“What do you identify as?” The editor wants to know about my citizenship. I pause. I’ve faced that question too many times, rehearsed answers for decades, but still I grit my teeth. I’ve learned the hard way that there’s no right answer for most Canadians raised to believe in Sir John A. and the Great Confederation myth.
Identifying myself as a citizen of my Indigenous nation should be enough. After all, who gave a foreign, faraway king the right to declare non-existent my peoples’ governments, laws and institutions simply by planting a damn flag? We had civilizations, religions and science. These I know to be self-evident and true. But, oh Canada, none of that mattered, because you have done a grand job of whitewashing my peoples out of your history.
My nation watched Jacques Cartier arrive, made treaties of peace and trade with the Dutch, English and French, as well as with Indigenous nations up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Hudson’s Bay to the Carolinas. Our constitution, or Great Law of Peace, shaped the thinking of America’s Founding Fathers and influenced the words in their founding documents.
Our Iroquois Confederacy established gender equality, individual and civil rights, and a democratic and republican form of governance — beating Confederation and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms by a long shot. More impressive, this still exists after more than 300 years of British, French and Canadian colonization and attempts to erase all that from memory.
Today, I’m not facing a cavity search at airport Customs. Nobody in a blue uniform will order me to park my car over there so they can perform a search for drugs they know don’t exist but that serves as a warning that they don’t like the only answer I can give to that citizenship question. Today, it’s a journalist asking. But the implication is similar.
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Do you have anything to declare, Mr. David?
“I was born in the United States to Mohawk parents, both born in Canada giving me triple citizenship,” I reply. “I’m Mohawk and a citizen of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, and therefore also Canadian and American.” But I identify as Mohawk first for a reason.
I remember standing with other children in class and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance “to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands,” etc., etc. I remember standing with classmates singing “O Canada, our home and native land” … yada yada. It wasn’t until my teens that I heard The Words That Begin All Things in Mohawk. Some called it a thanksgiving address or opening prayer. I believe it’s a pledge to our Ways of Being.
The Words don’t require me to bow before people and power, to a flag or a monarch. They don’t expect me to dominate or oppress or exclude people of other faiths, colours or political thought. The Words connect me as one among a universal web of living beings and necessities for life. It just felt better and right. And mine.
Most people check only one box on those Customs forms when they arrive from another country. A few check both boxes, dual Canadian and American citizen. Canada pretends a third one, for “Indigenous,” doesn’t exist, as though all Indigenous rights and privileges are granted by a gracious Canadian government via your Indian Act of 1876, a status card and band membership.
But they don’t tell you about the magic bubble that surrounds “reserves, and lands reserved for Indians.” Indians, to use their lingo, can’t actually own land on reserves. Canada says reserve lands are Canada’s Crown Lands. That makes land claims a joke. Canada settles land claims by paying cash so Indians can pay settlers to buy back stolen land, but it all becomes Crown Land again and never belonged to Indians in the first place.
Once an Indian leaves that magic bubble called a reserve, they become not-quite-Indian anymore. Status cards become almost meaningless. They expire every five years anyway. Library cards have longer shelf lives. It means the Government of Canada may pop that magic bubble altogether someday, if it pleases.
Snap! Just like that! Gone are Indians, reserves and status. Nonexistence looms constant as an ever-present threat, no matter what the Canadian government promises.
In the United States, Indians are recognized as “internal but dependent Indian nations,” with law-making, courts, policing and jurisdictions. It’s called sovereignty. Canada has instead devised a patchwork of band contribution agreements that guarantee Indians trip over each other as they try to dance to the piper’s tune. Pull back the curtain on Indian Affairs, or as they call it, “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada,” and there’s no wizard pulling levers. There are only hundreds of drab bureaucrats pushing paper and stale policies that advance Indigenous inferiority and confusion.
Forgive me if it sounds as though I portray the United States as an Indigenous utopia where all is fair, just and better. That’s not my intent. America’s past and present are littered with wars and laws of Indigenous extermination, dispossession and trails of tears. Many of its lawmakers and jurists seemingly graduate from The Only Good Indian Is A Dead Indian law school.
Still, I remember my parents stopping at a roadside diner on the way from Syracuse to Canada, amazed at paper placemats. They described the Iroquois Confederacy as North America’s first democracy and the “Greeks of North America.” Down there, I found serious academics who recognize and study advanced Indigenous civilizations, forms of governance and societies.
That can be encouraging when compared to the mass amnesia preached and practiced in Canada. It can be like watching those penguins in the animated series Madagascar sliding down their hole in the ground, weaving their hands in the air, saying, “You saw nothing. Nothing.”
I grew up learning and admiring things about both countries, thanks to my parents. Dad was a U.S. Marine who was terribly wounded in the Pacific during the Second World War. Mom admired Queen Elizabeth II, who, like herself, drove supply trucks and worked in a factory during the war. They talked about civil rights marches and the U.S. Voting Rights Act, Quebec separatism and the 1969 White Paper Policy on Indians. Our house was filled with Canadian and American newspapers and magazines. Evening TV meant Walter Cronkite and Knowlton Nash. I went to your schools, learned your history, languages and sampled your religions.
You learned more about de Maisonneuve’s dog, Pilote, who could supposedly smell and warn Montreal’s early settlers of Indians hiding in the woods, than you did about my peoples.
I have a childhood memory of a visit with my parents to my aunt and uncle’s home at Saint Regis, Quebec. We turned off Highway 401 from Montreal, drove through Cornwall, Ontario, crossed one bridge over the Saint Lawrence River, landing in Mohawk territory on Cornwall Island. We flashed our Six Nations Iroquois International Bridge pass, went around the Canadian Customs offices, still in Ontario. We crossed another bridge and went through U.S. Customs.
Now in New York State, just outside the village of Hogansburg, we passed by the Saint Regis Tribal Council. We turned north at a crossroads, stopped at a painted line on the road. An older man wearing a blue uniform with an eagle patch stepped out from an even older shed. My parents waved at him. He waved back. A few miles later, we passed by the Canadian band council in Saint Regis, Quebec.
The whole time, ever since leaving Cornwall, we were always in the single community of Akwesasne Mohawk Territory.
Seven jurisdictions. One people. One community. My people, family and clans, even though I live 90 miles away at Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk Territory, near Oka in southern Quebec.
Now, what was that question again?
On April 7, the CIC’s National Capital branch will host a conversation about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples within the Anglican Church of Canada. Speakers are Archbishop Mark L. MacDonald and Judith Moses, chair of the Jubilee Commission. Jay Koyle, executive archdeacon of the Diocese of Algoma, will moderate. Register here.