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Border Towns and Free Lands

With the holiday season upon us, the advertisements try to get us to all think big and throw a party and invite the neighbors over. In some neighborhoods, that may be easier to suggest than in some others.

Throughout my experiences within Indian country, I have had the opportunity to spend time in three communities that had reservations as neighbors. These communities were Bemidji, Minnesota (Ojibwe), Cut Bank, Montana (Niitsitapi) and now Massena, New York (Kanienkehaka). Each location was obviously in cold weather climes, but a thread of shared heritage existed within all of them. For better or worse, they all shared similar opportunities, as well as challenges.

I was introduced to the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation and Bemidji, Minnesota through my brother, Edward, who was an Undergraduate in the Native American studies program at Bemidji State University. If you did not have a car there, you could not easily get around or between the communities, especially in winter. Still, many Onkwehonweh (Iroquois People) shopped in Bemidji, which was known for its Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox theme. A number of Ojibwe also lived in Bemidji all year long.

Cut Bank, Montana is located approximately thirty miles from the Blackfeet Tribal Nation, at Browning, Montana. The intersections of US highways 2 and 89 bring millions of people through this eastern doorway to The Backbone of the World, the Rocky Mountains. I had the pleasure of living in Browning while employed by the Blackfeet Community College. The late Elouise Cobell lived just down the road, and I met many wonderful, committed Blackfoot Confederacy people there.

Now, I live in Massena, New York, or Nikentsiá:ke (Where the Fish Are) as it is known in the Kanienkeha (Mohawk) language. Massena is only about ten miles from Akwesasne and realizes tremendous shopping volume from its neighbors. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe asserts tribal sovereignty over 1796 Treaty demarcated areas, including an area in Massena. Over three-hundred students with Akwesasne connections attend the Massena Central School District. Many Massena residents are employed by the Class III Akwesasne Mohawk Casino.

All communities are affected by the wide geographical, as well as historical reach, of their respective Onkwehonweh populations. The Blackfoot Confederacy dominated the cross-border regions spanning the Rocky Mountains. The Ojibwe formidably occupied wide Canadian and American holdings alike themselves. Kanienkehaka influences span from Edmonton to Newfoundland, Lake Mistassini, Quebec to the Mid-Atlantic, anchoring the Eastern Door of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Yet today, these free-ranging Onkwehonweh are now all forced to deal with an internationally-recognized border they had no say in approving or agreeing to heed. Furthermore, they have also at times, been ostracized by the border towns that have arisen on their sovereign lands, following this imposition.

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Bemidji has been characterized as the most racist city in America, according to published accounts. Although one quarter of the community residents were Ojibwe, the municipality fought hard to deny the implementation of the federal Affirmative Action law related to city hiring, brought by an Ojibwe activist. A local watering hole was appropriately named the Hard Times Saloon.

Cut Bank, for instance, was known for a group called the East Slope Taxpayers, which railed against tribal sovereignty. More recently, Glacier County Commissioner Ron Rides at the Door, a Blackfeet Tribal member, was beaten as he attempted to stop an attack by three Cut Bank residents on one assault victim. Racial epithets were made during the second assault, but no hate crime charges were ever filed. The Blackfeet Tribal Council roundly protested the lack of justice.

Even in contemporary times, I see the cultural divide that exists in my own neighborhood. A Village of Massena trustee recently wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to extol the merits of moving forward with a less-comprehensive industrial pollution remediation at the EPA Superfund cleanup site on the Grasse River. The trustee wrote, according to published reports, “Care must be taken to avoid allowing the voices of a few to dictate the future of our area.” The downriver Kanienkehaka at Akwesasne have rebutted that underfunding the clean-up would be cultural genocide for future generations.

Despite these noted inadequacies, potential remains in these relationships.

Each community could do more to explore the grants which exist to build multicultural community centers, benefitting all population segments, but driven by the disproportionate numbers of Onkwehonweh living off-reservation. Chamber of Commerce activities in some of these communities also now include reservation businesses in their programming and marketing. Community oversight boards have now begun to include Onkwehonweh as directors.

From the days when their neighbor’s regional influences spanned states and provinces, these communities truly are distinctive, based upon symbiotic populations and shared economies. The psychology of fellowship feasts upon mutual respect and acceptance, not the discord and scorn of historical intolerance. Friends are where you find them.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War Two veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.