable and powerful Indigenous newsapaper on the planet.
By creating the means of exchanging information Akwesasne Notes
sparked the growth of a vast network of Native writers, journalists and community activists which is what Ernie hoped would happen.
also saw the dangers of sending our students off to distant schools to become a darker shade of the European education system.
knew the perils of their schools and how they were used to eclipse Mohawk history while demanding serious psychological and cultural compromises on the part of the Native student.
came up with the extreme idea of having a college controlled by Native administrators, taught by Native faculty and composed of mostly Native students mastering disciplines which had meaning not to the outside but for the Native people themselves.
The school was Manitou College
located northwest of Montreal and while it did not endure the concept of a degree granting institution based upon traditional Native knowledge has not faded and is now being considered by Syracuse University
Another ?extremist? idea Ernie
had was that rather than our students learning from them the world must learn from us.
knew that the greatest potential for Native people was within the minds of is young.
began the North American Indian Travelling College
as a continuation of the White Roots of Peace.
efforts to promote a distinct Native identity were directed at Native communities.
used a van and a pile of books in his
many years journey, driving across the east, alone for much of the time, carrying a dream and the knowledge obtained from Iroquois nationalists such as Clinton Rickard, George Thomas, Alec Gray, Jake Thomas and so many others.
They were, as he
was, ?agitators and troublemakers? not content to accept things as they were but to stir the pot of political and cultural activism wherever they went and to those who would listen.
found fertile ground wherever he
went from a generation ready to do what was necessary to protect their aboriginal lands and rights.
did so with such finesse that even reactionary government agents were persuaded as to the righteousness of his
did all of this with humility and kindness, using his
ever present smile and humor.
influenced the lives of millions of people even if they have never heard his
deeply effected each resident of Akwesasne
directly not only as a leader but through his
children as well.
His son Llyod was an influential chief on the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne for many years: it was Lloyd who started the local version of Akwesasne Notes, the newspaper Indian Time.
It was his
daughter Salli who, with her
brother, established CKON Radio through the Akwesasne Communications Society
Salli also directed the North American Indian Travelling College
when Ernie?s duties took him elsewhere.
secured its first buildings and organized its first permanent staff.
was also in the thick of the harsh political times at Akwesasne
in the late 1970?s and early 80?s.
He saw there was a real danger of his community collapsing into civil war so he intervened by becoming a successful candidate for Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.
By doing so he
was able to temporize the emotions of that time and lead the people back to their senses.
work on behalf of the people won him the highest praise the Iroquois bestow upon an individual: ?peacemaker.?
That was the Ernie I knew.
Soldier, journalist, provider, educator, political leader and venerated elder to most but to me he
was a carrier of light and the conscience of a nation.