From the front table of the Akwesasne senior center, we watch as the Mohawks file in: retired steelworkers, clan mothers, elders, activists, and chiefs. Nearly everyone wears either a hoodie or a black leather jacket along with totems signifying their clan: wolf, bear, turtle, snipe. Some of the older women have shorn their hair ear-length while most of the younger women and nearly all of the men wear ponytails. They mingle among their friends, laughing and joking.

This essay is excerpted from All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, published by UNC Press in 2017. It is reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.

All the Agents & Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands, by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

After a decade of chasing stories around the globe, intrepid travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest followed the magnetic pull home–only to discover that her native South Texas had been radically transformed in her absence. Ravaged by drug wars and barricaded by an 18-foot steel wall, her ancestral land had become the nation’s foremost crossing ground for undocumented workers, many of whom perished along the way. The frequency of these tragedies seemed like a terrible coincidence, before Elizondo Griest moved to the New York / Canada borderlands. Once she began to meet Mohawks from the Akwesasne Nation, however, she recognized striking parallels to life on the southern border. Having lost their land through devious treaties, their mother tongues at English-only schools, and their traditional occupations through capitalist ventures, Tejanos and Mohawks alike struggle under the legacy of colonialism. Toxic industries surround their neighborhoods while the U.S. Border Patrol militarizes them. Combating these forces are legions of artists and activists devoted to preserving their indigenous cultures. Complex belief systems, meanwhile, conjure miracles. In All the Agents and Saints, Elizondo Griest weaves seven years of stories into a meditation on the existential impact of international borderlines by illuminating the spaces in between and the people who live there.

Learn more about the book.

A slide projector beams an image of an indigenous couple silhouetted against a full moon inside a dream catcher. The words that come before all else, the caption reads. After a time, a subchief stands in front of the room and begins to recite something in Mohawk that quiets everyone immediately. He is a soft-spoken man, middle-aged and shy-seeming, yet his words are melodic and continue on for some time. Every so often, he scrunches his face, thrusts his hands into his pockets, and backtracks until he finds the rhythm again, whereupon he smiles as more words surge forth. After certain passages he becomes completely silent, during which moments the crowd verbalizes the affirmation “Tho.”

My colleague leans over to explain that this is the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, or the traditional Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). No two people say it alike, but they follow a similar trajectory of individually acknowledging and thanking every life force in the universe: the people, Earth Mother, the fish, the plants, the herbs, the animals, the trees, the birds, the four winds, the thunders, the sun, Grandmother Moon, the stars, Enlightened Teachers, and finally the Creator. All six tribes of the Haudenosaunee express this communal gratitude before every gathering of minds, from ceremonies to social functions to meetings. Some schools even open and conclude each day this way. The complete address can take up to three days to deliver. This version has been whittled down to five minutes. By the time the subchief returns to his seat, the energy of the room has shifted. People are focused now and ready to rouse.

Tonight at the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, the Environmental Protection Agency will be fielding public commentary on remediation plans for the nearby Grasse River. For 20 years, ALCOA dumped its PCB-laden wastewater into that sacred tributary of the St. Lawrence River. Since ordering its cleanup in 1989 and supervising some waste removal in 1995, the EPA has been determining how best to complete the project. The ten possible courses of action range from doing nothing to investing $1.3 billion into dredging and capping the river. The majority of Mohawks want the river returned to its pristine state, no matter the cost, but many citizens of nearby Massena, New York (who held a similar hearing yesterday) are willing to settle for far less. ALCOA employs more than a thousand people there and is currently considering expanding its operations. Massena wants to seem as accommodating as possible.

An EPA administrator starts calling out numbers, and one by one, a Mohawk stands to address the room.

“I might look like you, but I am not like you,” a middle-aged woman clad in black tells the table of EPA personnel. “I try to live my life as our original instructions gave us. We live off the land here. We eat fish and deer. But now, do I know where the deer has drank his water from? Where the fish has swam? What if I have a grandchild born with two heads or no legs? Would you like your grandchild born like that?”

Then an elder in a tracksuit: “I worked for GM 12 years. Every day I had a bloody nose and a migraine headache. I probably would have died from that place. I don’t know you guys; I don’t trust you guys. No matter what plan you choose, we are still looking at 30 years before we can start to eat fish again. Maybe my great-great-great-grandchildren can eat fish; maybe not. That’s all I got to say.”

Next, a woman wrapped in a fringed shawl: “People on the front lines, we knew something was wrong here long before the scientists told us. There were tumors in our fish; there was a change in the meat, in its color, in its texture. I saw the anger, I saw the hurt, when fishermen realized they might be poisoning their community. We were denied the ability to provide for our families. It goes deeper than eating the fish. It is our relationship to our land. The techniques, the respect, the language that goes along with these practices will soon be lost.”

Then a man adorned with multiple piercings and tattoos: “I have three sisters, and they had 20 miscarriages between them. You could take the teeth out of all of their mouths and still not have enough for a pair of dentures. Just about every single one of us has diabetes. So many of us have thyroid problems. That comes from our ‘advancement’ in civilization. Once we put up all the steel, guess what? They laid us off. You could count on one hand all the Indians working at that plant, and not one of them is alive today.”

I attended dozens of public hearings back when I was a newspaper reporter. Maybe one in seven speakers said something quotable. Here, practically everyone is an orator, speaking without notes but with narrative precision. Some weep as they do so. Others quake with rage. Two hours into the evening, six women try to allay the mounting tension in the room by pulling out drums and rattles and breaking into song. “My grandmother said the water was nice a long time ago,” one says. “When you were thirsty you could take the water right out of the river and drink it.”

Toward the end of the hearing, a woman in jeans and a hoodie walks to the front of the room. Her dark hair is cropped close to her head; reading glasses perch on the tip of her nose. Nothing about her seems extraordinary—until she opens her mouth. She doesn’t just say her lines, she fillets them, leaving them hemorrhaging on the floor. “I want to know who the ALCOA people are.” A table full of white men in business suits meekly raise their hands. She glares at each one, then asks the EPA representatives to raise their hands. “I have no faith in you’s whatsoever. EPA, you allowed them,”—she stares daggers at the ALCOA executives again—“to pollute and destroy our land, the minds of our children, the bodies of our women, the bodies of our men. You stood by the corporations more than you stood by the people. You did one study after another. You make it sound like you did a wonderful job, but you have dumps hidden behind all of our trees!”

She thunders on, ticking off 60 years of corporate and federal transgressions while the Mohawks whoop and the executives stare ahead with no expression whatsoever. Though I know the Mohawks’ preferred $1.3 billion remediation plan would never be selected, I can’t help but wish that the power of their discourse could make it so. I join in their cheering when the woman finishes, then settle back in my seat for the next speaker, a hulking man wearing bear clan insignias. “I am not here to make a comment,” he informs the executives. “I want to speak with your attorney.”

A thin man with a balding head walks to the front of the room, a cashmere sweater over his pink button-down shirt. The Mohawk stands half a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. The attorney must tilt his head back to make eye contact as the Mohawk presents him with a wampum made of rawhide and beads. “This is from our nation to yours. You tell the people you represent this message that I give you.” He then reads from a typed edict outlining the ways in which natural law supersedes corporate law. “You have ten days to respond. If you don’t, we take it you agree with everything that is in there.”

The microphone is then seized by a man whose head has been shaved completely bald save for a thick raised mound running from his crown to his nape. He looks ripped beneath his black leather jacket. His face and fists are riddled with scars. Clenching the microphone, he walks toward the ALCOA table, leans in close, and sneers: “This is one of the faces you will see as one of your worst nightmares.” He then proceeds to stare at them without blinking.

And this, more than anything, seems to explain the Mohawks’ participation in these proceedings. They too know that the EPA will ultimately choose a tepid remediation plan that will require many more studies and several more decades and millions more dollars before there will even be a chance that they can fish and hunt and garden and otherwise live as their ancestors once did. Many likely see these proceedings as yet another federal dog-and-pony show and thus respond with a performance of their own. This is not to suggest cynicism or complicity on the part of the Mohawks but rather tenacity. Being here tonight gives them the rare opportunity to stare into the eyes of ALCOA executives and tell them exactly what they think of them, to brand their faces right into their consciousness. It might not make a speck of difference, no. But it’s the verbal equivalent of taking a bullet in the chest instead of in the back.

 

A few weeks later, I return to Akwesasne to meet with the word-slayer, Dana Leigh Thompson, and her husband, Kanietakeron (the man who proffered the wampum to the attorney). I turn off Route 37 at a 2,000-foot driveway that winds through the woods and a thicket of no trespassing signs to a sprawling estate on the river. German shepherds trot over as I park between a wooden gazebo and a three-car garage with a speedboat inside. Dana Leigh and Kanietakeron greet me on their porch. She’s wearing pink fleece over jeans and reading glasses; his steel-and-silver hair hangs loosely around his shoulders. Dana Leigh leads the way up a flight of stairs to an office featuring a ziggurat of lateral filing cabinets, computers, and photocopiers; a conference table that seats nine; and piles of paper stacked as high as my chest. I once worked at a nonprofit that staffed ten people with only half this much equipment.

“Are you… a lawyer?” I ask.

“Nah, I had to learn all this on my own,” she says, pouring water into a kettle and nodding at a nearby law book. “To try to understand how their system works, you have to read all of this shit. I call it investigative journalism for survival.”

As we settle down to tea, Kanietakeron enters with a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and sausage-and-egg English muffins. “Now we will break bread,” he says with a pleasant formality. His face is creviced and pitted, but he has the prettiest eyes, so pale a green they are almost translucent. Although he is the one who has been featured in media around the world, Dana Leigh does most of their talking. He’ll start a story with an amicable air, but she’ll steal it to give exact stats and facts.

They met in 1979, when Dana Leigh traveled from her home in Kahnawake to Akwesasne to monitor the political situation at Raquette Point, where Kanietakeron’s family homestead is located. Weeks before, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council had decided to build a fence around its territory and needed to clear trees to do so. Apparently without permission, it sent a work crew that started cutting a trail right across the Thompsons’ property. This so incensed Kanietakeron’s older brother, Loran, he confiscated the chainsaws, which in turn angered the council. It dispatched the tribal police to arrest him, but by the time they arrived, hundreds of Mohawks had barricaded the property with sandbags and were crouched inside a trench, rifles at the ready. The ensuing standoff lasted 13 months and involved not only New York State Police and Governor Mario Cuomo (who threatened to invade the nation) but also white sympathizers like Peter Matthiessen (who chronicled the ordeal in his book Indian Country).

United by the standoff, Dana Leigh and Kanietakeron fell in love. Together, they set about building a family on Raquette Point. Dana Leigh especially relished the summer months there, when she could slip off her sandals and sink her toes in the soil. She spent the whole season tending a garden that not only fed their family but healed their ailments, too. Yet just beyond their fence loomed the massive aluminum engine-casting plant owned by GM. It began attracting attention of its own, soon after the standoff.

“Now come the scientists, the universities knocking at the door, asking for permission to go out and catch frogs and pick grass and, oh, can we test this, can we test that? There were people all over the world that came. We didn’t know what was happening. We said this is crazy, so I educated myself,” Dana Leigh says.

She started by reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which offered a crash course in toxics as well as corporate cover-up. Even before GM admitted to its longtime use of PCBs, the Thompsons had their suspicions.

“GM had a huge dump right by our house,” Kanietakeron remembers. “When I was a kid, we would find barrels out there and use them to collect rainwater. There was a stream connecting our properties, and when we got hot, we would drink right from it. There were two or three ponds full of pure PCBs that made a nice ice-skating rink. Once, a kid fell in up to his waist.”

He points at the many scars blemishing his face. “They call this chloracne. I’ve always had these breakouts on my hands and ears that were the size of a dime and filled with maybe a hundred individual blisters, itchy as hell. I started getting them at age eight or nine, and they lasted all the way to high school. I used to wear a bandanna around my forehead just to cover it.”

His father worked for ALCOA back then, he says, and grew so asthmatic he could hardly breathe. Diabetes cost him a toe and then a leg before killing him at 69. Kanietakeron’s mother died of a heart attack at 43, as did a brother at 39. He and another brother have both undergone open-heart surgery, and one of their sisters endured 16 miscarriages and only one successful birth. She now has kidney cancer.

Convinced they were being poisoned, she told Kanietakeron they must leave. “What?” he protested. “This is our homestead. My parents lived here. My brothers and sisters still do.” Yet Dana Leigh was firm, and Kanietakeron finally consented to transferring to their current plot, which is about as far away from GM, Reynolds, and ALCOA as you can get at Akwesasne.

In 2010, GM’s bankruptcy estate pledged $773 million to clean up 89 of its old industrial facilities around the country. The Superfund site near Akwesasne received the biggest cut—$120.8 million—but that didn’t feel sufficient to the Thompsons, considering the company’s stature. They also resented the lack of urgency suggested by the cleanup’s timeline. “I went to the clinic one morning, and my sister was there with her kidney cancer, and my buddy was there looking grayish in color, and I said, ‘When is this going to stop?’” says Kanietakeron. “So I went to a [St. Regis Mohawk] tribal council meeting, and people who signed that agreement with GM were there, and I said whoever signed that should be shot. Once the leaders sign something, they lock everyone in; there is no more recourse.”

Not officially, anyway. So Kanietakeron and Dana Leigh devised a recourse of their own. On August 12, 2011, before a circle of supporters and camera crews, Kanietakeron chained himself to the steering wheel of his backhoe, drove onto the property of the old GM site, excavated a hunk of landfill, transported it over to some railroad cars, and unloaded it as a way of showing—as he puts it—“Now what’s so hard about that?” On his return trip to the landfill, a truck rumbled over, blowing its horn. The New York State Police had arrived as well as the site’s new owner, RACER Trust. An enormous payloader proceeded to corner Kanietakeron’s backhoe between a chain-link fence and some pipes.

“I thought they were going to use that machine to stop me and Taser me and then all the Indians would come to my rescue. The only way to get out was through the fence, which they had locked, so I just went right through it and was back on the reservation.”

Dana Leigh opens her MacBook to show me the YouTube video. A camera zooms in on Kanietakeron riding high in his backhoe as it bursts through the fence. Afterward, he informs police, “You’re going to have to carry me to the car.” While they discuss this—“Are you going to resist if we carry you out, or can we just carry you out?”—the camera pans across the landfill where Kanietakeron says he played as a child. With its 25- by 25-foot crater, it looks like it has just been bombed.

Kanietakeron spent four days in jail before getting slapped with a felony count of criminal mischief, misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and resisting arrest, and a $70,000 fine from RACER Trust for upsetting its landfill and ruining its fence. He showed up to court wearing traditional regalia and announced that he did not recognize New York State law but rather “natural law.” His trial gets underway in a couple of weeks.

Media mostly portrayed Kanietakeron’s story as a heroic act of civil disobedience, but Mohawks’ reactions were more nuanced. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council publicly criticized him for driving the contaminated backhoe around the community. How, council members asked, could someone so concerned about PCBs so carelessly spread toxics like that? (Only after repeated requests did Kanietakeron consent to having his backhoe cleaned.) Others grumbled about the couple’s flagrant abuse of the law for 30 years running. Yet the Thompsons are accustomed to clashes. That’s why they revoked their tribal membership in the mid-90s. They hated being bound to the chiefs’ decisions, Kanietakeron says, “because it meant we were subjects of the queen.”

He believes the only legitimate authority figures of Akwesasne are the clan mothers. In fact, he invokes their name so often and with such reverence, I start to envision an assembly of oracles convening by candlelight, deciding the fate of their nation.

After destroying their official tribal cards and passports, the Thompsons issued documents of their own. When I ask to see one, Kanietakeron opens his wallet and produces a laminated card that is purple on one side, pink on the other. ID of the Onkwehonwe of Americus Empire (AKA) Turtle Island, it reads.

“How many people use this?”

“The clan mothers told us not to tell,” Kanietakeron says.

“That is the original ID of the land,” Dana Leigh adds. “We use it to cross the border.”

Most Mohawks use their tribal cards for this purpose, which exempts them from paying international bridge tolls. Kanietakeron, however, says he insists that customs agents honor this ID. “I tell them, you are on my territory and that is the ID we use. It is superior to yours.”

“What do they say?”

He chuckles before rattling off examples of being detained for hours (and hours) while agents tried to clear his name. Of singing Indian songs instead of signing papers. Of lying on the ground so he could be handcuffed. Of enduring a three-day hunger strike at an immigration detention center while puzzled inmates from Iran, Russia, and Eritrea looked on.

“The border is not meant for us, but for Europeans,” he explains. “When you say, ‘Oh, I am in Canada now,’ in the long run, you give it recognition, and that can do a lot of damage.”

Which is why, in November 2009, he climbed in his backhoe and drove around Akwesasne, unearthing three granite obelisks that marked the international borderline. He deposited each one in front of the longhouse and, before cheering supporters, flicked on his jackhammer and smashed them to bits. The tribal police drove up to inform Kanietakeron that the obelisks were the property of the federal government. They threatened either a jail sentence or a fine, but nothing came of either. Six months later, however, the Thompsons received a visit from the FBI.

“We offered him a peace pipe and asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’ Then we had a three-hour meeting and explained everything to him. He said, ‘Can we have the markers back?’ So we showed him the video so he could see they got jackhammered. Then he asked why we did it.”

At this, Kanietakeron pauses theatrically.

“And you said…?”

“On commandment of the clan mothers!”

Not even the FBI could argue with that. The agent left soon after, and they haven’t heard from him since.

When Dana Leigh’s cell phone rings for the umpteenth time, I realize I’ve sapped four and a half hours of their day. After thanking them profusely, I ask if my next destination is on the U.S. or the Canadian side of the border.

“We say north of the river or south of the river,” Dana Leigh says.

Kanietakeron leans in close, as if to reveal a secret. “When you acknowledge the border,” he says, his eyes widening, “you make it real.”’

  

    

Stephanie Elizondo GriestStephanie Elizondo Griest is author of the award-winning memoirs Around the Bloc, Mexican Enough, and All the Agents and Saints. Assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she has lectured across the world, including as U.S. State Department literary ambassador to Venezuela in 2015, and has been a Henry Luce Scholar in China, Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and winner of the Margolis Award for Social Justice Reporting. Visit her website at StephanieElizondoGriest.com.

Header photo of Mohawks crossing the bridge by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Photo of Stephanie Elizondo Griest by Alexander Devora.

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