Saturday, January 2, 2010

Avatar, Kosovo, and Akwesasne.

One of the newest movies out is Avatar. I found it to be a good movie experience with some of the best motion-capture graphics I’ve seen. It was a combination of the colors and other worldliness that kept my interest. It told an action packed story with a romance angle where the oppressed eventually win out over oppressor. But it was more than that. The whole experience was rounded out with a caution to enlighten people of today when interacting with other cultures, don’t oppress but collaborate. In some respects the plot is familiar to many. The movie is a rendition of conflict between indigenous peoples and a seemingly superior imperialist culture. What is clear is the wishes of the indigenous people are ignored and the new “superior” culture is forced upon them.

Kosovo today is an enclave of ethnic Albanians and a minority of ethnic Serbians that is a recognized international state. Its beginnings however are tied much closer to Serbia In fact Kosovo is remembered by many as Old Serbia and since the 1100s as the homeland of the Serbian people. In the 1400s the Ottoman Turks controlled the region and with the ending of World War One the region was coalesced into what would in modern history be called Yugoslavia. With the Tito and the communist era Kosovo was seen as a semi-autonomous region of Yugoslavia. With the 1990s, Serbian irredentist feelings gave rise to its claims over Kosovo. Its arguments included the history of the area and the ties to it as their homeland. The new residents were appeased and on June 16, 2008 with the backing of the United States, Kosovo was recognized with full international status. One has to wonder if the US will support a similar situation in its own southwest. We have seen in the not to distant past how the US treated its indigenous populations and how Indian land was reallocated.[1]

So how do the other two situations tie into Akwesasne? Akwesasne, also known as the St. Regis Indian Reservation, lies on both sides of the US-Canadian Border along the St. Lawrence River in Northern New York and Southern Canada. Since the late 1700s the Mohawks at Akwesasne have been caught between different major cultures with their respective federal institutions. Within the last 100 years the Mohawks have been dealing with five different jurisdictions each with constabulary. Unlike the movie Avatar these natives were not successful in resisting the capitalistic taking of their land and the crushing of their culture. In many ways the cultural destruction reached a peak during the Uprising at Akwesasne 1989-1990 when two natives died. Although gambling and gaming on the reservation was the catalyst the real problem was the surrounding majority cultures ignoring the Mohawks concerns, needs, and requests for help. The situation was allowed to boil over into gunfire and violence. The whole problem came down to sovereignty and who was ultimately in charge of Indian land. During 1989-1990 the tribal governments recognized by Canada and the US were ineffective and hampered the Mohawks in dealing with community wide problems. Even when these tribal governments requested help they were ignored. What the situation needed then was a single Native government structure that governed all of the Mohawks regardless of which side of the River they were on or what imposed jurisdictional district they found themselves in. The Mohawks need a government that is autonomous and not controlled by external forces.[2]

The Serbs look back to an earlier time and see Kosovo as part of Greater Serbia. In some respects it was torn from their culture by war and the influence of outside cultures. This is similar to the situation at Akwesasne which gives rise to irredentist feelings the Mohawks have over their land. Large portions of their property have been taken over time with the last great loss occurring during the St. Lawrence Seaway project and international bridge construction. At this time for all practical purposes the Mohawks of Akwesasne are divided jurisdictionally and saddled with governments divided over international borders.

Historically the Mohawks have had free range over the northeastern portion of North America. This status was eventually codified in the Jay Treaty: Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation (1794) and further explained and guaranteed in the Explanatory Article to Article 3 of the Jay Treaty (1796). Not only did the Jay Treaty normalize relations between Great Britain and its former colonies, the United States, it also made promises to the Mohawks and a number of other indigenous tribes along the border. The Mohawks were promised unfettered access to both sides of the border and that no treaty or agreement could alter it. This is what the treaty states and is still the view that the Mohawks have. They have lived up to their end of the agreement. However, because of the War of 1812 and the subsequent Treaty of Ghent (1814) the Mohawks were given their rights back but now they are by statute, which gives the Mohawks a different status. Interestingly enough aspects of “white” culture such as borders, transactions and the ability to own property were not affected. However, the Native aspects of being able to transport their property and goods where ever they wanted on what they considered their land was abrogated by the 1814 treaty. The problem of paying duty or not paying duty persists today.[3]

For the Mohawks the time since the uprising has been a roller coaster of promises and disappointments with legal gambling and more police presence being the most obvious out comes. Both federal governments and the associated state or provincial governments have created their own set of tensions for the Mohawks. Currently, because of Mohawk fears of armed Canadian Custom officials, the Custom Offices for Canada have been removed from Cornwall Island and placed on the main land. Now if someone from Cornwall Island wants to go to a part of the reservation in New York they must drive to Cornwall, Canada first. If they don’t the Mohawk’s car is confiscated and they pay a heavy fine. The whole process is retributive. This is in addition to the daily problems of someone crossing from the Canadian portion of the reservation in Ontario to another Canadian portion in Québec and having to go through New York State to reach their final destination. Possibly having to pay duty on an item that has never left Akwesasne. These problems persist year after year. It is time for the Natives to figuratively send the outsiders home and reclaim their land and sovereignty as in Avatar. It is time for the US and Canada to turn over their portions of the reservation to the official government of Akwesasne, what ever form it takes and let the Mohawks make their own decisions and control their own land. Of course there would need to be some form of restitution for the land that can never be reclaimed.

Let’s put a stop to an unimaginable hardship in northern New York, southern Ontario, and southern Québec. Just as the world created the international state of Kosovo, let them recognized an entity already in existence with full international statehood, Akwesasne.

[1] Jansen, G. Richard. Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo: An Abbreviated History, an Opening for the Islamic Jihad in Europe, Colorado State University, July 22, 2008 April 25, 1999 (accessed Dec 20, 2009)

[2] Rugenstein, Ernest R., Ph.D. "Clash of Cultures: Uprising at Akwesasne." Union Institute & University, 2009.

[3] Ibid.


  1. In Avatar, the people from earth wanted something of great value from the planet of Pandora. What is to be gained by the various constabularies by the oppression of the Akwesasne people?

  2. In some respects I think it is simple dynastic power. We beat you and we can oppress you. Our past promises are null and void. Making the reservation autonomous would actually simplify the border security problems for the US and Canada.

  3. bobo (Translation - literal) I am the Tianshan, waiting for a moon.................