Sundeep Bhutoria

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Indians who aren’t Indians

During my recent visit to Canada I learnt that the original inhabitants or the aboriginal people of North America are described as Indians. Also called natives, they were the first people of with whom the Government of Canada has signed various treaties that retain their uniqueness and allow them to lead their traditional and independent life. The original people live in various defined territories spread across North America where outsiders are not allowed to settle by law.
It has been snowing since morning and I seized the opportunity to visit one of the territories called Kahnawake of the Mohawk community. I visited their parliament which they call Council and met Mr Michael Ahririhon Delisle Jr who is the elected Grand Chief (read President or Prime Minister) of this territory (picture). It was a pleasant meeting with him and few of his senior ministers or Council members. I was surprised to learn about their different facets of life and customs. There are 11 elected members and a Grand Chief who is also elected by a separate process.
The aboriginal people, though most of them can be passed off as Nepalis or Bhutanis, have nothing to do with India or Indians but came to be described as `native Indians’ by the Dutch and Spanish conquerors who reached here first and thought they had discovered India. The Mohawk community do not like the word Indians to describe them nor do they warm up to the idea of being `discovered’ for they feel that they were always there. There are about 620 such communities called Federal Canadian Reserves across Canada that account for 2.5 % of the total population of the country.
It is very difficult to visit these Reserves in the north – a region with snow cover throughout the year. The one I visited is one of the top five developed Reserves excelling in administration and distribution of finance. The Grand Chiefs of all these 620 Reserves meet twice in a year to deliberate and decide on protecting their land and access to clean water.
The total population of the Kahnawake nation of Mohawk community is approximately 8000 and they live in their designated area and are also engaged in protecting their turf. They have their own laws and police force called `peace keepers’. Besides the Council House i.e., Parliament, I have also visited their `peace-keeping station’ and cultural centre.
They are exempted from paying any taxes and get financial support from the Government of Canada. The marriages within their own communities are encouraged and at best only with the members from the other 620 Reserves or original people. It is usual practice for men to go and live in the girl’s community after marriage. Marrying outside the community and Reserves is almost a taboo. If anyone gets married outside the 620 Reserves, he or she ceases to become a member of the community and is socially boycotted.
They worship the Mother Earth and celebrate its different seasons. A lady member of the Council explained to me that they always lived with the support of whatever Mother Earth blessed them with – plants, animals etc. There were no grocery shops and they turned to Mother Earth for fulfilling their needs to survive and sustain. The community prays and invokes the Mother Earth and Nature every season and seek the blessings for surviving the next season, she said.
The old Constitution of the community is called The Great Law and has three words – good mind, power strength and peace. The Council members proudly informed me that the three words liberty, equality and fraternity, which is central to the Constitution of USA and American life, was influenced by their Constitution.
The community have their own local radio station which was of great help to them during 9/11 as there were so many people working in New York from these Reserves. The people of the Reserves are considered to be the best in the world for building huge iron bridges and high rises like the Empire State Building in New York. The community radio played a major role in keeping them informed about their dear ones during the crises. Another interesting fact is that they even have their own passport which is valid for travel in Latin America, Africa and Switzerland and some other countries. They don’t consider themselves to be Canadians and if at all they have to take the Canadian passport they do so by registering their protest in bond paper to drive home their message that they are not Canadian citizens but accept the passport only for a special reason. They also have free movement at the US border.
During my visit to the Mohawk community cultural centre, the person who was showing me around, Mr Tom Deer, told me that he was not a Canadian or American and that he had travelled all over the world on a Visa issued to him in his own passport. He is also one of the members of the Documents Committee for five nations engaged in negotiating with other countries for recognition of their passport. The Council presented me with their Flag, Emblem and a Gift at their Council House or Parliament.
The communities are a very resolute lot. During the last decade, the Canadian government wanted to make a golf course in one of their sister territories and there was a strong protest from the communities decrying outside interference. The Canadian police could not handle the issue and the Canadian Government handed over the matter to the military. The Mohawk community had blocked the main bridge in central Montreal and after a 3-month standoff with the military the Government blinked and called off the golf project.
I had long desired to visit one of the Reserves and my wish came true for which I am grateful to David whose efforts made it possible. The trip to the Reserve was one of my long-awaited life’s great experience.
ess bee

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