'Traditional' law creates waves across Turtle Island

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The situation of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) asking 26 non-Natives to leave the community based on so-called "traditional" law has been making waves of discussion, debate, and dialogue for and against this measure across Turtle Island. Our three Mohawk communities (Kahnawake, Kanasatake, and Akwesasne where I'm from) are fairly close together so this is an issue that has particularly hit home for me -- amongst other members of our closely-knit communities. Ellen Gabriel, spokeswoman for Oka (Kanasatake) and now the president of the Quebec Native Women's Association issued an open-letter to the council, which is worth reading in its entirety here, where she calls down the council's actions based on what it actually means to be Kanien'kehá:ka/Mohawk traditionally, and today.

My dear friends and colleagues Tracey Deer and Steve Bonspiel, who own and write for the Kahnawake community newspaper called The Eastern Door wrote the following two-part editorials to the community. With their permission, I've re-posted it below because I really believe we ought to take into account ALL of what they're saying. Many of you know what it's like to get flack for writing online -- but it is totally different when so much of your own community is impacted by a PHYSICAL paper, not to mention people knowing where you live, who your family is, and the fact that they see you on a daily basis if you live in a small one. I think it's particularly important to remember this type of real activism on the ground and the strength it requires to speak your truth -- which is something we sometimes neglect to mention about this type of lateral violence that can happen in the offline world.

PART 1

Dear non-natives

From: Steve Bonspiel and Tracey Deer, The Eastern Door

The Mohawk Council has decided to ‘take action' on non-natives living here by sending 26 of them letters demanding they leave, but many question the motives, method and timing.

The list is very secretive but THE EASTERN DOOR was able to track down at least a few of those who received letters.

And some of the names on there, which will remain as confidential as they can be in Kahnawake or until the MCK chooses to reveal the list, which they said they would, were interesting to say the least.

The biggest question that arose from all of this is how did they determine who to give the letters to? It falls under Mohawk law, say some MCK chiefs, so it was done to protect the community and adhere to the law.

Many of those on the list are non-natives who have a boyfriend or girlfriend who is from the community. They haven't yet started to target non-natives with kids but that seems to be not too far down the line, according to the MCK.

The list was supposed to be released shortly after the MCK's press release came out a couple of weeks ago but that sounds like a bad idea no matter where you sit on this issue.

Imagine if a name gets out and angry community members go to that person's house to take the law into their own hands? What if they burn their house down? The MCK would be responsible for releasing those names and would be open to a huge lawsuit.

Let's examine the issue a little closer. If a Kahnawa'kehró:non falls in love with a non-native person and has kids with them while living here in the community, is that wrong?

It is a question that many in town have strong opinions about and sadly there are still many of us who abide by the Indian Act and the failed experiment of blood quantum, thus thinking that no one but a Mohawk has the right to live here.

We used to think differently before the Indian Act, but can we see the irony of following a system that was set up to destroy us by weeding out who is Native and who is not?

The Conservative government gets a kick out of us turning on our own, doing their job quite effectively.

If it is truly a question of rights, then why does the MCK allow non-natives who have big stakes in lucrative local companies to take advantage of our rights by not paying tax and by hiding from the government in the name of the Mohawk nation?

We can think of at least a few who are using our rights to get rich, yet giving a pittance back to the community.

If a non-native is living here to work and has no ties here (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend or children) and is taking advantage of our rights, then that seems to be a clear cut case. There is after all, only so much land to go around and they should leave.

As in many instances in this political world of ours, love often gets left behind, forgotten thanks to some misguided attempt to protect our identity.

The MCK is doing what it thinks is right and they are starting off with people they probably deem to be easy targets.

They are also leaning on the 100 complaints by community members who phoned in to justify this action, making the whole thing reek of an old-fashioned, gruesome witch-hunt.

So now that meddling in our neighbor's love lives is applauded as protecting the Nation, what will come next?

If we look at our history of inclusion and acceptance, the MCK's next step in the ongoing issue of who belongs here and who doesn't will be the most important one to date.

Letters to non-natives part two

From: Steve Bonspiel and Tracey Deer, The Eastern Door

Society as a whole is made up of different people from varied backgrounds, each with many valuable things to offer their communities. Kahnawake is certainly no different.

The issue of non-natives in the community is being debated fiercely on the Internet, on the street and in local coffee shops, and many vocal community members have very strong opinions on both sides.

The big question of who is Kanien'kehá:ka seems to be the toughest one to answer. Is a Mohawk someone who can be deemed that solely by blood, with little or nothing given to benefit the community in return for that birthright?

Being Kanien'kehá:ka is a right some people are born into, but it is also a privilege. Maybe if there was a test to prove your worth as a Kanien'kehá:ka person, one which recognizes what our ancestors have taught us - that blood is not the sole determining factor - we would truly be able to determine who deserves to be here and who is Kanien'kehá:ka.

The whole blood quantum debate is relatively new to us since we never measured who was and wasn't part of our communities based on that criteria before the Indian Act.

Thanks to the Indian Act, it has become ingrained in the heads of many people that measuring one's blood is the only way to determine who is Onkwe:honwe.

Some will argue that growing up they were always taught if you marry out, get out. True enough, but just because they were told that, does it make it right?

If everyone is so worried about who qualifies as a Mohawk, let's ask everyone in town, young and old, rich and poor, what they are doing to keep the language, culture and traditions alive and how they demonstrate respect for each other and the community on a daily basis.

That is how we traditionally measured who was Kanien'kehá:ka -- through content of character and how they helped the community.

Following the Kaianere'ko:wa includes being constructive and building the nation through simple things like praising your kids and teaching them how to become strong, positive Kanien'kehá:ka people.

Destructive behaviour, such as targeting those deemed "unfit" to live here and terrorizing good people, doesn't help the community and will not make life better.

Putting away drug dealers, child & spousal abusers and targeting organized crime would be a step in the right direction.

The issue of non-natives living here who were asked to leave is not something new. Speaking to community members, some say this happens every ten years or so. The issue comes up, the Mohawk Council feels the pressure and they react.

Joe Delaronde, Political Attaché for the MCK, made an interesting comment in the Gazette when he claimed that the community was concerned about protecting its identity "because at a certain point the Canadian government will come along and say ‘you're not even Indians.'"

Since when is anyone in Kahnawake concerned with what Ottawa thinks about membership? Ottawa doesn't make those rules anymore; it is squarely in the hands of whatever committee is formed to address the issue.

Last week MCK Grand Chief Mike Delisle was quoted as saying that the practice of kicking non-natives out of Kahnawake has been done since "time immemorial".

That statement is 100 percent untrue. If he meant it has been a practice in Kahnawake in recent years, administered by the MCK and fueled by angry community members, that would be more accurate.

Using the term ‘time immemorial' is an erroneous, irresponsible statement that fails to take into consideration our true history of acceptance, where our ancestors would never have treated people the way the MCK has treated these 26 individuals and their spouses.

If we had in fact been "evicting" non-Natives so definitively as he claims, then many of us would not be here today. We all have ancestry that is mixed. We just need to look in the mirror to know that is true.

Could the reflection in the mirror be the real problem? Are our people suffering from a self-hatred for no longer having the dark brown skin, the dark silky hair and high cheekbones?

The truth is we all have worth and something to offer to each other, our community and the greater world -- both Native and non-Native. We need to embrace who we are and shake off the fear because it is pulling us to a very dark place.

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