From the editor

— From the front page of the July 1, 1993 Altamont Enterprise

"This is still a world of people," Governor Mario Cuomo told Voorheesville graduates at their commencement ceremony in 1993. "People will keep on shaping it for good or evil." Cuomo, who served as New York's governor from 1983 through 1994, died on Thursday, Jan. 1. He was 82.

We are shaped by people, often by family we know intimately, but also sometimes by authors or leaders or artists or athletes who are distant but present in our lives. Mario Cuomo was like that for me.

My father shaped me probably more than anyone else — as a writer, as a thinker. When I was a child, I’d bring him my written words. He did not spare his Ebony copy pencil — heavy black marks made my words less fragile, my commitment stronger.

My first job out of Wellesley College was working as a reporter for my parents’ newspaper, The Lake Placid News. This week, because Mario Cuomo died, I hauled out a musty bound volume of papers from my time there, buried beneath dust and bat droppings in the attic.

I knew that pressed in those leaves from the 1970s would be my initial impression of Mario Cuomo. My father had marshaled his staff to cover the Mohawk warriors who built an encampment on state land at Moss Lake in Herkimer County; the Mohawks had left their reservation to establish a traditional way of life for their children on land they claimed as part of their historic territory.

We visited the encampment where Arthur Montour, a Mohawk, spoke to me, sitting comfortably on a tree stump. He used the name Kakwirakeron. He had been a high-steel worker before he was injured and said it made him realize how most Indians lived; then he became an activist.

Tensions were running high as two white people were injured by shots coming from the encampment.  “People were shooting at us, our women and children,” Montour told me. “We were getting no help whatsoever. When hunting season came, every few hours, someone would shoot. On October 28, our people started shooting back. Two were hurt.”

State Police got involved and wanted any two warriors turned over as responsible. “The warriors didn’t know what to do,” said Montour. “The women said, no. We came in here for the future of our children and grandchildren. We’re not turning back now. If they want some of us, they’ll have to take us all...

“There are worse ways to die than by a bullet,” said Montour, without flinching. “If we go back to the cities and reservations, our children will die from alcohol, drugs, depression, and suicide.”

My father led his staff in conducting over 100 interviews with state officials, negotiators, Indians in New York and Canada, white residents near the encampment, and legal experts. He wrote editorials clearly outlining the need for negotiations as some were speculating another disaster like that at Wounded Knee was about to erupt.

That’s when my father talked to Mario Cuomo. He was Governor Hugh Carey’s newly named secretary of state, a formerly lackluster job. “My name was mentioned in connection with the Indians before I was appointed,” Cuomo told my father. “I finally said the hell with it and I called the Indians. So I’m going to meet with them before I’m appointed because we just can’t wait for the formality of an appointment.”

Cuomo was off and running. Through a series of complex negotiations, accord was reached without another shot fired. The Mohawk community of Ganienkeh — Land of the Flint — was established on 600 acres in the farthest northeast corner of New York. It is the only time indigenous people have reclaimed land from the United States.

So I first came across Cuomo in his role as a negotiator, one with push and passion. I admired the way he got things done, and also what he stood for.

A decade later, I, like many across the country, was riveted by his televised speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. Cuomo set aside “nice but vague rhetoric” and, as he had with the Indian negotiations, got to the heart of the matter.

He addressed President Ronald Regan who had likened the country to a shining city on the hill. “But there’s another city,” he said, with more families in trouble who need help and can’t find it, with more poor than ever, with “people who sleep in the city streets in the gutter where the glitter doesn’t show.”

Cuomo’s view was inclusive, not one where the weak and old were left by the side of the trail so the strong could inherit the land, but, he said, emblematic of his liberal philosophy, “We Democrats believe we can make it all the way with the whole family intact.”

Cuomo’s idealism was punctuated with humor. The Altamont Enterprise covered the 1989 dedication of the Mohawk Iroquois Village display at the state museum where the governor, whose lofty goals for change were conscribed by economic recession, joked with Chief L. David Jacobs of the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe.

“You’re on Mohawk territory now,” said Jacobs. “But don’t worry, Governor, I’m not here to make a land claim.”

Cuomo rejoined that he would be glad to consider turning the capital over to the Mohawk nation if it would accept the state deficit along with it.

He went on to a theme of common understanding, noting the ways the Iroquois influenced the European settlers during the formation of what was to become the American democratic system. “We have learned a great deal from the Iroquois, but not enough,” he said, “and this is to our loss, and to our shame.”

Ray Halbritter of the Oneida nation gave Cuomo a reproduction of a wampum belt that, to me, symbolized the reason Cuomo had been successful with the Ganienkeh negotiations — he respected people for who they were.

The Europeans were not like fathers to the Iroquois who first welcomed them, said Halbritter, translating the wampum’s meaning for Cuomo. “We are like brothers,” he went on. “We are two vessels. One, a birchbark canoe, symbolizes Indian laws, customs, and ways. One, a ship, symbolizes your laws, customs, and ways. We each travel down the river, but in our own boat. Neither of us will try to steer the others.”

At the dedication ceremony, Cuomo also said that the state had not always fulfilled its obligations to Native Americans. “We need to do much, much more. Native Americans need what the rest of us need, what we came here for, what my mother and father came here for. Work.”

He had a similar theme at the high school graduation speech he gave in Voorheesville in 1993 — after he’d twice passed up chances to run for president and was soon to lose his last race for governor — that opportunity is essential, and that education could turn hope into success.

“I was lucky and along the way I learned the Latin root of the word ‘education’ — educare —meaning to lead out of,” he told the rows of Voorheesville graduates, robed in purple. “And that’s what education did for all of us back in South Jamaica: It led us out of cultural ghettos, out of poverty, out of a world of narrow possibilities, out of a child’s bewilderment. Education opened doors to worlds of opportunity and adventure that my parents could not even have imagined.”

Persistence, courage, and hard work are still needed to succeed, he said, before naming “one other reality [that] has not changed since the simpler times of earlier generations: This is still a world of people. People designed this modern world, people are responsible for everything good and bad about it, people will keep on shaping it for good or for evil.”

Worthwhile advice, and useful as a reference, week by week, in telling the stories of good and evil in our midst, hoping to inspire the good, the inclusive, while rooting out the evil and narrow.

Cuomo’s words are different in print — more still and solid — than when he spoke them. He spoke in the heat of the moment, often part of a back-and-forth that was both playful and combative. His words were charged. Cuomo didn’t use his time at press conventions to spout stump speeches as many politicians do. Instead, he exhorted, argued with, and sometimes heckled those of us who asked questions.

Even on social occasions, there was an edginess. My husband, Gary Spencer, was a reporter at the state capitol and, through three administrations, we were invited to a Christmas reception from the governor. Standing in the capitol’s Red Room one year, my daughters beside me in their best smocked dresses, we were waiting in line to greet Cuomo.

Prepared for the usual chitchat at such occasions, I was surprised, taken aback really, when Governor Cuomo gripped my hand, looked me in the eye, and asked, “So why did you marry Spencer?”

Direct, indeed. I had no ready answer.

“Because he’s the best,” I stammered.

“Better than me?” he rejoined.

“For me, he is.”

The next Christmas soirée I went to was hosted by George Pataki — with just chitchat.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

More Regional News

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  • Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an expansion of food stamps, now called SNAP, to nearly 75,000 low-income college students who are enrolled in career or technical education courses.

  • “They surrendered without firing a shot,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said of the Trump administration’s battle against the coronavirus. “It was the great American surrender. Americans don’t surrender. And they didn’t even put up a fight and what we learned in New York was, if you put up a fight, you would have won because New York won. Other states won also.”

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