I didn’t know Jake Swamp, but as the saying goes I knew of him. Few are the Kanienkehaka who don’t. Or rather — I must get used to this now — didn’t. This morning I was informed of his passing, in the very early hours of Friday, October 15.
Tekaronianeken, or Jake Swamp as he was commonly known, was born at Akwesasne in 1941. He was of the generation born under the old dispensation of colonial shame but arriving to the 1960s and ’70s with a sense of purpose and a strong, proud voice. As a young man, he had been taught by Christian priests in St. Regis to consider the Longhouse a Pagan menace. So often the case with the Haudenosaunee (“People of the Longhouse”), a woman made short work of that. His wife Judy gradually brought him around, and so one year during Strawberry Festival time he went to the Longhouse and listened, out of curiosity. That decision changed his life.
Jake Swamp dedicated his life thereafter to the message of the Peacemaker, as he understood it. The story of the Peacemaker, and the origins of the Five Nations Confederacy, is something I heard as a child. It is, to phrase matters in the most terse way possible, a story of people on the edge of self-extinction being brought to their senses. The Peacemaker was able to impress upon the Cayuga, Mohawks, Onondaga, Oneida, and Seneca the literal dead-end of warfare, and the result was a consensus based and highly complex system of self-governance which has persisted to this day. Jake on more than one occasion noted that the dark times of the Peacemaker were not unlike our own, a hopeful and practical and terrifying observation, all at the same time.
Not only did Jake Swamp talk about the symbolism of the Great Tree of Peace (under which the warring five nations buried once and for all their weapons), he established in 1984 the Tree of Peace Society and began to plant white pines. There is one near the Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, which as it happens I recently saw, and an eponymous Jake Swamp tree, at 170 feet, is said to be the tallest in New England.
Over the years Jake Swamp was involved with the Seaway Bridge blockade, the Wounded Knee negotiations, the Longest Walk (a five-month march in 1978 from San Francisco to the Washington Monument), and the Oka Crisis. In the case of the latter, he represented one side of a disagreement on the other side of which were Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall and the Warrior Society. This internal split, between those who work toward peaceful resolutions of disputes and those who employ violence, is a principal threat to the Haudenosaunee today.
Jake was also part of the historical tradition of sending Confederacy representation to Geneva, Switzerland, a tradition that goes back to Deskaheh and the earliest days of the League of Nations. On a trip to the United Nations, Jake Swamp met and was inspired by the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway. He met many people from many places, and his work largely consisted of bridging cultures and encouraging others around the world to learn about the Haudenosaunee and the Kaianerekowa, or “Great Law of Peace.”
Among other accomplishments and undertakings are his role in the establishment of The Akwesasne Freedom School, the development of a Mohawk language education program, and his work at the Men for Change Program and the Iethi’nisten:ha Family Violence Shelter, in Akwesasne. Jake came to see what many of us now accept as the necessary work of the future, resolving the historic trauma of the past. “Everything has roots,” he once said. “Most of the time we don’t understand it. We have to go back to understand the root.”