(Page 3 of 4)
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.