SYRACUSE, N.Y - After the War of 1812, peace negotiators sought to
physically separate the newly independent United States from the British
colony of Canada. They drew a line up the St. Lawrence River, across Lake
Ontario, up the Niagara River and through Lake Erie that sundered Americans
from British Canadians. It divided the Haudenosaunee as well.
More than two centuries later, crossing this border is a feature of the
daily lives of contemporary Haudenosaunee people and remains a critical
On Nov. 8, the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship at
Syracuse University held a panel discussion entitled "Imposed Borders:
Haudenosaunee Perspectives." Participants discussed the continued impact of
the international boundary on Haudenosaunee life. Center director Robert
Odawi Porter, Seneca Heron clan, moderated the event.
"I haven't found any other Indians that have so much concern and intensity
over borders as the Haudenosaunee - why is this?" Porter asked.
One panelist, Chief Brad Powless, Onondaga Eel clan, spoke of early
relations between the Haudenosaunee and the European newcomers.
In the early 1600s, Powless said, "we noticed new neighbors on our
borders." His ancestors, he said, recognized early on that contact with
Europeans would continue for "a long time." Even though the newcomers' ways
were different, this did not give Indians the right to impose Native ways
on their new neighbors, he said.
"How can laws be transferred from one people to another people?" Powless
He displayed the Guswhenta -a wampum belt showing two purple bands on a
white background. Also called the "two-row wampum," the Guswhenta
represents a treaty of friendship between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch
negotiated in the mid 1600s.
The three white stripes denote "peace, friendship and forever," which,
Powless said, are supposed to last "as long as the grass grows green, the
sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and as long as the rivers
The purple bands are parallel paths down the river of life taken by the
Europeans' ship and the Indians' canoe, he said. The tight knots at one end
of the belt denote the beginning of the Dutch-Iroquois relationship, while
the unfinished, frayed end means that the two peoples remain on their
parallel but separate journeys.
European ideas of individual land ownership and strictly defined boundaries
were alien to the Haudenosaunee way of thinking.
"We had a difficult time with this idea of boundaries - 'our land' versus
'your land,'" Powless continued, adding that the traditional Haudenosaunee
idea of "one bowl, one spoon" epitomized his people's cooperative and
"The Six Nations always came together," Powless said. "We help each other.
Boundaries are hard to understand. We traveled through others' communities
and lived peaceably in each others' lands."
Audra Simpson, Mohawk, is an assistant professor at Cornell University in
Ithaca, N.Y. She grew up on the Caughnawaga Mohawk territory in
southwestern Quebec, not far from where the U.S. - Canada border cut
through the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation.
"The border is part of our everyday life," Simpson said. While "the border
is not a uniform experience good or bad," she gave examples of demeaning
behavior by border guards encountered during her frequent crossings.
According to Simpson, passports and other forms of identification "permit
as much as they deny." "Bloodification," the imposition of blood quantum
limits, in the passport/ID process is colonialism because it "treats us as
bodies with a percentage of blood in order exercise our rights to move,"
"We're not Canadian and we're not American," Simpson said. "They [the border guards] just don't get it."
Jolene Rickard, Tuscarora, spoke of the Indian Defense League of America,
which has fought for eight decades to uphold Native border crossing rights
granted under the Jay Treaty of 1794 and the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which
ended the War of 1812. Her grandfather, Chief Clinton Rickard, founded IDLA
"My grandfather and his contemporaries had courage to continue to be
Indian, while others said he was 'returning to the blanket,'" Rickard said,
adding that exercising sovereign rights was "a real experience, not just
rhetoric" for many Tuscarora. Chief Rickard and others believed it was
their responsibility to preserve indigenous rights to cross the "medicine
line," as they referred to the border.
"The IDLA was established to guarantee unrestricted passage on the
continent of North America for Indian people," according to a statement on
the group's Web site. "Unrestricted passage is considered an inherent right
for indigenous people."
The group takes its inspiration from Deskaheh, or Levi General, a Caygua
sachem from the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario. In 1923,
Deskaheh traveled to Geneva to address the League of Nations regarding
Canadian interference in treaty rights guaranteed to Native peoples.
Although he gained an enthusiastic following in Europe, Deskaheh was unable
to address the league directly and he returned, discouraged, in 1924.
Every year, on the third Sunday in July, IDLA leads the "Border Crossing
Celebration," a march across the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge that spans the
Niagara River downstream from the famous waterfalls.
Rickard said that IDLA maintains dialogues and is "constantly negotiating"
with four commissions that govern the various bridges between New York and
Canada. In July 2004, approximately 300 people participated in the march
across the border.
"The march is important," Rickard said. "The more people that come out, the
easier it is to maintain the dialogue."