Mohawks or Canada's Disappearing Indians?
Over the last few weeks, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal media have picked up a story that strikes at the heart of what it means to be an Aboriginal person in Canada. Are Mohawks, Mi'kmaq, Cayuga, Cree and Maliseet the biological result of nothing more than a simple formula to determine one's blood purity - or does being Mohawk have more to do with common histories, ancestors, and territories or the sharing of common languages, customs, traditions and cultures? The Mohawk Indian Band Council in Kahnawake, through its Indian Act chief, Mike Delisle, have once again communicated the message that they are a blood club.
However, before I deal with the core issues, a little context is necessary. Kahnawake, unlike the majority of bands in Canada, post their membership rules on their website for all to see. Most bands who have their own membership codes do not post their codes publically and sometimes refuse to provide copies to their own band members and/or potential band members. By way of anecdote, I have been sending letters to my own band for several years attempting to obtain both a copy of their membership code and an application form so that my children and I can apply. My phone calls and letters continue to go unanswered. I share this experience with a great number of band members and potential band members who attempt to seek information from their communities to no avail. I have to give credit to Kahnawake for making their membership code public and easily accessible to their members and potential members alike.
According to the Indian Act, 1985, band membership is generally given to status Indians who are associated with a specific band upon their application to have their name entered on the band list. This list is maintained by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). However, pursuant to section 10 of the Act, bands are permitted to enact their own membership codes and maintain their own band lists, so long as they have a community vote and the majority votes in favour of the code. Their initial code must be submitted to INAC for approval, but once that is done there is no further requirement for bands to submit updated or amended codes. It took me many years of dealing with INAC's Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) process, but I was finally provided with all the band membership codes in Canada. Having read every single one, I can tell you that blood quantum is not a common criteria.
Getting back to the issue at hand, there have been numerous headlines about Kahnawake's decision to evict non-Mohawks. The key issue appears to be that Kahnawake has a rule that no non-Mohawks can live on their reserve. Yet, Mohawks are still marrying out, having common law relationships with non-Mohawks and having children with non-Mohawks. As a result, Kahnawake has delivered notices to a group of non-Mohawks advising them that they are to be evicted. Some of the headlines I have seen recently include:
"If you marry out, you move out"
"Why Mohawks evict non-Natives"
"Racism on the reserve"
"Kahnawake non-Mohawk eviction deadline looms"
"Mohawk Chief denies ethnic cleansing"
"Natives only please"
"Not Native, then leave reserve Mohawks say"
So, is it non-Mohawks who must leave the reserve, or non-Natives? If the answer is non-Mohawks, then what is a non-Mohawk? If it's non-Native, how does the inclusion of other non-Mohawk Aboriginal peoples (like Mi'kmaq) further Kahnawake's goal of Mohawk identity preservation?
One would assume that a non-Mohawk is a non-Aboriginal person. Many of the reports noted above appear to indicate this is the case. However, if this residency rule is applied "evenly", then it might also apply to Mohawks who don't meet the blood quantum requirement for band membership. But what about Aboriginal people who are not Mohawks? What happens if a Mohawk woman lives with a Mi'kmaq man?
Mi'kmaq people are not Mohawks. They have very different cultures, languages, customs, traditions and territories. Yet, it is my understanding that Mi'kmaq people who are married to Mohawks can apply to transfer their band membership from their Mi'kmaq band to the Kahnawake band. This is the same for any band member across the country. If this is the case, then what Kahnawake is really protecting is a generic "Indian" identity and not a Mohawk one after all.
More than that, the majority of Indian bands in Canada do not explicitly use blood quantum to determine membership. But they do use the Indian Act rules, which since 1985 include a second-generation cut-off rule which amounts to a blood quantum rule of 25% or 1/4 blood. It is quite foreseeable then, that an Aboriginal person who is a band member of some other reserve could transfer their membership to Kahnawake and become a "Mohawk" band member. This would mean that non-Mohawk Aboriginal people of less than 50% blood quantum could become "Mohawk" and have the right to live on Kahnawake, but actual Mohawk people with less than 50% blood quantum would be refused membership and possibly residency. Even worse, Mohawk band members who live with non-Mohawks could be forced to leave the reserve.
Setting aside the interests of non-Aboriginal people for one minute, Kahnawake's residency rules do little to advance Mohawk culture, and instead create situations of pain, heart-ache, division, exclusion, break-up of families, and loss of cultural connection. Not only is the rule an offence to the dignity of Mohawks who have non-Aboriginal partners, it is counter to their own Mohawk history, traditions and customs. The reserve could end up being comprised of "Mohawk" band members who are not Mohawk at all, while actual Mohawks must live off reserve.
In much of the research that I have read about Mohawk people, and especially that of Kahnawake, sources seem to indicate that Mohawks were traditionally very inclusive in terms of citizenship and as a result, have a high degree of mixed ancestries in their community. Gerald Alfred wrote about the identity struggles in Kahnawake in his book "Heeding the Voices of our Ancestors":
Kahnawake as a community had traditionally been extremely receptive to the integration of outsiders. Mission records from the early period of the community’s history confirm that Mohawks at Kahnawake had continued the practice of adopting and assimilating captives, resulting in a diverse racial mixture within the Mohawk community. Even into the modern era, Kahnawake Mohawks accepted many non-Native people through marriage and among those residents who came to enjoy community membership and later formal recognition of this membership through inclusion as status Indians when the Indian Act system was implemented in Kahnawake during the 20th century. (p.163)
Alfred explains that the community assimilated the racist ideas of the Indian Act in terms of what it meant to be an Indian - i.e. a Mohawk , and blended European notions of "race" with their desire to protect their cultural identity. As a result, some members of Kahnawake actually believe that blood quantum is the only way to protect their culture, despite the fact that this concept was completely alien to their traditional ways of viewing their identity and citizenship. Alfred concludes that part of the problem is that the community had not acknowledged the deep extent to which community members have internalized Indian Act ways of thinking and therefore do not realize that instead of rejecting the Indian Act, they are actually perpetuating it!
How can a community expect to protect its culture if they can so easily turn their backs on their own children and grandchildren? In my opinion, some (not all) community members and leaders have been under the dark cloud of colonialism for so long, that it is hard for them to see their identity through any other eye, than that of the federal government - who, as we all know, designed the Indian Act and its policies with a view to assimilating Aboriginal peoples based on racist conceptions of blood purity. Colonial policies were designed to divide communities and families and impose a generic "Indian" identity on all Aboriginal peoples with a legislated formula designed to ensure their eventual disappearance.
How ironic is it then, that the leaders in Kahnawake would adopt policies which accomplish the exact same thing? Kahnawake currently operates under the Indian Band Council governance system set forth under the Indian Act; it limits their territories with which they form an identity to the reserves that were created by Indian Affairs; they label their citizens as "band members" pursuant to the Indian Act, and they assert that the only real Mohawks are those with 50% Mohawk blood or more. In actual fact, Kahnawake's rules speed up the assimilation process much faster than even the Indian Act rules!
No wonder the Chief is worried that the federal government will walk on to their reserve one day and say "You're not Indians anymore". Using blood as the sole indicator of identity guarantees this eventuality. We are Nations within a Nation and our people will continue to live, love and interact with other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Nations. Intermarriage is a human right and fact of life. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the damage done to our Aboriginal identities by Canada and the Indian Act; recognize how much of this racist thinking has been internalized to our ways of thinking about ourselves; and take steps to protect our real identities for the well-being of our present generations, for the benefit of our future generations, and to honour the identities of our ancestors.