A 1981 law by the Canadian Mohawk Council of Kahnawake which forbids tribe members who marry outside of their race from living within their reservation has come under attack with a series of court cases designed to force their repeal.
The existence of the ban on residents’ rights for racially-mixed marriages was previously little known outside of the Indian reservation of Kahnawake, which is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada, across from Montreal.
The tribe has of late begun issuing eviction notices to those who have married outside of their race, and five of these individuals have now resorted to the Canadian Courts to get the law overturned.
Acting on over 100 complaints, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake voted in February to evict 26 non-natives from the reserve in a bid to preserve “our own culture and language,” according to council spokesperson Joe Delaronde. A second wave of over 30 eviction notices was sent out in April. Recipients were given ten days to leave.
According to a tribal newsletter, published on the tribe’s website in September 2014, the ban on residence for racially-mixed marriages was adopted on May 22, 1981.
According to the tribal newsletter, a person had to have 50 percent Indian blood to be recognized as an Indian and any Mohawk who married a non-native would have to leave the community with benefits administered by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake suspended.
“This was an important time for our community in that the issue of membership was taken into our own hands for survival as Indian people,” the newsletter said.
Michael Delisle, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, told media that the ban on non-native people living on Mohawk territory goes back years—even decades—to the Indian Act, first passed in 1876.
He said it came to a head in the 1970s, culminating with the 1981 moratorium on mixed marriages on Kahnawake soil.
“This was discussed further, but for all intents and purposes, it’s looking to be enforced even more strongly,” Delisle said.
He said Kahnawake’s limited real estate means the 6,500-person community’s ability to grow is stunted, and allowing non-natives onto the reservation takes space away from Mohawks.
Delisle also made the case that non-native people living in Kahnawake largely benefit from the same perks Mohawks are entitled to, notably tax exemption.
He said there are approximately 100 non-native people living in Kahnawake who are either married, in common-law relationships, or are simply just living there.
Delisle said enforcing the “marry out, stay out” rule is not about excluding non-native people, but rather about preserving Mohawk lineage.
“All we are trying to do is preserve, not only culture and language and identity, but who we are as a people, and those days of incorporating others into our society, I won’t say is over, but it needs to be controlled by us, and not by outside entities,” Delisle said.
Kahnawake resident Rhonda Bush told CBC News that that the measure was reasonable.
“It isn’t a debate. You’re not supposed to be here if you’re non-native,” she told CBC News. She said marrying out of the community means the person is making a choice not to live by the Mohawk territory’s rules.
“You get called different things; you get called racist, but it’s a known fact. We all know that,” Bush said. “White people can live wherever they want. This [land] is for us.”
The 1981 law was added to by the 1984 Mohawk Law on Membership and the 2003 Kahnawake Membership Law, which was in turn based on the 1985 amendment to Canada’s original Indian Act.
In terms of the 1985 amendment, tribes, or “bands” were given the right to determine their own membership. Section 10 of that amendment specifically allows Indians to enact their own membership or citizenship codes, according to two principles: the majority of the tribe’s electors must consent to the band’s taking control of membership, and to the set of membership rules (which must include a review mechanism); and the membership rules cannot deprive a person of previously acquired rights to membership.
Once the band controls its membership list, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has no power to make additions or deletions, and has no further responsibilities regarding the band list.
It is thus unlikely—without a repeal of the 1985 amendment to the Indian Act—that the current court cases will be able to overturn the Mohawk mixed-marriages act, and the only point of debate will be how far the reservation has the authority to exclude non-Indians from their territory.
The scenario is of particular interest to ethno-nationalists from around the world, as it is another example of nonwhites being granted the right to organize on racial grounds, whereas any whites attempting to do the same are dismissed as “racists.”
Etho-nationalists from all races will likely be hopeful that the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake will be successful in defending their right to live in a homogenous society, and to maintain their unique identity.