The 8-Foot Border
Akwesasne holds the distinction of being the only First Nation on the US/Canada border. It is the easiest reservation to locate on a globe. Just follow the boundaries of Quebec, Ontario and New York State to where they meet in the middle of the St. Lawrence river. Law enforcement officials call it a “jurisdictional nightmare” because of the black market that thrives on a fluid border.
Akwesasne, of course, predates both Canada and the United States. The permanent community was established around 1755. The border was drawn through our village by politicians many miles away who were looking at maps that probably didn’t have a little black dot for Akwesasne. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as this took place in the days when we were considered a vanishing race.
Mohawk chief Philip Cook recounted a local oral tradition about the drawing of the border in the late 1950’s:
The Indians understood that the boundary would come to the edge of their reservation lands and then would project 8 feet into the air until it reached the other side of the Indian lands, then back down to the ground where it would be in the way of the white man. The Indian had a unique way of thinking. It seems that he realized that an Indian would never grow as high as 8 feet tall, and he would never grow high enough to bump into that boundary.
In other words, the border was not meant to apply to us, any more than it would apply to wildlife. We could come and go at will, and we would continue to share equally in the proceeds of lands sales and rentals, regardless of where we lived in relation to the vaguely-defined border. The War of 1812 changed all of that. It brought the border out of the realm of the hypothetical and down to ground level, where it has tripped us up ever since.
Local settlers were so terrified of the prospect of a new Indian war, that the government forbade the people of Akwesasne from leaving the reservation unless they carried a special pass given to them by a prominent settler who could vouch for their friendly nature. For a people who hunted, fished, trapped, and traded for a living, this was a potential death sentence. Chief Atiatonharonkwen appealed to the American government to provide beef, pork and flour for the community. This was shared with those living on the “Canadian” side of the line, including the missionary at St. Regis. He was later accused by British authorities of accepting bribes from the Americans for accepting these rations.
American and British officials agreed to respect the neutrality of the aboriginal communities like Akwesasne, but they violated that agreement almost immediately. Both recruited warriors, and both established a military presence on our territory.