I recently gave a tour of Akwesasne to a visitor who was interested in what our leaders call “the jurisdictional nightmare.” Not only are we the only indigenous community divided by an international border, we are further divided by a state, two provinces, and three counties.
Three rivers, the St. Lawrence, Raquette, and St. Regis, divide the land even further. That number increases to five if you count our land claim areas. The historic village of St. Regis is considered part of Canada, but sits on the tip of a peninsula that you have to drive through the United States to get to.
As divided as we are, we still consider this to be one community. When we meet people from other territories, they don’t ask us “Which Akwesasne are you from? North or South?” To the outside authorities and mapmakers, however, we are the Mohawks of Akwesasne, formerly known as the Iroquois of St. Regis, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Both of these entities have an elected council that abides by the border and maintain police forces that do the same. It is not uncommon for someone who lives on one side of the border to work on the other side and to cross it several times a day.
The Three Nations Bridge that connects Kawehnoke, or Cornwall Island, to the mainland of the United States and Canada is the only route that has American and Canadian ports of entry. The rest of Akwesasne has only a handful of aging concrete markers to tell you that you’ve crossed a border. I showed my visitor one of these Akwesasne markers that was surrounded by saplings and weeds, almost indiscernible in the summer with dense foliage.
It is no secret that the black market has exploited this porous border and its complicated geography. This is one of the reasons why the scenario is considered a nightmare by those tasked with community governance.
Our Akwesasne leaders often evoke an old oral tradition that when it was drawn, we were told that the border would not apply to us, that it would be 10 feet above our heads. That number has increased to 20 and 30 over the years, presumably due to inflation.
In 1959, a former chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, Philip Kakwiranoron Cook, mentioned this tradition in a history he wrote of his community but never published:
“The Indians understood that the boundary would come to the edge of the reservation lands and then would project 8 feet into the air until it reached the other side of the Indian lands then back down to the ground where it would be in the way of the white man. The Indian had a unique way of thinking. It seems that he realized that an Indian would never grow as high as 8 feet tall, and he would never grow high enough to bump into that boundary.”
One thing a lot of Native historians like to do is verify our oral traditions with historical documentation. I’ve been able to do that myself throughout my research career, but my attempts to find backup for this one in the historical record has led me down an unexpected path.
First, a bit of a history lesson. The Mission of Saint Jean-François Régis was established at Akwesasne at the beginning of the Seven Years War in 1755, primarily with people from Kahnawake. The St. Lawrence River valley was considered to be part of New France in those days, and our people were allies of the French regime. Great Britain defeated France in that conflict and assumed control of her colony in 1760. When the t13 American colonies rebelled against England 16 years later, most of the people of the “Seven Nations of Canada,” as the former Native allies of New France came to be called, felt obligated to accept the “war belt” offered by our new British allies and joined them in the fight against the rebel “Bostonians.”
A small but determined faction supported the American cause in the War for Independence. One of our leading warriors was given a captain’s commission in the Continental Army, later upgraded to lieutenant-colonel. Colonel Louis Cook, also known as Atiatonharongwen and Atyatarongtha, went on to lead Oneida and Tuscarora warriors in the conflict, sometimes against other members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Seven Nations.
When peace was declared in 1783, officials from Great Britain and the United States met in Paris to work out a treaty and delineate the boundary between their territories. In this area, they decided that the border would descend the middle of the St. Lawrence River until it came to the 45th parallel of latitude where it would then go east into Vermont. We can presume there was not a little triangle on their map to let them know that there was Indian village located at this convenient right turn.
We can also presume that this post-war period was what inspired our tradition about the 8-foot border. Our ancestors could come and go as they pleased, since the area was still mostly wilderness. By 1795, the “Jay Treaty” between the U.S. and Great Britain contained this clause:
“No Duty of Entry shall ever be levied by either Party on Peltries brought by Land, or Inland Navigation into the said Territories respectively, nor shall the Indians passing or repassing with their own proper Goods and Effects of whatever nature, pay for the same any Impost or Duty whatever.”
In 1812, war once again broke out between Great Britain and United States. Akwesasne was by this time surrounded by French, British, and American settlers, all of whom feared a new Indian war. We were urged to remain neutral by both sides, but the British immediately stationed Voyageurs in our village near the thick stone walls of our Roman Catholic church. On the morning of October 23, our ancestors woke up to the sounds of American soldiers shooting up the place. After killing some of the Voyageurs and taking the rest prisoner, they ransacked the village.
There is an account of how the war divided Akwesasne in the correspondence of the St. Regis Mission, a source rarely cited by scholars. Clergy and government officials met with Akwesasne chiefs in 1818 to resolve the disputes arising from the conflict:
“...at the commencement of the late War the number of Warriors in the village of St Regis was about one hundred and forty or fifty out of which number four of the old acknowledged Chiefs, four Indians since elected Chiefs, and Sixty Warriors left their village and joined His Majestys Arms immediately after the declaration of War in consequence of an attack made upon their village by the Enemy in which Captn John McDonell and a Party of Voyageurs were made Prisoners of War. That this Party and their Families after leaving their Houses in the village were obliged to build Huts on Islands & on their Reservation in Charlottenburgh to shelter them from the inclemency of the weather during the Winter Season and that their Families were very frequently left while the Warriors were on Service in extreme indigence and with very uncertain means of subsistence.”
They also documented the activities of the pro-British warriors throughout the war:
“That during the War this Party in consequence of an order from Sir John Johnson in March 1813, accompanied Lieut. Leclair of the Indian Department to the Niagara Frontier where they were frequently engaged in fighting the Enemies of their Country and where a number of them were either killed in action or received wounds of which they afterwards died or received wounds of which they recovered. That they continued in His Majestys employ and service during the whole of the war, were on the Expedition to Plattsburgh under Sir George Prevost, on the Expedition in pursuit of General Wilkinson’s army to the Four Corners of Chateauguy and were useful on many other occasions. That twenty two out of Sixty were either killed or died from other causes during the War.”
As for those who refused the British call to arms, “It appeared by the same source of information that the Portion of the tribe which remained at St Regis after the Capture of Captn McDonell & Party was in the habit of frequently visiting the Enemy’s Garrison at Salmon River in small numbers and that they all drew Rations from the American Government during the whole or greater part of the War and that out of the number upwards of twenty of them actually carried arms for the Enemy.”
The committee noted that internal divisions continued long after the war came to an end:
“Since the War the Chiefs and Indians who joined his Majesty finding their dwellings at St Regis in a state of decay and ruin and apprehensive that it would not be safe for them or their Families to return to St Regis in account of the animosity subsisting between them and the other Indians remained for a long time at their Huts on the Islands and other places but in consequence of an Order from the Govt thro Mr B. Frobisher three of the Chiefs and Forty eight Warriors have returned to their former places of abode. Some of the Chiefs and Men are still absent & are determining not to return as they say they never can live on the same terms as before the War with those who joined their Enemies and opposed them during its continuance. The portion of the Tribe which remained in the village expressed their readiness to receive them again among them but appeared unwilling to give them any control over their Lands within the United States which they say are managed by three Chiefs who are authorized to receive the rents.”
A year before, British and American surveyors camped out on St. Regis Island to survey the international border. Major Joseph Delafield, the American agent, mentioned in his journal, “A question may arise as it relates to the 45 of latitude like this: should not the latitude be calculated to the spheroidical figure of the earth? The present line of 45 is by the usual astronomical supposition of the earth being a sphere. Calculate it as a spheroidical parallel, and the line will be drawn 14’ 58” North of the present line, adding that gain of territory to the United States.”
Delafield noted that the community was still divided by British and American factions. They visited Margaret Gray, a woman of the American faction, and left her with a gift of three dollars. The British faction complained to the priest, who said, “Margaret has probably been free with these Gentlemen. Let her keep her reward!”
Delafield went on to remark, “The U. S. flag & a few pounds of powder presented to the American Chiefs here would so far as I can discover, set all things right. They rally under the British flag because they have no other — and rejoice with the powder presented to them by the British, because no one else gives it to them. I would make the village thoroughly American with $50.”
Ten years later, complaints about the factionalism prompted the British government to write to the President of the United States, who then ordered the federal Indian Agent, Jasper Parrish, to investigate. He sent his son Edward from Canandaigua, New York, to Akwesasne in January of 1828. He reported back to his father the results of his inquiry:
“I was not able to find that any depredations or violence of any kind had been commited by one party of the Indians against the other. The nature and extent of the outrage commited in June last by the American Indians, was their hoisting the flag of the United States in Canada (& this was done in the Indian village, all of which is in Canada). No violence of any kind was used at, or since that time, by one party against the other. - I learnt upon my arrival at St. Regis, that two lines had been run by the Commissioners, neither of which has as yet been laid down as permanent. In this situation they are without any other boundary line, than the old one. This has been the cause (I fear) of most of the difficulties heretofore existing between them. Both parties are anxious that a boundary line be fixed throughout their reservations at present they differ as to the line thus should be called the boundary.”
He went on to note how bad the divisions had become. “The American Indians informed me that the British Indians residing at St Regis had told them that they must move into the United States in the Spring & leave their houses & improvements, most of which are in Canada,” he wrote. “The population of the American Indians at St Regis & within Canada, as near as I could learn is 350 & that of the British Indians 300 – I have endeavoured to enrol the Indians claiming the protection of the government, and herewith report their names.”
He concluded with an optimistic note: “I was well received by the Indians on both sides, and our Indians gave me appearances that they would obey the order of the President of the United States, and would cultivate friendly feelings toward each other.”
By 1842, squabbles over the timber resources of the community by the British and American factions led to a council being called. With chiefs from Kahnawake and Kanehsatake present as observers, a proclamation was written to end the border conflict once and for all. “That the minds of all parties should be at rest and quiet when they lived together.”
They also addressed the possibility of future wars disrupting the peace of the community:
“It is hereby further agreed that in the event of war or other disturbance whereby we maybe separated or scattered abroad that after peace and quiet shall be re-established each and every one of our people on both parties shall be at liberty to return and take possession of his former estate in order that we as a people may continue to live in love and harmony, together at St. Regis.”
They were also aware that the outside powers might someday change the location of the boundary between their respective territories:
“It is further agreed hereby that the disagreement and misunderstanding which has hither existed between us by reason of the land mark or division line of our respective possessions are now ended and that which ever party may predominate at St. Regis, let not that party abuse or ill treat the other party, and if at any future time the division which now separates Canada from the State of New York, should be altered so as to bring our village altogether into one side of said line let not that be pretext for abusing or taking advantages of the members of that party who may happen to reside on the other side of the said line.”
In 1855, Benson J. Lossing visited Akwesasne to do research for his 1869 book, The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812. He discovered that the border between the United States and Canada had finally been fixed. It did not seem to matter to those doing the fixing that the line went through the middle of a home and a store:
“Just after leaving the church we met the venerable Captain Le Clerc, already mentioned, who had lived in St. Regis fifty-seven years. He accompanied us to the house of Francois Dupuy, one of the two merchants then in St. Regis. Dupuy’s store and dwelling were on the forty-fifth parallel of north latitude, which is the dividing-line here between the United States and Canada. That line passed through his house; and while an attendant was preparing some lemonade for us within the dominions of Queen Victoria, we were sitting in the United States, but in the same room, waiting to be served. On the margin of the street opposite Dupuy’s stood one of the cast-iron obelisks, three feet and a half in height, which are placed at certain intervals along that frontier line as boundary monuments. Upon its four sides were cast appropriate inscriptions, in raised letters.”
In 1882, A. Dingman, Inspector of Indian Agencies and Reserves for the Canadian government, came to Akwesasne as part of an undercover investigation of the liquor trade and the overall conditions of the reserve.
“... the village contains a steamboat landing; a very large stone church (unfinished), belonging to the Roman Catholics; the residence of the Catholic Priest (a large stone structure); a small frame school house; the residence and offices of Robert Tyre Esq. postmaster and collector of Customs; a small grocery kept by an Indian named William Adams; and two hotels, one being situated near the steamboat landing and occupied by Joseph Sawyer, who is a lessee of the Indian Department, and the other is situated on the International Line which runs diagonally through the sitting room. This hotel is occupied by Lewis G. Bero, who has a grocery attached. He rents the premises from four Indians, two of whom live on the American side of the line, and two on the Canadian Side, and pays each one fifty dollars for annum, making two hundred dollars in all. There is a good public road running south west from the steamboat landing past both of the hotels, to Hogansburg, which is about two miles from St. Regis. On the American Side of the International Line is situated a large American Reserve, occupied by about 1,100 Indians.”
That “International Hotel” is long gone now, replaced by a house that was itself eventually torn down and replaced. Gone as well is the old boundary marker across the street, torn out with a tractor by a modern Mohawk activist in a fit of nationalism. A cemetery straddles the border to the west of the missing marker, as does Akwesasne’s radio station and the offices of our newspaper. To the casual visitor, the physical border is nearly impossible to discern, but it’s legal existence continues to plague residents. Akwesasne’s elected leaders, presiding over dual governments according to the border, are now the largest employers in Akwesasne. They have made no effort to consolidate their two “houses.”
Darren Bonaparte, a Mohawk historian from Akwesasne, is the author of Creation & Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois and A Lily Among Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha. Both books are available from Amazon.com.