Border stories: First Nations grapple with cultural divide

Canada's First Nations have been uniquely affected by the thickening of the Canada/U.S. border. Sacred medicine bundles in particular have come under very close scrutiny, causing near-crisis situations between those who carry them and border agents.

Few areas are as divided by the Canada/U.S. border as the Akwesasne Territory, which straddles Ontario, Quebec and New York State.

For generations, the Mohawks of Akwesasne roamed the land and waters of the St. Lawrence River unburdened by borders. That ended in 1783, when England and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris and formed a border between Quebec and New York.

Today, international and provincial borders zigzag throughout the Akwesasne territory. Barnhart Island, Cornwall Island and St. Regis Island, all located in the St. Lawrence, are in New York, Ontario and Quebec, respectively. Those who leave their homes in the territory might need to cross the border 10 times a day.

In most cases, it's a straightforward process, said Grand Chief Mike Mitchell, of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.

But in many areas, "enforcement is not the same as we had in the past," he said.

Near crisis situations have erupted especially around medicine bundles, sacred collections of spiritual items such as feathers, grasses and arrowheads. They're used by faith healers in medicine ceremonies and to protect families from harm. They are meant to be touched only by those who possess them; being touched by a non-Native, including a customs agent, renders them unholy.

CBSA installs Aboriginal liaison

The issue is not restricted to Akwesasne. In Alberta, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy have also faced conflicts when they travel regularly to Montana for ceremonial dances and celebrations.

"We've been going back and forth, way back before even the white settlers came," said Louise Fox, 69, who lives on the Blood Tribe reserve in southern Alberta. 

Recently, Fox was returning from a funeral in Browning, Mt., to her home on the Blood Reserve in nearby Stand Off, Alta., when she was asked by a Canadian customs agent to open the medicine bundle she carried on her lap.

"He said to open it, and that he'd never seen one," Fox said. "I told him I can't do it."

The customs agent persisted but ultimately relented. The event upset Fox so much that she cried.

The border in her area has changed since Sept. 11, she said. Long-serving customs agents who understood the Blackfoot are gone, replaced by new agents who seem unaware of many of their customs and traditions.

The Canadian Border Services Agency recently installed its first Aboriginal liaison officer at a port of entry, in Cornwall on the Akwesasne territory. He was selected jointly by the CBSA and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, and will provide outreach to the Akwesasne community about border-related issues.

"We have an obligation to attempt to educate them," the Grand Chief said.

"There's different ways that people have to be aware to keep people away when something like this is upon them," he said. "To the non-Native public, they usually appreciate that, once explained to them."

(Akwesasne photos were submitted by Shannon Burns; Alberta photos submitted by Norbert Many Grey Horses.)