PRESQUE ISLE, Maine - Tightened security on the U.S. border is plaguing
Northeastern tribes as well as Southwestern ones, but some positive steps
William "Billy" Phillips, chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians in
the northern crown of Maine, told stories of long delays in what used to be
routine border crossings to visit relatives in Canada. Like the Tohono
O'odham in Arizona, the Micmacs straddle the international boundary, with
22 of their 23 bands located in Canada's Maritime Provinces.
"There's all kinds of trouble trying to cross the border," Phillips said.
To the west, the St. Regis Mohawk have a different boundary problem. In the
New York state half of the Akwesasne Mohawk community, which stretches into
Canada across the St. Lawrence Seaway, the St. Regis tribal government has
borne the extra cost of policing the border without adequate authority to
do the job.
Some changes might be on the way, however. Phillips and other eastern
tribal leaders took their complaints to the mid-year meeting of the United
South and Eastern Tribes June 27 for a give-and-take with officials from
the Department of Homeland Security. And the New York state Legislature
passed a bill before its June 23 adjournment that would restore full police
power to the St. Regis Tribal Police Department.
The New York measure would recognize tribal officers as police officers
under New York state law, giving them authority to arrest non-Indians and
enforce all criminal statutes, not just tribal law. The power is especially
important for policing the reservation's 12-mile international border, a
difficult terrain of riverbank and islands.
"This is a big morale boost for our department," said Tribal Police Chief
Andrew Thomas. The St. Regis Tribe employs 13 full-time officers. Since
2000, their authority had been limited to enforcing tribal law and
arresting Indians. They could only detain non-Indian suspects to turn over
to appropriate authorities, often a time-consuming task.
Added Tribal Chief Barbara A. Lazore: "The role of our police department
has transformed and its services extend beyond our community and protect
national interests. The police bill acknowledges their efforts in
preserving peace throughout the region and their long history of
cooperating with surrounding law enforcement agencies on joint
investigations, providing mutual assistance and protecting the border."
Like cross-deputization agreements in general, the new measure required
some compromise. It provides for a waiver of sovereign immunity for suits
against the St. Regis Department and requires adequate insurance - a
sticking point in California, for instance. The State Police superintendent
would set training requirements for the St. Regis force.
In return, however, the efficiency of the force is expected to improve,
both for internal policing and border security. "Cross-dep" agreements in
general have been endorsed by the International Association of Chiefs of
Police as a means of harmonizing tribal jurisdiction with surrounding
communities. They were cited to the U.S. Supreme Court in the U.S. v. Lara
case as a vindication of tribal sovereignty.
Tribal Chief James W. Ransom said: "Our police force is an integral part of
Integrated Border Enforcement Team and works very closely with the U.S.
Customs, Border Patrol, FBI, State Police and their Canadian counterparts
on border security.
"This stretch of border is extremely hard to patrol and the cooperation of
our tribal police is essential. Restoring their police authority to arrest
non-Natives will help improve our region's first line of defense on the
Although some anti-Indian groups have tried to portray border reservations
as a weak link against terrorist infiltration, the evidence runs strongly
the other way. The St. Regis community was galvanized by the Sept. 11, 2001
attacks on the World Trade Center, which some Mohawk ironworker crews
witnessed from a neighboring building. Tribes along both international
boundaries responded with increased vigilance.
The irony, as Phillips observed, is that the same vigilance now subjects
Indian border crossers to increased harassment.