Kahnawà:ke mourns the loss of ‘larger than life’ Elder Billy Two Rivers
Retired pro-wrestler, activist and political leader Billy Kaientaronkwen Two Rivers died in Kahnawà:ke on Sunday at the age of 87, according to his family on social media.
“It’s a sad day for Kahnawà:ke,” said community member Russell Diabo, who knew Two Rivers from their involvement in First Nations national politics.
“Billy was a larger than life person, a force of nature.”
The Kanien’kehá:ka (Iroquois) wrestler spent 24 years in the wrestling ring between the 1950s and 1970s. He spent his final years at the Kateri Memorial Hospital Center in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. He leaves behind his wife, daughters, grandchildren and many other family members and friends.
Two Rivers was a lacrosse player when he was introduced to and coached by Carl Donald Bell, better known by his ring name Chief Don Eagle.
After debuting in a Detroit ring in 1953, Two Rivers went on to wrestle in Charlotte, NC for the National Wrestling Alliance and noted promoter Jim Crocket. He spent six years in England where he had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and North Africa. In 1966 he had another opportunity to wrestle abroad in Japan.
Wherever he went, Two Rivers drew attention with his mohawk, leather jacket, beaded waistcoat and regalia – he saw himself as an ambassador for all indigenous peoples when he traveled.
CLOCK | Billy Two Rivers meets a young fan:
“He was famous. He was known around the world,” said Kyle Zachary, public relations officer for the Kahnawà:ke Peacekeepers.
Zachary, who is also a pro wrestler, said he’s had many conversations with Two Rivers over the years and shared industry tips and tricks.
“When I got into wrestling it wasn’t because of Billy, but Billy definitely kept me in wrestling,” Zachary said.
“He told me to always give something back. No matter where you go in life, no matter where you are… always come back to your community.”
Two Rivers retired from wrestling in 1976 and then went into local politics, where he was elected head of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke in 1978.
“I wrestled for 24 years and then wrestled on the council for 20 years. It was tougher wrestling than anywhere else,” he told CBC News last June.
10 terms in Council
The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK) issued a statement Monday expressing its condolences.
Two Rivers served ten consecutive terms on the council through 1998. According to the MCK statement, Two Rivers was the “right-hand man” of the late Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton during the 1990 Oka Crisis — the 78-day standoff between Kanesatake, Sûréte du Québec Province police and later the Canadian military over contested territory called Pines northwest of Montreal.
“Billy Two Rivers has always been a natural leader,” said MCK spokesman Joe Delaronde.
“It’s interesting that he went straight from the wrestling ring to the political ring and never missed a beat… He always knew how to show Kahnawà:ke in his best light. He was a staunch defender of our positions.”
CLOCK | Billy Two Rivers speaks to the media during the Oka crisis:
This is something Diabo witnessed firsthand during chiefs meetings at the First Nations Convention (AFN).
“He had a strong voice and was a good speaker,” Diabo said.
“I think he represented the community very well… When Parliament held hearings about what was going on, Billy was the one in Ottawa on Parliament Hill who represented the community in those forums.”
After his last term as elected leader, Two Rivers worked as a political and policy advisor at MCK and with national organizations such as the AFN.
Fluent Kanien’kéha speaker, actor
He was an advocate of Kanien’kéha, his mother tongue. He was a member of the Elders Advisory Group of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center and was a regular on Kanien’kéha talk radio shows until a few years ago.
In 2019, he was honored along with other first-language Kanien’kéha speakers for their contributions to the development of the Kahnawà:ke language law.
The 1999 Act called for the revival and restoration of Kanien’kéha as the primary language of communication, education, ceremonies, government and business within the community.
Delaronde said Two Rivers made a point of using the language when he was on the council.
“He spoke to the non-Kanien’kéha speakers in the council and first spoke to them in Kanien’kéha and then somehow translated as he went along, letting them know that we should all be working toward that goal,” Delaronde said .
Two Rivers acted in several films and television shows in his later years, including Mohawk girl, take lifeAnd bolt.