One after another the small, leaky boats start out into the swiftly moving St. Lawrence Seaway and cross over to Cornwall Island in Canada -- and safety. "Don't get in if you're just going for the ride," the skipper of a wooden skiff warns an anxious group of Mohawk Indians, mostly women and young children, waiting on the landing. Their jet-black hair is illumined by the moonlight.
Once a peaceful residential and farming community of about 6,000 Mohawks of mixed and full blood, the St. Regis Reservation now is the scene of the most serious Native American confrontation with law enforcement authorities since Wounded Knee. Tensions could escalate considerably if and when the National Guard is brought in, as state authorities have threatened.
The present dispute grew out of an incident just over a year ago in which two Indians confiscated the chain saw of people cutting trees in the reservation. The two were indicted and one arrested. Indians reacting to this roughed up some local police. This brought 20 more indictments.
Tensions came to a head on June 13, according to Indians, when state troopers who had previously cordoned off an area held by protesting Indians stopped just short of invading the camp.
But according to a spokesman for New York Gov. Hugh Carey, troopers would only have entered the camp to prevent bloodshed between so-called "traditional" Mohawk Indians and a group of from 200 to 300 vigilantes, among them a faction of Mohawks who opposed the tranditionalists and included New York state-appointed trustees for the administration of Mohawk land rights.
The traditional Mohawks vehemently dispute this state spokesman's claim, stressing that it was state troopers who were the aggressors.
Meanwhile, representatives on all sides are trying to defuse these tensions behind the scenes. The hope is there will be a meeting later this week.
Indian spokesman say they hope the talks will at least result in a restoration of phone service and the possibility that food and medical supplies can be brought by land from the American side instead of via the precarious St. Lawrence River. About half the reservation is in the US and half on an island belonging to Canada.
More important to the traditional Indians than a resolution of the indictments is the issue of the sovereignty of the 14,000-acre Mohawk reserve, which Indian spokesman like Chief Tom Porter say was guaranteed the Mohawk nation in a 1784 federal treaty.
But state authorities have so far said that this issue can't be successfully resolved until the indicted Indians are taken into custody to go to court.