Indian Defense League of America
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. – Activist movements among modern North American Indians have roots that go back well beyond AIM and the siege at Wounded Knee, and they are still very much alive in the annual Native march across the U.S. – Canada border, held here
recently for its 77th continuous year.
This year’s march marked the coming forward of the third generation in the sponsoring Indian Defense League of America, as one long-time leader lay seriously ill in the hospital. Although the passing of the torch was tinged with sorrow, it presaged renewed vitality for what could very well be the oldest continuous Native protest movement in northern America. It is a movement with a clear but still not widely known influence on the more famous upsurge of the early 1970s.
The march itself across the Whirlpool Bridge east of Niagara Falls was well mannered billed as a “walk” in its publicity because of security objections from the bridge commission. The great granddaughters of IDLA founder Clinton Rickard, a chief of the Tuscarora Nation, carried the banner of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy from the Canadian side to the center of the bridge where the group paused by tradition under its girders at exactly noon. Once across, the event turned into a daylong “celebration” of Native border crossing rights recognized by the Jay Treaty of 1794 and reaffirmed by the Treaty of Ghent of 1814. A picnic and festival in nearby Hyde Park offered corn soup, strawberries and speeches by long-time supporters, both Indian and non-Indian.
Event organizer Jolene Rickard, granddaughter of Chief Rickard, explained that the march alternates each year in starting from the U.S. or Canadian side. When it enters the U.S., she said, it is called a “celebration” because the U.S. government still honors the Jay Treaty. When it enters Canada, it is called a “commemoration” because the Ottawa government does not consider itself bound by a treaty made between the U.S. and Great Britain in its colonial era. (Jolene Rickard emphasized that leadership of IDLA now rests with a council of elders, but the organizing work is increasingly passing to the third generation of founding families such as her own, the Martins of the Six Nations Reserve and the Meness of the Kitigan-zibi (Algonquin) community of Canada.)
Speeches at the celebration were rich in historical memory, since several participants had academic backgrounds. (Rickard is a Ph.D. at the State University of New York – Buffalo). Barbara Graymont, who helped write Chief Rickard’s autobiography, “The Fighting Tuscarora” and is now in her late 70s, gave a fiery account of the U.S. attempt to deny entry to Aboriginals in the 1920s.
But the event this year was also deeply conscious of its own history, as one long-time leader Harry “Jiggie” Hill lay in Buffalo General Hospital with a serious heart condition and other veterans have entered their 80s. One Mohawk elder, Ernie Benedict, now in his 80s, first marched in the crossing when he was 18. The early participants went on to a lifetime of activism with far-reaching impact.
Chief Rickard organized the first march in 1927 after a fateful visit from a traditional Cayuga leader Levi General, the Deskaheh, chief of the Younger Bear Clan. Deskaheh was one of the first to assert Iroquois national rights in an international forum, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, in the early ’20s to petition the new League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. While staying at Chief Rickard’s house on the Tuscarora territory in New York, Deskaheh fell ill and sent for his traditional medicine man from the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. But the medicine man was not allowed across the border.
The U.S. had just passed the Immigration Law of 1924, which denied entry to anyone who did not speak English. Although the measure was directed against Asians, it also barred the traditionally raised medicine man, who did not read or write English and only spoke his own language. He could not make it to Deskaheh, who passed away in Chief Rickard’s house.
Rickard was so moved that he began the border crossings and devoted his life to defending the right of free passage. But his
nfluence extended far beyond the border. “You have to remember that when my grandfather stepped forward in the 1920s,” said Jolene Rickard, “it was not popular to be a Native person who was refusing to let go of tradition.
“At the time, it was very popular not to be Indian, to fit in, to be progressive.”
The border march represented a fundamental principle that the Native nations retained their rights regardless of the power of governments imposed by newcomers to the continent. Even today, said one recent participant who marched with his teen-aged daughter, it is the first experience many Native youths have in asserting their inherent national rights. For early marchers, it was a lesson that fed into the movement for sovereignty and self-determination.
Ernie Benedict and other Mohawk marchers took the activist spirit back to the Akwesasne community, said Rickard, where it evolved into the White Roots of Peace movement. This caravan of tribal elders traveled across the country in the late ’60s, carrying a message of traditional revival to Indian communities, on and off reservation. At the American Indian Millennium conference at Cornell University in 2001, Wilma Mankiller, the former Cherokee president, described the impact of seeing the battered bus carrying the White Roots of Peace leaders arrive in Oakland, Calif., in the late ’60s. She said their message inspired her own career as well as the Bay Area activism that led to the Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island.
The Mohawk activism led in other directions too, inspiring both armed resistance in the Oka incident and an intellectual revival centered on the publication Akwesasne Notes. (Journalism veterans of Akwesasne Notes play a prominent role in the editorial policy of this publication.)
The assertion of border rights fed into a message of self-determination and traditional identity that struggled with government policies of assimilation and termination and in the ’70s triumphed completely. It was one of many sources, and possibly not the least, of the now nearly universal assertion of tribal sovereignty.
“Most people look at the 1970s as the start,” said Rickard, “but if you scratch a little bit on the personalities involved, you will find they come from families that have held the idea of self-determination for generations.”
This year’s border march promised that the tradition would continue for another generation, and more.