When we hear the terrible news about two Mohawks suffering serious injuries as the result of their boat being rammed by the US Coast Guard on Akwesasne waters we must do more than react with anger.
We have to know not only how this happened but why. And then we have to demand the leadership act quickly to address this crisis before the external police agencies either bring more harm to the people or cause someone's death.
The "how" of the boat ramming will come out in time but the community must have hard facts before rumours and half truths take hold and obscure what really happened that night. This means the St. Regis Tribal Police and the Akwesasne Mohawk Police have to issue statements about the incident and the combined leadership must assure the community action is being taken not only to investigate why the boat was rammed but how they will prevent this from being repeated.
The "why" of the incident is more complicated but is rooted in government policies and court decisions made in Ottawa and Washington or in courts far from Akwesasne.
In May of 2009, just days before the Canadian customs agents abandoned their posts before a mythical "threat" the US and Canada signed a document called the "Framework Agreement on Integrated Cross-Border Maritime Law Enforcement Operations" (read the entire text at: www.publicsafety.gc.ca). ; This was, as I pointed out last year, no coincidence.
That agreement allows for the US and Canadian police to enter each other's territory (by water or land), fully armed, if they are pursuing someone they suspect is engaged in criminal activity and to arrest that person. Since the police are armed the assumption is that they may use deadly force if they feel they are at risk.
This agreement has powerful implications for Akwesasne and all Iroquois people. It makes no mention of aboriginal rights or treaties yet it is a serious breach of the Treaty of Canandaigua since it is a direct assault on territorial jurisdiction. It is a violation of the Jay Treaty as it acts to harm our rights to cross the so-called international border without restriction.
It is, on a personal level, dangerous for Akwesasne as it removes any restriction on the external police from chasing our people using mere suspicion, not probable cause, as a rationale. It is why the US Border Patrol, backed up by other law enforcement agencies, may now enter the northern part of Akwesasne, an act of provocation to which we must respond even as we now know they will come down upon us with massive force.
The Framework Agreement is not the only assault on our right to self determination. When the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was formed Skennenrahowi used the bundle of arrows symbol to not only show us the power of unity but to warn us what would happen if we unraveled the bundle and went our own way.
The Oneida Nation of New York separated from the Confederacy in 1993 and elected to take a huge gamble when it went into the US Supreme Court alone. In 2005, in the City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation case the justices, by a vote of 8-1, dealt a fatal blow to all Iroquois land claims in a very bad decision in which the court cited the Doctrine of Discovery as one of its justifications for the theft of our lands.
In March of this year a US federal district court in Oklahoma followed that with another extremely disturbing conclusion in the Muscogee Nation v. Henry case. It ruled that a tobacco company operating out of Seneca territory, one called Lake Erie Tobacco, was not entitled to any immunity from taxes. That company, which is not operated by the Seneca Nation of Indians, was in partnership with Grand River Enterprises in Oshweken.
Although owned by Natives GRE is incorporated under Canadian law and pays federal taxes. The court found that Lake Erie Tobacco, even if it were owned by the Senecas, was not tax exempt and that no Native government had true sovereignty but that we exist only at the "sufferance of Congress" and that whatever we think are our Native rights "cannot survive without express congressional delegation."
The owners of Grand River Enterprises, acting without the approval of the Confederacy, are involved in another legal action with serious implications for Akwesasne and all Iroquois. This case, US v. Montour, was decided on April 7 of this year. It also involved the marketing of tobacco across state lines under the guise of Native sovereignty. The company was called Native Wholesale Supply. And the court rejected immunity outright stating that the limited sovereignty of Native nations was not grounds for avoiding state taxes and thereby undermined native nation-to-nation trade
agreements. The court also rejected all the claims made be defendents Peter Montour, Ken Hill and Arthur Montour Jr. to avoid criminal prosecution for violating the 2009 Contraband Cigarette Tobacco Act and ordered them to stand trial on 15 felonies, all Class C, with jail terms, upon conviction, of up to five years on each charge.
Now comes word that an Akwesasne company, Tarbell, Inc, has given up its tax free status and agreed to comply with US federal regulations.
It is important to note that most businesses are good and beneficial. The intent of the owners is to bring in prosperity and provide jobs. The decision to reach out to other Native nations is an excellent one and based on historical principles. But whenever any one of us asserts economic creativity or tries to make our nations stronger we can be certain that the US and Canada will react by challenging our actions and labeling our people as criminals. We are vulnerable to this tactic as long as we move alone, without the protection of our respective nations.
It is why I called Richard Nephew of the Seneca Nation of Indians. I wanted to know from him directly what the SNI's position was on the above issues and how we can defend ourselves from these intrusions. I wanted more information on the Seneca Nation's vote to secede from the Confederacy in 1848 and what relationship it had with the Confederacy as well as its position on the 1997 Haudenosaunee Trade and Commerce compact which represents the best way to hold back state and federal taxes. Maybe there is a way to extend the rafters to the SNI. He has not responded to date.
All of this matters to those who care about Akwesasne as a viable Mohawk community with national status. It affects each one of us in extremely personal ways as we have seen this past week but it must be emphasized that no Iroquois person or Native company is in any way responsible for, or the cause of, the action used by the external police to injure our people.
We need a common strategy for all Iroquois. We need the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Oneida Nation of New York to join their Iroquois kin, heal our respective wounds, learn from our experiences, rebundle the arrows and let Canada and the US know that the divide and conquer tactics will not work and we stand in unity for the good of all.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is an editor, columnist and author.
He is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the
American Indian. Kanentiio is the author of three books including, "Iroquois on
Fire", recently published by the University of Nebraska. He is the husband of
the singer Joanne Shenandoah.
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