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Mohawks caught in membership law limbo

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake membership portfolio chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer briefly talked about transferring membership from one community to another during a two and a half hour discussion on Indian Act amendments at Tuesday’s winter community meeting. (Jessica Deer, The Eastern Door)


At least one Kahnawake resident is feeling concerned about the newest proposed amendments to the Kahnawake Membership Law that affect criteria allowing Onkwehón:we from elsewhere to transfer their membership.

Bailey (not the person’s real name because they wished to remain anonymous) is registered with Mohawk status in Kanesatake, but has been working and living in Kahnawake for the last 15 years, has a partner from Kahnawake, and grandchildren.

“I just want to be able to put land in my own name, build, and live here and have a place for my children and grandchildren,” Bailey told The Eastern Door.

In 2011, she applied to transfer bands but was unable due to the Council of Elders, the body formerly responsible for membership application process, being suspended in 2007.

She is eligible for membership under the current law’s section 11.4 of application process, requiring to have at least four Kanien’kehá:ka great-grandparents.

However, she is not eligible with the most recent draft of law that was released for feedback throughout January for the Community Decision-Making Process’ amendment process.

“They removed that whole section. They removed all possibility to become a member here,” said Bailey.

“Now, they specifically state that they have to be from Kahnawake. Why? Why are they doing that? Why are they discriminating like that? I don’t understand. Are we not Mohawk enough? Are people from Kanesatake not good enough for Kahnawake?”

According to Alexis Shackleton, director of Client Based Services at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, individuals in Bailey’s situation would only be able to apply as approved Kahnawake residents once a proposed residency law is enacted.

“In the past, you could become a member and now that seems like that’s not a part of the discussion if you were an Onkwehón:we from somewhere else,” said Shackleton.

“It doesn’t seem like it would be possible unless they have their own lineage from the community, but they would be eligible to reside in the community.

“If they don’t have their own lineage, they wouldn’t be able to because the process requires the acceptance from the community.”

Rhonda Kirby is the portfolio chief responsible for the proposed residency law.

“We do have a lot of people from other communities that live here, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re also doing this. We really need to know who’s here in the community for a number of reasons,” she said.

“The people who are from other communities would apply for a non-member residency permit. Not everyone wants to transfer here. There are benefits to each band, so some people would prefer to keep their own membership.”

Shackleton said transferring bands is something that also doesn’t occur often. She said since working for the organization in 2003, she can only think of five examples of transfers.

“We get calls all the time, how do I transfer to your band? And I’m like, well why? ‘Well, I just want to be a part of the Mohawks, I want to be a part of your community,'”‘ said membership portfolio chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer at Tuesday’s winter community meeting.

“At this point, we don’t accept band transfers like that, but who knows in the future when the residency law passes, if we want to accept people, well then they need to meet certain criteria. We want to make sure that the people we welcome to this community who aren’t necessarily from here are good people and are going to contribute to the social fabric.”

Bailey feels the process is unfair.

“I would not be entitled to the same benefits and services that a member has, which creates two classes of members. In other words, I would be a second-class citizen whereas when a Kahnawake member transfers to another band, they are entitled to the same benefits/services as a member born into that band,” said Bailey.

“I don’t understand the reason for being so afraid to allow other Natives to live here and become members, it is not the same as the “marry out, get out,” as we are Natives and not ‘iah te Onkwehón:we.’”

Even if an applicant were to meet the criteria, both Shackleton and Kirby said anyone wishing to apply to be a member of Kahnawake would have to wait until the membership law completes the amendment process through the CDMP – something that has already taken nearly a decade thus far.

The residency law is also going through the CDMP. The draft has yet to be made public, but Kirby said the working group is now on the 22nd version of the draft and that it should be released soon.

“Unfortunately the Council of Elders has been suspended and we can’t just appoint someone to look at all these applications because it would go against the law. I know it is taking a long time, but for both laws, we’re almost ready,” said Kirby.

Enduring the decade-long wait is something another local family, which wished to remain anonymous, is all too familiar with.

“When I was born, my mother and father weren’t married. My mother was a single mother and at that time it wasn’t very good to be born like that and she was very young, still in her teens. I went underneath my mother’s band number here in Kahnawake,” said Anna (not her real name).

Anna’s biological father was from Akwesasne.

“When I became older and I went to apply for my own band card, the person that was working in the early 80s in membership at the MCK took it upon herself to take my application and forward it to Akwesasne,” she said. “When my kids were born, I registered them under me in Akwesasne. None of us ever lived in Akwesasne, we all lived here.”

Anna’s daughter Caitlyn (her name was also changed for the purpose of this story) grew up in Kahnawake, but was registered at birth in Akwesasne due to her maternal biological-grandfather.

When Caitlyn was a teenager, she ran into some trouble.

“Because I was registered in Akwesasne and I was a troubled youth and I needed help, they sent me to foster care in Akwesasne,” said Caitlyn.

“That was a really scary thing to be taken from my community and sent somewhere. I didn’t know a single person, I knew I had family there but we lost touch, so it was really hard to flourish as a teen being in a facility in a community that I didn’t know.”

Anna was able to transfer her membership to Kahnawake through the Council of Elders, but a special situation put Caitlyn’s status here in limbo, despite being eligible for the Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake Registry (KKR).

“I had to go through that whole process and labelled me as a reinstatement. It was a terrible process to go through. They didn’t take your children along with you,” said Anna.

“They weren’t accepting minors, they had to wait until they were 18 years old and apply themselves, so some of my children were able to transfer and the others couldn’t because they weren’t 18.”

At the time Caitlyn couldn’t make the decision to transfer because she was still living in Akwesasne, in a relationship with young children.

“I put in for my transfer when I was sure that my relationship with their father was over, that I wanted to stay home,” she said. “I had my application in, I started the process, and then they froze it. So, they’ve been sitting on it for roughly 10 years.”

The wait has had an effect on her ability to build a house in Kahnawake, to use her status card for tax exemption at many retailers in the surrounding communities, and have her children’s education funded.

“We’re waiting and waiting, and I really don’t know what will happen in the future. I would like to be transferred and all of my children transferred. I live here, my children grew up here,” said Caitlyn.

“If the government wasn’t concerned about monies that they’re allocating to certain bands, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Hopefully, I would like to think that we would be free and open to helping each other as a nation.

“Instead of looking at us as a nation, we’re looked as communities. Mohawks of Kahnawake, Mohawks of Akwesasne, but we’re all one nation,” she said.

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Jessica Deer was a staff reporter from 2015-2018 who started out in 2008 as a summer student.