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Cuthand: Passport restrictions fly in the face of tradition

A new chapter began in January with Canada's relationship with the United States concerning new regulations that require passports for air passengers entering the U.S. All non-Americans need a passport to enter the United States and Americans require one to re-enter.

This is not going over well in Indian country, and for good reason. The border has been in place only for about 200 years and it's completely arbitrary when it comes to our traditional national boundaries.

In Saskatchewan, members of the Dakota Nation sought asylum in Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In reality, they had been coming to Canadian territory for years, with their hunting territory extending into southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In the late 1800s, members of the Cree Nation hunted in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana and went as far south as the Missouri River. The Rocky Boy's Reservation is a Cree community located in Montana. The borders for the First Nations of Turtle Island have been fluid and overlapped the boundary for years, with the 49th parallel or ''medicine line'' considered only a minor inconvenience.

Probably the strongest example of disregard for borders is the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne - a unique tract of land that spans the Ontario and Quebec borders and the Canada/U.S. border. There are three councils and three jurisdictions, but people freely cross to work, live and marry on all sides of these lines.

The Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States came into effect in 1794 and First Nations, who had territory and people on both sides of the border, were granted free access. The United States recognizes the Jay Treaty, but Canada doesn't.

First Nations people from Canada are thus allowed to work in the United States, and some communities have built their economy on it. Mohawk ironworkers have built the skyline of many American cities, including the former World Trade Center towers in New York.

Because they recognize the Jay Treaty, Americans welcome First Nations individuals from Canada into the armed forces. Our people go because the pay is better than in the Canadian military. Many young Mohawks have joined the U.S. Marines and served overseas. This fact came out during the Oka Crisis, when the Canadian government found out that Mohawk warriors were the real thing.

Other First Nations people whose territory straddle the border or live close by also have traveled across freely. Participants and followers of rodeos and pow wows travel across the line during summers to visit friends and relatives on both sides.

As First Nations people, we have a close kinship with our brothers and sisters in the United States. We don't see it as different country, but another occupied part of Turtle Island. I was doing a documentary a few summers ago and attended a rodeo in Montana, where I met a Crow Indian who said he had a cousin in Canada. It turned out that his cousin was my cousin.

Many of our people also travel south for seasonal work. At one time, people from the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta traveled to Moses Lake in Washington to pick apples. A community on the reserve was called ''Moses Lake'' because of this.

Many members of the Mohawk Nation don't consider themselves Canadians or Americans, and oppose the new passport restrictions on political grounds. In the good old days, before all this paranoia, the former National Indian Brotherhood sent a delegation to England to lobby against the patriation of the British North America Act.

One of the elders for the brotherhood was Ernie Benedict, a citizen of Akwesasne, who showed up at Heathrow carrying a ''Mohawk passport.''

I was a member of the delegation and we were meeting with officials at the Canadian embassy. Our contact received a call and told us that he just got an urgent message that ''some Indian chief has showed up at the airport with a Mohawk passport.''

He saw the humor in it, and the issue was smoothed over with a temporary solution.

I doubt that we would be so lucky today. Benedict, most likely, would be on the next plane home.

A year from now, the passport requirement to enter the United States will be extended to include land travel. This will be a difficult pill for First Nations to swallow because it flies in the face of the Jay Treaty and the tradition we have of free access within Turtle Island.

Times have changed, and not necessarily for the better. Whatever the outcome, we still have friends and relations on both sides of the border.

Doug Cuthand is an independent producer, director, writer and journalist. His weekly columns appear in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix in Saskatchewan, Canada.