Photo: Rémi Yuan.
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Well-intentioned or not, Mohawk council’s anti-miscegenation laws are troubling

In the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, a native reserve located just outside of Montreal, the band council is flexing some muscle on a long-standing moratorium: “If you marry out, you stay out.” Non-natives are prohibited from living in Kahnawake, which means any Mohawk that marries a non-native is required to leave the reserve as well.

While the band council is deploying this moratorium to conserve their fading native culture, there is no escaping the fact that they are actively promoting racial segregation policies in the 21st century.

This law has been in place since 1981 and the council has decided to selectively enforce it over the last couple of years, having already issued 26 eviction notices to non-natives in early 2010. The subject was opened again this summer when a native woman in the community was forced to halt construction of her family home because of her non-native husband.

The band council believes this is a necessary measure in order to preserve the Mohawk lineage, language, and culture. Rhonda Bush, a resident in the Kahnawake community, explains that “white people can live wherever they want. This [land] is for us.” Others are upset that non-natives living on the reserve are able to take advantage of privileges the Mohawk are entitled to, such as tax exemptions.

In a world where native language and culture is quickly disappearing, the intent behind this law is understandable. However, it is a seriously flawed method of preserving a culture, especially since this law is asking community members to choose between their partner and their native heritage.

This dilemma is currently facing Tom Deerhouse, a former resident of Kahnawake, who left the community when he married his non-native wife Tammy Harris-Deerhouse. Although he followed the law, he wishes he could still live on the reserve. He says the law causes “fear and division” within the community.

It’s hard to foster a safe and inclusive community when approximately 100 of its residents (who identify as non-native) could face eviction at any time. The best environment for the preservation of a culture is an inclusive, understanding community. But lately, Kahnawake hasn’t been living up to that standard.

Cheryl Diabo lives in the community with her non-native partner. Although she’s aware of the moratorium, she still tried to find a compromise. Her partner signed a legal document in the presence of a Mohawk witness, stating that he respects and understands Mohawk culture and traditions. Her partner also conceded that he does not claim any rights to the land they live on, which has been in the Diabo family for generations. Even though this is a good way to integrate a non-native partner into the community, the band council still decided to include Diabo on their eviction list.

Furthermore, because of her choice of partner, Diabo has also been subject to intimidation techniques and harassment from the members of the community. Her house has been egged, and one day she came home to a sign on her front lawn saying “My name is Cheryl and I live with a WHITE MAN.” This type of intimidation is not conducive to a good community environment.

The preservation of a culture is a noble and crucial goal, but this moratorium for racial segregation is not the way to achieve it. Rather than dividing the community and condoning vandalism and intimidation techniques, the Mohawk band council should focus on finding a more inclusive way of dealing with the struggle to maintain their culture.

Residents like Diabo have already demonstrated a good way of ensuring that their non-native residents respect their native traditions. If the band council could use Diabo’s actions as a model, they’d be stepping in the right direction towards a more inclusive Mohawk community.