Approximately one hour Northeast of our campus lies a part of American history that few students are intimately familiar with: the Akwesasne Reservation. To many, reservations represent a living reminder of Euro-American colonialism, while for others reservations today are the last remaining examples of sovereignty and the cultural traditions of Native Americans. Regardless, the issues facing this specific group of individuals and the culture that they have worked so hard to preserve resonate with us all.
The Native American reservation is the spiritual and cultural center for all members of the tribe, including those living far from it. Throughout history, reservations throughout the country have been forced to face a variety of problems on social, political, and economic levels that have been imposed by the American government and its citizens. From unemployment to healthcare, controversy and apathy alike have prevented quick-fix solutions to these deeply ingrained issues.
Fighting Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination: Everyday Life
The Mohawk people have a strong sense of self, and despite the stereotypes unfairly applied to them throughout history. they have had the strength to preserve their land and their faith.
Racism and National Consciousness News
After the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Confederation settled on the Akwesasne Reservation, their population increased to approximately 15.000 residents. Chelsea Francis, a native Akwesasne resident and a student at St. Lawrence, helped us to understand everyday life and traditions on the Akwesasne Reservation. To uncover the truths and myths of our unknown neighbors on the reservation, we asked Chelsea about every aspect of her life.
Chelsea states that smuggling is “the skeleton in the closet” of the Reservation, and despite its prevalence, she doesn’t personally know anyone who is involved. Crime plagues the reservation in the same way that it does our society. However, this issues in no way defines the Mohawks that live on the Akwesasne Reservation, despite the fact that this is a stereotype very commonly applied to their community. Popular views of the reservation as smuggling hotspot have been catalyzed by films such as “Frozen River,” a locally-filmed, award-winning independent film that told the story of two desperate women who turned to smuggling to make ends meet. Taking advantage of their border conditions between the United States and Canada, a small percentage of Mohawks smuggle items such as tobacco, alcohol, illegal weapons, other drugs, and even people. Due to the presence of smuggling, regardless of how few Mohawks actually take part, Chelsea states that the border-control in between the reservation is extremely strict.
French Jesuits such as the one pictured above were sent to convert the Native Americans and teach them all their traditional religious ways.
Not only are Native Americans often misjudged on their involvement with smuggling, but also people often fail to acknowledge and accept their traditional beliefs. The Mohawk faith is based on a unique, centuries-old creation story that has changed throughout the years to reflect the foreign influence of Christianity. This began with an effort to establish military strength in colonial America by French general Samuel de Champlain. He entered into an alliance with the Algonquin and Huron tribes, who joined forces in order to attack their enemy, the Mohawks. After facing initial defeat, and seeking redemption, the Mohawks turned to the Iroquois Confederation. The battles raged for years and ultimately ended in the signing of a treaty. However, the French had a foothold in American soil and began to send Jesuit missionaries throughout the country. Many Mohawks were open to learning about Christianity and gaining knowledge of a new faith, and to this day a large group of Mohawks who still adhere to Christian beliefs live near the French in Canada close to Montreal.
While Akwesasne students attending St. Lawrence would like to perform their routine practices here in Canton and on campus, it is much more difficult to go to a local longhouse and burn tobacco than it is to go to a church or synagogue because the resources are simply not available to them here. Aside from the lack of resources, her culture is so different from ours that people raised outside of the Mohawk faith would likely have difficulty relating to her beliefs. Being one of the few members of her generation from home to know how to speak Mohawk, Chelsea feels as if she is losing the language by being here.
Although Chelsea feels as if she has lost part of her language and culture at school, they immediately come back to her when she goes home to the reservation.
With all of her childhood and family friends still living on the reservation, Chelsea still has the ability to go to longhouse and speak Mohawk with her family. There is a small loss of cultural and traditional practices and beliefs between generations because of the current generation’s inability to keep up with life on the reservation when they’re outside of it, and overall there is a lack of emphasis on beliefs. This is not due to lack of interest, but simply because the Akwesasne residents are excelling in other areas of profession and education. While Chelsea loves being a student here at St. Lawrence, her passion for her family and life on the Reservation are evident. Our society knows so little about this remarkable community that is so close to us, despite the fact that we have several members present in our everyday lives attending and working at St. Lawrence. The residents of the Akwesasne Reservation are culturally and traditionally connected to the land that we share with them, land whose history has been passed down from generation to generation and will be preserved forever in the hearts of the Akwesasne people.
Making Ends Meet: Unemployment
Unemployment has been a large problem facing Native Americans on the reservation in the past, and still remains an issue despite recent improvements. Two distinct industries have revolutionized employment on the reservation: ironworking and the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. In the mid 19th century, the Mohawks were predominantly concerned with fishing, trapping, and farming, and many men also worked in Adirondack lumber camps. However, the pollution that accompanied the large corporations situated along the St. Lawrence River made agricultural practices impossible, and jobs in the logging industry decreased sharply in availability with the invention of the chainsaw. There has also been a lack of jobs available on the reservation itself.
Pictured above is a group of Mohawk high steel workers on the job in New York City.
Ironworking, also known as high steel construction, involves the building of skyscrapers and bridges, and jobs can range in location from New York to Los Angeles. Since 1886, when the first Mohawk men were hired to aid in the construction of a railroad bridge that traversed the St. Lawrence River, ironworking has been a great source of pride among the Akwesasne, and today, working in high steel still provides people with a much-valued source of income that comes from outside of the reservation, where it can be difficult to find jobs, according to professor emeritus Robert N. Wells. However, ironworking has its dangers and drawbacks: many individuals suffer from arthritis by the time they reach their mid-forties and can no longer work, and the job itself is risky: it is not uncommon to become badly injured or die while on site. Even so, ironworking has brought prestige and recognition to the Native Americans who are involved, and ironworking has become a deeply ingrained part of culture on the reservations. Today, Mohawk high steel workers have left their mark on America by participating in the construction of such famous structures as the CN Tower, the George Washington Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the World Trade Center (Wells, 2010).
The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, or AMC, is a Native American gambling enterprise located in Hogansburg, New York that has provided a vitally important influx of money into the reservation.
The second business that has increased job opportunities on the reservation was the creation of the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, located 12 miles East of Massena. The casino brought enough money into the reservation that construction of a grocery store, a senior citizen home, and the Mohawk Valley Freedom School were made possible (Wells, 2010). The casino employs approximately 700 people, all over the age of 21, and many of whom come from the reservation. According to its website, the casino has approximately 1,600 slot machines and 25 tables, and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
When the casino was first planned in the early 1990s it was fraught with controversy. Factions that supported or were against gambling clashed in a series of random shootings, road barricades, power outages, and other violent forms of protest.
The Reservation was divided into two groups: one that supported construction and operation of the casino, and one that advocated holding onto more traditional values. Eventually, however, the need for the casino proved strong enough, and today it provides a steady source of income for the reservation.
Downstream Devastation: Environmental Problems
Ships such as this one on the Saint Lawrence Seaway have contributed to the devastating pollution on the Akwesasne reservation.
In the unique case of the Akwesasne, the environmental problems that face the reservation are a result of a perfect storm of geography and conflicting ideologies. Geographically, the reservation is located on the St. Lawrence River and is downwind and downriver from the once economically prosperous town of Massena, NY. Consequently, any pollution produced from the “economic success” of Massena is carried directly down gradient to pollute Akwesasne environments, crops, livestock, and people (Environmental Issues, 2002, 2). Although many seem to think it unintentional that white-owned corporations are conveniently diverting their environmental baggage to a minority group reservation, some would call it a unique form of racism known as “environmental racism.”
Many people consider environmental racism to be the ideological element of the perfect environmental storm that has caused the agonizing problems that the Akwesasne reservation is forced to deal with today. One expert, Rachel Godsil, a professor at Seton Hall University, defines environmental racism as “both the intentional and unintentional disproportionate imposition of environmental hazards on minorities” (Godsil, 1991, 397). In short, what causes environmental racism as Godsil defines it is the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome, or NIMBY syndrome. When environmentally conscientious citizens take a stand and fight back against potential polluters, they are exhibiting the classic symptoms of NIMBY syndrome. If a NIMBY battle against potential polluters is successful, a polluting developer looks for another community to work out of and eventually ends up in “Somewhere Else, USA” (Bullard, 2000, 98). However, as expert Robert Bullard demonstrates in his article Anatomy of Environmental Racism, “Somewhere Else, USA” often ends up being a minority community such as the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation (200, 98).
Despite the arguments that support environmental racism as applied to the Akwesasne, some scholars, such as St. Lawrence’s own Dr. Glenn Harris, question the intentions of polluting companies and the role of racism in creating the environmental problems on the reservation. A professor and environmentalist, Dr. Harris has had a significant amount of experience with the reservation. However, if there’s one thing scholars can agree on, it’s that the environmental problems on the Akwesasne reservation are severe.
The General Electric company, pictured above, has dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into the river, causing irreversible damage to the environment of the Akwesasne reservation.
So what are these harmful environmental problems that the Akwesasne suffer from on a day-to-day basis? As Dr. Harris and the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment agree, the greatest antagonists in the environmental wastes story are the big companies who run the factories located along the river. Companies such as General Electric, Reynolds Aluminum, Domtar Cornwall Paper Company, and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation have caused a variety of specific environmental hazards. General Motors, for example, has leeched PCBs into the river that have in turn bioaccumulated in the tissue of fish to levels that make them unsafe for human consumption (Harris, 2010). Reynolds Aluminum has produced a fluoride gas that has polluted the Akwesasne air and compromised cattle populations by weakening their bones and threatening their survival (Harris 2010). Domtar Cornwall Paper Company has gifted the reservation with a foul hydrogen sulfide odor that haunts their international bridge (Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, 2009, 2). And finally, to top off that list, actions of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation have led to irreversible land erosion and a dramatic decline in fish populations because of the bilge dumped by traveling ships (Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, 2009, 3).
Working synergistically, these environment polluters have contributed to an overwhelming amount of harmful environmental influences on the Akwesasne reservation. Yet as easy as it is to list the environmental stresses that the Akwesasne people live with, it remains next to impossible for words to convey how devastating these biohazards actually are to their unique lifestyle and rich culture. As the Akwesasne people themselves put it,
“Native communities cannot, and will not, move. Land is not merely property, it is the bones of ancestors, it is sacred, it is our mother. If the earth becomes contaminated, it not only endangers the health and wellbeing of individuals who are exposed to toxicants, it threatens the well-being of an entire Nation of unique and endangered people.”
- Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (2010)
The Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment is a grass-roots organization that promotes positive environmental change; pictured here are Akwesasne residents picking strawberries on the reservation.
However, there is more than just hope for the Akwesasne people: Dr. Harris has described a new generation of individuals that is emerging from within the Akwesasne population. These people have witnessed and experienced first hand the environmental atrocities on the reservation, and are part of a hopeful and promising group of educated environmentalists that has managed to convince an environmental expert like Dr. Harris that in terms of necessary action for reform, the Akwesasne “have gone from behind the curve to in front of the curve” (Harris, 2010).
America’s New Free Trade: Smuggling
For over a century, the Akwesasne reservation’s boundaries have been exploited, and a number of its inhabitants have been involved in smuggling various types of contraband. These illegal imports range from seemingly innocuous substances such as tobacco and alcohol to increasingly dangerous items like hardcore drugs and weaponry, to illegal aliens. Organized crime bands, such as Hell’s Angels in Quebec and various New York Mafia groups, use the reservation’s political jurisdiction as a safe haven (Marsden). Without these gangs, there would be no smuggling and Akwesasne Mohawks would be able to live without the stigma that has been attached to them by the media.
Contraband is transported across the river in homemade rafts and boats (O’Brien). In the winter months, when the river is frozen, the goods are driven across in snowmobiles. After the items reach the shore, they are loaded into hidden compartments and stored in criminally owned pickup trucks and vans. (O’Brien). From there, the contraband is driven to its final destination. If the smuggled imports are heading North to Canada, they will most likely end up in Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto. If the goods travel into the United States, they will be delivered all along the East coast, with the majority stopping in New York City (Hill).
This shot, taken on the set of the film “Frozen River,” shows a smuggler’s car crossing the river.
Smugglers have to be on the lookout for both Border Patrol and “river raiders.” If caught by the authorities, the smugglers will lose their contraband goods and they can be heavily fined and even face jail time. River raiders, on the other hand, pose a unique problem: they are Mohawks who do not abide by the law. Members of the Akwesasne community describe these river raiders as independent, armed, modern-day pirates who wait on the banks of the St. Lawrence. When they spot a smuggler, they will attack him or her and take the contraband to sell it themselves. This is quite a sensitive occupation because the reservation is a very close-knit community, and river raiders will often find themselves attacking smugglers who turn out to be acquaintances, neighbors, or even friends. Although the smuggling process is risky, the rewards are greater than the risks for these Mohawk transporters, who often have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and they have nearly perfected their ability to avoid detection and capture.
The most valuable cargo that the Akwesasne will smuggle across the border is an illegal immigrant. Most illegal aliens are snuck into the United States from Canada with the goal of reaching New York City. The vast majority of these smuggled individuals are Asian (Martin). Asian gang members will ask the smugglers to transport people for about 1,000 dollars per person and are seldom caught; it is a risk that they are willing to take (Fennel).
The media places the blame for all of the various contraband on the area’s entire population. In reality, however, only a small percentage of the community is involved, and the select few that are smuggling are heavily influenced by gangs and desperately need the money.
The most commonly exchanged contraband, however, is actually tobacco, which the Mohawks are legally allowed to purchase from U.S. tobacco distributors without paying any taxes (Marsden). After buying the tax-free tobacco, the Native Americans then sell the merchandise to the public at extremely cheap prices: the evidence of this practice can be clearly seen in any gas station or smoke shop on the reservation. The Akwesasne belief is that it is their native right to trade tobacco because it brings wealth into an otherwise impoverished area (Marsden).
Cartons of cigarettes such as these are smuggled across the border and are occasionally seized and confiscated by border patrol.
Weapons and drugs are two more types of perilous contraband that pass through the reservation on a regular basis. Legal weapons are purchased in the U.S. and then travel through the reservation into Canada to be sold to anyone who has the money (Daily Gazette). Illegal firearms are acquired and distributed among organized crime groups, then delivered to the Mohawk transporters to be smuggled across the border (Daily Gazette). Like alcohol, contraband drugs are not manufactured on the reservation itself: organized crime constituents supply them (Rayno). The most commonly traded substances are marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy. The drugs are brought across the St. Lawrence River in the same manner as tobacco, but before they are loaded, they are sealed in airtight bags so that they can be shaped to fit in almost any space (Rayno). This makes it possible to conceal the drugs in the smallest, least noticeable compartments of any vehicle. The illegal imports are then delivered to organized criminals and distributed within their own networks.
As long as Canadian and American border patrols continue to apprehend only a small percentage of these outlaws, and if organized crime groups persist in the exploitation of the reservation’s boundaries, then smuggling will remain an integral, unavoidable part of Akwesasne culture.
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”: Faith and Tradition
In 1879, a United States Army Captain by the name of Richard Henry Pratt established an Indian boarding school called The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Landis, 1996). The purpose of this school was to take young Native American children and transform them into American “citizens.” The faculty and staff of this school would cut the Native Americans’ hair and put them in military uniforms while giving strict rules that were enforced with beatings (Landis, 1996). The French Jesuits, along with many other Christian groups such as Protestants, Mormons, Methodists, and Baptists, adopted these schooling tactics and used them on the Mohawks.
This image shows a Native American before and after his experiences in the Carlisle School.
According to Bonaparte, the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man!” became the primary motto used throughout all of the Native American Boarding schools (Bonaparte, 2009, p.34). Sue-Ellen Herne of the Akwesasne Mohawk Library and Museum said, “My grandfather was a student in one of the Carlisle Indian Industrial Schools and he would tell me stories that they would beat every student that would speak their native language to another student. They would also beat him if he would ever question the faith he was being taught…they would have their students live with other white families that would enforce the same methods as the schools did so they could beat the Native out of them” (Herne, 2010).
This is one example of a Native youth going through the education system that was instilled by the Jesuits; a related example comes from Chelsea Francis concerning her grandfather. “What he used to tell me is that [the school] was headed by a bunch of Nuns, he and his brother Leo were put there as orphan children. He used to say that when they got caught speaking their language with one another they would get slapped with this huge ruler on their hands. He also used to tell us how the food was always cold and old, and the head Priest would always get steaks and potatoes that no one else was allowed to have. They were terrible to him and the other kids” (Francis, 2010). These schools and methods would be strongly enforced until the 1970s, where the U.S. began to take a stand against the brutality that the Native Americans had been faced with for so many years (Bonaparte, 2010, p.35). Today, there are still a handful of schools that still stand by the Carlisle methods found in the Montreal, Quebec area.
Optimism For the Future
Strong individuals who have managed to preserve their unique culture despite external pressures and prejudices populate the Akwesasne Reservation. Groups such as the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment and individuals such as Chelsea Francis exemplify the Mohawks’ drive to fight the problems facing the reservation. Though a diverse array of internal issues face those living on the Akwesasne Reservation, the Mohawks are far better off than those living on other Native American reservations throughout the United States due to increased awareness of these issues, well-organized attempts to correct them, and a superior sense of identity and self-confidence.
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