TYENDINAGA — On a rain-soaked Saturday morning in May, in the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga, community members drag two canoes up onto the shore of the Bay of Quinte. Some wear traditional dress, others life jackets. The paddlers, flanked by the ceremony’s leaders, head up the hill to join the more than two dozen onlookers who have gathered under tents.
“Kentsyohkwa, sewatahonhsi:yohst ken’nikariwehsha tentshitewanonhwara:ton ne shonkwaya’tishon ne kati ohen:ton karihwatekwen enkawennohetston (Everyone listen well for a short time: we will give thanks to the Creator before all else),” says the master of ceremonies, Thanyehtenhas Nathan Brinklow.
On May 22, 1784, about 125 people, the vast majority of them Indigenous, landed along the Bay of Quinte, 25 minutes east of what’s now Belleville, hoping to build a new life. Since 1920, on the weekend that falls closest to the anniversary, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have re-enacted that moment.
“It’s important for us to remember our history — I know that my children don’t know this history, and I don’t know that they teach it in our schools,” says Janice Hill, the event’s historian and the associate vice-principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation at Queen’s University. “As Indigenous people, we always say in order to know who we are, we need to know where we come from, so that we can see clearly where we’re going.”
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The ancestral homeland of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte was in the Mohawk River Valley, in present-day upstate New York. The Mohawks allied with the British during a series of colonial wars against the French in the 18th century; they fought alongside them again during the American Revolutionary War. “We became known as the ‘Feathered’ United Empire Loyalists because we fought on the side of the British, which wasn’t one of our finer moments,” says Hill.
According to the ceremony’s organizers, during the revolution, British commander Frederick Haldimand promised the Mohawks that their land would be returned to them after the war. But in 1777, two years after that land was overrun by the Americans, the ancestors of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte were forced to head north to Lachine, Quebec.
Indigenous peoples were not invited to participate in the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Paris, which was signed by the British and the Americans in 1783 and formally ended the war. The treaty failed to honour existing agreements — such as the Covenant Chain and Treaty of Fort Stanwix — between the British and Indigenous peoples, and the Mohawks’ traditional territory was ceded to the Americans. “That was in direct contrast to the promises that had been made in order for our people to fight to help the British,” says Hill.
In April of 1793, to repay the Mohawks, the British offered them any of the so-called unsettled lands in Upper Canada. They chose what became known as the Mohawk Tract, which included roughly 375 square kilometres along the Bay of Quinte. Organizers point out in a written pamphlet that, over 23 years, “two-thirds of the treaty land base under the Simcoe Deed was lost as the government made provisions to accommodate settler families.” Today, the territory encompasses about 73 square kilometres.
Don Maracle, chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, says that it’s important to remember the relationship between the community and the Crown. “Our people should always be honoured because of the tremendous sacrifices they made for their land and their lives,” he says.
“Promises were made that should be kept. Canada needs to dust off their history pages and reacquaint themselves with their obligation,” says Maracle, who believes that the Mohawks’ traditional lands should be restored to them. “A lot of Canadians are not aware of Indigenous contributions to Canada, and, without the military alliance between the British and our people, Canada may not have come to be what it is today.”
As the ceremony closes, attendees walk up to examine a flipped canoe propped on a wooden platform. The boat’s hull is adorned with the purple flag of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and communion silver gifted to the Mohawks by Queen Anne in 1712 — representations, Brinklow says, of the first feast and of gratitude for a new homeland.