North American Dream vs. Rugged Individualism—Tribal Style

Charles Kader

Operation MYGALE was recently undertaken by regional law enforcement here in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Described as the largest such operation ever, the anti-border crime agenda was driven home by the execution of over 70 armed searches looking for tobacco and drug stashes. Claims of international cooperation were touted as taking place not only in Canada, but also in the United States, elsewhere in North America, South America and Europe. There were 700 police personnel pooled between the two identified Canadian provinces alone. It was alleged that at least $530,000,000 (Cdn) in lost taxes was defrauded from Canada through the illegitimate importing of almost 5,600,000 pounds of American tobacco. Longtime followers of American – Canadian border control measures will note that these operations are occasionally undertaken. The nature of modern criminal investigations is that eventually costs must be justified and results shown for the fragmented pace often employed in undercover work. Accompanying news headlines only skim the surface of the politics and human drama behind these scenes. Rarely does the initial media parade get underway before the law and order issues begin to be held up to the light of day.

Although the message design here showed the focus of this chapter to be directed against biker gang criminal elements, the spectre of First Nation and Native American tribal member involvement colored the media release coverage coming out of Canada. Claims that the police raids were taking place in the densely populated Kahnawake Mohawk Territory south of Montreal, Que. as well as the sprawling Six Nations Reserve in Ont. were met with derision by the local elected Native governments. The First Nation sworn police forces have to walk a balanced line between appeasement of the mainstream agency affiliations they have to nurture and maintaining the respect of the tribal membership they primarily serve. Sometimes, the notion of police protecting and serving their people means that it is expected that Native Cops protect Natives from questionable non-native police actions and intrusions on Native law by non-native civilians.

In the end, no police raids actually took place on either Native territory. That elected and appointed Native officials had to take to online recorded statements shows the other side of Operation MYGALE, which was alternately known as Operation TARANTULA. The web that was weaved here was partially fictional and partially epic.

From a human interest perspective, the desire to rise above average means drives the prosecution of these same instincts. I still call these traits rugged individualism (Rugged individualism was the phrase used often by Herbert Hoover, a famous mining engineer by trade, during his time as president 1929–33. It refers to the idea that each individual should be able to help themselves out, and that the government does not need to involve itself in people’s economic lives nor in national economics in general).

Historically, the European pioneers and the missionaries who settled in North America exhibited these attributes ironically against the status quo of the Native populations then in place. Such same historical figures are contemporarily identified in a way that highlights their lasting positive social impact without celebrating the tactics they used to ensure the permanence of their agenda. One example is the sainthood of Father Junipero Serra in California, which has not gone without explicit and visceral reaction.

The U.S. Army Calvary or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police may no longer be garrisoned in most cases at the edges of the reservations to maintain order, but of course technology has removed that immediate need. More routine is the enhancement of regional and tribal law enforcement assets, as well as the diversification of federal agencies to widening missions. Possibly the globalization of criminal investigations is a sign of what is called mission creep. It is a term borrowed from the armed forces where more and more objectives are added to a military unit until they become bogged down attempting to accomplish anything.

Nothing that was seen in the immediate aftermath of MYGALE showed any threat to public order was present. However, like smoldering coals from an ashen fire pit, the capital motives will remain in place on border region reservations to launch a new roster of aspiring players to replace those most recently arrested. It is the historical rugged individualism turned on its head. Now the settlers have the status quo to maintain and it is the descendants of those earliest inhabitants that are making their own stands to rise above survivorship. The lesson has been ingrained in them that to survive they first must thrive, in whatever they do.

While it is a broad generalization to assume that each and every Native suspect that is brought into custody shares a common historical understanding, it is my own experience that even very young Mohawk people understand their legacy of tobacco tradespeople. This extends to other Haudenosaunee nations, such as the Seneca and the Tuscarora. Trade, commerce and political action all lend themselves to this historical canon. It is also the basis for the reticence of the mainstream police forces to physically enter the apparently contested reservation common areas to serve warrants on alleged Native suspects. Fear and capitalism are brought together here through shared history. And, as has been said before, fear is the mid-wife of war. And, as Lucky Luciano once pointed out, war is bad for business.

This flipped, almost parallel historical context should not be lost on either side. As industrial pollution has nudged traditional fishing and hunting lifestyles away from these people who most depended on it, their swift turn to rapid capital gains should surprise no one. The arbitrary international border placement following the War of 1812 remains today an artificial barrier on paper only. It is but a division between sales territories or competing markets, with mainstream tobacco taxes only driving up demand variously on either side.

World famous NASCAR driver and team owner Derek White from Kahnawake was the most prominent person, Native or otherwise, targeted in MYGALE. He was charged with seven offenses, including one count of engaging in activities which profit from criminal organization, three counts of conspiracy to commit fraud and three counts of fraud. He turned himself into authorities and is now out on $20,000 (Cdn) bail.

In an interview with the local Kahnawake newspaper, The Eastern Door, White dismissed assertions that his involvement aided international terrorism. He maintained that he only worked with tobacco, as his ancestors did. He is also a local business person in addition to his racing fame, employing other Mohawks. Normally, job creators are touted as community pillars by the mainstream governments but the stigma of Native business ownership comes with its own hardships. “They want their tax money, that’s all,” White told the Eastern Door in reference to his charges.

There is a root of this conflict. Beyond all of the hype, the criminal charges and the headlines, there is a wide difference in thinking taking place. The Native business people, all over, feel extremely hard pressed to provide for their families, living under the threat of asset forfeiture and imprisonment. These individuals are exceptional by their very effort of entering into small business on the reservations.

The mainstream governments label the Native businesses a threat to their tax base and hence, their overall way of life and their accountability to their citizenry. These governments want to be able to treat the Native populations as their citizens that they can dictate to.

The Native communities still living on reserves, or at least wide segments of them, do not agree that they are citizens of either Canada or the United States. Nor do they feel the need to self-exile themselves to escape the increasingly longer hand of North American law enforcement. But they do assert that they have the right to survive. And that will continue to be the rub of what has come to be known as the (North) American dream. It is both a dream to some and a nightmare to others. The difference is that in this type of dream, there are referees, but they do not wear stripes and carry whistles. Instead they wear personal ballistic armor, brandish badges and carry guns.

Until longstanding land claims are adequately and politically resolved, more events like MYGALE will continue to take place, as people try to get ahead and police try to stop them. Otherwise the cycle will never, ever end.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.

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Sammy7's picture
Charles you write well with an epic brushstroke. There are many good themes within this writing that are of interest and beg for greater understanding. I look forward to your expanding upon them. Blessings!
turbojesus's picture
God, it just goes on like this. Rambling article