Three Nations Crossing

Happy Autumn, everyone!

Just wanted to share my dispatch from the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, published this month by Witness. Below is a taste; here is the full story.


They emerge from the longhouse, a dozen at least, elegant as only chiefs can be, wearing hawk- and eagle-feathered headdresses crested with deer antlers, buckskin vests, hair braids, and—the fiercest accessory of all—sunglasses. A hundred people follow, waving purple flags emblazoned with four white rectangles connected to a spade-shaped tree. They turn onto Route 37, where others file in: young mothers pushing strollers, employees who’ve taken the day off, elders sporting clan symbols, children scrambling to keep up, men whose heads are freshly shaved in the traditional style adapted by punk rockers around the globe—close-cropped up the sides with a narrow ridge racing from the forehead to the nape. Many wear dress shirts embroidered at the wrist, hem, and necklines with brightly colored ribbons streaming from the shoulders. Few talk. Their quiet is punctuated by the thump of a drum.

Their destination is approximately five miles away. To get there, they must first leave their reservation, the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, and then the New York State county of Franklin before cutting through a swath of St. Lawrence County and entering the otherworld that is U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. There, they’ll cross one bridge that will briefly return them to Akwesasne—albeit the section governed by Canada-based Mohawks rather than U.S.-based Mohawks, who rule the section where they started—and then a second bridge that will deposit them into the otherworld that is the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). From there, they’ll finally step into their destination, the city of Cornwall in Ontario, Canada.

So while their march will be only five miles in length, they must pass through seven governing spheres to get there. And that’s not counting all the Mohawks who drove in from the portions of Akwesasne that are technically in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, four miles in the opposite direction. It’s also not counting all the Indians who drove in from the nations of Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora, who—along with the Mohawks—make up the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois Confederacy), which is the traditional governing body of all six tribes.

If you’re keeping track, that makes ten different jurisdictions that wield some degree of power over this single tribe—two counties, one state, two provinces, two countries, and three different tribal governments—every one of which is monitoring today’s proceedings. Should calamity strike, any of the following law enforcement agencies could be summoned to deal with it: the Akwesasne Mohawk Police, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police, the New York State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Sûreté du Québec, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and/or the CBSA.

And that’s a big reason why these Mohawks are marching in the first place. As the elder I trot behind puts it: “The situation is driving us nuts.”

When Mohawks refer to “the situation,” they could mean any number of things. The way the 1959 creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway drowned out the local muskrat and beaver populations, effectively killing the tribe’s trapping industry. Or the way General Motors, Aluminum Company of America, and Reynolds Metals released toxic waste (including fluorides and PCBs) into the river and air from the 1950s through the mid-’70s, decimating the tribe’s fishing industry, poisoning their gardens, and turning some of their ancestral region into Superfund sites. “The situation” could refer to Mohawks’ inordinately high diabetes rate (twenty percent) and obesity rate (seventy-five percent), which many attribute to their shift in diet from fresh fish and vegetables to highly processed commodity foods.

And those are just “the situations” of the past half-century. Don’t get a Mohawk started on all the ones preceding that. Once you hear about those residential schools that traumatized generations of their children or those federal officials who swindled them of their land, you’ll be ready to hand over the deed to your house and car and revoke your citizenship while you’re at it.

Suffice it to say: in Mohawk Country, there are “situations” and there are Situations.


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