It’s been 43 years since the death of Indian Defense League of America (IDLA) founder Chief Clinton Rickard of the Tuscarora Reservation near Lewiston, New York. Born May 19, 1882, Chief Rickard was a leader for his people. He spent his entire life fighting for the inherent rights of all Haudenosaunee people regardless of what side of the border they resided on.
The IDLA was founded by Chief Rickard as a tool for Ogwehoweh people to gather together, and fight a common battle. That battle included a fight against assimilation, encroachment and to make sure that the United States and Canadian governments were upholding their fiduciary obligations to treaties made with the Haudenosaunee.
In Fighting Tuscarora, his autobiography, Chief Clinton Rickard explains the early days of the IDLA, “We encouraged our friends in other areas to form branches of the league to unify themselves for our fight and to make our cause better known. This is what we in our organization, the Indian Defense League have tried to overcome. We have provided a way for Indians to work together and to speak out on their own.”
The IDLA was formed by Rickard and his colleagues in response to the violation of Article 3 of the Jay Treaty of 1794, which was made between the United States and Great Britain, which stated ‘Indians’ had the right to cross the border with their own goods at any time. The War of 1812 greatly affected those rights. But when the war ended, Article 9 of the Treaty of Ghent of 1814, which concluded the war, restored these same rights mentioned in the Jay Treaty to Natives once again. However, the Immigration Act of 1924 deprived Ogwehoweh of their treaty rights again, which included crossing the border freely. According to Rickard, “The purpose of the IDLA is to bring all Indians together in unity to protect the rights of our people.”
In early 1926, Rickard became acquainted with David Hill, a Mohawk from Six Nations Reserve who was living in Niagara Falls, New York and who shared the same vision and goals as Rickard: to lobby the government and bring Ogwehoweh people together to protect their treaty rights.
On December 1, 1926 the Six Nations Defense League was formed but soon became known under a much broader term, the Indian Defense League of America. After almost a two-year struggle and over 500 letters sent to various politicians and leaders, Chief Rickard and his colleagues’ hard work had finally paid off. On March 29, 1928, a bill was passed in the Senate and on April 2 of the same year, President Coolidge signed the bill into law. Ogwehoweh people could once again pass freely and uninterrupted across the US-Canadian border.
“After our bill had passed Congress and had been signed by the President, I told Dave Hill: “This calls for a celebration!” I wanted to preserve this moment in history and have a thanksgiving observance after our many years of effort. Dave agreed and we began to work on the program. We wanted to stress Indian culture particularly and also the Indian as he was 200 years ago,” stated Rickard in his autobiography. The annual Border Crossing celebration was born.
Rickard spoke of the early days of the Border Crossing celebration, “The first celebration was held on July 14, 1928. Indians came from all over to participate. Sixteen people came from Maniwaki (unceded Algonquin territory), bringing with them a birch bark canoe, moose and wolf hides and several very old and fine wampum belts.”
Rickard explained what encouraged him to form the IDLA. “Now since the coming of the Europeans, a border has been set up separating Canadians and Americans, but we never believed that it was meant to separate Indians. This was our country, our continent, long before the first Europeans set foot on it. Our Six Nations people live on both sides of this border. We go back and forth to each other’s ceremonies and festivals. Our people are one. It is an injustice to separate families and impose restrictions upon us, the original North Americans, who were once a free people and wish to remain free.”
Chief Rickard was so dedicated to the cause of fighting for the rights of his people that at one time, even his own people were against him. One of his sons became the target of a vicious attack. “The schoolchildren came to taunt William because of my work on securing border-crossing rights. One day after school, four boys grabbed William and beat him. They threw him on the ground and jumped on his chest. When he did not return home from school, I went out looking for him. I found him at ten o’clock at night, half dead lying in the ditch. His chest had been crushed. He never fully recovered from the beating. My son’s health, and eventually his life, was the price my family had to pay to secure justice for our people.”
In his 89th year, Chief Clinton Rickard passed away on June 14, 1971. The IDLA’s Border Crossing celebration that year was turned into a memorial ceremony in honor of him. As the IDLA founder and grand president, Chief Rickard inspired many others to lead by his example and to carry on the organization (IDLA) he had established and to continue the struggle for Ogwehoweh rights.
Chief Rickard explained what inspired him to do the work that he did for his people, “The reason I was so certain of the rightness of my work was because I had always appealed to the Great Spirit to bestow upon me the knowledge and wisdom to defend the rights of my people.”
During his last years on Mother Earth, Chief Clinton Rickard reflected, “At every turn we continue to see the many problems facing our Indian people. Our treaties are always in danger of being undermined, our rights threatened, our reservations invaded, our way of life endangered. There comes a time when the older folks, who have fought so long and hard, will no longer be able to carry on the battle. Whoever reads these pages and is a true Indian, I pray that you may take up the struggle and carry on for and with our people. Always look to the Great Spirit for your guide, and you can never go wrong and can never lose heart. Remember that the Indian way is a good way.”
This years’ Border Crossing celebrations take place Saturday, July 19 at 11am and will be crossing over the Whirlpool Bridge. Festivities take place at Hyde Park in the Ball Diamond beginning at 1:30pm. To participate in the march, meet at the corner of Bridge St. and River Rd, turn left, first parking lot on the left hand side. Make sure to bring valid identification. Also note, parade will be longer this year and will end at 745 Main St (Niagara Falls NY City Hall).