MORRISBURG – Confirming a decision made by South Dundas council last year, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne says it supports the decision to discontinue using the Indigenous Chief on the Iroquois water tower.
Mayor Steven Byvelds presented a response from MCA Grand Chief Abram Benedict on the water tower symbol at the May 28 South Dundas council meeting.
Byvelds asked for the MCA’s position on the decision made to retire the Indigenous Chief symbol. The issue had returned to council in May when a delegation led by Iroquois-resident Terry O’Reilly lobbied council for the symbol to return. At that time, O’Reilly said he represented a group of concerned Iroquois residents and claimed the symbol of an Indigenous man in a headdress, was intended to honour the village’s connection to the Indigenous population in the region. Council did not reconsider its decision to not replace the symbol.
“While the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne appreciates the connection our two communities have to the region, the Indigenous Chief image being used on the water tower is not at all representative of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne,” Benedict said in his letter.
He explained that the image used represents a “Plains-style Indigenous man,” and the use of the image, “is not appropriate to represent the Mohawks of Akwesasne or the larger Iroquois Confederacy.”
Benedict recognized South Dundas council’s decision to stop using the image on the water tower due to council’s feeling that it was “an appropriation of Indigenous culture.”
He continued that it was common practice in the late-1800s to use “stereotypical imagery” to represent different Indigenous peoples.
“We support the decision made by your Council to discontinue use of the Indigenous Chief on the [Village] of Iroquois water tower, and further encourage you to discontinue the use of this imagery if it exists elsewhere as well.”
After reading the letter aloud in council, Byvelds added his own statement.
“We need to respect their wishes as the Mohawks are the first settlers to this area. We should also acknowledge the horrors of the Residential School system and the affect it had on the Indigenous people. The finding of the graves in Kamloops of 215 children and the Cowessess First Nation of 751 unmarked graves is certainly something that we as Canadians cannot be proud of. And it is certainly not a great part of our history. We need to work together with Indigenous people to forge a Canada that is more inclusive, not only for them but for all the citizens of the country.”
Byvelds added that flags at the South Dundas Municipal Centre and other municipal buildings have been lowered to half-mast to honour the victims.
“We need to remember our past this Canada Day and how we can do better going forward,” Byvelds said. “And with that I hope that this issue is behind us. We need to move on.”
Comments from most officials around the council table were appreciative of the response from MCA.
“The only voice that needed to be heard tonight was that of our Indigenous neighbours,” Deputy Mayor Kirsten Gardner said. “They have spoken loud and clear.” She added that Indigenous people and their stories need to be heard.
“A lot of the history we were taught as kids is not what actually happened,” Gardner said. “I have noticed that a lot of people are reciting the history we learned in school as being the truth, and it’s not.”
Councillor Donald Lewis said that when the discussion of the water tower first began, he asked the opinion from the MCA.
“As of tonight, I support what the Mohawks say,” he said. “There will be no more discussion about this from me on this.”
Councillor Archie Mellan reiterated that he supported removing the Indigenous symbol from the water tower since the first decision was made and continues to do so.
“I never found the [symbol] offensive. I never looked at it in any way, but that’s easy for me to say because I am not of Indigenous heritage.”
Councillor Lloyd Wells said that he still “up in the air” about the water tower symbol.
“I really don’t have an issue with putting a symbol up there, but at the end of the day there is a lot more I have learned in the last month that I didn’t realize,” Wells explained. “At the end of the day, it’s a tough call.”
Council voted in October 2020 to remove the Indigenous “Chief” logo from the Iroquois water tower when South Dundas began planning for a $2.2 million infrastructure project to refurbish that water tower, and an identical tower in Morrisburg.
When finished, the towers will have an identical look with the South Dundas logo, and the village name decorating each tower. That project is expected to finish by November 2021.
Phillip Blancher, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Morrisburg Leader