Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Native American leaders seek to protect border rights under new security rules

BORDER: Native American leaders seek to protect border rights under new security rules
By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette
June 15, 2009 11:50 pm

Native American leaders from the U.S. and Canada gathered near the entrance to the Rainbow Bridge on Monday to voice concerns about the potential impact of new security rules on their rights to “free passage” between the two countries.

Members of the National Congress of American Indians took a break from their 2009 mid-year conference which is being held this week in Niagara Falls to rally support for an improved dialogue between Native American leaders and officials in charge of setting border-crossing standards for the U.S. and Canada.

“We cannot let them deal with it nation to nation,” said Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “We are also nations and we have got to be part of the solution. That’s what we’ve been pushing all along is that the solution for Indian countries, we have to drive those solutions.”

The NCAI, an organization founded in 1944 to protect treaty rights and the status of sovereign nations, is concerned new identification requirements imposed under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — which went into effect June 1 — will inhibit travel for tribal members who regularly cross the border to work, visit family or attend ceremonies at traditional sites. Under the new travel requirements, individuals attempting to cross the border are required to have a passport or other acceptable form of identification. Concerns about passport costs for tribal members and the potential impact of such mandates on sovereign rights have prompted several tribes to begin talks with officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in hopes of allowing tribal enrollment cards to be accepted at the border.

While he said he understands the need to impose tighter restrictions for security reasons, Seneca Nation of Indians President Barry Snyder Sr. noted Native Americans were in North America long before the federal governments in the U.S. and Canada established the border as it exists today. He also noted that under the 1794 Jay Treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain, Native Americans were granted the right to free and unrestricted travel between the two countries. He said the goal now is to work with federal officials on both sides of the border to come to an understanding that promotes safety while allowing Native Americans to protect their rights.

“Ultimately, our goal is to work cooperatively with the U.S. on border protection issues,” Snyder said “Keeping this Niagara Falls area safe is an important objective for my nation. Thousands of people visit our Niagara Falls territory everyday and we want them to be safe from any potential threat. Most importantly, we will continue to protect our rights to free passage under the Jay Treaty. Long ago, promises were made to us. They must be kept.”

An impasse over armed border guards has shut down the Canada-U.S. Port of Cornwall at the Akwesasne reserve. The Akwesasne community is resisting plans by the Canada Border Services Agency to arm guards at the border post. The border agency is now considering entering into third-party mediation in an effort to resolve the dispute.

During Monday’s press conference, James Ransom, chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, said the closure of the point of entry is having a serious economic impact on both sides of the border and the day-to-day living of families in the region. He called for a new dialogue based on mutual respect between leaders of the Akwesasne community and Canadian border officials.

“Every border community — native and non-native alike — deserves the right to be meaningfully consulted on issues that directly affects them,” Ransom said.

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