Mohawk people, from one of the six American Indian nations in the Iroquois Confederacy, have hunted, fished and lived by the St. Lawrence River for hundreds of years.
But after the War of 1812, their sovereign territory known as Akwesasne was bisected in two when the United States and Great Britain drew a line on a map, creating today’s northern border between New York state and Canada. Now the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation sits in both countries, with borders of its own.
The international border has defined the Mohawks to many outsiders ever since. To some non-natives, Akwesasne is synonymous with contraband and smuggling.
The reputation outrages Mohawks themselves. As Reen Cook, local celebrity and morning show host on the reservation’s radio station CKON says, “we didn’t put that border here. They did.”
A jurisdictional jumble
To understand the impact of the international border on Akwesasne and its tribal members, you have to look closely at the geography.
The border is an invisible line in the St. Lawrence River, separating the most northern portion of upstate New York from Canada. But the demarcation winds through islands, around peninsulas and suddenly juts inland at the reservation. It is also the point where New York State and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec all meet.
“This is our land, and all of a sudden, borders are put up,” says Matthew Rourke, St. Regis Mohawk tribal police chief, “and we’re tasked with protecting those borders.”
Perhaps ironically, the border runs right through Rourke’s parents’ backyard where they have a bed and breakfast and host weddings. A waist-high concrete pillar behind a gazebo is the only indication of the international boundary.
In other parts of the reservation, roads cross the border with no sign whatsoever. The border runs through backyards and through people’s homes. It all makes for very difficult policing, attracting smugglers.
“There’s always money to be made somewhere,” Rourke says, “and some people exploit it.”
“I hate that stereotype that we’re all smugglers”
For decades, the area around Akwesasne has been a hot-spot along the northern border for smuggling a range of contraband, most recently for high-grade marijuana from Canada. But according to U.S. Border Patrol figures, the amount of drugs seized is a fraction of what’s trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Akwesasne made headlines in the 1990s when some Mohawks asserted their sovereign trade rights to bring untaxed cigarettes into Canada. Canadian Mounties tried to stop them.
Since then, national media in both countries have published stories with titles like “smugglers playground” and “contraband capital.” After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some media outlets erroneously reported terrorists had entered the U.S. through Akwesasne.
“It’s not necessarily that it’s a Native American reservation,” says U.S. Border Patrol agent Wade Laughman, who directs operations in the region around Akwesasne. He says it’s not fair to blame the Mohawks. “It’s the geography of the reservation. It’s the fact that half of the reservation is in Canada basically and half is in the United States.”
The smuggling stereotype persists. Kevin Lazore was born and raised in Akwesasne. When he went to college in Toronto and introduced himself, people would react, saying, ” ‘Wow, the famous Akwesasne? Are you in that business?’ I’m like, ‘what business? What are you talking about?’ And it finally clicked,” Lazore recalls. “They must think I’m a smuggler. I’m like, ‘no, I’m not into that business.’ ”
Lazore is a smiley, joking guy in his 30s. But his smile disappears when he tells that story. “Oh, ‘we all do it.’ I hate that stereotype that we’re all smugglers, all the criminal activity. That’s the thing I really hate.”
The border as a violation of Native identity
The stereotype is especially bitter because most people in Akwesasne have to cross the border legally — through an actual checkpoint — just to get from one side of the reservation to the other; to get to a doctor’s appointment, the kids’ sports games or just to get home.
It is not just a hassle, says Margie Skidders, co-editor of the Akwesasne-based newspaper, Indian Time. It is a violation of her sovereignty as a Native person.
“I have a [U.S.] passport. But I’ll be damned if I use a passport coming in to my own territory,” she says.
Many tribal members resent even the presence of U.S. or Canadian law enforcement. They complain of racial profiling. Skidders says it has gotten better since U.S. Border Patrol agents started taking cultural training classes, even learning a few words in Mohawk.
“Our relationship has improved because they’ve taken the time to learn about us,” Skidders says.
U.S. Border Patrol agent Laughman says smuggling is down along this stretch of the northern border since he arrived on the job almost a decade ago. He credits a beefed-up tribal police force and better cooperation between law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border.
That makes tribal police chief Rourke proud. But what makes him prouder is his people’s accomplishments as scientists, educators and artists.
He says all the focus on smuggling misses the beauty of his people’s land and their cultural and economic contributions.
“Come look at the fishing. There’s lacrosse factories, there are basket makers. There’s just so much. We have the casino. It’s a shame that people look at one element of what this is all about and want to profile it,” Rourke says.
Akwesasne, he says, is a lot more than a place with a border.