Sunday, September 29, 2013


KAHNAWAKE: Mohawks and Water

This week and next week on SAMAQAN: Water Stories we take our viewers to Kahnawake. First we have shown the water treatment plant and how the community built the facility from its foundation up, on its own terms. Next in the SAMAQAN lineup will be the story of the Onake Canoe Club.

Kahnawake is said to mean, by the rapids. Indeed the community is situated on the shores of the St Lawrence River. It is home to 8000 people. In SAMAQAN season one we visited the community up river known as Akwesasne. We talked bout their relationship with water and our portrayal won us friends among the Mohawks. Their connection to water is a formidable one.

I was walking through the bookstore one day and ran across the fascinating piece of history in a book called Mohawks on the Nile. In 1884-85 during the First Sudanese War, British Prime Minister dispatched Canadian generals to pull together the best canoe journeymen they could find.

On August 21, 1884 the Prime Minster John A McDonald was awoken to the news that the British wanted 300 men to be assembled to take part in an Imperial expedition. The subsequent contingent of 388 men set sail from Sydney Nova Scotia a month later. They all knew they were going to war, to paddle upriver on the longest river in the world. Of the 388 men there were fifty-six men from Kahnawake who served in two gangs and a few others serving in one of the other 14 gangs. Two men were from Kanestake and five men from Akwesasne.

The mission was called the Gordon Relief Expedition, from Montreal to Wadi Halfa
The stories would have been all but lost were it not for the bravado and talents of two of the contingent, Louis Jackson and James Deer. Each of these men wrote and published books about their experiences.  And its good thing because left to the settler narrative, the extent of the Mohawks role on foreign wars could be easily overlooked. Through these intimate accounts we hear about their experiences without the filtered lens of the colonial eye.

James Deer told the story of the trip, the sea sickness, the train rides, seeing the first Egyptian, the mud castles and the fight up the Nile River. The river, in her old state, was dotted with rapids going from Alexandra to Halfa. The Mohawk contingent powered the force that brought five of the York boats upriver some 200 miles.

They participated in games and were celebrated but alas, escaping any image takers of the time. When they returned to north America a haunting bit of chaos and mayhem would turn into a bloody encounter inflicting wounds that ran deep. When the ship arrived in Nova Scotia from Gibralter, the French shantymen ganged up on the Mohawk river captains beating some to near death. It is possible this act in infamy caused deep wounds that reverberate today. Yet it hardly dampened the Mohawk connection to water.

This did not go un-noticed by the Victorian Media in England when one paper reported “The sight of North American Indians navigating British Troops up the cataracts of the Nile is one of the most singular ever witnessed in a campaign”. This view was sharply contrasted by the Globe in Toronto that defined Louis Jackson as a chief foreman of the Canadians neglecting to mention the Mohawk.

Upon their return home The Globe neglected to mention that most of the intoxicated revelers were white boatmen when they reported, “the greater part of the Indian contingent became crazed with liquor”. It was widely recognized that many of the Mohawks remained sober.

Whether by design or by osmosis the return of 63 Mohawk men was a welcome sight for family and friends. Louis Jackson immediately got involved with the newly formed band council and published his memoir of the trip. Soon after James Deer also wrote his recolections. As they were both literate and articulate prior to going on the expedition, these two men shared incredible insight to Egypt at the time. They both seemed to enjoy the trip as an adventure, just like we do whenever we go anywhere on assignment.

SOURCE: Mohawks on the Nile, by Carl Benn.

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