In the Shadow of the Goldrush (Report & commentary on one FTAA Border Crossing)

On Tuesday evening, April 17, new light was shed on the controversial issue of native and non-native relations with respect to the Akwesasne border crossing where anti- globalization activists hoped to enter Canada on their way to the Summit of the Americas and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations. That night, on the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, in the US state of Vermont, the chiefs of the three governing entities of the Mohawk Nation asked some hundred-plus non-native activists to reconsider their plans to cross into Canada through Akwesasne. While in agreement with the activists on issues of corporate globalization; the Mohawk elders and representatives expressed grave concerns about the crossing’s effect on their community .

Those previously unfamiliar with the history and dynamics of Akwesasne and her people learned firsthand, the devastating effects of both non-native actions and internecine warfare. From the time of first contact in North America to the present, outside forces have disrupted life among the Mohawk, as well as among all the Six Nations in the Iriquois Confederacy.

After a centuries-old traditional opening ceremony, spokespeople for The Mohawk Council of Chiefs (the traditional Longhouse governing body that has existed as a consensus and peace-seeking body among the people) described the Three Row Wampum Belt and its significance to Mohawk relations with European or non-native people. In a sense, that artifact is a sort of all encompassing treaty among peoples. They spoke of the elements needed to balance the relationship between all our people; qualities such as respect and an open heart. Within that context, they related the need for people to follow protocol when entering the territory of others; something that was not done when this action was proposed, but something that could be done in the future. This spoke volumes to issues of solidarity, for most of those assembled have their own various forms of protocol, formal or informal, within their decision-making groups.

The Mohawk spokespeople also related that balance manifested in the Three Row Wampum Belt to the greater balance of the natural world, the forces and elements which keep our world in place. And, they spoke of the painstaking efforts to regain such balance within their own community after a series of tragic internal conflicts.

Darren Bonapart, elected chief of the U.S.-installed government at Akwesasne, then passed on his own experience coming of age on the rez in the midst of near “civil war” conditions. He spoke of how brother went against brother, son against mother. He spoke of the many deaths and the seemingly endless distress among families and neighbors. And then he spoke of the ongoing healing process; of how relationships among the people were finally mending after many years of antagonism. He feared, as did the other Mohawk speakers, that the healing process might easily breakdown if anything should go awry during the proposed border crossing. He reminded those assembled before him of who would be left to blame for any mishaps; of the effect that might have on his people. It was later pointed out by a spokesperson for the Council of Mohawk Chiefs on the Canada side, that the intense buildup of non-native police and military personnel in the area, and the potential for provocation, was of grave concern.

As it turned out, no such incident took place as about one hundred demonstrators attempted the bridge crossing two days later. They had heard the word of the Mohawk representatives and many were deeply moved. Yet, commitments had been made to Mohawk warriors who were not present at the Tuesday meeting which created confusion and consternation among the non-native activists. Some chose not to participate in the Akwesasne crossing, some chose to stand with the Mohawks they had organized with earlier. In any event, when border guards did not allow entry into Canada for a few of those attempting the crossing (due to prior police records), the cry : “All or none” was raised and all the demonstrators turned back to look for other entry points. In effect, the action was symbolic. Had the sensitivity of internal Mohawk affairs not been a critical consideration, the action would have been more militant.

During the long Tuesday night meeting, this writer could not help but reflect on the sorry history of native and non-native relationships here on Turtle Island over the past five-hundred years. I wondered if those around me knew that not one of the many treaties between the US government and First Nations has ever been truly honored. I wondered if my fellow activists were fully aware of the deepness of the wound inflicted upon native people by those who came before us; the theft of their lands, the depth of the genocide, the ongoing assault on, and expropriation of their culture. It occurred to me then that we, native and non-native alike, were seated in the shadows of our ancestors; that these same deliberations had taken place in North America over one-hundred years ago when non-natives sought passage through remaining native lands in search of gold or a homestead; new opportunities in life, seemingly benign on the surface, but tragically flawed in the final analysis. Dare we repeat such errors, even with the best of intentions?

The border crossing action, as it turned out, was a compromise among radical activists who are not big on compromises. Yet, the necessities of solidarity with native peoples is a powerful force in the movement against global corporate capitalism. It was the old dilemma of being between a rock and a hard place. Hopefully, not much damage was done to build on that solidarity. There are plenty of dark forces afoot in this world who would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between those two camps. Those forces are seemingly inseperable from most of the national and corporate leaders meeting now in Quebec over FTAA. Meeting to decide the fates of millions of people they never consulted. Meeting to decide the fate of other species and the Earth that sustains all of us.

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