Nations continue to 'fight for the line'

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The short distance between the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the Canada Border Services Agency can seem like no man's land to many Native North Americans who attempt to pass freely across the border. Forced by U.S. law to show identification issued by a country from which one does not accept citizenship is one thing. It is outright humiliating to be told that one's tribal or First Nations-issued identification means ''nothing'' to a border agent. A recent incident at an Ontario border crossing sparked controversy in Canada, but with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring passports for all travelers entering the states imminent, the story should have raised more eyebrows here in the midsection of Turtle Island.

Brandon Nolan, a professional Ojibway hockey player (and son of Ted Nolan, a well-known National Hockey League playmaker and coach), said he was harassed and denied entry into his native Canada in August by a pair of customs officials. According to media reports, Nolan presented a New York state driver's license and a First Nation status card. The license, said one officer, did not provide proof of U.S. residence, and the status card meant ''nothing'' to him. Nolan was sent back to the United States and it was suggested he try another port of entry, specifically the crossing at ''Cornwall.'' The guard referred to the only customs house in Canada located on Native territory, on Cornwall Island, Ontario (known locally by its Mohawk name, Kawennoke). Nolan was offended by the comment, aware that the port at Akwesasne is often associated with drug smuggling and other illegal activities. ''I was treated like a criminal,'' the young man said.

This sentiment is common among residents of the Akwesasne territory. Mohawks comprise three-quarters of the border crossers there, according to a study conducted by Transport Canada, and often experienced similar incidents. Despite a traffic lane designated specifically for Akwesasne Mohawks, complaints of harassment by customs officers continue. Efforts by nation and tribal governments to improve relations between the community and the CBP have increased in importance since the proposal of the WHTI.

Unrestricted passage and trade on the North American continent for Indian people was the founding principle of the Indian Defense League of America in 1926. An annual border crossing in the form of a peaceful walk across the Whirlpool Bridge at Niagara Falls, N.Y., symbolizes a continuous assertion of Indian sovereignty. It serves as a reminder of the inherent and treaty-based rights guaranteed to Indians by the Jay Treaty of 1794 and the Treaty of Ghent of 1814. These treaties had been in place for more than a century when both the Immigration Act and Citizenship Act of 1924 were imposed by the United States, threatening to limit the border-crossing abilities of Native North Americans. Today a number of factors contribute to a growing resistance by United States and Canadian border agents to recognize these rights, and to an increase in allegations of hostile treatment by customs officials at border crossings.

Department of Homeland Security initiatives, including the forthcoming WHTI requirements, have disrupted the lives of countless Indian people and communities. Not only have rules and regulations been implemented without initial consultation with tribes, but little consideration has been taken for effects on border-blind tribal economies, healthcare delivery, educational opportunities and cultural well-being. Despite these concerns, calls for Homeland Security funding to be distributed directly to tribal nations have been largely ignored. Funds for local anti-terrorism strategies and emergency preparedness continue to be funneled through state and county governments. In border communities, and for Indian people just trying to pass through, the effect is doubly frustrating - little to no funding for tribal preparedness efforts, but plenty of post-Sept. 11, 2001 racial profiling and harassment.

At the end of his life, noted Cayuga leader Deskaheh encouraged us to ''fight for the line,'' to remember our rights as Indian peoples and ensure that future generations enjoy them as well. Continuing to antagonize local Native populations, potentially the most valuable allies, is simply bad policy for United States and Canada border protection agencies. Here cooperation is key. Just resolution of border issues will not occur until Indian nations are consulted and treated with the same respect afforded other sovereign nations.