Joseph Onasakenrat

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Joseph Onasakenrat

Joseph Onasakenrat, also known as Sosé Onasakenrat (September 4, 1845 – February 8, 1881) was a Mohawk chief of Kanesatake.

Onasakenrat (meaning Swan or White Feather) was born near Oka, Quebec. In 1860, he entered the Petit Séminaire de Montréal where he studied for the priesthood for about four years. He returned to Oka and joined the local Sulpician seminary as secretary.

Onasakenrat was elected chief of the Mohawk community on July 25, 1868. Almost immediately, the new chief travelled to Ottawa to meet with the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Onasakenrat petitioned the government to return land to the Mohawks which was, at the time, held by the Sulpicians. He accused the seminary of exploiting the natives and of intentionally keeping them impoverished. The seminary threatened to excommunicate anyone involved in the petition, prompting Onasakenrat, along with most of the Mohawk community, to leave the Catholic Church and convert to Methodism that winter.

On February 18, 1869 he confronted the Sulpicians again when he challenged their authority over the land by cutting down a large elm tree without permission. One week later, backed by an armed band of forty men, Onasakenrat demanded that the Sulpicians leave Oka within eight days. The priests refused to leave, and instead obtained a warrant for his arrest. Montréal police arrived and arrested the group, although they were released a few days later.

In 1877, Onasakenrat was charged after the Catholic Church in Oka was destroyed by fire in the early morning of June 14. At the time, the Mohawk were engaged in a dispute with the white settlers over logging rights, and a group of Protestant Mohawks were accused of starting the fire. The group was tried quickly, and found not guilty by a jury.

A devoutly religious man, Onasakenrat became an ordained minister in 1880, and worked to translate religious works into the Mohawk language. He translated the Gospels (1880) and several hymns. At the time of his sudden death in 1881, he was working on a translation of the remainder of the Bible, having completed up to the Epistle to the Hebrews. An oral account of the night before he died he had attended a ball in Montreal hosted by the Sulpician order, and when he had returned that night So:se had complained to his wife about feeling ill and died later that morning. Suspiciously a priest had arrived that morning with a horse and sleigh and took So:ses' remains back to Montreal with him. Among the Kanehsatà:kehro'non it's known that the Sulpicians had purposefully poisoned and murdered So:se Onasakenrat because of his, political and religious influence he had over his people.

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