At U.S.-Canada Border Reservation, Mohawks Say They Face Discrimination For people living on a reservation that sits on the U.S.-Canada border, there are many struggles to overcome — including stereotypes and discrimination.
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At U.S.-Canada Border Reservation, Mohawks Say They Face Discrimination

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At U.S.-Canada Border Reservation, Mohawks Say They Face Discrimination

At U.S.-Canada Border Reservation, Mohawks Say They Face Discrimination

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Mohawks have hunted, fished and lived by the St. Lawrence River for hundreds of years. After the War of 1812, the United States and Great Britain drew a line on a map, creating today's northern border between New York state and Canada. That line bisected sovereign Mohawk territory known as Akwesasne, dividing it in two. The border has defined the Mohawks ever since, even though they didn't put it there. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: I'm walking on the shore of the St. Lawrence River. The international border is somewhere out there in the water, invisible. If you look on a map, it winds through islands, around peninsulas. And some of it's U.S.; some of it's Canada.

But all of this I'm looking at here is part of the Akwesasne reservation, sovereign Mohawk land with its own borders. The Mohawks' tribal police chief Matthew Rourke actually grew up right around here. His parents run a B and B and host weddings right here out on this point.

MATTHEW ROURKE: So if anybody in NPR wants to come on by to St. Lawrence and have a party...

SOMMERSTEIN: Rourke is a big, burly guy with a buzz cut. And he wants to show me something just past a gazebo overlooking the river. It's a concrete pillar, waist-high. That's the border, he says. No customs agents, no fence.

Wait, what?

ROURKE: No, come here. I'll show you.



SOMMERSTEIN: OK, so here - I'm coming here.

ROURKE: You're in the States.

SOMMERSTEIN: I'm in the States. And now I stick my hand over.

ROURKE: You're in Canada.

SOMMERSTEIN: And my hand's in Canada.

It's crazy. Roads in Akwesasne cross the border with no sign whatsoever. The border runs through backyards, through people's homes.

ROURKE: This is our land. And all of a sudden, the borders are put up and we were tasked with protecting those borders.

SOMMERSTEIN: This all makes the border here very hard to police. And Rourke says that attracts smugglers.

ROURKE: You know, there's always money to be made somewhere, and some people exploit it.

SOMMERSTEIN: For some non-natives, Akwesasne has become synonymous with tobacco or drug or migrant smuggling. Akwesasne made headlines in the 1990s when some Mohawks asserted their sovereign trade rights to bring untaxed cigarettes into Canada. Canadian Mounties tried to stop them. Since then, published stories have been titled "Smugglers Playground" and "Contraband Capital."

The U.S. Border Patrol's Wade Laughman says the area will always be a challenge to protect, but it's not fair to blame the Mohawks.

WADE LAUGHMAN: It's not necessarily that it's a Native American reservation, right? It's the geography of the reservation. It's the fact that half of the reservation is in Canada, basically, and half is in the United States.

SOMMERSTEIN: The smuggling reputation persists. Kevin Lazore was born and raised in Akwesasne. And when he went off to college in Toronto, he'd have this conversation with people.

KEVIN LAZORE: They're like, oh, where are you from? I'm like, oh, Akwesasne. Wow, the famous Akwesasne. Are you in that business? I'm like, what business? What are you talking about? And then finally, it clicked to me like - oh, they must think I'm a smuggler. I'm like, no, I don't do - I'm not into that business.

SOMMERSTEIN: Lazore's a smiley, joking guy in his 30s, but his smile disappears when he tells that story.

LAZORE: Oh, we all do it. You know, I don't. I hear the stereotype that we're are all smugglers. We all do this - all this criminal activity. That's the thing I really hate.

SOMMERSTEIN: The stereotype's especially bitter because most people in Akwesasne have to cross the border legally through an actual checkpoint just to get from one side of the reservation to the other - to get to the doctor's or sports games or just to get home. It's not just a hassle, says Margie Skidders, the editor of the Mohawk newspaper Indian Time, it's a violation of her sovereignty as a native person.

MARGIE SKIDDERS: It's easier to go through if you have a passport. I have a passport, but I'll be damned if I use a passport coming into my own territory.

SOMMERSTEIN: Many tribal members resent even the presence of U.S. or Canadian law enforcement. They complain of racial profiling. Skidders says it's gotten better since U.S. Border Patrol agents started taking cultural training classes, even learning a few words in Mohawk.

SKIDDERS: Our relationship has improved because they've taken the time to learn about us.

SOMMERSTEIN: U.S. Border Patrol says smuggling is down on this stretch of the New York-Canada border thanks to a beefed-up tribal police force and better cooperation between law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. That makes tribal police chief Matthew Rourke proud. But what makes him prouder is his people's accomplishments as scientists, educators and artists - and the beauty of the riverfront where he grew up.

ROURKE: Come and look at the fishing. There's lacrosse factories. There's basket-makers. You know, there's so much. We have the casino, and it's a shame that people look at one element of what this is all about and want to profile it.

SOMMERSTEIN: He says, we're a lot more than a place with a border.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Akwesasne.

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