Unwelcome at Home: Borders challenge Haudenosaunee identity, sovereignty

Indigenous people who live along the Canadian-American border find it hard to cross as officials often refuse to recognize the Haudenosaunee passport

Molly Gibbs and Rebecca Lan

As Philip George approached the border separating the United States and Canada, a familiar feeling of dread crept over him.

George recognized the faces of the Canadian border patrol officers he hoped would grant him access across the border at the Buffalo-Fort Erie crossing. He rolled up to one of the booths, and one of the officers asked him the familiar questions: Where were you born? Do you have any alcohol in your car? Tobacco? Weapons?

He presented them his Haudenosaunee identification card, the “red card,” named for the red stripe along the top. They asked him if he had other ID. George’s frustration mounted. The Canadian border patrol officer handed him a familiar yellow ticket and instructed him to pull over. His car would have to be inspected before he could cross into Canada.

George has been through this, he estimates, close to 30 times at this one border crossing.

“I feel it every time I cross the border,” George said. “What is it I’m going to be dealing with today? Who’s going to give me a hard time today? What kind of person am I going to be dealing with today? Do they understand me? Do they know me? Or are they going to prejudge who I am?”

George is a member of the Oneida Nation, one of six that make up the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is one of the world’s oldest representative democracies. It’s credited as having a strong influence on the founders of the United States. The Grand Council is comprised of 50 chiefs from the five original nations: the Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Cayugas, and Oneidas. The Tuscaroras joined after the original five and have no voice on the Grand Council.

The confederacy issues its own passport, in recognition of each of the Iroquois nations status as sovereign entities within the United States. But that sovereignty isn’t always recognized. And since their ancestral lands span across the U.S.-Canadian border, that lack of recognition has serious consequences for Native people as they go about their daily lives.

The Haudenosaunee passport is available to community members of the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Many countries refuse to accept the Haudenosaunee passport as an official form of documentation, which can cause problems when traveling. In 2010, the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was refused entry into the United Kingdom when they attempted to travel with the Haudenosaunee passport. Just this past year the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team faced difficulty traveling to Israel with the Haudenosaunee passport, but were eventually allowed to enter the country.

It can get particularly complicated when a Native American tribal territory – which is already a nation within a nation – straddles an international border. That’s the case for the Mohawks, who are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and whose territory stretches from northeastern New York into southeastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec. The Mohawks in this area have three officially recognized forms of government, one for each side of their community divided by the United States-Canadian border, as well as a traditional government of chiefs.

Every major service in the community, from health services to police forces, must be duplicated on both sides of Akwesasne.
<em>Every major service in the community, from health services to police forces, must be duplicated on both sides of Akwesasne.</em>(Photo by Molly Gibbs)

The border runs right through Akwesasne, splitting the reservation into two. Canada recognizes the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the elected council for the Canadian side of the community. The United States recognizes the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the elected tribal council for the U.S. side. The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs is the traditional government of the Akwesasne community and works with both sides, refusing to recognize the border separation.

The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs is the traditional representative government of the Akwesasne community. It’s a clan system with lifelong chiefs approved by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, who discuss and enact decisions for the community. Elected forms of government were installed in Akwesasne in the late 1800s. Many community members in Akwesasne refuse to vote in tribal elections because they feel it doesn’t represent their traditional values.

“Our people have consistently resisted and rebuked this form of government throughout its history,” the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs’ website states.

Kanenotokon Hemlock, the co-chair of the External Relations Committee for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, believes that voting was forced on communities as a means of control. He said that participating in elections would mean accepting the elected government system.

“I’ve never voted in my whole life,” Hemlock said. “We don’t vote in the community elections, we don’t vote in federal elections, because to us, that’s not our system. That’s not our way.”

Lilian Benedict Barton, the contract collections care manager at the Akwesasne Cultural Center’s museum, identifies as a dual Canadian and United States citizen. She votes in the tribal elections in Akwesasne and in the presidential election in the United States.

“I identify as a dual citizen because I have membership on both sides, the Canadian and the American side,” Barton said. “I’m not a traditionalist.”

Sheree Bonaparte, the museum director, doesn’t identify as a United States citizen and doesn’t vote in United States elections. She said many community members in Akwesasne don’t vote in elections because they feel voting isn’t the traditional way of expressing their opinions.

George doesn’t identify as a Canadian citizen and doesn’t vote in Canadian elections.

“In my heart when it comes to voting, I just don’t feel that it is my duty to vote for a government that doesn’t recognize our people as sovereign citizens,” George said.

Passports pose another issue for the community and governments, especially when it comes to international travel.

Hemlock had a similar experience the same year that the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team were denied entry into the United Kingdom. He was traveling home from Bolivia with his uncle and cousin when they were stopped in El Salvador for an additional 19 days after their Haudenosaunee passports were denied. Hemlock said he could hear the guard that stopped them on the phone with the Canadian Embassy. The Canadian diplomat asked the guard to spell the passport name out to him and after realizing Hemlock and his family were traveling on Haudenosaunee passports, urged the guard to prohibit them from flying.

“Immediately on the other end, the guy says, ‘whatever you do, you don’t let them on the plane,’” Hemlock said. “‘If you have to deport them back to Bolivia, that’s what you do. Do not let them on the plane with that passport.’”

Barton said she has a United States passport because she doesn’t want to face any issues when traveling abroad.

George has a Canadian passport but is currently in the process of obtaining a Haudenosaunee passport. He also said he got his Canadian passport because he wanted to avoid problems when traveling internationally.

The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is the recognized form of elected government for the Canadian side of the reservation. The MCA is made up of 12 District Chiefs from the three districts of Akwesasne, and one Grand Chief.
<em>The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is the recognized form of elected government for the Canadian side of the reservation. The MCA is made up of 12 District Chiefs from the three districts of Akwesasne, and one Grand Chief.</em>(Photo by Molly Gibbs)
A sign along New York State Road 37 promotes bingo gaming near the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department.
<em>A sign along New York State Road 37 promotes bingo gaming near the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department.</em>(Photo by Molly Gibbs)
Darryl Lazore, a chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, stands on the unofficial border between the Canadian and American Akwesasne border. The only sign of the sudden switch between territories is the change from miles to kilometers on speed limit signs along the road.
<em>Darryl Lazore, a chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, stands on the unofficial border between the Canadian and American Akwesasne border. The only sign of the sudden switch between territories is the change from miles to kilometers on speed limit signs along the road.</em>(Photo by Molly Gibbs)

Hemlock only has a Haudenosaunee passport.

“A passport is a declaration of citizenship,” Hemlock said. “We’d kind of be shooting ourselves in the foot from a sovereignty standpoint if we were traveling internationally as Canadians or Americans.”

Darryl Lazore, a chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, says that the border affects people outside of just travel.

“In reality, we should all be one, not split because of the border because we do not recognize it,” Lazore said. “We have a lot of great programs that are stifled because of the different jurisdictions.”

The programs that Lazore mentions include every major service in the community: health clinics, utilities and police forces. The existence of the border dictates that every service on the northern, Canadian side of Akwesasne must be duplicated for the southern part of the territory.

Lazore drives down a long stretch of road as he speaks on the American side of Akwesasne. It is straight and narrow, littered with potholes that force drivers to go offroad as they travel through clusters of homes. The stop signs say “Testa’n” instead of “Stop” and many of the houses display Mohawk art. As Lazore points out various parts of the river, the signs along the road suddenly switch from miles to kilometers per hour. That is as much warning a person gets before driving from New York to Canada, and vice versa. The spot is one of the multiple areas in Akwesasne where the border runs through where there are no checkpoints, no announcements, just a simple change in units.

The U.S,-Canada border runs through the backyard of Matthew Rourke’s parents’ home on the Saint Lawrence River. The only sign of the division is a singular, concrete pillar.
<em>The U.S,-Canada border runs through the backyard of Matthew Rourke’s parents’ home on the Saint Lawrence River. The only sign of the division is a singular, concrete pillar.</em>(Photo by Molly Gibbs)

Matthew Rourke, the St. Regis tribal chief of police, makes a personal commitment to hearing the community’s thoughts on the matter.

“You don’t leave your community,” Rourke said. “I go to the store, I run into someone who has a concern. I go to the casino and I meet people there who have something to say. We all have our stories here, and that makes it easier to work with all of the governments.”

Part of the border cuts through Rourke’s parents’ own backyard. As Rourke walked through the property, explaining the hosting services his parents provide and their involvement in the area, he pointed to a single, short pillar at the edge of the yard. “That’s it; that’s all there is,” he said.

Each entity in and around the Akwesasne territory – from the tribal police on each side of the border to both American and Canadian border controls – has a set of liaisons to facilitate communication between all parties, Rourke said. Each representative responds to one another and residents when a conflict arises, a system that Rourke believes is bettering the relationship between residents and border control.

“It’s been in development to have those liaisons because (the countries) know they need the partnerships where people can go if they have grievances,” Rourke said. “So if there’s an issue where a resident was pulled in at customs and they don’t know why, … that person can come to one of the governments.”

Rourke said interactions between all of the governments has gotten better over the years.

“When you go through the border, if you give respect you’re going to get it back,” he said.

Not all Akwesasne residents agree.

Barton said her interactions at the border varies based on “time and day.”

“It varies, it depends on who’s sitting in the booth,” Hemlock said. “You’re rolling the dice every time you go past.”

Bonaparte said it isn’t so much who is sitting in the booth, as it is who is sitting in the car.

“It’s almost inevitable,” she said. “If you get in line behind a person of color, you’re going to be sitting there for awhile.”

On the other end of the phone, Philip George grew silent as the 30-minute video of him getting pulled over at the Fort Erie border played in the background. He had live-streamed the video on Facebook two years ago. The video has over 3,000 views and 88 comments.

“We’re not respected on the level on which we should be,” he said. “We’re not lawmakers, apparently we’re lawbreakers. Hopefully that changes.”

The split between traditionalist and non-traditionalist values is a source of tension in the Akwesasne community. Many community members with traditional values refuse to vote in elections because they feel it was forced on native communities and doesn’t represent their system of government.
<em>The split between traditionalist and non-traditionalist values is a source of tension in the Akwesasne community. Many community members with traditional values refuse to vote in elections because they feel it was forced on native communities and doesn’t represent their system of government.</em>(Photo by Molly Gibbs)

This story was originally published at TheNewsHouse.com.

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Molly Gibbs is a photojournalism major at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University. She contributes to The NewsHouse and other publications such as The Daily Orange, where she has served as photo editor.

Rebecca Lan is a newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University and a contributor to The NewsHouse.

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