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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.