Our dream of Native autonomy has become currupt and a violent narco-culture

Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country 1-09

Those of us who fought for Native autonomy in Akwesasne have seen our dream become a corrupt and violent narco-culture

During November 2008, an elderly couple died at Akwesasne in a terrible car-van crash after a high-speed police chase with a suspected tobacco smuggler, who was also killed.

The collision caused one of the vehicles to explode in flames, killing the couple, who were from Massena, N.Y.

The gentleman who died in the flames was Edward Kassian, 77, my former high-school science teacher whom I remember as an excellent instructor, gentle in spirit and gifted with a unique sense of humour. He was very popular.

He did not deserve to die as the latest victim of an activity which is consuming the Mohawk people.

Smuggling tobacco, narcotics, and whatever else commands a profit has created a “narco-culture” at Akwesasne in which the traditional values of humility, compassion, simplicity, generosity and communal service have been replaced by violence, intimidation, greed and death.

It was not supposed to be this way; at least not for those of us who gave heart, mind, body and soul to the struggle to secure the vague Nirvana called “Native rights” a generation ago. I was an active participant in virtually every standoff, conflict and rally as we waged a decades-long campaign to secure what we called our “Indigenous” rights to self-determination.

We not only sought to remove the last vestiges of Canadian and American colonialism from our territory but to recreate a viable Mohawk Nation which would be governed by our own laws, enacted by our own administrative agencies, rooted in our Aboriginal customs. We wanted all alien law enforcement authorities off Akwesasne.

To accomplish this we revived our traditional rituals, formed international alliances, reached out to human rights organizations, reinvigorated our language and created our own media.


We also sought to have the international border which dissects Akwesasne eliminated. We would create our own peacekeeping service, followed by a broad new economic policy which would encourage the growth of our community through the production and marketing of products consistent with our history.

As appealing as this sounded to us we grossly underestimated the internal resistance to Mohawk unity. We were stunned by the vigour in which our own people fought against these plans.

Already, in those daydreaming months of 1987-88, the smugglers and gamblers were forging an alliance which would destroy our plans since they feared, correctly, it would put them out of business. In a wave of violence unmatched in our history, the weaponry of this cartel was turned against other Mohawks and in 1990 we degenerated into civil war.

Mohawks died, and in the resulting administrative anarchy the smuggling took hold and has not relaxed its grip on our people.

Far from a benign activity, the profit from this vice is so great as to attract criminal gangs from throughout eastern Canada. And these gangs take no prisoners. They kill with impunity.

Many Mohawks have paid with their freedom or their lives for taking part in these midnight smuggling runs. The fast-flowing, frigid waters of the St. Lawrence have taken more.

The easy money has led to corruption not only at Akwesasne but throughout the region. The fragile economies of Massena and Cornwall are now sustained by this narco-culture.

There are solutions, but it means a collective effort by the United States, Canada and the legitimate leaders of the Mohawk people. It means removing the border and empowering our people to enforce our own laws. It means those who carry the contraband to our community must be prosecuted. It means removing the political factionalism which has crippled us for too long, and restoring a single governing entity to Akwesasne. It means entering into a Native Free Trade Act so we can transfer legitimate goods across the river to other Native communities without the gangs. It means legitimizing the tobacco trade.

Otherwise, Akwesasne will become an armed encampment, for Canada will have no choice but to use its military powers and occupy our territory. The resulting war which will surely come from such an action is not what any Mohawk wants. But we cannot carry the burden of more victims dying in the most terrible ways because we failed to act as true human beings.

Doug George-Kanentiio, an Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne Notes, and a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association.