Driving Tour through the Political and Environmental History of Akwesasne
While most Native American and First Nations communities are jurisdictionally complex, Akwesasne, which straddles the borders of New York, Ontario, and Quebec, is exceptionally so. Akwesasro:non are constantly working with, around, and against these boundaries and divisions within their community. The contentious relationship between Akwesasne and the surrounding state and federal governments has taken multiple forms over the past three hundred years, as these outside entities have whittled away at Akwesasne’s land base and imposed different forms of tribal governance. The expropriation of Mohawk land to create the Saint Lawrence Seaway, a feat of engineering that would irrevocably alter the culture and environment of Akwesasne, is emblematic of this relationship. But for the past two centuries, Mohawks at Akwesasne have fought against state and federal governments to resist the imposition of outside governance and the expropriation of their land.
In addition to lines on maps, other boundaries—those between differing religions, between differing economic beliefs, and between “experts” and “cultural knowledge bearers”—have affected how Akwesasro:non carry out their everyday lives and how they have responded to situations like living downstream from one federal and two New York State Superfund sites. In order to properly introduce some of these boundaries and their origins, this chapter will take you on a driving tour of the landscape and history of Akwesasne, traversing State Route 37 from east to west across the southern half of the community. Although not included on the tour, a number of small businesses and artists’ studios are found in Akwesasne that showcase the amazing traditional and contemporary artistry for which Mohawks are known. Numerous eateries are also seen along the route, offering everything from steaks to corn soup to burgers and fries to Asian fusion foods. The tour offered in this chapter is not comprehensive, but it will help you to place the history of Akwesasne within the contemporary landscape.
Driving toward Akwesasne from the east, the first indication that you are approaching sovereign Mohawk territory comes before the official welcome sign at the reservation’s border. Twin Leaf Express, a tax-free gas station, convenience store, and diner, sits at the edge of the town of Fort Covington. The business, which is owned by the Terrance family of Akwesasne, is on land whose ownership the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and New York State have been disputing for decades. The store, which opened in 2009, is stocked with food, soda, beer, and tribal cigarettes, which are cheaper than brand-name cigarettes because they are not subject to the New York State tax. The same is true for the gasoline sold from full-service pumps out front, which is a few cents cheaper per gallon than the gas at other stations in town. The SRMT, not the town of Fort Covington—which attempted to bring suit against the company in 2011 for building code violations—licenses the gas station and convenience store.
Another three and a half miles down the road, past flat, windswept farmland and a few scattered homes, you will come to a sign:
WELCOME TO AKWESASNE
PLEASE COMPLY WITH OUR VEHICLE AND TRAFFIC LAWS.
IT PROTECTS OUR MOHAWK CHILDREN
WE WISH YOU A SAFE AND ENJOYABLE VISIT
Those who do not comply with the vehicle and traffic laws will likely be stopped by SRMT police officers, who patrol the southern half of the community and enforce all federal, New York State, and Tribal laws. The Tribal Police Department was first established in 1972, disbanded in 1980, and reconstituted in 1990. The Tribal Court, which has been adjudicating traffic offenses since December 2000, was established in 1994. Until recently, Tribal police officers had only limited civil police authority, and only as it related to members of the Tribe. After May 2007, Tribal police officers became authorized by New York State, and they are now able to provide a full range of law enforcement services and make arrests for all criminal offenses occurring on the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation. The northern half of the community is patrolled by the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, which enforces the laws of Ontario and Quebec. According to the service’s website, its jurisdiction includes criminal code offenses, violations of by-laws, highway traffic offenses, and Quebec highway safety code offenses. The service was formed in 1970 and worked jointly with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; it became a stand-alone police force in 1991.
Like many Native communities, Akwesasne is peppered with smoke shops. These range from small businesses like Jenn’s, housed in a white shack on your left as you enter the reservation, to larger operations like the Bear’s Den, a gas station/restaurant/gift shop/tobacco retailer located five and a half miles up the road. The business of selling tax-free tobacco is emblematic of some of the tensions between tribes in New York and the state and local governments. For decades, non-Native smokers crossed the border from the land of cigarettes with price tags burdened by state taxes (currently $4.35 per pack in New York) to reservation communities where they benefited from the Native insistence that the constitutional clause “Indians not taxed” extended to the ability to sell tobacco products. Not everyone was happy with this arrangement: the non-Native owners of the convenience stores these shoppers were driving past on their way to the reservations argued that the state’s selective collection of cigarette taxes was a violation of their constitutional equal protection rights. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in the case Department of Taxation & Finance of New York et al. v. Milhelm Attea & Bros et al., that “enrolled tribal members purchasing cigarettes on Indian reservations are exempt from a New York Cigarette Tax, but non-Indians making such purchases are not.” The problem, however, came when the state tried to enter the reservations and collect those taxes. Haudenosaunee communities across the state refused to comply with the ruling, and attempts to seize untaxed cigarettes headed for reservations led to unrest, including the Seneca Nation’s closure of the New York State Thruway with a pile of burning tires. Signs across Akwesasne taunted Governor “George Custer” Pataki and reminded those passing through, “This is not New York State. You are on Mohawk Land.” A series of court cases and new tax laws followed, culminating in a new collection scheme in which all cigarette packs sold in New York State would bear tax stamps, and all wholesale distributors would prepay taxes by purchasing the stamps. Native American nations would obtain tax-free cigarettes for use only by their tribal members by participating in either a coupon system or a prior approval system.
In June 2011, New York State began enforcing the collection of state excise taxes on Marlboro cigarettes and other “premium” brands sold on reservations to non-Native Americans. This led to an increase in the popularity of locally produced cigarettes, crafted in large square buildings on Frogtown Road at the western end of Akwesasne. These cigarettes are sold under local brand names such as Native, Signal, Nation’s Best, and Discount. Billboards advertising these brands are seen along Route 37, and the companies that produce them sponsor local sports teams as well as concerts and other events, including the annual Nation’s Best fashion show and calendar. Two of these companies have even become legitimate in the eyes of the U.S. federal government. Ohserase Manufacturing, owned by the Tarbell family, is one of these; the company received a U.S. Treasury Department permit to manufacture cigarettes in 2010. As part of the deal, it paid $1.75 million in fines for prior cigarette trafficking and tax law violations. The Tarbell family’s convenience stores, which include the Bear’s Den, the Eastern Door, and the Western Door, stopped taking shipments of Marlboro and other major brands, and they now sell mostly Native American cigarettes, some of which are priced as low as $2.00 a pack. However, the major tobacco company Philip Morris USA is now lobbying states to collect more taxes and fees from tribal companies. Truckloads of these locally produced cigarettes have been shipped out to reservations in other parts of the country, but recently they have been seized on the orders of the Saint Lawrence County District Attorney’s Office, despite a New York State Tax Department directive to allow the transport of Native-made cigarettes from one reservation to another. The seized cigarettes are tied up in litigation, and the factories are going quiet. The reservation boundaries at one time signaled a separate and foreign economy to cigarette shoppers and retailers, differentiated from the rest of New York and the nation by lower prices for buyers and greater profits for retailers. With the passage of new tax codes and politicians’ increasing determination to balance the state budget, the tobacco trade at Akwesasne and at other New York reservations has been affected in a way that reservation communities in other states have yet to face.
Other economic draws to the reservation are tribal gaming ventures like the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino and the Mohawk Bingo Palace (“where the winning never stops!” according to its catchy jingle, which airs frequently on the tribal radio station). The driveway to the casino, which is on the right-hand side about three and a half miles past the welcome sign, is lined with large metal sculptures in the shape of traditional hair combs featuring different clan animals, like the wolf, the snipe, the turtle, and the bear. The casino itself is a single-story brick building featuring four restaurants, twenty-six gaming tables, and hundreds of slot machines. A recent expansion has added a new 150-room hotel with spa, fitness area, conference area, and banquet facility. Although it has arguably been a financial boon to the community, the casino was not unanimously welcomed when it was constructed in 1999. Bitter divisions over the issue of gambling contributed to a civil war in Akwesasne, which led to gun battles between “Antis”—traditionalists and others who wanted to keep gambling out of Akwesasne—and Warrior Society members and a pro-gambling faction who wanted to utilize Akwesasne’s sovereign status to generate income. In May 1990, ten months of tension spilled over into violence, leaving two Mohawks dead, two homes burned, and a cultural building firebombed. After the killings, Governor Mario Cuomo dispatched several hundred police officers to the reservation to keep the peace and to escort members of the Quebec police force and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police through the New York portion of the reservation to investigate the shootings, which took place on the New York/Quebec line. Ships from the Canadian armed forces also patrolled the Saint Lawrence River. These events resulted in painful divisions within the community that persist to this day. As Doug George-Kanentiio describes, “Our dreams for a united Mohawk Nation died in the spring of 1990, when we were in a state of civil war from which the wounds have yet to heal.” For some, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino is a reminder of those conflicts. Others point to the jobs the casino has created and the revenue it has brought in, some of which has been used to improve the local health clinic and contribute to programs like the Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club, the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department, the Tsi Tetewatatkens Saint Regis Mohawk Senior Center, and the Akwesasne Mohawk Ambulance Unit. In addition, the proceeds from the casino provide direct support to community members through funding for the Home Heating Fuel Assistance Program, various sports teams, and the Home Repair Program.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino was developed through a compact between the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and the state of New York under regulations created through the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988. But not all would-be entrepreneurs in the community believe in conceding any authority to the state. In July 2011, members of the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne longhouse, who are affiliated with the Warrior Society and do not acknowledge the authority of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, decided to open their own casino. The Three Feathers Casino was located in a sprawling brick building formerly used for manufacturing cigarettes, about two miles west of the SRMT’s casino. Despite orders to cease and desist from the Saint Regis Tribal Gaming Commission, the group operated about four hundred gaming terminals. After the casino had operated with minimal profit for about a year and a half, five men were indicted in December 2012 on federal charges of operating an illegal gambling business, unlawfully possessing gambling devices, and stealing electricity through an unauthorized power connection at the site. While the SRMT chiefs pointed out that the revenues from their casino provide funding for government programs and services, representatives of the group that operated the Three Feathers Casino claimed their intention was to support unenrolled Mohawks who do not receive the Tribe’s services. Some followers of this longhouse have disenrolled themselves from, or chosen not to become listed on SRMT rolls because they do not recognize the SRMT’s authority. While the Warrior Society and the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne longhouse have attempted private gambling ventures in the past, the SRMT, with the authority of the U.S. government and the state of New York, has ensured that it has a legally enforced monopoly on this enterprise. The Three Feathers Casino building currently sits abandoned.
As you leave the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, on your left about half a mile up the road, across from Truck Stop #9 and the Three Feathers Café, is a “For Sale by Owner” sign that non-Native landowner Horst Wuersching had the lack of foresight to post without first approaching the Mohawks. Ordinarily, posting a for-sale sign on private property would not elicit a negative reaction from one’s neighbors. But Wuersching’s 240 acres of wooded property are on disputed land, the “Hogansburg triangle,” part of an ongoing battle between the Akwesasne Mohawk and the state of New York. Akwesasne has irregular borders, like a rhombus someone has chiseled pieces out of. These missing pieces indicate land taken illegally from the Mohawk—by squatters, by the state of New York, and by the Canadian government.
After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris (1783) drew the boundary between British North America and the United States at the forty-fifth parallel. In 1791, land speculator Alexander Macomb bought more than three million acres of land in northern New York, setting aside six square miles and two islands for the use of the Mohawks. A series of Mohawk delegations met with representatives of New York State to assert their claims to land that had been taken by the state. The dispute was considered resolved in 1796 when a treaty was signed with the Seven Nations of Canada ceding all of the Saint Regis lands on the American side, except for six square miles near Saint Regis Village, two areas of one square mile situated around mills the Mohawks had constructed (currently in the middle of the town of Massena and in Fort Covington, where Twin Leaf Express is located), and meadows on the Grasse River. The signatories to that treaty were not representatives of the Seven Nations and did not have the authority to cede Akwesasne land, but Washington still considered the agreement legitimate. A series of additional treaties between 1816 and 1845 sold off most of the land that the Mohawks had claim to, except for about 14,000 acres in New York, 7,384 acres in Quebec, and 2,050 acres on Cornwall Island in Ontario, which make up the current community. In recent decades, Akwesasne Mohawks have begun to pursue land claims against the state of New York for acquiring these lands from the Mohawk without the intervention of the U.S. federal government, contrary to the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act, which prohibits such exchanges.
Another portion of the land claim involves three islands: Barnhart, Baxter (or Croil), and Long Sault. These islands were part of the land granted to Mohawks in the 1796 treaty. The border established by the Treaty of Paris placed Baxter and Barnhart Islands in British territory, though they continued to be part of Mohawk territory. The Treaty of Ghent (1814), which ended the War of 1812, provided a survey of the boundary established by the Treaty of Paris. In 1822, following the Treaty of Ghent Boundary Commission Report, the international boundary was redrawn and lands were exchanged between Britain and the United States, shifting several islands owned and used by the Mohawks from British to American jurisdiction. The British gave Baxter and Barnhart Islands to the United States in exchange for Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ontario. After acquiring the islands, New York sold them to private developers and in 1856 moved to compensate the Mohawks for lost rent from the property, but not for complete loss of the islands. The state did not consider this an outright purchase of land, which would have been in violation of the Trade and Intercourse Act, but rather an “adjustment of a claim that had arisen as the result of the ambiguous language of the 1796 treaty.” The Moses–Saunders Power Dam is anchored on Barnhart Island, and federal law provides tribal nations with the right to share in power revenues when their reservations are used for power production.
The Mohawks have been fighting in court for the return of these lands. In 1996, land claims negotiations derailed when New York State insisted that as part of the settlement, Mohawks also had to agree to collect all state taxes on cigarette sales to non-Indians on their reservation and turn them over to state (part of the cigarette saga described above). The Mohawks wanted this issue handled separately from the land claim, since it involved other Native nations living in New York as well. The federal judge overseeing the Mohawk case in Syracuse agreed with the Mohawks and urged the state to handle tax issues separately from land settlement, but the state refused and broke off negotiations.
In 2005, the Mohawks made a second effort to reclaim the contested land, and an agreement was reached between the state and all three governments in Akwesasne that would end land claim litigation involving 12,000 acres of land. All parties had signed the agreement, but in 2006, the local counties withdrew support after a series of federal court decisions against other tribes’ land claims, as well as the state legislature’s failure to enact the settlement. The Cayuga and Oneida Nations in western New York lost their land claims in 2005 and 2006 because of the length of time that had passed since the land was unlawfully taken and the extent to which the land had become populated by non-Native people. Saint Lawrence and Franklin Counties were emboldened by this news, hoping for a similar outcome in their case.
This is the context in which Wuersching’s hand-painted “For Sale by Owner” sign went up in 2009, on land that should have belonged to the Mohawk community were it not for a stalled legal system. When the Men’s Council of the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne longhouse saw the sign, they promptly painted “NOT” on it in red letters, covered it over with a yellow sign reading “Reclamation Site,” raised the red warrior flag on the site, bulldozed a clearing in the woods, and erected a smoke shop. The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe did not support this unconventional land reclamation; in December 2011, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police assisted in the arrest of Roger Kaneretiio Jock, one of the men representing the Men’s Council (and one of the men arrested for the Three Feathers Casino operation), and turned him over to the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office. The charge was second-degree grand larceny for depriving the deeded owner of his land, a charge recently dropped due to technicalities. While the methods of the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne were unconventional, they drew attention once more to the lands under question surrounding the Mohawk community.
In June 2014, the SRMT chiefs signed an agreement with New York State and Saint Lawrence County that would allow the Tribe to buy almost 5,000 acres of land from willing sellers in the towns of Massena and Brasher and add it to the reservation. In return, a share of Akwesasne Mohawk Casino revenues would be paid to the state and the county. Talks are ongoing with Franklin County, which contains contested land east of the reservation. The settlement is controversial—many community members feel as though their tribe should not have to buy back land that was stolen from them.
The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is fighting similar battles along the northern front of the community. It was recently successful in acquiring funds from the Canadian government as part of the settlement of the Kawenoke-Easterbrook claim, which compensated the tribe for lands illegally leased on Cornwall Island (Kawenoke) between 1820 and 1934. Currently under negotiation are the Dundee land claims in Quebec, on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River roughly opposite Cornwall, Ontario. These lands were part of Mohawk territory but were leased out to non-Mohawk settlers in the early 1800s and then allegedly surrendered by the Mohawk in 1887, although the nation claimed all along that it intended to reclaim the leased lands. Since 2004, Canada and the MCA have been discussing a “lands selection area”—land that will be added back to the reserve after it is purchased with the proceeds of a settlement. In addition, the MCA submitted claims to Canada in June 2012 for lands on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River that were historically farmed and hunted by Mohawks and were part of the lands reserved for the Mohawks of Akwesasne through treaty obligations expressed in 1760 and the Royal Proclamation in 1763. A French deed granted in the early 1700s by Father Gordon of Quebec assured Mohawk ownership of the land. After the War of 1812, soldiers began squatting on the land and were also granted lands for their service by the Crown. Since the lands on the north shore were never surrendered, a claim has been filed for them. Current landowners would not be displaced if this claim were to be successful; rather, First Nations may purchase lands from willing sellers as replacement lands for their communities. These claims also have the potential to expand the landscape as well as the legal and cultural purview of Akwesasne.
As you drive west past the reclaimed land site, if you take a right onto Cook Road and follow a series of winding back roads north, you will find yourself in the district of Tsi Snaihne—or Snye, as it is more commonly known—a low-lying riverside community that contains homes, a few small businesses, and the Iohahi:io Akwesasne Adult Education and Training Centre. Probably without realizing it, since there is no Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) reporting site, you have crossed into land that the province of Quebec considers within its boundaries. Residents of Snye are known as avid fishermen, skilled basket makers, and devoted Mohawk-language speakers. Heading back out onto the main road, and continuing west on Route 37, you will come upon the first traffic light in town. If you take a right onto Saint Regis Road at this intersection and drive north, you will again cross over an invisible line into territory over which Quebec claims jurisdiction. There is no CBSA reporting station here either, but on the side of the road there once stood a stone obelisk marking the U.S.–Canadian border. In October 2009, members of the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne used a backhoe to dislodge and cart away the obelisk to remove the border demarcation in the middle of their community. Now as you drive north on Saint Regis Road, the only markers that indicate you have crossed into Canada are the speed limit signs specifying the maximum kilometers per hour rather than miles per hour. This road will take you into the village of Saint Regis, or Kana:takon, which houses some of the government buildings for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the elected government for the northern half of the community. The Kanonhkwat’sheri:io clinic, the health facility for the constituents of the MCA, is located here, in a cluster of buildings that also houses the offices of the community newspaper, Indian Time, as well as the community radio station, 97.3 CKON, which plays a mixture of country music, hip-hop, and Mohawk language instruction, as well as the music of local celebrities, like the “Nammy” Award–winning Teresa “Bear” Fox. CKON is considered a pirate radio station; it is licensed by the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, but not by Canadian or American licensing agencies, even though the building and its sound waves fall under the purview of both entities. It is the only radio station in North America operating under the exclusive jurisdiction of an aboriginal government.
The village of Saint Regis is also home to the large stone Saint Regis Catholic Church, which looks out over the confluence of the Saint Regis and Saint Lawrence Rivers. Completed in 1795, the impressive structure has survived fires, crushing ice from the nearby river, and earthquakes, and has been part of generations of Mohawk history. As Mohawk historian Darren Bonaparte writes,
This old church, assembled by Mohawk hands 7 generations ago, has been a silent witness to the major events of our ancestors’ lives—the baptisms, the confirmations, the weddings, and the funerals. From cradle to grave, this church has been a consistent presence in the lives of Akwesasro:non.
Growing from a log house to a massive stone structure within the first half century of the community’s establishment, the church speaks to the complicated times that produced it and stands as a testament to the impact of the Catholic Church on Akwesasne’s history.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, prior to significant settler influence on Haudenosaunee life, Mohawk people lived mainly in three fortified villages in the Mohawk Valley, in what is now part of Montgomery County in central New York State. These villages typically moved every twenty-five years, after the palisades had begun to decay and the local resources had become taxed. Mohawk hunting territories extended north into the Adirondack Mountains and south down to the east bank of the Susquehanna River, nearly to the area where present-day Oneonta is located. As the easternmost of the nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mohawk were the first to feel the impact of European activities along the Eastern Seaboard. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in North America were characterized by plagues, wars between Europeans and Indigenous peoples, wars among Native nations, and the work of missionaries to convert Indigenous people to Christian religions. Kahnawà:ke (originally spelled Caughnawaga) is a community initially founded by French Catholics in the Mohawk Valley near the site of present-day Fonda, New York; it relocated to the banks of the Saint Lawrence River near Montreal in 1669.
By the mid-eighteenth century, contention was developing in Kahnawà:ke. Some scholars cite factional disputes, overcrowding, and soil exhaustion. Ray Fadden attributes the departure of some Mohawks from Kahnawà:ke to the influence of “fire water.” The leaving party was led by Zechariah and John Tarbell, English brothers who had been captured as children from Groton, Massachusetts, and taken to Kahnawà:ke, where they were adopted and raised as Mohawks. In the fall of 1754, the Tarbells left Kahnawà:ke with their wives and their wives’ families and paddled up the Saint Lawrence River. They spent the winter in what is now known as the district of Tsi Snaihne, and then in the spring crossed the Saint Regis River to establish a new village on the peninsula formed by the Saint Regis and Saint Lawrence Rivers. In describing the site selected for the new community, nineteenth-century historian Franklin Hough effuses:
Its founders in selecting this site, evinced the possession of a taste at once judicious and correct, for it may well be questioned whether the shores of the Saint Lawrence, abounding as they do in charming and lovely localities, affords anywhere a spot that will surpass this in beauty of scenery, or pleasantness of location. The village stands on a plain, moderately elevated above the river, which having for more than forty miles been broken by cascades and dangerous rapids, here becomes tranquil.
In 1760 the first group to settle Akwesasne was joined by another group of Mohawks from Kahnawà:ke, led by Father Anthony Gordon. Father Gordon named the place Saint Regis, for Jean-François Régis, a French Jesuit who was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1737. Mohawks named the area Akwesasne, meaning “land where the partridge drums.” Some have said this was due to the great number of partridges that once inhabited the area, and others have described how the local falls, before being reshaped by the seaway, once made sounds like the mating dance of the male partridge. After several wooden iterations, the stone church was constructed on the peninsula that juts into the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Saint Regis Rivers, on the site that once held a large Native village.
As you head away from the river, back to the traffic light, and turn once again west onto Route 37, on your right is another Catholic community institution, the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Hall. The small, single-level white building, constructed in the 1960s, serves as a meeting place for the Kateri Tekakwitha Prayer Circle and other Catholic community events. A statue of an Indian maiden in a blue shawl, the Mohawk saint for whom the hall is named, sits under a lean-to on the lawn. Káteri Tekahkwí:tha was born in the 1650s to a Mohawk father and an Algonquian mother who died in a smallpox epidemic. Against the wishes of her father’s family, she converted to Catholicism and moved north with the Catholic settlement. After living an austere and pious life, she died at the age of twenty-four and became an example of Catholic devotion held up as an example for other Indigenous people the church was hoping to convert. She was recommended for canonization in 1844 and beatified in 1980. In 2006, a Lummi boy in Washington was miraculously cured of lethal flesh-eating bacteria after his family prayed to Káteri on his behalf. This miracle led to her promotion to sainthood in October 2012, an event celebrated by Native American Catholics around the country, and attended by an entourage from Akwesasne. Catholicism has the largest following of any religion in this community, and the local paper, Indian Time, followed the event closely. Native Catholics see the canonization of Káteri as recognition of their contribution to the Catholic faith. Other people in the community have shunned or left the Catholic Church, and some see the canonization of a Mohawk saint as another tool of colonization. Still others take a more complex view, recognizing Káteri as a Mohawk woman symbolic of discipline, fortitude, and perseverance—a complicated relative.
Another mile down the road past the Kateri Hall, on your left in a low-lying, long white building, are the offices of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s elected chiefs and Tribal clerk. A large purple sign out front reads “Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe Administration,” and an electronic message board displays the Mohawk word of the day. The Tribal building shares a parking lot with the Saint Regis Mohawk Health Services (SRMHS). Occupying a single-level brick-and-wood building, the SRMHS provides health care services to the constituents of the SRMT. Even though this clinic is only a few miles from the Kanonhkwat’sheri:io clinic, the two facilities serve mostly different populations and cannot collaborate because of their different federal funding and support streams. Residents enrolled with the MCA can use this SRMT clinic, but they cannot get a referral out for other services that are paid for by the SRMHS. The possibility that residents might use the Canadian-side Kanonhkwat’sheri:io clinic one day and the SRMHS clinic on the American side another day, and may additionally visit doctors or hospitals in other towns in New York or Canada, makes keeping track of medical records very challenging for health staff in any of these facilities. Next door to the SRMHS clinic is a small white house that serves as an office for the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs.
The evolution of these elected tribal governments is complex. During the seventeenth century, Akwesasne Mohawks belonged to the Seven Nations of Canada, a union modeled on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, with twelve chiefs chosen for life by clan mothers. After the Treaty of Paris drew the boundary between British North America and the United States that effectively split Akwesasne, New York State and Canada became more involved in the governance of Akwesasne, replacing the traditional government with two federally imposed tribal governments. In 1802 the New York State Legislature appointed three trustees for the tribe (signers of the 1796 treaty mentioned earlier) and stipulated that from then on, Mohawk males twenty-one years of age and older would elect a clerk and trustees to make rules and regulations to govern Mohawks on the American side of the community. This new government directly contradicted the previous form of government, in which clan mothers chose chiefs who served for life terms, or as long as they were deemed qualified.
In April 1888, a general council of the Six Nations Confederacy was held at the Allegany Seneca Reservation. The council passed a resolution adopting the Saint Regis Mohawks as the successors to the Mohawk position in the Confederacy, essentially making Akwesasne the capital of the Mohawk Nation. The nine original Mohawk titles were given over to Akwesasne, and nine chiefs were selected. However, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments, which recognized only the tribal governments they had installed, did not recognize these chiefs.
Fearful that this Mohawk Nation government would govern Akwesasne as a singular territory, New York State officials moved to make their three trustees into a governing entity called the Saint Regis Tribal Council. Through an act of the New York State Legislature in 1892, the Tribal Council was given sufficient authority “to counter the move toward nationalizing the reservation,” as George-Kanentiio describes. Mohawk people who support the current elective form of government, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, contend that the 1802 statute was enacted at the request of the Mohawks at Akwesasne, and it incorporated elements of the traditional system, including naming some of the life chiefs as trustees. Mohawks who support the traditional government, the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, describe this new government as forced on the people.
The twelve life chiefs affiliated with the Seven Nations continued to serve as the governing body on the northern half of Akwesasne until the Canadian Indian Act of 1876 provided for elected tribal leaders, as well as the registration of Indians according to patrilineal descent. This led to a loss of status among Indian women who married non-Indian men or even Mohawk men from the half of the reservation that fell below the American border. The elected band council government was not peacefully adopted. A supporter of the life chiefs, Jake Ice (Saiowisaké:ron), was shot and killed by Canadian police on May 1, 1899, as they arrested the life chiefs for preventing elections from being held the previous summer. The chiefs were released from jail when they agreed not to oppose future elections and thereupon became the founders of something of an “underground” movement with no formal recognition by outside authorities. A large wooden statue of Jake Ice once stood at the Canadian customs office on Cornwall Island, but was moved to the lawn in front of the MCA Justice Building when the customs office was torn down. During the summer of 2009, when Mohawks were protesting the decision by the Canadian government to arm the country’s border guards, Jake Ice was held up as an example of past aggression by armed Canadian authorities. The current elected government of the northern half of Akwesasne is the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (known until 1984 as the Saint Regis Band Council), which consists of twelve elected district chiefs and a grand chief.
In 1934, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which proposed the reorganization of Indian tribes as constitutionally based governments. Indian people were permitted to vote on whether they wished to organize their governments according to the provisions of the act. A referendum was held at Saint Regis on June 8, 1935, during which Mohawk people voted overwhelmingly to reject the Indian Reorganization Act. Supporters of the traditional government protested the 1935 referendum and the subsequent 1938 election, which was held under the guard of state troopers. In 1948, in an attempt to eliminate the state-supported elected tribal government, Mohawks supported a slate of tribal chiefs who agreed to dissolve the state-sanctioned council upon taking office, in an attempt to turn power over to the traditional chiefs. The state refused to recognize these traditional chiefs, but when the “tribal attorney,” accompanied by two state troopers, arrived at the Council House to conduct a new election, he found the doors padlocked and guarded by clan mothers who refused to permit the election to be held. The state then staged an election off reservation, under state police guard; only a small number of Mohawk voted in the election. As historian Thomas Stone notes, “Opposition to the elected system and the attempt to restore the traditional government by life chiefs was motivated at least in part by the desire to assert autonomy from external, white control.” But New York State was not willing to relinquish this control.
On July 1, 1948, Congress passed a criminal jurisdictional transfer bill, and then in 1950 a civil jurisdiction bill, which together transferred to the state of New York jurisdiction over all Native nations in the state. The transfer bill was “opposed by 99 percent of all Indians in the state of New York,” but it passed nonetheless. This bill declared that tribes within New York were “freed from Federal supervision and control” and were now in the hands of the state. The bill was part of a broader effort to free the federal government of responsibility to Indian tribes by, in this case, transferring tribes from Bureau of Indian Affairs guardianship to state jurisdiction. Similar efforts were implemented for other states. In 1953, Public Law 280 gave the states of California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin jurisdiction over the tribes residing within their borders. This legislation continues to shape the relationships among tribes, the federal government, and these states.
Because of this convoluted history, there are currently three tribal governments in Akwesasne. The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, in the southern half of the community, consists of seven elected officials who serve staggered three-year terms: three chiefs, three subchiefs, and a tribal clerk. The elected government of the northern half of Akwesasne, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, also consists of officials elected every three years. In addition to a grand chief elected by the entire community, twelve district chiefs are elected, four from each of the three districts of the northern portion of Akwesasne: Kawehno:ke (Cornwall Island), Kana:takon (Saint Regis), and Tsi Snaihne (Snye). MCA offices are located in all three districts. The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs represents the traditional government; it comprises nine chiefs selected by clan mothers representing the three main clans of the Mohawk: Bear, Turtle, and Wolf. The council’s office is in the plaza on Route 37, across the parking lot from the state-sanctioned SRMT government offices, but the chiefs conduct most of their business from the Confederacy-authorized longhouse farther down the road, tucked back in the woods at the end of a long driveway. Some traditionalist Mohawks have chosen to identify only as citizens of this traditional government and carry Haudenosaunee Confederacy “red cards” rather than tribal identification cards from either federally sanctioned tribal government. However, New York State and the United States deal exclusively with the SRMT, and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario and the Canadian government deal exclusively with the MCA. While many who are members of the longhouse do not vote in elections on principle, recently individuals associated with the traditional longhouse have successfully run for elected tribal office in an effort to position themselves to bring positive change to the community.
Not all traditionalist Mohawks identify with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy–sanctioned Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. The traditionalist community was once united under one longhouse, but after the bitter civil war in Akwesasne in 1990, the longhouse community split over ideological differences. The Kaianerekowa, or Great Law, is a message of peace and unity that was brought to the set of warring nations who would become the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. The Kariwiio, or Good Word, is a message that was brought by Seneca prophet Handsome Lake in 1799. This code is a blueprint for a reworked traditional culture that embraces the thanksgiving traditions, eschews alcohol and gambling, and promotes male-headed farming households. Opponents of casino gambling in Akwesasne pointed to the Kariwiio, as well as to their concerns about undesirable elements coming into the community. The Warrior Society rejects the Kariwiio as a Christian-influenced creation and follows only the Kaianerekowa. The two parties now celebrate their ceremonies at two separate longhouses, one of which, the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne, is across from the Tribal police headquarters; the Confederacy-sanctioned longhouse is two miles farther west down Route 37.
Leaving the tribal buildings complex and driving another mile down Route 37, on the right you will find the Akwesasne Library and Museum. On the upper level of this small brick building is the library and computer center, where residents can access the Internet; check out books, movies, and CDs; or sit and read the local papers and clip coupons. During the public comment period for the remediation of the local Superfund site, the Akwesasne Library served as a repository for public documents. The lower level of the building houses the museum and a gift shop that sells local handcrafts and books. The museum boasts a fine collection of ash-splint and sweetgrass baskets, an art for which this community is especially renowned. Classes are offered at the museum for community members who want to learn how to make fancy as well as utilitarian baskets, raised beadwork, cornhusk dolls, feather fans, moccasins, and cradleboards.
Leaving the museum, as you continue to head west, past the winding gravel driveway leading to the Confederacy longhouse, you will arrive at the second stoplight in town. If you take a left here onto Frogtown Road, you will find the office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division, located immediately on your right in a small business park. The Environment Division grew out of a single position sponsored by the federal Indian Health Service (IHS), through which an environmental health technician was hired in 1977. Today, the division (described in detail in chapter 2) has departments devoted to air quality, brownfields, solid waste management, water resources management, wetlands protection, Natural Resource Damage Assessment, hazardous materials, and Superfund oversight.
Travel another mile down Route 37, and you will arrive at the western boundary of the reservation. To reach the Cornwall Island (Kawehno:ke) portion of the community, you need to first drive over the border into New York State. Upon leaving the reservation, you will take the first right-hand turn at the sign reading “Industrial Plants/Bridge to Canada.” The General Motors plant used to be visible from here, bordered by the Saint Lawrence River on one side and the Raquette Point region of the reservation on the other. For neighbors in the upstream town of Massena, this industrial plant represented employment in a postindustrial region that has come to be considered part of the “rust belt” of the Northeast/Great Lakes region. For downstream Akwesasro:non, the PCBs that leached from this site for decades had irreversible negative impacts on the local environment, culture, and community health, and the General Motors Company continues to be a source of contention. The contamination from this site, which includes a twelve-acre landfill that directly abuts Akwesasne, underlies the focus of much of the rest of this book.
As you turn past the site of the former GM plant, the bridge will take you over the Saint Lawrence River, which bisects Akwesasne. The river begins at the northeast end of Lake Ontario and flows eastward to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on the Atlantic coast. While Mohawk people call the river Kaniatarowanenneh, or the “big waterway,” the river was renamed for the feast day of Saint Lawrence by French explorer Jacques Cartier during his travels in the region in 1535. In addition to Mohawk communities, settler towns sprung up along both shores of the Saint Lawrence throughout the nineteenth century; they utilized the river for fishing as well as for transportation of both people (in small boats) and timber.
But, as was first noted by Cartier in the sixteenth century, the Long Sault rapids and Soulanges rapids limited the use of the Saint Lawrence River for transportation, preventing the passage of ships farther inland to Lake Ontario. For nearly five decades, members of the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress debated the expense and merits of creating a seaway out of the river. During the 1950s, Canada’s Saint Lawrence Seaway Authority, the United States’ Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, and the Power Authority of the State of New York came together for the purpose of developing the river as a shipping passage to the Great Lakes and constructing a hydroelectric dam to provide electricity and spur industry.
Despite staunch efforts on the part of Mohawk people from Akwesasne and Kahnawà:ke to resist relocation during the construction process, 1,260 acres of Indian-owned land were expropriated along the seaway’s route, including 130 acres on Cornwall Island for the toll gates, customs house garages, offices, roads, and a bridge that was built there after the seaway was developed. On the southern side, Mohawk land claims to Barnhart Island dating back to 1822 were swept aside by Robert Moses and the New York State Power Authority with the building of two major powerhouses, high-voltage power lines, tow ship locks, and a major beach camp recreation area constructed on the island. Also appropriated were 88 acres from the Raquette Point region of Akwesasne. Mohawks sued for compensation in the 1950s, but the courts denied the claim. Construction on the seaway began in the summer of 1954, and over the next five years, a channel 27 feet deep was opened, stretching 2,350 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minnesota. The seaway contains fifteen locks and is capable of lifting ships about 600 feet above sea level as they sail inland. During the construction, which cost approximately one billion dollars, more than nine thousand individuals were relocated and nearly one hundred square miles of property were condemned.
This development brought unprecedented change to the region. Prior to the construction of the seaway, Mohawk people had adapted to a series of dramatic economic changes, from their participation in the fur trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to their work in the nineteenth century as canoe men, timber rafters, fishermen, trappers, farmers, and dairy men. Mohawks have taken part in the bridge construction trades since the 1870s and have become internationally famous as ironworkers. This skill in high steel has led Mohawks to seek employment in cities, where they have adjusted to urban life and formed new communities even as they have commuted home every weekend. Despite these shifts in economy and lifestyle, according to historian Laurence Hauptman, “the Mohawks of Saint Regis and Caughnawaga had faced their first major modern-day crisis to their homeland with the coming of the Saint Lawrence Seaway,” a crisis that continues today as the community contends with the legacy of industrial development and contamination. On April 25, 1959, the first ships entered the waterway. Thousands would follow, bringing invasive species from around the world to the Saint Lawrence River.
Elders in Akwesasne who witnessed the building of the seaway noted the social and environmental changes that it brought, including changes in family structure, food culture, and wildlife. Howard David lived most of his life on Cornwall Island, and during the 1950s he worked on the seaway construction. During the time when I was conducting my fieldwork, he was running a small farm on the island, growing raspberries and strawberries as well as vegetables. During our visit, he described how in earlier times many families owned and worked on farms, but the seaway brought jobs that drew the men from the farms and into wage labor, and thus changed the economy. Howard noted that the influx of workers with the coming of the seaway (22,000 men worked on the seaway from 1954 through 1959) also drove up the cost of living in the neighboring town of Massena. When the seaway was completed, prices remained high even after the workers left. According to Howard, the money earned by the seaway workers and the decrease in farming ruined the local bartering economy:
After the seaway left, after they finished, nobody wanted to farm. The money was good, uh? It wasn’t good after though. They got the taste of the good living I guess you’d call it. They didn’t realizing that the good living was the way we worked. Growing our own food, even little gardens. Everybody had gardens. Enough for themselves, and if anybody grew more than that, they would trade. They used to trade, trade for flour or something.
Reflecting back on his own employment in the construction, Howard told me:
I even worked on the seaway, I worked on that dam up there. The both of them; the power dam and then Long Sault Dam. I didn’t realized this was going to happen, but there’s nothing I could do about it. A lot of people worked there. It ruined them. Big money. They ruined Massena too. Well when they left here the prices stayed up, uh? They raised the prices while they were here, the cost of living. And it stayed. On account of the seaway.
Towns up and down the seaway felt the same economic shift. A great industrial boom was predicted along the river as a result of the Moses–Saunders Power Dam that fed the Saint Lawrence–FDR Power Project on the American side and the Canadian Robert H. Saunders Generating Station. In addition, enhanced activity associated with tourism and shipping fueled optimistic population projections that were never to be realized. Some employment opportunities diminished after the construction was completed, such as the closing of a milk processing plant after the loss of farmland appropriated for the seaway.
In addition to a decrease in farms and a shifted economy, Akwesasro:non noted social changes after the coming of the seaway. As Salli Benedict, who lived on Cornwall Island, described: “It used to be easier. People were more connected before. Before the seaway people went fishing together and you pass on that stuff. . . . Before the seaway people were more dependent on the land and the environment than grocery stores.” (This impact on the food culture is discussed further in chapter 4.) Mohawk scholars Mary Arquette and Maxine Cole similarly describe social changes precipitated by the coming of the seaway that fundamentally altered Mohawk families:
The Project created a dramatic transformation in the community. From a traditional society rooted in the culture and values of the Rotinoshonni, we were forced into the mainstream economy and found ourselves pressured by the values of that competitive, materialistic culture. Our traditional economy was disrupted as a result of not being able to rely upon farming, fishing, trapping, hunting and gathering as a means of living. Lost to our people were the opportunities to engage in important traditional cultural practices. A large number of our men worked on the Project as construction specialists for the short term. When it altered the land and the river, these men were not able to return to their traditional land- and water-based practices. Consequently, they maintained non-traditional jobs, which eventually led them to leave the community. Family life suffered. Aside from the deep social disruption this caused, our community began to suffer culturally from the effects of having the core of our traditional political and social system, the family, ripped apart, as well as having English supplant Kahniakeha, the Mohawk language. We view the building of the Project as a major disruption of our social and cultural continuity.
Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook also notes the extensive impact the seaway had on social life, including, ultimately, birthing practices:
The Seaway has changed the whole course of family life there [at Akwesasne]. Although traditional Mohawk family life had already changed greatly under the effects of colonialism, many strengths and values had remained constant. The people at Akwesasne helped one another in work bees and the sharing of property, food and knowledge. The self-subsisting economy of agriculture, fishing and trading was undermined by the Seaway and subsequent industrial development. With industrial development and economic growth soon came “social” development—hospitals, schools, social services—a whole centralization of life based on corporate society and exploitation of local resources. Birthing practices are a microcosm of this process because it is a passage which most intimately affects Indian women, the traditional heart of the Native family.
Katsi’s aunt, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all midwives, and Katsi has spent her life trying to help Indigenous women reclaim this birthing process.
The creation of the seaway also had a dramatic effect on wildlife. Akwesasne elder Ernie Benedict, a resident of Cornwall Island, described to me how efforts to deepen the river destroyed the fish habitat:
[The blasting of rocks] affected the spawning grounds of fish, not only by the blasting but also because of when the blasting was done, they had to clean out all the broken bottom soil and then deposit it somewhere. And of course the easiest place to do it were the inlets and the bays, where there were spawning areas, and so for a long time fish couldn’t make a living out there and so a lot of their work was not done. The fish, as you know, have sort of a cleaning action there in swimming—absorbing the water and taking in contaminants, depositing it down in the bottom of the river, so getting it out of the way. And so now we had to do without the fish for years.
His description of fish unable to “make a living out there” in the same way they always had, similar to Mohawk people, highlights the connections among the multiple communities affected by this development. Ernie also described how islands in the river were covered over “with diggings from the river. And all of these operations, the river was getting pretty messy.” Formerly good farmland along the shore continues to be covered with heavy clay material periodically dredged from the bottom of the river. With the installation of the power dam, Ernie also began noticing cut-up eels festering on the shores of the river, creating a stench and attracting birds and insects. The power dam also brought industry to the region, the waste from which would have further negative impacts on the lives of Mohawk people, as will be discussed in the following chapters.
The lack of attention paid to Mohawk concerns regarding the appropriation of their lands for the seaway contributed to the rise of activism at the time. Hauptman argues that by expropriating Indian lands during the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, “these agencies contributed to a powerful Indian backlash which led directly to the rise of Red Power militancy.” In August 1957, approximately two hundred Mohawks from Akwesasne and Kahnawà:ke, led by Akwesasne ironworker Francis “Standing Arrow” Johnson, took over land off Route 5S on the Schoharie Creek near Fort Hunter, New York. Citing the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784, the group claimed fifteen square miles of territory, insisting that the New York State treaty of 1789 that ceded the land was invalid because the state had no legal right to enter into negotiations with the Mohawks after the formal adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. They were also protesting being “blasted from their homes” by the seaway project. They were evicted from the land they had claimed in March 1958, but this event was emblematic of future standoffs between Mohawks and the state and federal governments, including the takeover of land in the Adirondacks in 1974 that would eventually lead to the founding of the community of Ganienkeh in Altona, New York. After a series of armed standoffs and a great deal of negotiation with New York State, Ganienkeh was established, and currently it is home to a few dozen Mohawk families, who plant gardens in the summer and run a few tax-free businesses.
Halfway across the Saint Lawrence River, the South Channel Bridge touches down on Cornwall Island, the Kawehno:ke district of Akwesasne. The North Channel Bridge connects the island to the city of Cornwall, Ontario, on the Canadian mainland. Together, they are known as the Seaway International Bridge. Once you cross over the bridge onto Cornwall Island, you will encounter the intersection of Internation Road with Island Road, the main road that runs east–west the length of the island. If you were headed to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of Environment, you would take a left. If instead you turn right at the intersection, a little less than a kilometer down the road is the turnoff for the A’nowara’ko:wa (Big Turtle) Arena. Built in 1995, the arena serves as an ice rink in the winter for local hockey teams and a sport court in spring and summer for lacrosse associations.
Lacrosse is a wildly popular sport in Akwesasne, and has been for generations. Initially utilized by Haudenosaunee nations as a means of settling disputes or as a medicine game, lacrosse caught on as a sport across Canada and the United States in the nineteenth century. Now kids in Akwesasne start playing as soon as they can walk, and a number of players from the community have been included on the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, touring the world to compete in international competitions. Cornwall Island has also been home to the commercial production of lacrosse sticks for generations—located down the road from the arena, Mohawk International Lacrosse is considered to be the largest supplier of wooden lacrosse sticks still operating; the company produces them in addition to the plastic sticks now more commonly used in the sport. At one time, Akwesasne produced 97 percent of the world’s lacrosse sticks. The importance of this production became apparent in 1968, when the Chisholm Lacrosse stick factory in Akwesasne burned down, and there was something of a panic across the United States and Canada over how the demand for lacrosse sticks would be met. Today lacrosse is celebrated in Akwesasne as a modern sport as well as for its historic roots.
Traveling to the Cornwall Island portion of Akwesasne means crossing from the United States into Canada at a point on the border that is policed much more heavily than the previously mentioned points between the United States and Quebec in Saint Regis and Snye. As a result of this imaginary line on the water, the Saint Lawrence River, which brushes against both U.S. and Canadian shores, has supported an alternative economy for centuries, fueled in recent years by out-of-work fishermen and others looking to make a quick dollar. Although it is only in recent decades that intensive media attention has been given to the issue, the smuggling of goods (or the “interterritorial import/export business,” as one resident described it) across the international border has been a practice ever since the border was created and enforced. During the War of 1812, rations sent to the reservation by the American government were taken by boat to Cornwall, Ontario, where they were sold to emissaries of the British army. During the 1890s, non-Natives in Canada smuggled nails from a factory in Fort Covington, New York, in order to avoid paying customs duties and storekeeper markups. The sweetgrass basket trade was even forced underground, as basket makers from the Canadian side of the community worked to get their wares to American markets while trying to avoid the enforcement of duties on imported goods. Throughout the period of Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, liquor smuggling was also a profitable business, both for Mohawks and for organized crime operations.
Cigarettes have been traversing the river for decades, owing to the high taxes on this commodity in Canada. Canadian cigarettes are shipped to American wholesalers, who are not required to pay taxes levied by the Canadian federal and provincial governments. People then buy the cigarettes from the wholesalers and smuggle them back into Canada, where they are sold for half the official price for a carton. Cigarettes made on the reservation are also smuggled into Canada, where they are sold tax-free. This business diminished in the 1990s when Canadian cigarette taxes were reduced (in part in an effort to curtail the black market), but the volume of smuggled cigarettes spiked again after Canadian officials boosted cigarette taxes in 2001 to combat smoking. In the past couple of years, the Canadian government has redoubled its efforts to seize cigarettes not bearing tax stamps, and this has slowed some of the illicit tobacco trade.
During the 1990s, human smuggling was also a lucrative business. Immigrants would often get visas into Canada, which is an easier process than legal entry into the United States, and then pay for transport across the Saint Lawrence River. Because smuggling people is more difficult and dangerous than smuggling inanimate products—especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 increased the U.S. focus on border security—rates of human trafficking over the river have diminished in recent years. Currently the most lucrative trade is in drugs, which also constitute the contraband seized in greatest quantity, particularly marijuana and ecstasy. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, about 20 percent of all the high-potency marijuana produced in Canada—multiple tons each week—is smuggled through a patch of border less than ten miles wide on the reservation. Traffickers sell the marijuana and ecstasy in major northern cities and then buy cocaine in Los Angeles from sellers linked to Mexican cartels. The cocaine is then sent back to Canada, where it is sold for a profit. Since 2008, U.S. prosecutors say they have broken up four major smuggling rings operating on the Mohawk territory.
There are conflicting opinions around smuggling in Akwesasne. While the trade has existed in one form or another since the creation of the international border through the center of the community, some residents point to the destruction of the once-prosperous fishing economy by environmental contamination as a catalyst for an increase in rates of smuggling. With their main occupation destroyed, some fishermen found other uses for their boats in order to maintain a livelihood. Proponents of smuggling argue that it is within the sovereign rights of Mohawks to move goods from one area of their territory to another. Their detractors in the community point to the unequal distribution of wealth: successful smugglers are easy to spot because of their conspicuous consumption—large houses surrounded by high walls, shiny new trucks and SUVs with dark tinted windows and spinning rims. While the rhetoric of sovereignty is used to defend the trade, the profits are not given back to the community from which this sovereignty stems. There is also a range of opinions on the matter of smuggling depending on the items being trafficked. Many community members I spoke with are neutral on the matter of cigarette smuggling. Cigarettes are legal items made illegal only by different nations’ tax laws. But drugs and weapons are seen as another issue: these are items that can be harmful to the youth of the community, and Akwesasne territory should not be used as a conduit for them. There are also concerns about youth who take up smuggling as a means to earn quick money, as they are not focusing their time on gaining an education or learning a trade, and if they acquire arrest records, they will have even more difficulty finding legitimate work in the future. But while smuggling dominates the news coverage, community members are quick to point out that a vast majority of Akwesasro:non do not take part in these activities and do not appreciate the bad publicity.
This international boundary, and the Seaway International Bridge that traverses it, has also been at the center of decades of activism and protest. Akwesasne is a community known for its activist spirit, and much of the direct action associated with this activism has taken place on this bridge. When boundary commissioners came to Saint Regis in 1814 to survey, they told Mohawks that the international boundary would only be an imaginary line that would go “eight feet over the head of the tallest Indian” and would not affect them. This has proven false, as the myriad complications at border crossings on this bridge have proven.
In 1959, Mohawks on Cornwall Island threatened to cut off all traffic across the bridge that connected New York State to Ontario unless the Saint Lawrence Seaway Authority paid $45,000 to guarantee three years’ rental for the new 1.5-mile road that bisected the island. After Mohawks threatened to collect fifty cents per driver from everyone trying to travel over the bridge, authorities acceded to their demands. The bridge served as a site of protest again a decade later, when in December 1968 Mohawks blocked traffic to bring attention to the fact that the 1794 Jay Treaty was being violated.
Following the American Revolution, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, known as the Jay Treaty (for the chief American negotiator, John Jay). Article III of the treaty guaranteed free border-crossing rights for “the Indians dwelling on either side of the boundary line” and also stated that Indians were not to pay duty or taxes on their “own proper goods” when crossing the border. This “free passage” provision has endured differently over time in U.S. and Canadian law. In the United States, Jay Treaty provisions were incorporated into Section 289 of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, and courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals have generally interpreted this section of the act in a way that is beneficial to Native people. The Canadian government, in contrast, never incorporated provisions of the Jay Treaty into permanent statutory law. Rather, the treaty’s provisions have been sustained under the “aboriginal rights” doctrine, and Canadian courts have been restrictive in identifying these “aboriginal rights.” In the 1950s, Mohawks complained that they were being charged duties for bringing groceries and household goods over the border. They sued in court and lost. They tried bringing their complaints to the elected band council, as well as to the capital in Ottawa, and nothing happened. So on December 18, 1968, one hundred Mohawks blocked the bridge in protest.
One of the protesters, Mike Mitchell, phoned George Stoney, then the executive producer of the Challenge for Change program at the National Film Board of Canada. Stoney was able to assemble a film crew in less than twenty-four hours to be on site during the protest, and the resulting documentary, You Are on Indian Land, was released in 1969. The film shows Mohawks gathering on the bridge, explaining to the Ontario provincial police and Cornwall city police that they are blocking traffic in order to draw attention to the imposition of the customhouse on Indian land and the violation of the Jay Treaty by customs officers. A Mohawk woman, wearing a thick coat and a scarf on her head against the cold, describes to reporters how the group tried taking their concerns to the band council, and tried going to Ottawa, but to no avail. One of these band council chiefs, an elderly man, pulls up to the protest in his car and threatens to break up the event (as well as the film crew’s cameras) himself with a gun and a billy club. Police usher him back into his vehicle, and he drives off angrily. As police begin to arrest protesters (forty-one in total), children clamor behind them shouting, “Give us back our rights!” and an elderly woman shouts, “The world is watching!” The film begins and ends at a meeting between Mohawks and a government spokesperson, who gives a vague promise to try to find a solution. In the end, the film actually enabled the protesters to get the hearing they had petitioned for in Ottawa. Film scholar Faye Ginsburg argues, “The legacy of You Are on Indian Land was not only in the impact of the documentary process at the time. It catalyzed people—then and now—to think about their history and about their need to represent their claims and to take up cameras themselves in order to tell stories that can make a difference.” The bridge blockade was followed by takeovers of Stanley Island and Loon Island in 1970, in protest against the leasing of Mohawk land to non-Natives. The band council had been working to take legal action to break the leases, but the protesters felt the process was taking too long and the band council did not have their best interests in mind.
After the bridge blockade in 1968, a group of Mohawks gathered at the home of Ernie Benedict, an Akwesasne Mohawk who had graduated from Saint Lawrence University in Canton and who had edited two reservation newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s. This meeting led to the birth of the newspaper Akwesasne Notes, which originally began as a means to get the word out about the bridge blockade and then quickly expanded to include reports about Indigenous events across North America and later the world. The paper was published until 1998; at its peak, it had a circulation of 150,000.
Akwesasne Notes was initially distributed with the help of the White Roots of Peace, a mobile teaching group composed of musicians, dancers, speakers, artists, and writers from dozens of Native nations across North America, operating under the wing of the Mohawk Nation. The White Roots of Peace had its origins in the Akwesasne Counselor Organization, begun in the 1940s by Ray Fadden, who had moved to Akwesasne after marrying a Mohawk woman. Fadden drove carloads of Mohawks “to every Indian reservation north of the Carolinas and east of the Mississippi to visit historical sites and interview Native leaders” and to take part in demonstrations and marches around Native issues. Jerry Gambill, first editor of Akwesasne Notes, worked with Ernest Benedict and others to build the White Roots of Peace into a traveling troupe that visited Native peoples, urban and rural, in both the United States and Canada, sharing Iroquois culture and the Great Law. Mike Jock, who traveled with the White Roots of Peace for more than two decades (starting in 1968), recalled loading a tipi on top of a Winnebago and traveling to colleges all over the country, as well as to the White House, to deliver the message of the Great Law and to encourage “our Native children to be proud of who they are, stand up for your rights.” In addition to carrying copies of Akwesasne Notes, the members of the White Roots of Peace collected material for articles for the paper as they took part in events like the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, the attempted takeover of Ellis Island in 1970, the takeover of the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, gaining inside perspectives on events that other reporters did not have access to.
Richard Oakes was an ironworker who left Akwesasne after being displaced by the seaway; he moved west, married a Pomo woman, and enrolled in San Francisco State University. He was moved by presentations of the White Roots of Peace to get involved in Native politics, including the takeover of Alcatraz in 1969, in which he was one of the key players. His murder in September 1972 was one of the catalysts for the Trail of Broken Treaties, a caravan of hundreds of Native people who traveled across the country to Washington, where they took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in October 1972. Akwesasne Mohawks were at the heart of most of the pan-tribal Red Power activism of the twentieth century.
This activism also continued at home. Back in Akwesasne, members of the White Roots of Peace and the writers of Akwesasne Notes joined the traditional longhouse government in a standoff against New York State and the SRMT government from May 1979 to August 1980. That May, during the occupation of the Tribal government building in protest of the Tribal police force that had been created with U.S. federal funds, traditionalists discovered a secret land claims agreement that had been brokered between the SRMT and New York State (without consultation with the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs). In the context of these tensions, that same month, a traditional chief found a work group cutting down trees on his property on Raquette Point. This work was being done as part of a Tribe- and state-supported “boundary delineation project” for a proposed fence around the reservation. Feeling that this delimitation of the reservation symbolically weakened Mohawk claims to traditional territories, the chief and a friend confiscated the group’s chainsaws. This, and the confrontation that followed with the Tribal council and state police, led to twenty-three indictments of traditional people. To avoid arrest, the group of traditionalists and their supporters created a defensive encampment in Raquette Point, which is on a peninsula bordered by the Saint Lawrence and Raquette Rivers. There they harvested wildlife for food, including rabbits and fish, because the state police and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s deputized officials had established roadblocks to cut off their supplies. Supporters circumvented the roadblocks by sending supplies to the group across the Saint Lawrence River. Mohawk parents behind the barricade started the Akwesasne Freedom School, a Mohawk-language immersion school dedicated to teaching the cultural material that their children were not getting in public schools. The standoff ended in August 1980, but the repercussions of the event carried into the fall, when a bomb exploded outside the house of Solomon Cook, the only SRMT chief who had lobbied for unity, and a week later the house of Tom Porter, a traditional chief, was burned to the ground. The charges against the traditionalists were dropped in 1981. As a result of the conflict, the land claims agreement between the SRMT and New York State was rejected, a united Mohawk team was formed to negotiate land claims, and the Tribal police force was disbanded.
This tradition of activism continues today. In May 2009, when it was announced that agents of the Canada Border Services Agency would begin carrying guns, Mohawks again blocked the bridge. Unlike most border-crossing checkpoints, the Cornwall Island port of entry was in the middle of a residential community, and it stood beneath a statue of Saiowisaké:ron (Jake Ice), the Mohawk shot by Canadian police in 1899 when he tried to prevent the arrest of life chiefs who were protesting the imposition of an elected government. Several reports had been filed with the MCA about border security officers harassing Mohawks at this checkpoint. In addition, in a violation of Canada’s constitution, Mohawk leaders had not been consulted before the Canadian government decided to arm the border guards who would be stationed in this community. Akwesasro:non found all of this unacceptable and held a unity rally at the checkpoint. CBSA officers claimed they felt threatened and walked off the job. The CBSA closed the border crossing, shutting down the Seaway International Bridge between Cornwall and Massena for six weeks, which forced island residents to drive up to two hours out of their way to other bridges and border-crossing stations just to access the southern part of Akwesasne by car. In support of Akwesasne residents, other Mohawk communities in Ontario, including Tyendinaga and Six Nations, also closed down bridges to draw attention to the need for fair negotiations. In July 2009, a temporary port of entry was set up in a traffic circle in Cornwall on the other side of the river, and the bridge was reopened. While this seemed like a victory at the time, it has proven to be a major inconvenience for Mohawk travelers. Now if people who live in the southern half of the community want to visit friends and relatives on Cornwall Island, they first have to drive completely over the river, past the island, to the temporary checkpoint in Cornwall and then drive back over the northern span of the bridge to Cornwall Island. This trip can take up to two hours during periods of heavy traffic. Travelers’ license plate numbers are captured by cameras mounted on the U.S. customs building located at the base of the southern bridge on the New York side. Vehicles that do not continue on over the northern bridge to check in with customs during every trip to Cornwall Island are impounded on their next trip to mainland Canada, and the owners are fined a thousand dollars. The CBSA is currently discussing plans to set up a customs agency alongside the American customs office in Massena. While this will be more convenient than having to travel to mainland Canada to check in for visits to Cornwall Island, Akwesasne residents will still have to engage in the invasive process of asking permission from Canadian and American border officers to pass from one portion of their community to the other.
The most recent closure of the Seaway International Bridge occurred on January 5, 2013, in support of the Idle No More movement. This movement, which began in Canada and has been sweeping the globe, arose as a response to an assault on Indigenous rights in Canada: Bill C-45, which passed on December 14, 2012. The bill made changes to the Indian Act, eroded treaties, and removed environmental protections. The Canadian government is required by Section 35 of the Constitution Act to consult with Native people before enacting laws that affect them, but when First Nations leaders came to the House of Commons to share their concerns about the proposed bill, they were blocked from entering. This led Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence to embark on a hunger strike, and a series of protests took place across Canada, and then the United States, involving flash mobs in shopping malls, highway and railway blockades, and organized rallies. With Twitter and Facebook as major organizing tools, the Idle No More movement spread across North America as well as into Europe, New Zealand, and the Middle East. On January 5, 2013, about a thousand supporters of the movement closed down the Seaway International Bridge and led a huge round dance in the traffic circle in Cornwall. Local response was emblematic of Akwesasne’s relationship with its neighbors in general: on newspaper comment pages, some non-Native supporters called on others to recognize that the issues raised by Idle No More affect all residents of Canada and the United States, noting, for example, that clean drinking water is necessary for good health, and pollution does not stop at borders. Detractors, including the town supervisor and mayor of Massena, expressed annoyance that travelers had once again been inconvenienced by Mohawk protests and called the movement’s closing of the bridge pointless, foolish, and something that should not be tolerated in the future. The town supervisor issued an apology after Mohawks threatened to boycott Massena businesses, an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of the economies of these two communities.
This chapter has offered a brief and superficial tour through the community of Akwesasne. While I recognize that I have not been able to include everything that makes up the history and character of this complex place, it is my hope that this overview provides a good sense of the grounding from which community members approached the industrial contamination that was threatening their health and livelihoods, and the scene into which the state and university scientists entered. Environmental sociologists and psychologists inform us that when dealing with environmental issues, individuals look to prior experiences for how to respond. In reflecting on scholarship around contaminated communities, Altman et al. note that collective experiences of community relations, contamination episodes, and media or movement discourse “coalesce into a popularly available set of assumptions, social cues, and social referents that individuals draw upon to guide new encounters with chemical pollutants. These popular assumptions, in turn, inform how participants understand risks, anticipate government and societal responses, and respond to the situation.” In this chapter, I have presented an abbreviated account of three centuries of history to demonstrate some of the extended collective experiences that Akwesasro:non are drawing on when they seek to make sense of the environmental contamination affecting them and what they have come to expect from regulators and other government entities.
In applying work on contaminated communities to the context of a tribal nation, one must also consider the additional layer of impact to a land-based culture and tradition. As Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte notes, each tribal community is anchored in a specific socioecological context, which he defines as “any arrangement of humans, nonhumans and ecosystems that involves particular cultural, economic and political practices.” The ecosocial history of Akwesasne has been shaped by the interruption and alteration of Mohawk socioecological contexts by settler institutions—including state, provincial, municipal, and federal governments, as well as individual settlers and entrepreneurs.
The road-map-structured history laid out above demonstrates the historico-political lens through which Akwesasro:non perceive the imposition of environmental contamination, the government agencies that should have done a better job defending them, and the obstacles to their collaboration with state agencies on the first large community-based participatory research project to take place in an Indigenous community. In addition, as the remainder of this book will show, the tradition of activism against entities interfering with Mohawk self-governance has contributed to and shaped the Mohawks’ insistence that that research be conducted on the impacts of environmental contamination and that their voices drive the research process.