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Mohawk Tribe in a New Border War

The recent communication from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne band council regarding American border security initiatives reveals a basic human understanding. No person or group should be treated with disdain based upon who they are as people, or where they live. Many would see it as a fundamental right of existence being violated. It is at least a quality of life reference point. Or do national security concerns outweigh plain common sense here?

Understand that when a Canadian First Nation government feels it necessary to respond to the implicit grandstanding of a New York congressman, it speaks volumes about the establishment of public expectations. Criminalizing the thousands of people who proudly live here, for where they live, really strikes at the heart of American “values.” This concept of wholesale conviction is counterproductive.

Historically, the border was wrongly laid through the Akwesasne Territory. The “original” survey team that embarked from Lake Champlain to St. Regis Village had numerous deficiencies working against it, when the border was first being mapped. The Mohawk islands on the St. Lawrence River have never been properly addressed. No input from anyone at Akwesasne was ever brought to play while all of this was going on. Normalizing these errors, whether planned or incidental, has led to alienation and numerous disaffected Mohawk residents, living on both sides of this imposed northern boundary.

Jumping to the present day, the place is thriving, amidst a bleaker depressed regional landscape. Population is way up. More children are being taught to understand their roots and language. Retired tribal members come back here to live out the rest of their days. The phenomenon of a stable population base is a trend-buster for the other neighboring North Country communities in the region. Brain drain is in full effect in those declining areas.

Realistically, this has been accomplished living almost two hours north of Lake Placid. That’s saying something about the hardiness of the people here. These are strong people with individual family stories to tell about how they made it this far, for this long. They were not born yesterday. In fact, their parents lived here before Canada or the USA had even been “born.” By and large, most Mohawks here understand these circumstances of both their common history and location.

As a disclosure, I fully recognize the persistent national security concerns about this area. It has been called a jurisdictional nightmare. The mispronunciation of the place name itself by some English speakers lends itself to their own uncertainties of pre-colonial history. A screenwriter I know matter-of-factly says that you could not make this place up even if you tried and no one would believe you if you did.

It’s also a place falsely linked with the physical entry of some 9/11 attackers into the US, made while the airplane attacks were still underway. No retraction has ever made or even been attempted. Specific arguments about Akwesasne should be well formed therefore, given this sensitivity. Instead, the broad brush of political gain is wielded by those who could otherwise make a constructive difference. What a patent waste.

I often sense that the negative labelling is really reflecting an anti-intellectual response to an extremely awkward political situation. What would be summarily addressed by the federal government otherwise is left derelict for a solution here. A level of bureaucratic hopelessness is clung to.

It may seem to be that way based on the briefing papers and maps being looked at about the area, but not all of the avenues have been pursued to address these longstanding issues. This is much easier to understand if you lived here instead of just speculating on the factors at play. I hope that the members of the United States Congress who might be exposed to this topic may find some clarity in this understanding. The residents of this unremoved land, from the lowest to highest, surely do.

To date, there has never been a framework to enjoin Mohawks directly to play a part in the security of the region. Less than a handful of federally sworn or even cross-sworn agents of Mohawk heritage are employed in this capacity. The implication seems to be, we do not trust your people to police your own land.

This moral position contrasts with the vacant Department of Justice response to the predatory land transactions that compromised this rural area to begin with. Even after the Indian Non-Intercourse legislation had been passed, New York-based speculators acted in contravention of that set of laws, which eroded the original reservation land base. This region that is again being scrutinized, with dire public warnings and alarm, was of original Indian land title that has since been almost picked clean without US congressional approval transfer. Just imagine how that plays on the people who have continued to live here throughout the whole dark affair, weaned on distrust.

Instead, the preferred reliance is upon arms-length surveillance technology and funding municipal police agencies in the area to implement a cordon around the reservation lands. This tactical approach is further invested in the so-called “virtual fence” that suggests how future federal dollars will be spent on the northern border. The desire to employ this data collection technology on tribal lands, for example in a more widespread manner beyond the St. Lawrence shorelines, has been studied by DHS. Ultimately, the operational trend remains in mode to spend down agency budgets as opposed to building robust partnerships.

No one person or group is trying to purposefully infiltrate this reservation. Rather, there are human elements that could be perceived as a threat to the United States that potentially could be seeking transit through the tribal lands to reach the USA. To a lesser extent, there is also a northern exodus across to Canada, in many cases due to American criminal records accessible by Canadian customs, which would otherwise bar the entry on Canadian immigration requirements.

A Mohawk border protection force could be empowered with securing the perimeter of the reservation, rather than waiting for the infiltrating elements to move beyond the international border itself. Suspects arrested just outside the reservation boundaries reinforce an unmistakable perception of the so-called “unguarded border” security perspective. This would not be the case with an upscaled model of regional teamwork and cooperation.

Instead of an arbitrary line dividing the people, a circular enforcement pattern could be the shape of the solution. A patrolling body made up of the people who know this land the best would be a huge resource. Public safety and rescue operations could be powerfully marshalled with the right support and intentions.

It is my understanding that local DHS personnel operating at the ground level around Akwesasne are keen on such tangible initiatives. This hope goes beyond a few quiet words. Some local ICE inspectors have even begun to informally undertake Mohawk language classes, to reflect the respect that they can personally see, now accessible to them. By doing so, they exhibit an initiative that they hope will be rewarded on a daily basis.

Bureaucratically, the appointment of agency tribal liaisons remains an institutional start but is only scratching the surface of a potential cohort. The Canadian CBSA –MCA liaison program also reflects a glimpse of what might be put into play. The bottom line for both Washington D.C. and Ottawa power circles to understand is that these ideas need support and funding made available to them.

ICE already funds American Indian-staffed interdiction and tracking teams that supplement southern border enforcement on trust land status reservations via the Shadow Wolves program. Not all of these human assets are just from the immediate area. Blackfeet trackers work side-by-side with other Navajo field operator teams on the Tohono O’odham lands in Ariz.

The belief that military enlistment is the only way to participate in national defense is an outdated concept. Adapting a homelands approach to border security works to address the effects of the original intrusions against those earliest inhabitants residing on their own lands, especially those Native peoples flanking the contemporary US northern boundary.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II 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.