Russel John Karonia:re Curotte was born on June 21, 1958, in Kahnawake, a native reserve southwest of Montreal, to John “Baba” Curotte, a Kahnawake longhouse chief, and Grace Curotte, a homemaker. The fourth of five children brought up in the native tradition before doing so became common again, Russel often travelled with his parents to longhouses of the Six Nations Confederacy.
He played first base on the Kahnawake Little League team—he had a strong though often inaccurate swing. His friend Patrick Phillips, a lifeguard in his teenage years, remembers Russel as an avid swimmer who took to water “like a seal.” His brother Joe co-founded the Onake Canoe Club in 1972, and Russel loved paddling. He was a natural: at five foot eight, with big shoulders and lots of muscle, he easily cut through the rough currents of the St. Lawrence River, where the club practised. In 1975, just prior to the Montreal Olympics, he and his partner Ray McComber bought paddles from the Romanian paddling team, and became known as Kahnawake’s only Romanian paddlers.
His physique also made him an ideal wrestler, a sport he came to adore as a student at Howard S. Billings School in neighbouring Chateauguay. He went on to Champlain College in Lennoxville, and was known alternately as a quiet, friendly fellow and a vicious nose tackle on Champlain’s football team. He mostly hung around with people from Kahnawake; one of them, Kathy Jacobs, he’d known since Grade 3. They began dating shortly after Russel returned from a year at the University of New Brunswick, in 1979, and married in 1981. Russel left UNB’s physical education program when he got word that the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake was opening a high school, and would need teachers. He taught physical education at the newly minted Kahnawake Survival School, and completed his degree at McGill in 1984, the same year his and Kathy’s first boy, Aronhiawakhon, was born. He also co-founded the high school’s wrestling team, trained the Kahnawake junior lacrosse team, and coached the Onake junior women’s war canoe squad.
Russel joined the volunteer fire brigade as well as the Kahnawake Conservation Department. As a conservation officer, his duties included patrolling the reserve’s wooded areas—off-reserve poachers weren’t infrequent—and rescuing boaters stranded in the St. Lawrence. Russel was part of a growing number of men who “stayed home”—not compelled by their jobs, usually in the iron-working industry, to leave the reserve. His second son, Tehonawathe, was born in 1989, the same year as the Oka Crisis. Kahnawake erected a blockade of the Mercier Bridge in solidarity with the Kanasatake reserve near Oka. During this time, Russel helped ferry Kahnawake’s food and supplies over the St. Lawrence by boat.
In 1994, at 36, Russel became the youngest principal of the Kahnawake Survival School. He began hunting at about the same time, mostly on a Kahnawake territory in the Laurentians. Every fall, Russel and a group of friends obsessively planned a hunting trip, often to other reserves in Canada: Listuguj and Burnt Church in New Brunswick and, more recently, the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway reserve about 300 km west of Winnipeg. Keeseekoowenin teems with elk, moose, bear and deer, and Russel, who missed the trip for two years, was particularly keen to go this year. He and five friends piled into two trucks and drove 31 hours straight, arriving on the reserve on Oct. 13.
The group split into pairs, with Russel and Dwayne Moore going off to a hunting blind near a lake. They shot two moose, a cow and a calf, and returned to camp to recruit others to help drag the carcasses back. There was no one there, however, so after dinner the pair left a note and returned to the two downed moose. Because of the animals’ heft, the pair decided to tow them back to camp in the water behind their canoe. They went out about 90 m from shore, where the water was no more than five feet deep. At one point the canoe tipped, spilling Russel and Dwayne into the water.
Unable to right the canoe, the pair instead trudged along, Dwayne at the bow and Russel at the stern, pulling the canoe and the moose through the near-freezing water. Russel stopped talking about 50 m from land. Dwayne, his friends and the attending ambulance technicians who had just arrived dragged him onto the beach and tried to revive him, to no avail. He died of cardiac arrest, likely brought on by the shock of the cold water. He was 51 years old.