Who is a Mohawk?
The answer could set the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake on a collision course with the federal government amid renewed debate over who can live on the South Shore reserve.
Kahnawake’s band council claims sole authority over determining membership in the community. But now, in response to a group challenging the reserve’s controversial “Marry out, get out” membership law, the federal government says it has final say over who can legally call themselves a Kahnawake Mohawk.
“The department considers the band list maintained by the (federal government) to be the official band list for the Mohawks of Kahnawake,” wrote Nathalie Nepton, an Indian Registrar with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
The letter, obtained by the Montreal Gazette, adds that Kahnawake’s band council never provided the government “notice of its intent to assume control of its membership” and has, by default, ceded control of the matter to Ottawa.
Band lists, which document who is a member of the Kahnawake First Nation — a designation that gives the right to live on Mohawk land, vote in local elections and receive services from the band council — are maintained by both the band council and federal government. Ottawa asserted the authority of its list in the June 17 letter, responding to a membership question raised by a Kahnawake resident.
This is the latest development in a sometimes ugly debate over a controversial 1981 membership law adopted by the band council.
Under the law, a person forfeits their rights as a Mohawk if they marry a non-native. Though it’s been in place for decades, there are still dozens of bi-racial families living among the 8,000 people of Kahnawake and there’s mounting pressure for them to pack up and leave. Some residents of the territory have protested outside the homes of bi-racial couples, while a few have spray-painted hateful messages on their property.
Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton has condemned these vigilante tactics and vowed to put an end to them. At the same time, he says non-aboriginals have no place living on Mohawk land. Previous attempts to force so-called mixed couples off the reserve yielded mixed results. While some couples left of their own volition, outside courts would overturn any evictions carried out under the 1981 law.
Last week, seven residents filed a complaint with Canada’s Human Rights Commission, claiming the law unfairly discriminates against them. Meanwhile, 16 plaintiffs have filed suit against the band council in hopes of having the law thrown out. They contend it violates sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“My genuine fear is that … I could meet a white girl and end up off (Kahnawake’s) list,” said Christopher Fragnito, a Kahnawake Mohawk and one of the plaintiffs. “And that affects my life because people — like these protesters — start feeling like they have free reign to do what they want.”
Fragnito’s mother lost her Indian status when she married an Italian-Canadian man decades ago and he was forced to grow up off-reserve.
“I never struggled with identity but struggling to fit in with the other Mohawk kids, that was always interesting,” Fragnito told the Montreal Gazette. “It would change depending on who their parents were and how their parents knew my mother. … I see myself as a Mohawk; they want to blame us for not being Mohawk enough, but we’re not Mohawk enough because they exiled my mother.”
Fragnito is now a member of the Mohawk band while his mother — who was born and raised on the reserve — is not. Under Kahnawake’s membership law, Fragnito has enough Mohawk ancestry to be a resident (the minimum requirement is for a person to have four Mohawk great-grandparents).
Fragnito’s mother, Brenda Dearhouse-Fragnito, lost her status under a section of the Indian Act that disenfranchised native women who married non-aboriginal men. When that section of the Indian Act was repealed in 1985, Dearhouse-Fragnito — along with 1,200 other Quebec Mohawk women — should have regained her status in Kahnawake. However Kahnawake’s council believes its membership law trumps the amended Indian Act. As a result, Dearhouse-Fragnito was turned away at the polls, last month, when she tried to vote in local elections, and she can’t live on the territory. Fragnito even claims his mother isn’t allowed to be buried in Kahnawake’s Catholic cemetery.
On Friday, the band council met with the Mohawk Trail Longhouse — a traditional, non-elected governing body — to confer over the membership issue. Though there appears to be widespread support for the 1981 law in Kahnawake, councillor Kahsennenhawe Sky Deer said the meeting was important to “engage the entire community in finding peaceful solutions to this issue.”
The council’s defence of the membership law has traditionally been two-fold:
First, the influx of new members — specifically those who regained status in 1985 — would strain the reserve’s already limited resources. Through a series of mass expropriations, Kahnawake has seen its meagre land mass carved up to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Mercier Bridge, Highway 30 and other disruptive projects. There are just 13,000 acres left to house the growing Mohawk population.
The second defence cuts to the very identity of the Mohawk people and is a lot more complex. If non-natives are allowed to settle Kahnawake, there’s a fear that the Mohawks will one day disappear. Given that there are fewer than 40,000 Mohawks left on the planet, it’s difficult to dismiss this concern outright.
“I don’t buy that argument — Mohawk identity has nothing to do with blood; it’s a culture,” said Fragnito. “If I want to live on my land with my wife and my kids, they can’t stop me … The whole ‘marry out, get out’ concept is not historically how things were done in Kahnawake, it’s a legacy of the Indian Act.”
The Kahnawake Mohawk Council could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Grand Chief Norton has previously said he does not recognize Canada’s authority over Kahnawake and challenged the federal government to try to enforce its laws on the territory.