'Short-sighted' new Kahnawake law excludes Mohawks adopting non-indigenous children

If a Mohawk couple adopts a child who is not Mohawk, the adoptive parents have committed an "offence," according to a new law in Kahnawake, Que.

How should adopting and raising child as Onkwehón:we be even remotely negative, asks Steve Bonspiel

'If a Mohawk couple adopts a child who is not indigenous, the adoptive parents have, according to a new law in Kahnawake, Que., committed an 'offence' and will lose their rights as Kahnawake Mohawks — which includes voting here, living here, being buried here,' says Mohawk journalist Steve Bonspiel. (Radio-Canada)

If a Mohawk couple adopts a child who is not indigenous, the adoptive parents have committed an "offence," according to a new law in Kahnawake, Que.

Those same parents, who sacrificed, changed their lives and reached out to make something so delicate as an adoption happen, will pay for that decision dearly, according to a new amendment to the Kahnawake membership law.

The adoptive parents will lose their rights as Kahnawake Mohawks — which include voting here, living here, being buried here.

How, exactly, is it an offence to have compassion for a human being, let alone one so vulnerable?

How should adopting and then raising that child as an Onkwehón:we – an indigenous person – be even remotely negative?

Why must we explore questions like these, which push us backwards, in 2016?

Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

But it happened a few weeks ago in a Community Decision-Making Process (CDMP) meeting in Kahnawake, where roughly 30 people decided it was the right thing to do to "protect the bloodline" – a phrase used by many over the years. The CDMP writes the membership laws for Kahnawake.

There's a huge outcry on social media, Facebook especially.

Even many Kahnawake Mohawks who firmly agreed with the unwritten "marry out, get out," decree that resulted in attempted evictions of non-aboriginal residents in 2014 are appalled.

This is the official wording of the latest version of the membership law, under the adoption section, article 14.7, made public by the Kahnawake Legislative Coordinating Commission:

"A child who has no Kanien'keháka (Mohawk) or Onkwehonwe lineage adopted by a Kanien'keháka of Kahnawà:ke parent(s) after the enactment of this law on November 10, 2003 is not eligible to be recognized as a Kanien'keháka of Kahnawà:ke or be an Approved Kahnawà:ke Resident and, therefore, the parent(s) who chose to commit this offense will have their recognition (as a Kanien'keháka of Kahnawà:ke) suspended and not be eligible to reside in the territory of Kahnawà:ke."

Who has that right to say an offence has been committed through such a selfless act?

Adults targeting children simply because they aren't of Mohawk heritage certainly go beyond the path our ancestors chose.

This article dishonours their spirit and further distances us from who we once were, as proud indigenous peoples connected to the land, respectful of everything and everyone around us.

Famous Mohawks with zero Mohawk blood

Adoption is what we built our communities on. Our ancestors didn't think about "protecting the blood," because they knew that if you were born Mohawk, you died Mohawk, no matter what anyone said.

And in many cases, even if you weren't born Mohawk, you could become one – further strengthening our might and bolstering our numbers.

Some of the proudest Mohawks in our history were people who were adopted as full members of the nation, but who had zero Mohawk blood in them.

In 1704, during an even more tumultuous time than we face now, seven-year-old Eunice Williams, born English, was captured and adopted into the Mohawk Nation in Kahnawake. She was given the Mohawk name A'ongonte, which means, "She has been planted as a person."

She was quickly accepted and treated as a Mohawk for the rest of her life, and many here are descended directly from her bloodline.

Louis Cook is one of the most famous adopted Mohawks. His father was black and his mother Abenaki, and he was accepted into the Mohawk community because he fought beside the Mohawks.  He fought in many wars and worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution – the highest rank by an indigenous person in the military.

The Tarbell boys, John and Zechariah, were among the first people to help establish the community of Akwesasne, at the St. Regis Mission.

Captured at 12 and seven, respectively, in 1707, they were considered important parts of the community, especially once they reached adulthood.

Later attempts by their English relatives to welcome them back failed, as they had learned to speak Mohawk fluently, knew the culture, tradition and ways of life and were not interested in going back to the lives they were born into.

Adoption part of Mohawk identity

Adoption, quite frankly, is woven into the fabric of the Mohawk identity.

We are living, breathing examples of what Mohawk people look and act like in the 21st century because of our extensive history of adoption leading up to today.

The few dozen community members present at that meeting on March 8, 2016 made an enormous decision for all of the more than 6,500 registered Kahnawake Mohawks.

Now we are faced with the cold, hard reality that this horrific example of so-called democracy, of the "people's voice," is now "law" in Kahnawake.

At fault here is not only the short-sightedness of people whose decision affects the rights of others without human empathy or consideration of the Mohawk tradition of adoption, but also the CDMP itself.

The CDMP was created by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake as a way to hear from the whole community.

However, when you regularly get 25 people hashing out what your future will look like, complete with personal bias and an abject failure to consider fully the future of other people, you get something like this so-called law.

If "thinning the blood line" is such a concern for the ones who say we can be bred out through intermarriage and "mixing," the people who claim the adoption of a non-indigenous child is an "offence" under the membership law need to examine how thin that line is between humanity and insanity.


  • A previous version of this article stated that a new Kahnawake law excludes Mohawks who adopt non-Mohawk children.
    Mar 24, 2016 9:29 PM ET


Steve Bonspiel

Editor, The Eastern Door

Steve Bonspiel is the editor/publisher of Kahnawake Mohawk Territory’s award-winning weekly newspaper The Eastern Door. He has won numerous provincial and national awards for his articles and editorials. Bonspiel is Mohawk, from Kanesatake, currently based in Kahnawake, Que.