SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Emerging Haudenoshaunee scholar Audra Simpson (Kahnawake Mohawk) conducted a lecture at the Syracuse University School of Law's MacNaughton Hall on Feb. 26 as part of the university's on-going speaker series on American Indian culture and law.
The lecture titled "The Radicalized Life of Treaty: Mohawk Border Crossing, the International Boundary Line and Narratives of Citizenship Colliding" examined the experiences and perceptions of members of Kahnawake Mohawk Nation as they journeyed back and forth between Canada and the United States. The lecture was based on her doctoral dissertation in anthropology from McGill University in Montreal.
Simpson, currently a fellow of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., kicked off the lecture by first thanking the Onondaga Nation for allowing her and others in attendance to visit the nation's territory. She said Haudenoshaunee perceptions of the international boundary have differed greatly from the time of Red Jacket to the present day. The concept of an artificial barrier in time and space in the middle of territory the Mohawk and other Haudenoshaunee consider to be their own territory is often in conflict with the political jurisdictions of Canada and the United States, according to Simpson. Treaty rights, such as those of free passage guaranteed by the Jay Treaty of 1795, are often subject to the prejudicial interpretation of border officials based on her research of Kahnawake Mohawk border crossing experiences.
"These border utterances speak from perception of the northeast as a territory that belongs to the Iroquois and that it is a place that was divided and is administered without their consent," said Simpson.
Simpson said the rights of the Iroquois to act in accordance with their own perception of citizenships of their own territory and not as citizens of a foreign power are exasperated by the treatment they receive when crossing the border. She cited from her research the experience of one Kahnawake Mohawk who was interrogated by a U.S. official who challenged his blood quantum, family history and documentation as a status member of the Mohawk Nation as justification to freely cross the border. It was only after he stated that he had been born in the United States was he allowed to continue his trip.
In another instance, Kahnawake Mohawk journalists were attempting to cross the border on the west coast en route to a media conference in the United States using their Indian status cards as identification and proof of citizenship. The journalists were met by an official who claimed to be of Cherokee decent who was going to deny them entry because they did not have a letter from the chief of their community stating they were recognized members of the Mohawk Nation. Simpson said the official claimed that in the Cherokee Nation everyone crossing the border has such letters and the free passage rights of the Haudenoshaunee to cross the border were restricted to
"Although the people I worked with derive from a single nation, reservation community in southwestern Quebec - within the space and place of Canada - their points of view are politically and largely the affairs and concerns of the Mohawk Nation and the Iroquois Confederacy, rather than the politics found on either side of the internal boundary," Simpson said, adding her interest was more in the content of the Mohawks' ideas of citizenship.
Getting to and from the border from Kahnawake and its location in Quebec raises further complications for the Mohawk conceptions of citizenship. Simpson said Quebec considers itself to be a national government and is another source of artificial boundaries.
Simpson said there is more study needed on how border guards and other officials are trained and operate to determine the source of the negative treatment of Haudenoshaunee border crossers. A possible source of their reactions is the popular perception in the United States that border crossers, in particular those from Mexico, are disruptive to what Simpson said is termed "the national fabric" of the country. She said the two sets of experiences are quite different and are not part of any desired change in jurisdictional status or citizenship.
"For Iroquois people, the border acts not as a site of transgression but rather as a site for the activation and articulation of their rights," Simpson said.