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.”