'Who rules here?' is issue that divides Mohawk Indians
St. Regis Reservation, N.Y. — Chief Tom Porter wants to turn back the clock to the days when the Mohawk Indian nation ruled supreme over the spruce-covered lands along the St. Lawrence River. He and other Mohawk militants have turned a portion of their 14,000-acre reservation here into an armed camp to back up their position.
Randy Hart is a Mohawk, too. But he says that the laws of the United States and New York State are the only ones Mohawks should obey. Two weeks ago many of his moderate followers were ready to storm the camp of the militants.
So far, state officials have suceeded in preventing bloodshed between the two sides, mainly by keeping them out of rifle range of each other. But they have failed to negotiate a solution to the question that must be addressed before Tom Porter and the other socalled "traditionals" will put down their guns: Who rules here?
For the last 13 months, this question has been central to the philosophical and physical divisions between the traditionals and the "moderates," like Mr. Hart.
The traditionals say sovereignty is guaranteed them by treaties dating back to the 1700s. Tom Porter, s soft-spoken man, is distrustful of almost any government effort to end the dispute. "They've got a lot of things to do before they gain the trust of my people again," he says.
Among other things, he wants the state to drop 20 indictments against traditionals accused of roughing up local police more than a year ago in a confrontation over timber-cutting on the reservation. So far, state Officials have refused.
Since the incident occurred on the reservation, Mr. Porter and other militants -- including representatives of the American Indian Movement, who have come here in an advisory role -- argue that federal and state authorities have no jurisdiction.
However, Randy Hart and other moderates say centuries have passed since Mohawk law was the only law and that the traditionals are taking matters into their own hands. Mr. Hart, who is an elected member of the Mohawk Council and represents Indian interests in Albany, the state capital, and elsewhere, says the majority of the 6,000 or so people on the reservation are against the traditionals.
Add Alice Armstrong, another of the moderates: "We don't want to live as they want to live. We believe in the laws of the state. What are they going to do if they see a speeding car go through the reservation: throw sticks and stones at it?"
Tom Porter claims emphatically, however: "Never has the Mohawk nation been so united in over 300 years."
Against this background:
* A meeting was scheduled June 30 among representatives of both factions and state officials to try to end the standoff. No such meetings were held last week.
* Telephone service, which went out June 13, has been restored to the militants in a show of good faith.
* The Carter administration has sent a special representative to the scene and is picking up the $15,000-a-day tab for dozens of extra state police assigned to the scene. The federal intermediary is talking to both factions, but mostly not at the same time.
* The state troopers, who are on guard at roadblocks to the encampment of the traditionals on a 24-hour basis, have for the most part tried to assuage tensions by remaining calm. A police spokesmen denies accusations by the traditionals that the troopers have tried to storm their camp against the orders of Gov. Hugh Carey.
* The wives of about 20 state troopers have formally petitioned Governor Carey to send in the National Guard to ensure their husband's safety. But a spokesman for the governor said guard units from nearby Malone will be used only if hostilities break out or if the troopers are not up to the job.
Meanwhile, a pall seems to hang over the scene. Indians with rifles slung over their shoulders might smile for photographers, but mostly they peer worriedly toward the state police half a mile down the road.
It is difficult to say how many people are in the traditional's camp. This reporter estimated about 150, based on his own visit. Perhaps one-third of these are women and children, although many other women and children who lived in the immediate vicinity have sought refuge in another part of the reservation -- an island in the St. Lawrence (and in Canadian territory). But the fact that many women and children are still at the scene is regarded as a deterrent to any assault by state police.
All access to the camp by road has been cut, but the Canadian government is allowing the traditionals to ferry supplies over to it by outboard from that the island. Otherwise, Canada is keeping "hands off" the matter.