If you marry out, you stay out.
That’s the rule for Mohawks living in Kahnawake, a reserve just outside Montreal, if they choose to marry non-native people.
The rule is nothing new. In fact, it came into effect in 1981, but was not widely enforced for years.
However, one woman and her non-native husband have revived the issue by breaking ground on a new home in the heart of Kahnawake.
The band council’s position
Michael Delisle, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said the ban on non-native people living on Mohawk territory goes back years — even decades — to the Indian Act, first passed in 1876.
He said it came to a head in the 1970s, culminating with the 1981 moratorium on mixed marriages on Kahnawake soil.
Support for the ban on mixed marriages continued every time the conversation cropped up, and was over time entrenched in Mohawk law.
“This was discussed further, but for all intents and purposes, it’s looking to be enforced even more strongly,” Delisle said.
He said Kahnawake’s limited real estate means the 6,500-person community’s ability to grow is stunted, and allowing non-natives onto the reservation takes space away from Mohawks.
Delisle also made the case that non-native people living in Kahnawake largely benefit from the same perks Mohawks are entitled to, notably tax exemption.
He said there are approximately 100 non-native people living in Kahnawake who are either married, in common-law relationships or are simply just living there.
Against non-natives in Kahnawake
Eviction letters were sent out in 2010, and the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake is planning to send out more letters this summer.
'I married out last year and I moved off the reserve but if I had the chance… [I’d move back]. I wish I could live here.' - Tom Deerhouse, Mohawk and former Kahnawake resident
It’s a reasonable measure, said Kahnawake resident Rhonda Bush.
“It isn’t a debate. You’re not supposed to be here if you’re non-native,” she told CBC News.
She said marrying out of the community means the person is making a choice not to live by the Mohawk territory’s rules.
“You get called different things, you get called racist, but it’s a known fact. We all know that,” Bush said. “White people can live wherever they want. This [land] is for us.”
Bush’s position is a popular one in Kahnawake. Protests have been held near the property that stoked the fires of the Mohawk membership debate anew.
Grand Chief Delisle said enforcing the marry out, stay out rule is not about excluding non-native people, but rather is about preserving Mohawk lineage.
“All we are trying to do is preserve, not only culture and language and identity, but who we are as a people, and those days of incorporating others into our society, I won't say is over, but it needs to be controlled by us, and not by outside entities,” Delisle said.
‘I wish I could live here’
When Tom Deerhouse married a non-native woman, he respected the law and got out. He now lives in Valleyfield with his wife, Tammy Harris-Deerhouse, even though both of them still work in Kahnawake.
“I think the evictions are damaging people’s spirits. It’s hurting the people. There’s got to be some way that the law can fit better with the people … without causing fear and divisions. It’s not a time for that,” Deerhouse said.
“I married out last year and I moved off the reserve, but if I had the chance … [I’d move back]. I wish I could live here,” he continued.
Harris-Deerhouse, for her part, felt like she was making her husband choose between her and the community.
“Because I’m not a part of the community, I have mixed feelings about it. I wish my husband could be able to live in the community that we both work for. We both work for community services, so it would be wonderful if we could, but because of the fact that I'm non-native, it’s just not possible. Or at least not right now,” she said.