In 1842 the Mohawk community of Akwesasne was bisected by the U.S.-Canadian border, severing their communal lands into two equal Canadian and American sectors. Today Akwesasne is a kaleidoscope of cultural and political elements in layered complexity. Traditional practices and law of the Mohawk nation coexist with the philosophies, policies, and regulations of one state, two provinces, two federal governments, and their respective officials. The result is a shifting design of interactions and tensions. Since the hardening of the U.S. border after September 11, 2001, daily life on the reserve is even more difficult.
It’s a hectic lunch scene, and the steaming corn soup is in demand at the Bear’s Den Trading Post on the United States portion of the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve. The soup is not as substantial as homemade—the ingredients are native; the chef is not—but the trading post’s abundant fare attracts the native peoples who work nearby, along with tourists to the reserve. In the next room fine jewelry by native artisans vies for space with toy plastic papooses and rubber tom toms. It’s a jumble of traditional and modern, authentic and contrived, much like life in Akwesasne.
Akwesasne is the nexus of a dizzying array of borders within borders and cultures within cultures. It is “the fire,” or capital, of the Mohawk Nation, which consists of eight communities spread across Quebec, Ontario, and New York. Akwesasne itself straddles all three. And the Mohawk Nation as a whole is part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, made up of the six nations of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. So residents of Akwesasne have to contend with regulations and government structures from their community, the Mohawk Nation, the confederacy, three states, and two countries.
Curtis Lazore, who is the Cultural Resource Coordinator for the Haudenosaunee Cultural Resource Protection Program, lives on the Canadian portion of the reserve. He’s a familiar customer at the Bear’s Den Trading Post. A sturdy, attractive young man, Lazore has a soft-spoken, friendly style that belies the intensity of his love for the Mohawk Nation and its traditions. He has a degree in native studies from Trent University and post-diploma training in museum management. He also was schooled by his relatives in the native Mohawk ways. He uses that training in the Cultural Resource Protection Program, where his job is to locate and repatriate to Akwesasne artifacts important to the identity and tradition of the Mohawk Nation: sacred objects, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and ancestral human remains.
With an earnest manner and inquisitive mind, Curtis represents the bridge between the old and new generations—a young man who keeps Mohawk traditional beliefs alive while dealing with the responsibilities of supporting a family, maintaining a home, and holding a job. Those responsibilities are made all the harder by having his homeland straddling a national boundary.
“I was raised in St. Regis [Canadian district],” he says, “but my father was raised on the American side. We go back and forth all the time, but in my grandmother’s day, there were hard feelings between American Indians and Canadian Indians. The governments were trying to pit each side against the other, and the Catholic Church put a scare into people. The church accused the natives of having pagan rituals, and sacred ceremonies had to be done in private, underground, until the 1930s.” (In the United States, Native American ceremonial practices were not protected by law until 1978.)
Children in Akwesasne have the option of attending public schools on either side of the border, and Lazore attended high school off the reserve in nearby Massena, New York. He says that tension between the non-natives and natives off the reserve is as strong now as it was in his youth. “There are always racist issues because of our cultural differences,” he says. “Ignorance is inherited; you grow up learning it. The Massena townspeople are afraid of the Mohawk land claims because they are afraid that they will lose the property taxes that support services if the natives get the land back. It is blown out of proportion. They go as far as to say, ‘The Mohawks are playing war drums all night long, and we can’t sleep.’ But we don’t even have war drums,” he notes with a laugh. “People are not educated about the issues that would bring communities together. It’s all about creating relationships.”
And there are more than enough relationships to create. Life in a multigovernment community is, says Lazore, “a judicial nightmare.” Granted dual American and Canadian citizenship, Akwesasne residents require dual paperwork to secure employment and benefits in the United States or Canada. “I have Social Security on both sides of the border and health benefits on both sides,” Lazore says. “I am a citizen of the traditional Mohawk Nation here, but dual citizenship makes it easier to get a bank card, credit cards, and a driver’s license. When border guards say that a tribal ID isn’t enough and ask what side of the border I’m from, I just pull out all my cards. I could choose not to be an American citizen. The Mohawks, after all, have an alliance with the U.S., not allegiance to it. And some natives have renounced American citizenship, but then it is hard to get a job.”
On the other hand, in some cases Mohawks can use the system’s complexity to their advantage. For example, Lazore says, they can use the greater prescription drug benefits as a U.S. citizen and expanded health-clinic benefits offered to Canadian citizens. However, the governments urge residents of Akwesasne to choose one set of benefits from one government.
The duality in national government matters is also reflected in local government. In Akwesasne, every local governmental service has a Canadian and a United States counterpart in the respective districts. Duplicate health clinics, housing offices, education departments, environmental offices, police forces—the services listed in the Akewesasne telephone directory are nearly mirror images. To supervise the delivery of all these services, the governments of the United States and Canada set up two Tribal Councils, one on either side, with the members elected by popular vote.
In 1802, the New York State Legislature passed a law recognizing three trustees and a clerk as representatives of the Mohawks. This body evolved into the present St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the elected and federally recognized government of the Mohawk people in the U.S. portion of Akwesasne. New York State and the United States deal exclusively with this elected council in a government-to-government relationship. Likewise, in 1899, the Canadian government created a tribal council now known as the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, or MCA, as the elected jurisdictional authority in Canada.
Chief Lorraine White was elected to the St. Regis Council of Chiefs in 2005. A lawyer by training, Chief White sees increased communication as a key to working through the governmental red tape caused by the border. “The border was imposed on us by others, and it truly became a dividing line, clearly segmenting and differentiating our community,” she says. “But we have always maintained that we’re one people. The St. Regis Tribal Council works closely with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, and, when appropriate, with the traditional leaders.”
The traditional leaders she refers to are members of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. This council is the traditional governing body and for centuries has been responsible for the social, cultural, economic, and political integrity of the Mohawk people. It is this Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy sanctions as the official government of the Mohawk/Kahniakehaka (People of the Flint). The hereditary chiefs are chosen by a head matron or a clan mother for each clan family. There are nine clan families in the Mohawk Nation: three Turtle, three Wolf, and three Bear. Once chosen by the clan mother, the chief is approved by the sitting Mohawk Nation Council.
Decisions are made by consensus rather than majority vote, and there are no elections. Jake Swamp is a life member of the Council of Chiefs, and he meets almost weekly with other chiefs of the council. “We respond to threats from outside,” he says, “and we decide jurisdiction issues, land right claims, and indigenous rights—like when they try to take our hunting rights away. We often have to do the opposite of what [elected governments] tell us—that is the only way they understand. We can sit around a table together, and they may listen, but when you go away, they ignore you and forget about you. Everything we gained we had to go to jail to win. The only way to change is through defying the governments, because the system is too powerful.”
“We have so much tradition that they have never been able to stop us from governing ourselves,” says Tom Porter, a Mohawk leader and Faith Keeper from Akwesasne. “We will never let the chiefs and clan mothers go. We always had our own government. And it is a thorn in their side. The elected tribal system is an imposed government, the same as the elected government in Iraq—everything done on the reservation is determined by whoever controls the economy, and if people vote for the wrong person, they lose theirjobs.”
The residents of Akwesasne must obey all the externally imposed laws, but the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosanee Confederacy is the overriding law for traditional Mohawks. The confederacy is one of the world’s oldest participatory democracies. Established between A.D. 900 and 1500, it predates the founding of the United States; indeed, there were representatives of the confederacy at the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. document is modeled on the structure and principles of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Consider this section of the law, which describes the role of government, and which could easily have been written by Thomas Jefferson: “Power comes from the united actions of the people operating under one law, with one mind, one heart, and one body. Such power can assure that justice and healthfulness continue. People and nations need to exercise just enough power to maintain the peace and well-being of the members of the confederacy.” The Great Law of Peace is codified in a series of wampum belts, one of which provides an elegant representation of the ideal relationship between nations. (Wampum belts are used by several Northeastern Native American nations as records of treaties, historic events, tribal law, and philosophical principles of life. The belts are made of purple and white clamshell beads.) The Two Row Wampum, or Guswenta, consists of two horizontal purple bands running parallel across a white background. This graphic is intended to show that national governments should operate separately, side by side, and not interfere with the actions of the other.
The federal governments have their own version of the Two Row Wampum. It’s called Jay’s Treaty. The treaty was signed in 1794 in the wake of the Revolutionary War and was intended to address mounting tensions between Britain and the United States. Among its provisions is a clause that states: “It is agreed that it shall at all times be free to His Majesty’s subjects, and to the citizens of the United States, and also to the Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary line, freely to pass and repass by land or inland navigation, into the respective territories and countries of the two parties . . .” That seems straightforward enough, but as with all border issues, it has become very complicated. The first problem is that the treaty was between the U.S. and Britain because Canada was a British territory at the time, so Canada the independent state is not technically bound by it, and the right to freely pass has been tossed back and forth in the courts ever since, including a case now before the Canadian Supreme Court. On the U.S. side, the treaty’s provisions have been modified and redefined in subsequent legislation, so that now the law is strictly interpreted to apply only to Canadian-born people who have “at least 50 percent Indian blood.” The treaty, however, still forms the fundamental backbone of the Akwesasne border issue.
As difficult as it has been for Mohawks dealing with dual governments and the border between them, their problems have become exponentially greater since the border hardened after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In his living room heaped with files of official reports, Faith Keeper and Mohawk leader Mike Mitchell answers calls from federal government officials, local civic leaders, and university researchers. Mitchell is a strong man with a no-nonsense business manner. He served as elected Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne from 1970 to 1972 and from 1982 to 2005. He describes a summit he organized in March 2006 to address concern over increased border security. The meeting attracted 200 delegates from Canada, the United States, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “The summit was the first opportunity for representatives of Homeland Security to visit Akwesasne and to see what the effect would be of the [proposed] new regulation for passports to enter the U.S. from Canada,” he says. “Canada was afraid they would lose dollars and business, the U.S. was concerned about terrorism, and the Mohawks were concerned about their treaty rights. Everyone understood that we have to go beyond a fear mentality.”
That fear mentality is a constant legacy of September 11. When the terrorist attacks occurred, says Mitchell, the U.S. government was quick to assume that the Mohawk territory was a no-man’s land, because of some cigarette smuggling problems a decade earlier. U.S. officials believed the terrorists had crossed the border through the reserve, says Mitchell, who was grand chief of the Canadian elected council at that time. “The U.S. Congress passed judgment on us,” he says, still stung by the false accusation. “It took two weeks for them to listen to us and to find out that the terrorists didn’t come through here.”
Homeland Security measures have mandated stronger border restrictions on all entering the United States from Canada. The tighter security has been especially hard on the people of Akwesasne, many of whom cross the border daily to visit family or go to jobs, stores, or cultural events. To complicate matters, some of the reserve in the Canadian sector is on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, adjacent to the U.S. sector. There is no customs office there, so residents of this part of Akwesasneare are expected to travel many miles out of their way to report their crossing at the official customs office at the international bridge.
Photo identification is required to cross the border where once a nod to a familiar border guard was all that was necessary. All residents of Akwesasne have the right to dual citizenship in Canada and the United States, but some consider themselves citizens only of the traditional Mohawk Nation. For those, the red Haudenosaunee ID card with their photo and the signature of the chief is their only identification. These people may not be registered on the rolls of either the Canadian or United States governments.
The customs check in Canada is on Mohawk territory, so there is a dedicated lane for Akwesasne residents, but on the U.S. side, travelers come off the bridge into the town of Mas-sena, New York, not the reservation, and Mohawks must declare everything on board. The added restrictions translate into long lines of frustrated reserve residents at the U.S. border. The increased security affects even the native police. According to MCA police chief Lewis Mitchell, in nonemergency situations the native police could wait for 30 minutes to cross the border.
Traditional Chief Jake Swamp sees the new regulations as part of a larger and older problem: “When Homeland Security went through, it was another step closer in controlling the masses of our people. We used not to have to show an ID if we traveled across the border from the Mohawk nation. Everyone knew you and respected you. The U.S. and Canadian governments take away a little of our rights each time. They tried to divide our lands that used to be communal, so there was jealousy between families. They manipulated us when they made the rule that all natives would be identified under the father’s name, against our matrilineal system.” [The six nations of the Haudenosaunee are clan-based and matrilineal: An indigenous person has no nation except through the clan of his or her mother. In United States law, however, if an individual is 50 percent indigenous on either side of the family, he is considered a Native American.]
An even more sensitive issue is the intensive searches of packages and goods crossing the U.S. border. “Our medicine men are being harassed at the border,” says Faith Keeper Mike Mitchell. “They are being made to open bags of sacred objects that they were taking to a ceremony across the border. We drew the line [at the border summit], and I told the U.S. officials that we need a policy that respects our cultural traditions in inspections.”
Curtis Lazore related a recent incident that just avoided serious confrontation: “My cousin was going to a ceremony and taking a medicine bundle with ritual objects across the border. The customs officers looked in his trunk and wanted to open the bundle, but my cousin had to get aggressive and stand up to them. He told them that it wasn’t going to happen.” The guards wisely decided not to search the bundle.
Kevin Corsaro, spokesman for the U.S. Office of Customs and Border Protection, says that customs officers are aware of the problem and are trained to deal with it. “We do teach general cultural awareness and sensitivity at our basic officer training,” he says, “but it is not site specific. We are very sensitive about religious ceremonies taking place and do everything possible to respect those traditions. Our officers are well aware of Six Nations ceremonies because they encounter natives on a daily basis.”
“The trouble,” says Life Chief Ernie Benedict with a mix of resignation and humor, “is that not all customs guards get the same sensitivity training. Usually when you have sensitive items, you encounter one without training. They do train the American customs guards, but they are trained by native peoples from other nations.”
An added problem is that officers assigned to work on the U.S.-Canada border may have served on the Mexican border or in a big port city. The border problems they have experienced previously bear little relation to those of Mohawks traveling from one side of their community to another. Currently there are no customs officers from the Akwesasne nation, although there have been some in the past. It may be that the awkward role of having to inspect relatives and friends may dissuade natives from the job.
Not only is crossing the land border a trial, so too is Akwesasne residents’ traditional crossing of the waterways by boat. Chief Benedict, who is in his 80s, remembers, “When I was a child there was no international bridge in the area. We used to have rowboats going back and forth, and we stopped anywhere we wanted to fish—there was no inspection. Now there are patrol boats to make sure we have the right equipment, like life jackets. Incursions kept coming.”
Curtis Lazore added, “I’m always getting stopped and pulled over, even if I’m just fishing on the river—the Ontario conservation officer wants me to show an ID every time.”
A few years ago, Chief Mike Mitchell tried to mitigate the border-crossing conflicts through diplomacy. He helped to establish a native Mohawk Security Police for the Canadian sector that cooperates with its counterpart on the U.S. side, as well as with federal officials of the United States and Canada. “The Homeland Security officials were catching Mohawk families on the river and writing them up for small charges, such as improper equipment,” he says. “But with $300 a charge, families would call me up saying they had a $1,200 bill that they could not pay. I told the Homeland Security officials, ‘Quit harassing us and we’ll be your ally.’ I said, ‘The people you are harassing are our eyes on the river.’”
Police Chief Lewis Mitchell of the native MCA Mohawk Police adds, “We’ve developed our own boat registration from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, and we’re still a small enough community to know our people. But it is difficult to find balance in the laws. These are the elders who have lived on river their whole lives; now we say they have to get registration numbers on their boats. They feel they are not really breaking the law, but these are laws imposed from outside.”
Underlying the complex layers of differing governments and beliefs is the strong desire to maintain the unity of the Akwesasne community. From Mohawk language teachers to elected band chiefs to traditional elders, all confirm their sense of one community that defies the border’s fracture line. The future sovereignty of the Mohawk nation, however, is dependent on greater understanding and respect for the human rights, traditions, and treaties of the Mohawk Nation. For this, increased education and communication are critical.
As Chief Jake Swamp noted, “We are one nation, but the people who have taken over our lives have to be educated. Our leaders were in Philadelphia when the U.S. constitution was written, but they never mention that our constitution was the model. What really needs to happen is that the governments themselves and our people have to educate one another.”
The radio station CKON, built astride the U.S. and Canadian border on the south side of the river, is one key to this education. “We purposely built the radio station here, where the border goes right through it,” says Jake Swamp. “We wanted to show Canada and America that we are able to be a free people, to exercise our rights in North America.” CKON was formed in 1984 to preserve and promote the Mohawk culture and “to get the word out” to the residents of Akwesasne who otherwise have to rely on outside radio stations, according to CKON finance officer Judy Barnes. The station’s call letters reflect the Mohawk greeting, sekon, or she:kon. CKON Radio promotes Mohawk culture by playing the music of local Mohawk musicians, including rap bands and singers. On Saturdays Teddy Peters broadcasts six hours of music and commentary in the Mohawk language.
“We also promote the Mohawk language by running a Mohawk language lesson once a day, from 6-6:30 p.m. that is provided on CD by an instructor from the Long House,” says Barnes. Its lessons are progressive and change every week, from common words and phrases to dialogue. News from the Mohawk Council of Chiefs is also broadcast on CKON, including reports of their meetings and upcoming events of the Mohawk Nation.
The radio station attracts listeners from all parts of Akwesasne, as well as parts of the Seaway Valley beyond the community. And in doing so, it both reinforces and represents the cultural reality that no mere legislative boundary—however burdensome—can deny. Says Judy Barnes, “The border isn’t an issue, because we are one community; for us there is no border. We consider ourselves sovereign.”
Kristina Nilson Allen is a freelance writer and editor who, for the last decade, has focused on writing about efforts in sustainable development, social justice and environment for Clark University’s Department of International Development, Community, and Environment.