St. Lawrence River Islands – Ownership, Authority, Free usage

AKWESASNE – Yet another one of the vaunted 1000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River has been offered for sale. According to published reports, Sheep Island is now available on the Canadian real estate market. The United States government has claimed some of the islands “on behalf of the Mohawk people”. Akwesasne residents assert that ownership of the islands has never been ceded.

The Sheep Island property listing valued at $650,000 (U.S. dollars), was derided in the media as being located in a “smuggler’s alley” east of Cornwall, Ontario. Nevertheless, the principle of land ownership allowing such a sale is highly controversial in Haudenosaunee communities.

As recently as June 2011, representatives of the United States government claimed that the U.S. is holding title on several of the islands on behalf of Onkwehon:we. In a hearing before U.S. Magistrate George Lowe concerning land claims in New York State, James Cooney of the U.S. Department of Justice asserted the underlying title to Barnhart, Baxter and Long Sault Islands was held by the U.S.

The sworn statement by Cooney seemed to be an irritation to New York State representatives at the proceeding. New York State Asst. Atty. Gen. David Roberts denied the validity of the federal position regarding the islands.

The position provided by the U.S. in their argument is derived from a European view of sovereign discovery. The control of the 1000 Islands was held by Britain when New York State was formed. This resulted in New York losing a pre-emptive right to acquire the scattered island holdings that the American colonies lost when the U.S. Constitution was adopted. The islands were transferred to the U.S. directly using language contained in the Treaty of Ghent, 1814.

Longhouse researcher, Rarihokwats, points to earlier histories relevant to this matter. The presence of French traders, priests and soldiers on the St. Lawrence River supports the U.S. position of sovereign discovery.

Longhouse scholars point out that the French never claimed these islands as their own, leaving the original title undisturbed even though France was eventually overcome by Britain in North American wars.

Akwesasne Men’s Council Wolf Clan representative, Rarahkwisere, summarized the position of the Longhouse. “As Kanienkehaka people, we have free usage of the river. That is why Akwesasne was an important Iroquois castle (village). It was because it was at the intersection of three rivers. These islands are part of the river. We never gave them away, to anyone. Not ever to Denmark, France, Britain, or any of the American colonies.”

Conditions along the St. Lawrence River have dominated Indian relations with the settlers since early trading days. With the near extinction of beavers to the industrial pollution of the twentieth century, Onkwehon:we populations have been left reeling in the aftermath.

The Canadian government has recently dedicated over $90 million dollars to high tech surveillance of the St. Lawrence River in a bid to contain what they call “contraband tobacco” importation from Akwesasne. The integrated technologies of radar, sonar, thermal and unmanned sensors are intended to halt the river traffic described as a North American Ho Chi Minh Trail for smugglers. Canadian legislative efforts are currently focused at using terms of imprisonment for possession of untaxed tobacco products.

According to some activists in Akwesasne and Kahnawake, the time has come for an assertion of Onhkwehonh:we land and water rights. In 1970, Stanley Island and Loon Island were reclaimed by what was described in some newspaper reports as the Warrior Society. Some current Akwesasne residents are upset at the leasing of Stanley Island guest cabins to non-natives in the aftermath of the reclamation. They also say a new campaign of reclamation effort is due.

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