Also read: As pandemic restrictions loosen, we need to consider ethical travel when we return
Now, however, may be a good time to reflect on the privilege of travel, especially the right we feel to the freedom to travel. As those of us on the Canadian side wait for the US land border to reopen, we should remember – or educate ourselves – the restrictions that Indigenous peoples have faced in crossing the international border since its inception.
The medicine line
Indigenous peoples foresaw these problems as early as the 18th century. In 1794, Mohawk rulers insisted on a clause in the Jay Treaty (between the United States and the British Crown) that would protect their rights to trade and to cross the border. Their argument then, and now, was that the border was an agreement between the settler governments. As the original nations of this continent, they asserted their sovereign rights to maintain the freedom of movement they enjoyed before the arrival of the settlers. These rights have been challenged several times over the years, but still exist today.
Indigenous peoples called the Canada-US border the line of medicine. During the 19th century, as the border changed shape and direction, indigenous peoples realized that it could protect them as well. For example, if they crossed it to escape the pursuit of the American and British armies, and the North West Mounted Police (later Royal Canadian).
Perhaps the most famous example of the power of the medicine line is the escape of Lakota chief Sitting Bull to the hills of Cypress, Alberta, after the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. He remained in Canada until in 1881, when famine – due to Canadian policies – forced him to return to the United States and surrender.
In the opposite direction, Cree Chief Little Bear led his people from Saskatchewan to Montana to escape retaliation from the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
Once in the United States, they were labeled as refugees. In 1896, the US Congress passed a law formally expelling starving and landless Cree “refugees” – due to US policies – to Canada. Several years later, Little Bear and his family returned to Montana, finding a home on the Rocky Boy Reservation.
At the same time, even “domestic” travel was restricted for indigenous peoples.
In 1879, the US Indian Commissioner required that Indian agents receive official seals to be affixed to the passes in order to “allow” Indigenous peoples to travel between reservations or agencies.
In 1885, Canada created the “laissez-passer” system with the same restrictions and requirements. The American version lasted until 1912, while the Canadian system did not completely disappear until the 1940s.
A more “formal” border
The medical line was effectively closed in 1924 with the passage of new immigration laws, the Indian Citizenship Act, and the establishment of the US Border Patrol.
While travel was already extremely difficult due to the laissez-passer system, the Indigenous peoples of Canada were now officially considered foreign nationals by the United States and were denied entry – despite the Jay Treaty clause .
These restrictions led Tuscarora boss Clinton Rickard to “fight for the line”. He led a series of cross-border protest marches with his Indian Defense League of America.
During the same period, Paul Kanesto Diabo, a citizen of Kahnawà: ke, was labeled an “illegal alien”, arrested and returned to Canada while working as a blacksmith and helping to build the Delaware River Bridge in Philadelphia. Diabo fought his arrest and the deportation was quashed. Following protests and court defeats, the US government ruled that indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada are now exempt from immigration law.
However, cross-border travel for indigenous peoples has been a struggle since then. Even for members of Indigenous Nations whose home territories are divided by the border, crossing borders is incredibly difficult and often fraught with apprehension and targeted racism.
Indigenous border struggles
In 1969, the Mohawks of Akwesasne asserted their sovereignty by blocking the border crossing through their reserve because they had to pay tolls to cross it. They said to the Canadian government: “You are on Indian soil”.
Ceremonial objects are one of the most common points of contention for Indigenous people trying to cross the border. In 2001, Kainai chief Chris Shade was barred from crossing the border with his ceremonial hairstyle due to US immigration rules regarding eagle feathers.
Indigenous peoples are often told that they must open packages of sacred medicine for inspection and have feathers, pipes and other items handled by non-Indigenous border staff. In territories like the Blackfoot, sacred sites can be found on either side of the border, making international travel a necessity. Having to open sacred objects for inspection by border security in order to complete the ceremony is a violation of basic human rights.
Although the United States still respects the Jay Treaty, Canada has never admitted to inheriting the Jay Treaty from the British Crown.
Now that the Canadian government has reopened the border to vaccinated US citizens without consulting Indigenous nations at or near the border, it is high time that Canada honor the treaty and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples to travel freely.