Speaking with Jake Swamp, Tekaronianeken

by Christine Graef
News From Indian Country

Jake Swamp, Tekaronianeken (where two skies meet together) Wolf Clan, sub-chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation is of the generation involved the struggles of Wounded Knee, the 1970 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the 1978 Longest Walk. He’s represented Indigenous people at the United Nations, served as director of the Akwesasne Freedom School and planted trees worldwide through Trees of Peace Society. A father of seven, grandfather of 22 and great-grandfather of eight, Swamp lives at Akwesasne with his wife, Judy and works at the Men for Change Program in Akwesasne through the Iethi'nisten:ha Family Violence Shelter.

“We went to Kyle for the negotiations at Wounded Knee,” said Jake Swamp, Mohawk, Wolf Clan. “I was young at the time. Trying out my wings. I found myself in different situations.” It was, for him, a learning experience.

“I was a leader at the time,” he said. “AIM was a people’s movement. We (the Haudenosaunee) cannot leave our people’s nation, although that doesn’t mean we don’t support movements.” Politics since then haven’t changed.

“There are more shiny things on the side of the path now,” he said. “It deters the mind.” Back then, people didn’t know what was going on. “Young men were going out and bringing non-Native brides into the community,” he said. “Most non-Natives who killed Indians at that time went free.

Moses David didn’t allow the U.S. Census onto the reservation. He was arrested and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. Today the Mohawk conduct their own census. But in those years, people like Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash were coming through Akwesasne to research Akwesasne Notes, the Native news carrier of the day and discovering Andrew Lopez’s ‘Pagan in Our Midst,’ a look at attitudes toward Native people from 1839 to 1919. They were learning what happened to their people.

“I didn’t really know who I was,” said Jake. “I was about nine years old when a priest took us from the school building in St. Regis. He used to have us pray there. He’d stand before us and told the boys ‘the Longhouse is down the street. It’s pagan. If you go there, you’ll go to hell.”

Swamp met his wife, Judy, who was of the Longhouse ways. They married but hadn’t made a commitment to how to raise children. Their first born child was a boy. “She said to take him to the Longhouse for a name,” Swamp said. “I said I didn’t want my son to go to hell. It caused a fight, but she let me have my way. I took him to church and had him baptized.”

The following year, a girl born. They had the same talk. “Curiosity got me,” said Swamp. “I went to the Longhouse. It was at Strawberry festival time.” It was the hardest thing he ever did, he said.

Swamp went inside and sat by the door, thinking he could run away if he had to. People looked at him and said nothing. He listened to the elders give thanks in the Mohawk language, a language Swamp is fluent in speaking. “It filled me with all good feeling,” he said.

Swamp made the rounds visiting elders and asking questions. “I was after knowledge,” he said. “Curiosity, history, what happened to our people. Looking back, I think elders were holding back information. I’d ask certain questions and get answers like, ‘it’s a good day to go fishing.’”

One day visiting an elder who sat smoking a pipe and motioned to Swamp to sit in the chair next to him, the elder said, “I guess it’s about time you’re ready to learn.” “At the time, he started telling me, remember this, some day you’re going to need it,” said Swamp. “Now I know in today’s time what it meant.” In the ways of our people, we don’t teach point blank, he said. Information is given and allowed to be found so that the mind expands and things are truly learned.

“For us, there’s a teaching about when we go to a stream for water, we don’t dip until we determine the direction the water flows,” said Swamp. “We dip with the current. The teaching didn’t say why. Later, with the toxins in the St. Lawrence River happening because they made a decision against nature, I understood that’s what it means to dip against the current.

Nature is so strong. It’s come back to us. If we go with the current, we go with the flow of life, we go with nature.” We’re on edge of something, he said. “We, the humans, need to do an assessment of what to do,” he said. “I’d recommend leave it alone. Let nature heal itself at least 25 years. Find ways – don’t cut trees, basics of letting earth rest.”

Swamp sees two different types of guilt riddling people on the continent. There’s the historic trauma of the past. On the other side, there’s historic guilt that needs to be addressed. “I’ve seen some people say they have Native ancestry as a way to feel they are a part of our suffering,” he said. “You can see right through this, but at least it’s an awareness of history.” History gets you mad. But when you have something you can do about it, it makes you feel good that you can speak, he said.

“Every 10 years, the government tests our resistance,” he said. “Our people have had tremendous strength. Our people have withstood with tremendous resiliency.”

In the early 1970’s, elders gathered young people and said “it’s time.” “We didn’t know what they meant,” said Swamp. “They said, go wake up the world. They’ve been asleep a long time. So the White Roots of Peace went out, to churches, everywhere, dances, with the message ‘hey we’re still here.’ People started getting pride back.” Native people waited a long time for that to happen, he said.

In Sweden about two years ago, Swamp met the Sami, the Reindeer People of Norway at the United Nations. They are still holding onto ceremonies and continuing their ways. “Other people didn’t,” he said. “When did they lose it. Seems they’re floating around the world without roots. You’ve got to go back and search for roots. Every people was rooted to earth. Mother Earth is a powerful mother.”

Swamp has been among the delegates to the United Nations who speak on behalf of Indigenous issues.

One year he brought a traditional basket made by his mother-in-law to present with the hope the U.N. would carry out certain requests. “I was the last speaker,” he said.

“I sat there looking at the basket. It was circular, reminding me of the world. It was made with sweet grass which made me think of people holding hands. The spiral decorations brought thought of Natives all of equal height. On top of it was a green trusset that reminded me of the Peace Tree and I wondered what would happen if I went around the world with the tree of peace.”

Swamp presented the basket to Robert Muller, former Assistant Secretary General of the U.N. He said, “You, Robert Muller, we need you to carry the message of Indigenous people. We do not have a seat. The animals and birds, the grass and trees, they don’t have a seat either. So when you have an opportunity, I hope you speak for them – them and the animals, birds and all that don’t have a seat in the United Nations.

Later, Muller, hearing the story of peace, took the challenge that resulted in an estimated 1 million trees being planted around the world. The Tree of Peace Society established on Akwesasne’s reserve in 1984 then incorporated in 1992. Since establishing, more than 1 billion trees have been planted, carrying the principles of peace and individual responsibility for actions to countries around the world.

“I dedicated the rest of my life to doing that,” said Swamp.

Today Swamp is working with men who are abusers by using the principals of the Haudenosaunee’s Law of Peace.

“Most men who abuse their partner do it because of the influence of another culture,” said Swamp. “They’re not realizing our culture frowns on abusing women. We hold women high as life-givers of earth. When men learn this, they hold in respect and became better fathers.”

A lot of men are in pain, he said. That’s what came from across the ocean. Under their religious and colonial laws, a man could take a brick and smash a woman’s mouth if she talked back. Our men have inherited the view of male dominance from the men who came over.

We are teaching now, men shouldn’t be like that. When they find out the truth of who they are, they change, he said.

“Everything has roots,” said Swamp. “Most of the time we don’t understand it. We have to go back to understand the root.”