A Mohawk woman is preparing a complaint against the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and has asked for surveillance video of a recent incident in which her Haudenosaunee passport was seized by a border official who called it “a fantasy document.” Joyce King, a citizen of the U.S. federally acknowledged St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, says she plans to file a complaint against the agency for discriminatory actions. “If my Haudenosaunee passport is a fantasy document, I’m a fantasy person living in a fantasy land and looking at a fantasy border,” King says.
The passport was seized on June 18 as King was travelling from Akwesasne Territory in New York to Cornwall, Ontario. King, the director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s Justice Department, said the border agent asked for identification and when she handed him her Haudenosaunee passport, she was told to get out of the car for a “secondary inspection” in the CBSA office. After a while, the border agent returned and asked her to present her identification. “They still hadn’t informed me that the Haudenosaunee passport was not acceptable, so I showed them the passport and they said they were confiscating it,” King said. “The agent said, ‘It’s a fantasy document,’ and I started asking questions, like ‘Is it the law or a policy you are enforcing here?’ He said it was the law and he could confiscate my passport under the Canadian Customs Act.” The agent gave her a receipt for her passport and a copy of the Customs Act, which lists 71 “fantasy passports” or travel documents. The list includes the Iroquois, Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek indigenous nations; countries that no longer exist under their former names, such as “Czechoslovakia”; decolonized countries, such as British Honduras; and some unexplained entries, such as Wisconsin and Principality of Vikingland.
King was allowed to enter Canada only after she presented her tribal status card issued by St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and her Canadian Indian Status card. “Status Indians” are Indigenous Peoples who are listed in Canada’s Indian Register under Canada’s Indian Act of 1876, a racist colonialist law that gives the Canadian government almost unlimited power over the country’s First Nations bands and communities. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has called on the Canadian government to abolish the Indian Act. “I’m an Indian in New York, I’m an Indian in Canada, but I can’t be an Indian within my own nation,” King says, referring to the border-crossing area in Ontario that is part of the Mohawks’ traditional territory. “I think if I had presented my gym membership they probably would have accepted that, but because it was a Haudenosaunee passport they confiscated it.”
King says she was profoundly offended by the encounter. “I thought, This is the real identity theft. They’re actually stealing my identity because they only want to acknowledge me as a Status Indian and not as a Haudenosaunee.” Still marveling at the absurdity of the “fantasy” label, she adds, “What about all those treaties the Haudenosaunee has with the U.S. and the British Crown? If they don’t recognize them, then they should give us our land back!”
King has used her Haudenosaunee passport to travel to Alaska, Mexico and Japan, where she attended a conference on the world’s religions as director of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force. She uses it frequently to enter New York state, where her driver’s license is registered, and she also used it to enter Canada in 2006. Citizens of the six-nation Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora and Cayuga) have used the Haudenosaunee passport since they were first issued in the 1970s. They have become problematic in the past few years under the U.S.-imposed Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires documents to have an “enhanced” security feature—an embedded microchip that has a distinct number. The Haudenosaunee passport issue came under the spotlight last year when the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was prevented from travelling to England for the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships by the British Consulate and the U.S. State Department. The State Department finally relented and agreed to allow the team to travel on their Haudenosaunee passports on a onetime-only waiver, but by then it was too late to go.
The Akwesasne Territory is no fantasy to the Mohawk people. The international border between the U.S. and Canada runs through the Akwesasne Territory, placing Akwesasne borders contiguous to the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and the state of New York. Kawehnoke, known as Cornwall Island (and other Mohawk Islands) are located in the St. Lawrence River. The International Bridge between New York and Cornwall runs through Kawehnoke. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s reservation abuts New York state on the U.S. side on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River.
Border issues between Canada and the Akwesasne Mohawks had been simmering for years and erupted in the spring of 2009 when the CBSA announced it intended to arm its agents at the border crossing, a promise made by the Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party during the previous election. On May 31, when the border guards were to be armed, more than 200 members of the Mohawk community held peaceful demonstrations, and the guards walked off the job at midnight. The border was closed, and Canada later moved the border crossing point to the entry of Cornwall.
Esme Bailey, a senior media spokeswoman for CSBA, defended, by e-mail, the confiscation of King’s passport, “The term ‘fantasy passport’ is an internationally recognized term, referring to any passport or travel document issued by a minority, sect or population group, a territory that is not internationally recognized, or a state that no longer exists,” she wrote. “They are, therefore, not recognized as a valid travel document.” She added that the Haudenosaunee passport is not recognized as a valid travel document under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and referred further inquiries to the government agency Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Bailey said that under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, “border-services officers may seize and hold any document if the officer believes on reasonable grounds that the seizure is necessary to prevent its improper use.”
King says the CBSA notified her to come and pick up her passport, but she says she will not retrieve it. “I’m not the owner of it, she says. “The owner is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The issuer is the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, and it should be returned to the owner. I take my direction from them because, of course, I have to respect their protocol.”
Chief Curtis Nelson of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs said in late July that the council had not yet met to address the issue of King’s passport, but in his opinion, “it’s just another effort on the part of Canada to aggravate an already-negative situation when it comes to border crossing and our right to move backwards and forward in our own homeland.”
He says the Canadian government has “the mistaken idea” that because the Mohawk people live an the area that straddles the U.S./Canada border they have to be either Canadian or American. “We’re Haudenosaunee Mohawks, those of us who live on both ‘sides.’ We do not see that line called the border as being ours. That belongs to the Canadians and Americans. Our homeland has always been in this general area from the Ohio Valley all the way up to the Huron Nation territory now. We’ve always lived here. We’ve never gone anywhere and we’ve never accepted the imposed rule that you’ve got to be either Canadian or American. It’s very aggravating that they keep trying to make us something we’re not.”
Nelson believes Canada has always wanted to fully assimilate the Indigenous Peoples. “They started with imposing the Indian Act,” he says, pointing to the act’s provision that Native women who marry non-Native men become non-Native and their children are non-Native. “That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve heard of and it was clearly directed at the Haudenosaunee.”
He also mentioned the Two Row Wampum, an early treaty depicted in a wampum belt with two purple rows running alongside each other. One row represents the settler-colonists’ boat, the other the Haudenosaunees’ canoe. The boats were to travel “down the river of life” side by side, each with its own way of life, laws and people, respecting the other’s ways and not interfering with each other. The Two Row Wampum is one of many treaties between the Haudenosaunee, the U.S. and Canada. “We maintained our end of those treaties, but Canada and the U.S. have not,” he says.
Referring to what King went through at the Cornwall, Ontario border crossing as, “when one of our passports was stolen,” Nelson says, “It’s not the first time we’ve had these issues and probably not the last time.”
Nelson says he understands the CBSA has laws it must enforce. “Those rules are for Canadian people and I accept that. But Haudenosaunee people are not Canadian. We have a right under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to move freely about in our own homeland. Canada has to move its ass and start recognizing that stuff.”
He says the border issue tends to bring other issues to light, including continued encroachment on indigenous communities, forced taxation and continued racism “wherever we go, especially at the border because we don’t fall into that square peg that Canadians want everybody to be a part of. Canada is one of the most racist countries in the world and it hides under the façade that it’s trying to do all these nice things for people in other countries, but the reality is they aren’t doing much for the First Peoples of this country.”