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.
We are approaching U.S. Customs now. A couple dozen Border Patrol agents and New York State troopers are waiting for us, their arms crossed over their chests and their vehicles at the ready. One officer gives a little wave as we walk by; Mohawks shake their Haudenosaunee flags in response. As we stream through the Customs stations, giddiness sweeps through the crowd.
First of all, it is a spectacularly beautiful morning. Fleece is necessary all but six weeks a year here, if not a full-length, Michelin Man-style puffy coat. The winter of 2012 was especially brutal, with sub-zero temperatures gnawing weeks on end. But the sun burns bright in the sky this May morning in 2013, creating crystalline views of mountains in the blue distance, and, further in, of ALCOA East belching up smoke. Second, it is Victoria Day, a public holiday celebrating not only the birth of Queen Victoria but of Canadian sovereignty as well. Of all the days in a calendar year to reaffirm Mohawk autonomy, this one is especially auspicious.
So spirits are high as we march past the requisite Duty Free Americas shop touting two-for-$24 Sheriff Cigarettes and two-for-$28 Stars and Stripes Vodka. Here comes the first bridge, a classic suspension number dotted with cables and solemn-looking piers. That’s all I can say about its architecture myself, but Mohawks are among the world’s experts. As the legend goes, when the Dominion Bridge Company started building a cantilever railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence River in 1886, they kept having to shoo away curious Mohawks. As an official remarked in a letter to New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell many years later, “These Indians were as agile as goats. They would walk a narrow beam high up in the air with nothing below them but the river, which is rough there and ugly to look down on, and it wouldn’t mean any more to them than walking on the solid ground … and it turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs.”
Disaster struck in 1907, when an unfinished span of the Quebec Bridge collapsed and killed ninety-six workers, a third of them Mohawk. Yet they pursued the trade for much of the past century, crisscrossing the nation to help erect such iconic ironworks as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the World Trade Center, and the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Ironwork has even been deemed a modern form of hunting in that it requires a Mohawk to leave his family for weeks at a time for a job demanding nerve and skill, then return home as a hero laden with paychecks and presents.
But for every bridge Mohawks have helped build, they seem to have closed another in protest. The most notorious instance was the 1990 “Oka crisis,” when a proposed expansion of a golf course onto Mohawk turf in a tiny Quebec town evolved into an armed standoff between 4,000 army troops and scores of Mohawks that lasted even longer than the Sioux’s 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee (seventy-eight days versus seventy-one). Concurrent with that, a band of Mohawks who called themselves “The Warriors” barricaded the Mercier Bridge in southern Montreal, which is used by upward of 70,000 people a day, for over a month.
And that’s what these Mohawks will do today, albeit on a much smaller scale: close down the Three Nations Bridge Crossing. Not because they wish to inconvenience the Canadians at the start of their holiday weekend (though some undoubtedly do). No: to a Mohawk, a bridge closing is a historical act. It is a political act. And it is a symbolic act. It is a wordless way of saying, Hey. We built this bridge connecting your nation to ours to theirs, over land and water that has always been ours. We can shut it whenever we like.
We are descending now into the northern part of Akwesasne, also known as Cornwall Island. A couple hundred Mohawks await us there, similarly clad in ribbon shirts and carrying Haudenosaunee flags. Some hand out bottles of water; others offer apples and oranges. Everyone starts milling about as the chiefs gather to discuss the next move.
When Mohawks refer to “the situation” nowadays, they generally mean this spot right here. Until four years ago, Canada operated its border checkpoint between the two international bridges right on the reservation. Mohawks had their own lane and simply had to flash their red tribal cards before driving wherever they pleased, either to a destination on the island, or continuing on to the next bridge and nation. Granted, they were subject to periodic searches (or, for those with a stereotypical smuggler’s profile, not-so-periodic searches). Granted, they occasionally fielded questions they considered insulting, like “Where are you from?” Granted, a few Mohawks felt so mistreated by the CBSA they filed complaints that launched human rights tribunals. But for the majority of Indians, border-crossing was hassle-free until May 1, 2009, when Canada announced that its Border Service Officers would be permitted to carry 9mm handguns starting the first of June.
Even among Akwesasne’s “touchy” subjects—gambling, the tobacco trade, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and the Oscar nominated 2008 film Frozen River which hits all four—firearms are volatile. Guns first became an issue here in 1989, when a university shooting in Montreal left fifteen dead and prompted Parliament to pass sweeping gun control laws. A black market for weaponry soon flourished, and many firearms got smuggled through Akwesasne.
“There were a lot of heavy guns at that time, the kind you found in Vietnam: AK-47s, AR-15s,” remembers Brian David, one of the chiefs of the tribal government recognized by Canada. “There was even talk of a .50 caliber machine gun out here, but I never saw it.”
Plenty of guns stayed on the reservation, which is probably how, in the early morning hours of May 1, 1990, more than 5,000 rounds got exchanged between supporters and opponents of legalized gaming, killing two men and creating tribal divisions that still persist. Nearly a quarter-century later, just about every Mohawk I’ve met has a small arsenal stashed somewhere on their homestead. As Vera White, an elder who runs the local pawn shop Mo’ Money, likes to joke: “Instead of barbecue pits, we get out our AK-47s and hunker down for the summer war.”
But while most Mohawks tend to have libertarian views on firearms, few wanted to see Canadian border agents wielding them on their island.
“Cornwall Island is really residential, so people worried about a fire weapon hitting a kid, because kids play beneath the bridge all the time,” says Okiokwinon, an islander who was a college student back in 2009. “Once our people started arguing, it turned into a Canada-owns-this-land issue, and that made it a sovereign issue.”
Soon after the announcement, Mohawks descended upon the checkpoint in protest. Some brought drums and started pounding. Others quoted treaties signed centuries before. Many camped out, and—in the morning—clan mothers brought them bubbling vats of corn mush. Before long, demonstrators built a wooden shelter across from the checkpoint for round-the-clock occupation and christened it “The People’s Fire.”
“There was a big bonfire every night, and a lot of protesting,” Okiokwinon remembers. “The community came together to talk about the issues at hand. It was the first time in my life I had really seen people come together here.”
Tension mounted as June 1 drew near, and by the eve of the 31st, hundreds of Mohawks had gathered, some wearing bandanas around their faces, Zapatista-style. But when the clock struck midnight, the Canadian agents abandoned post. The demonstrators rejoiced. Strike one up for sovereignty! They raised purple Haudenosaunee flags where crimson maple leaves once waved and cheered.
In the month and a half that followed, the bridges were mostly blocked—only by Cornwall City and New York State Police, rather than by Mohawks. Considering those bridges average 2.3 million passenger transits a year, this was no small inconvenience, particularly for the islanders. Fortunately, community leaders like Chief David swung into action.
“I started ferrying people across the river,” he says, stroking his moustache. “I could carry five safely in my boat, and there were nurses to take across, doctors, people having emergencies. When my boat got too small, I got a larger one … [and] turned into a ferry captain for six weeks, transporting five hundred people a day: lacrosse teams, soccer teams, kids talking their final exams, people traveling to a funeral.”
After forty-two days of negotiations, the CBSA finally reopened their checkpoint, albeit on the northern side of the bridge, in the city of Cornwall, Ontario. Mohawk triumph fizzled when they realized that, from that point forward, anyone wishing to visit the northern half of their reservation from the south now had to drive over both bridges, check in at the CBSA in Cornwall city, and then turn right around to re-cross the second bridge and return to the island—a journey that could take anywhere from twenty-five minutes to two hours, depending on traffic. (Non-Indians must do the same, plus pay a total of $6.50 for the two bridge tolls, one in each direction.) Islanders, meanwhile, had to check in with the CBSA every single time they left base.
And that’s not all. Every vehicle’s license plate is photographed upon exiting the United States or Canada. If, upon entering the next country, the license plate shows up out of traffic sequence on an agent’s computer screen, it will serve as proof the driver made a pit stop, either for something as innocuous as a bathroom break, or as scandalous as a contraband pickup. The law clearly states you must report “forthwith” to CBSA; failure to do so will cost you $1,000 for the first offense and a thousand more per subsequent offense until the fourth, when your car will be impounded. If you can’t hand over a credit card then and there, you’ll be charged $60 a day by the towing company until you do.
Chief David estimates that around 230 cars have been impounded under this policy. One is a 1994 Cadillac owned by one of Akwesasne’s most fervent activists, Dana Leigh Thompson. Tribal government will pay for the first offense of any of its members, but Thompson withdrew from the rolls long ago for ideological reasons. The CBSA seized her car three years ago and she refuses to pay the fines out of principle.
“The Queen has it now,” she says, ashing a cigarette and grimacing.
She and her husband Kanietakeron have been staging border protests ever since, including swiping and jackhammering to smithereens three granite obelisks that for a hundred years marked the international land frontier between the United States and Quebec, Canada on the southern side of Akwesasne, which garnered them a home visit from the FBI.
“The border is not meant for us, but for Europeans,” Kanietakeron explains to me one morning over Dunkin’ Donuts. A former ironworker, he is a bear of a man with eyes an almost translucent shade of green. “When the border is there physically, it can do a lot of damage mentally. When you say, oh, I am in Canada now, you give it recognition, when really, you are in Akwesasne.”
So the federal bridge closure of 2009 didn’t sit well with the Thompsons, especially when a friend of theirs died on the island. A YouTube video shows Kanietakeron marching up to the police barricade at U.S. Customs, scattering ashes in the shape of a serpent, taking out a beaded wampum belt, and informing the officers that they are violating Divine Law. If they disrupt his passage, he warns, they will be disrespecting the clan mothers, and “Natural Law will befall you.” With a nod to his cameraman, he then turns around, sidesteps the barricade, and marches toward the bridge.
A critical mass has gathered now: 400 Mohawks and a smattering of camera crews. It is time to ascend the northern bridge into mainland Canada. Someone lights a fistful of sage and it permeates the air, musky sweet.
Architecture usually doesn’t intimidate me, but whenever I see this bridge, dread pools in my belly. Driving over it, you can only envision a nineteenth-century insane asylum at the end. The bridge is overly tall and curves so sharply, you cannot see the car in front of you until you’re about to smash right into it. Midway through, a chain-link fence rises above the railing as in the high-rise housing projects Baltimore had during the crack epidemic. And the road is riddled with potholes.
“This bridge has destroyed every car I have ever owned,” Darren Bonaparte, the historian who runs the popular Mohawk blog wampumchronicles.com, says as I fall in step beside him. “But this is the fastest I’ve gotten over this bridge in a long time. By foot.”
Mohawks have shut this bridge a fair amount too, most famously in December 1968 when Canadian customs officials charged one of them $4.70 in duties on a truckload of groceries that he claimed he was bringing “for hungry Indians in Alberta.” As any Mohawk will tell you, such a fee clearly violates the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and The United States of America (commonly known as the Jay Treaty), which grants Indians the right “freely to pass and repass, by land or inland navigation” between the two countries, and to “freely carry on trade and commerce with each other.”
This particular Mohawk had a hidden agenda: his grocery mission was actually a ploy for a film he was narrating called You Are On Indian Land, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. So cameras were rolling when scores of Mohawks parked their station wagons across the slender strip of highway connecting the international bridges, obstructing traffic for five hours. Forty-seven were arrested that day; footage reveals white officers dragging brown bodies through mounds of snow.
Just ahead of me, a young father is pushing a stroller up the bridge’s steep incline. He proudly tells his friend that this is the second time his daughter has helped shut down this bridge. I quicken my pace to peek in the carriage. Bundled in blankets, she appears to be eight months old. That means her first takeover was probably in January of 2013, when a band of Mohawks rallied here for a “flash mob” of drumming, chanting, and round dancing as part of the Idle No More Movement that swept across Canada in late 2012, in protest against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s controversial stance on indigenous issues. Temperatures dipped into the teens that day as they blocked the bridge for four hours. In Mohawk Country, little girls earn their activist creds early.
I am from the borderlands myself, albeit the southern one, the notorious one, the one that steals headlines on a nightly basis. On many a lazy Sunday when I was growing up, my family would pile into our Chevy and drive 150 miles across southern Texas to spend the afternoon in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Walking across that bridge used to unnerve me too, as it was lined with blind men plucking guitars and barefoot children selling Chiclet, and once you neared the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, cups of coins would suddenly appear, impaled by sticks and rattled by beggars waiting down below. Yet even as a child, I understood bridge crossing to be a privilege. According to family lore, my great-grandmother didn’t have the funds to walk across it with her five young boys after her husband got killed in a mining accident in Nuevo Leon. In the dark of night, she hired someone to paddle her family across the river to America instead.
Well into my teenage years, my family crossed the bridge whenever one of us got sick and needed cheap, no-prescription-necessary penicillin. We crossed the bridge when it was Easter and we wanted cascarones, confetti-filled eggs to crack on each other’s heads. We crossed the bridge when we ran out of cajeta, a caramel-like delicacy that we spread on our morning toast. We crossed the bridge when we wanted to feel Mexican. We crossed the bridge when we wanted to feel American. But then narco-violence erupted in the late nineties, and we stopped crossing the bridge altogether.
I moved to the New York/Canada borderlands in July 2012 in part to live in the liminal space between nations again. I first visited Akwesasne while hosting a high-wheeling uncle from the Bronx. Rumor had it “a bunch of Indians” ran a casino nearby; we set off to find it. Compared to other reservations I’ve visited—the Navajo Nation in Arizona; the Oglala Lakota Sioux in South Dakota—Akwesasne seemed almost posh. Many homes are standard HUD models with yards overflowing with cars, car parts, and tricycles, but along the river, two and three-story Colonials tower above wrought iron fences flanked by boats and snowmobiles. The highway is lined with tax-free, full-service gas stations plus a Japanese steakhouse, Subway, Papa John’s, Jrecks Subs, Dunkin’ Donuts, and the Canadian version of Dunkin’ Donuts: Tim Hortons. And the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort boasts 130,000 square feet of gaming that includes 1,800 slot machines, four restaurants, a High Limit Salon, a Live Poker Room, and a certain blackjack table that slurped $600 out of my uncle’s pocket in twenty minutes flat.
What struck me most on that initial visit was the glut of tobacco shops: seventeen, according to the business directory, the bulk of which dot the highway. Hidden from view are the half dozen or so factories that make the product and (covertly) transport it by bridge or river first to Cornwall Island, then to the Mohawk reservation of Kahnawake (just south of Montreal), and finally into the netherworld of Canada’s black market. According to the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, this costs Canada upward of $2 billion in lost tax revenue each year. Yet many Mohawks bristle when you pair the word “cigarette” with “smuggling.” Tobacco has played a vital role in nearly every aspect of Mohawk life, from praying to ceremonial rituals to medicinal practices, since time immemorial.
“It is our right to trade tobacco; those are our traditional trade routes,” says a thirty-something Mohawk I’ll call Keetah. “Ontario shouldn’t regulate my trade with my cousins in Kahnawake. No. I am an indigenous woman and I’m taking it to another indigenous person in a First Nations community.”
When Keetah was a little girl, her (divorced) mother used to pack cartons beneath the back seat of their station wagon, plunk the kids on top, and drive to Kahnawake whenever she needed cash. Twenty years later, Keetah and her sister got into the business too. At $36,000 a load, Keetah profited enough to finance her entire graduate education within four months. Her sister bought a car.
So it’s no wonder Mohawks are drawn to the trade. Yet the sheer number of shops is a bit mystifying, given Akwesasne’s distance to anything resembling a city (175 miles to Syracuse; seventy to Ottawa). One Sunday afternoon, I picked a shop at random, bought a copy of the weekly Indian Time, and plunked down at a booth to see what would happen. In the two hours that followed, I counted thirty customers—two Indians and twenty-eight white folks—who bought as much as $110 worth of merchandise apiece: cartons of Tomahawk, Discount, Nation’s Best, All Natural Native, Signal, or Seneca cigarettes ranging from $23-$28 each, plus tins of dip, rolls of dip, and tubs of dip in flavors like Rum-Cured and Vanilla Cavendish. When asked, the cashier, a young Mohawk wearing a hoodie, rated it a “slowish” day. Fridays were so crazy, she added, she sometimes got shin splints trying to keep the shelves stocked.
From there, I drove up and down Route 37, visiting the other shops. Some featured glass cabinets of artfully arranged Zippos; others resembled head shops, with paraphernalia for smoking substances other than tobacco. Half of one shop dealt in princess-fare, everything ruffled and bowed, plus tiny top hats studded with rhinestones. (In a year of visiting Akwesasne a couple of times a week, I never saw a little girl wearing anything like it.) Perhaps the oddest smoke shop was the one that doubled as a health store. Its sidewalls were lined with herbal medicines, tonics, and a lending library full of books about battling cancer, while the back wall was stacked with cigarettes. The owner turned out to be a cancer survivor, and when I asked about the irony, she said: “I didn’t have lung cancer.”
We are approaching the CBSA station now. All three lanes contain a windowed booth staffed by an agent wearing sunglasses. The drumbeats quicken as we ford into Canada without showing any ID.
Up ahead, a lone man in uniform stands in the middle of a vacated avenue: Steve MacNaughton, the CBSA’s regional director. He grins with all of his teeth as the chiefs surround him and the rest of us follow suit. One chief lights up a long wooden pipe and starts puffing. I keep thinking he’ll pass it over to MacNaughton as a peace offering, but no: he just stands there in his gloriously feathered and antlered headdress, blowing smoke rings at the sky. Another chief begins to speak in one of the Haudenosaunee languages, gesturing in a way that seems to incorporate the sun, the sky, the river, the trees, and the earth, along with every one of us. Whole minutes pass before a third chief begins to translate, so softly, I catch only phrases:
“We have come here to remind you that you are in our land.”
“… the things we agreed to many years ago …”
“… that line does not belong to us.”
For a moment, I feel as if I am witnessing a sacred ritual of long ago. Then somebody’s cell phone rings with the opening riffs of “Bad to the Bone,” and my focus disperses. No matter: the current function of the crowd seems to be that of a “hype man” in hip-hop, here to back up the chiefs with numbers and drumbeats.
MacNaughton accepts a missive from the chiefs outlining their concerns about “the situation” and then gallantly steps to the side. One of the chiefs turns to face the crowd. Late fifties with a graying moustache, he is wearing a purple ribbon shirt topped by a bear claw necklace. Ever so slightly, he cocks his head. With that, we march on toward the city.
Of all the industries impacted by “the situation,” tobacco might be hardest hit. Back when Canada’s checkpoint was at the foot of the southern bridge, New York-based factories simply had to ship their product across the river by boat or snowmobile, discreetly pack it into a truck waiting at an island dock, and then drive it into mainland Canada via the northern bridge. Nowadays, however, there is no avoiding Customs. That’s a big reason why Keetah quit the trade in 2009. Another is that her sister got caught. Although the penalty was minimal—$2,000 in fines, plus a year of house arrest— it remains on her record, which means she cannot work for any official tribal enterprise on the reservation again, including the casino. Ironically, that leaves her little choice but to continue working in contraband, as there are scant other employment opportunities.
“Why do they go after the traffickers who are just trying to make a living and feed their families?” asks Chief David. “Why not go after the biker gangs in Ottawa, or the Oriental gangs in Toronto? The bulk of what is manufactured here is sold to the domestic market. This has been done for hundreds of years. If we are not trading sugar, we are trading gasoline. These days the product is cigarettes.”
Illegal drugs pass through Akwesasne, too, albeit from north to south. The U.S. Justice Department estimates as much as twenty percent of Canada’s high-potency marijuana is channeled through here, along with “multi-thousand tablet quantities” of ecstasy, cocaine, meth, and OxyContin. Human trafficking has also been a problem in the past. Just about every Mohawk I know has a story about driving down a back road and coming upon a dazed-looking Chinese or Pakistani carrying a backpack. David says the human trade is subsiding, though.
“There was an incident four or five years ago where a boat overturned and two [undocumented] people drowned. They didn’t have life jackets and it was cold. That is where our people put their foot down,” he says. “There is a hierarchy of taboos here, and people who smuggle people are on top.”
If any business has benefitted from “the situation,” it might be the auto industry. Several Mohawks I interviewed mentioned investing in a second car since 2009. They use one car for traveling from the island to New York, and the other for running errands in Canada. (The former is known as the “getaway car.”) That’s not an option for Mohawks on a budget, however. Okiokwinon, the college student who participated in the summer 2009 demonstrations, grew so frustrated with border-crossing, she stopped coming home as often. “The [CBSA] would pull me over and dump my laundry basket in front of everyone. They would make me take out my laptop, turn it on, and take out my disk drive. They have tried to pull out the seat of my car. One time I was pulled over by New York state troopers, and he didn’t believe I went to [university]. He kept asking how I got in, and where was my acceptance letter. Luckily I had my school ID, but he thought it was fake. I sat there for half an hour trying to convince him,” she says, then slowly shakes her head. “It sucks to be an Indian leaving the rez.”
Cornwall, Ontario gets a lot of grief from its countrymen. MoneySense magazine recently ranked it the 167th best place to live in Canada—out of 190. Among its main attractions is “Big Ben,” a toxic dump that becomes a ski hill each winter. But there’s also a winding riverfront with a bike trail, a tea house that serves warm scones and clotted cream on vintage English saucers, and surprisingly good Thai food. I, for one, would visit more often if it weren’t such a pain to get here.
Standing on a grassy knoll beneath a flagpole is the mayor of Cornwall, Bob Kilger. He seems undaunted as 400 members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy swarm him, conditioned perhaps by his previous stint as referee of the National Hockey League. Quite a lot of media has gathered by this point, too; I must elbow a few cameramen to get near the action. Again, the chiefs orate and translate.
“We need you to know we are not going anywhere,” they say. “We need to be respected in the same manner as everyone else.”
Kilger listens carefully before responding, but while he adopts the chief’s use of first person plural, it somehow lacks the heft:
“We are glad you are here.”
“We are friends and neighbors.”
“We hope you feel at home in our home.”
Finally, the chief in the bear claw necklace turns to the crowd. With a cinematic gaze, he takes in the young mothers cradling babies, the elders wearing clan symbols, the men with the Mohawk haircuts, the reporters Tweeting on their Androids. Then he retreats toward the bridge.
“Should we clap?” someone whispers.
No one does. When the chiefs walk away, 400 follow.
On the return trip over the northern bridge, I fall in step with a chief wearing a headdress with especially handsome plumage and a mighty antler rack. Sienna-skinned and oval-faced, he has combed his sleek black hair into braids that dangle past his ribs. He has such a commanding presence, I am unsurprised to learn he is the Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee, elected for life to run the meetings of the Confederacy. Slung over his left arm is a beaded replica of the Two Row wampum, which represents an agreement between Dutch explorers and Haudenosaunee chiefs dating back to 1613.
“This is the river of life,” the Tadodaho explains to me, pointing to the yellowing quahog shells that form the belt’s traditionally white backdrop. Then he glides his forefinger along the two purple lines running parallel across it. “And this is your people traveling in a ship and our people traveling in a canoe. We travel together in peace and in friendship, but our paths do not cross.”
Some scholars are skeptical of this treaty, but there’s no doubting the special relationship the Netherlands has fostered with the Haudenosaunee ever since. It is one of the few nations, for instance, that will accept their tribal confederacy passports rather than insist upon U.S. or Canadian passports at the border. (Great Britain famously rejected the sovereign passports of the Haudenosaunee lacrosse team in 2010, inciting the team to withdraw their participation in the world championship there.)
Just ahead walks a chief of the Onondaga Nation, Jake Edwards, striking for his prominent cheekbones and graceful gait. As we fall in stride, he points to the wampum on the Tadodaho’s wrist and continues the lesson. “The Two Row shows we live side by side, as long as the grass is green, as long as the waters flow downhill, as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west,” he says. “The Europeans agreed with that. They wrote it down, but they lost it. We still have it here.”
We are back on Cornwall Island now. Clan mothers have prepared a feast at the People’s Fire, across from the abandoned checkpoint. I join the line snaking out of the building and am promptly handed a plastic baggie containing a bologna sandwich, fruit cup, granola bar, and spork; waiting inside are cauldrons of traditional dishes like fry bread, meat pie, corn bread, corn mush, and—my absolute favorite—corn soup (cured salt pork, turnips, kidney beans, and carrots, plus corn kernels cleaned with ashes and boiled until they burst into juicy white pearls). I serve myself a steaming bowl, then take in all the families gathered around the park benches, eating, storytelling, laughing.
It is hard not to marvel at the metaphorical possibilities of bridges and Indians. It simply makes cosmic sense that Mohawks excel at ironwork, as they too are a connecting force. Their hunters, trappers, and fishermen link us back to the natural world. Their healers link us back to traditional medicines. Their elders link us back to the ancestors. Their orators link us back to creation. And their ceremonies link us back to a place so deep within ourselves, we wind up finding one another.
No one knows where Canadian Customs will ultimately go. In January 2014, the Federal Bridge Corporation opened a new low level bridge to replace the dreaded northern one, and will spend the next two years dismantling the old one. Yet Mohawks still must report to CBSA whenever entering or exiting their island. Hundreds have signed a petition requesting Customs move from Cornwall city closer to the New York side, south of the southern bridge, but Chief David says that even if Canada agreed, such a plan could take a decade to implement. Until then, “the situation” remains the Situation.
“So many people have dreamt of that [northern] bridge collapsing, of the water tearing it down,” says White, the pawnshop manager who is also an elder of the Turtle Clan. “Native seers came here this winter, and they said we are headed for a year of darkness because this area would be flooded. I take it with a grain of salt… but thoughts create reality. Maybe if enough people dream it, it will happen.”
Of course, it is morbid to imagine the bridge collapsing into the St. Lawrence River, hurtling cars and trucks and people into its icy current. Yet, from a Mohawk perspective, there is something deliciously anarchic about the vision as well. For if the bridge were to crumble, wouldn’t the border, too?