CORNWALL, Ontario – Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has taken many steps to secure the country and protect it from terrorists. Communities along both of the U.S. borders have been personally impacted by the changes, particular Native communities like Akwesasne.
At Akwesasne, many Mohawks face inspection from Customs officers on a daily basis, as they pass over the U.S./Canada border to go to work, attend school, visit family members, conduct business or shop. Akwesasne’s strategic location rests partly in Quebec, partly in Ontario and partly in New York state, subjecting its residents to cross-border inspection regularly. Their passage through the U.S. Port of Entry nearest to them has become increasingly difficult and often delayed as security has tightened since 9/11.
The concerns of various officials from Indian country were expressed during the International Indigenous Cross-Border Security Summit on March 17 and 18. During the two-day event, the concerns of both Natives and non-Natives were heard in the same venue, and participants from all sides of the issues agreed that the summit was necessary and productive.
“This summit is an opportunity to share information between indigenous leaders and government authorities on border issues related to international crime, terrorism and identification cards,” said Mohawk Council of Akwesasne District Chief Michael Mitchell before the summit. “We welcome this opportunity to highlight our best efforts to battle organized crime and terrorism. The media seldom covers our efforts to deal with these issues and our struggle to advance our rights. This is a concern for indigenous people.”
The summit was held, in part, to address the growing need for Indian country leaders to meet face to face with government officials to discuss the growing issues of border security.
“It is important that the federal governments of Canada and the United States consult with the leaders of indigenous nations on the national homeland security strategies and programmatic initiatives and all related topics,” said Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “We as indigenous leaders must be engaged in this dialogue and communicate our concerns and recommendations on these matters.”
Akwesasne is one of two reservations that physically straddle the U.S./Canada border, the other being the Micmacs of Maine. The Tohono O’odham straddle the U.S./Mexico border. Many other Native communities are located near the northern and southern borders, close enough to subject them to unwelcome inconvenience caused by tightened security or by the increase in crime related to cross-border activities.
“The indigenous nations living near and adjacent to the present-day borders are the first to feel the impacts upon their territory from those who seek to do us harm,” Garcia said. “Whether the threats are drug-smuggling, which place the health and well-being of our children at risk, or terrorist activities which can cause great harm to the cultural social and economic viability of tribal communities, we will gather to share our thoughts on this important topic and seek solutions.”
Indian officials came from far and wide to attend the summit and hear the concerns of others or to address their own. Along with tribal leaders, representatives from the Assembly of First Nations of Canada and the NCAI attended. They were met by representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Canada Border Services Agency, Foreign Affairs Canada and various law enforcement agencies.
The summit was hosted by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and co-hosted by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, AFN and the NCAI.
Two pressing issues were the topic of many workshops and presentations during the summit.
The first was the U.S. government’s plan to require a secure form of identification when anyone enters or re-enters the country. While the original plan proposed by the Bush administration was to require passports, other options are being considered.
“Indian people are concerned about their ways of life [being impacted],” said Clifford Koenig, who represented the DHS Office of Border Patrol. “Their biggest concern is maintaining their culture.”
Koenig said that information shared during the summit helped all parties in attendance. He also noted that the passport requirement is not set in stone.
An Alberta-based company, Treaty 7, has been exploring the current status cards used by Natives to cross the U.S. border and they have examined how such cards could be improved to potentially meet the security needs of the federal government.
The second pressing issue addressed during the summit was crime and the need to fight it along the border with the cooperation of policing agencies on and off reservations. Akwesasne’s own police agencies – one on each side of the border – receive little federal funding. They generally have the budget of small-town police forces but are responsible for patrolling 12 miles of border.
“What the tribes are dealing with, it’s not a pretty picture,” said NCAI representative Robert Holden. “One of the things we want to do is support [the police] and try to bring about the unmet needs that these tribal law enforcement deserve and should have, since they’re on the front lines standing in harm’s way day in and day out; and we owe them as much to have all the resources they need to do their jobs.”
“Other tribes are having similar problems in terms of no support for tribal efforts related to border security and protection,” said SRMT Chief James Ransom. “Other border tribes have significantly larger border areas to patrol than Akwesasne and their police forces are not as well-developed as ours.”
As the summit concluded, a generally feeling of accomplishment was expressed by many of the attendees. It was the first opportunity many had had to share their concerns.
“I think we walked away with a strong indication that outside policing agencies want to work with tribes and First Nations on border security issues and that they recognize we play an important role in this effort,” Ransom said.
A second summit has been discussed but not yet planned. A report on the first summit, which was closed to the public, is expected to be released soon.