Last month, I met with the Potawatomi to learn about how trade, economy, culture and self-determination are vital to the survival of Indigenous Nations on Turtle Island – now known as North America.
The Potawatomi people met in the Unceded Territory of Walpole Island, known as Bkejwanong, (where the rivers divide.) This is the 17th annual gathering. Bkejwanong is located in the St. Clair River system, and is home to the Three Fires Confederacy People, the Ojibway, Odawa and the Potawatomi. Their historical economy and trade have existed from time immemorial – before there was a Canada/United States border.
The Anishinabe and Potawatomi peoples have settled in various parts of Canada and the U.S., forming economies vital to their Nations and the Three Fires Confederacy.
At a meeting on Aug. 4 in Bkejwanong, the tribal leaders focused on trade and economy. The sentiment is one of strong determination and rights assertion, with the intent to retain nationhood rights like title to ancestral lands, languages and political recognition and autonomy.
The Potawatomi people are one of many Indigenous Nations that have socio-economic and political rights that must be recognized in NAFTA because these rights have always been asserted and preserved as sovereign – meaning these rights are autonomous and not confined by colonial government policy and law. The Potawatomi people inherently own both sides of the St. Clair River – prior to confederation or delineation of the Canada/U.S. border and their inherent and treaty rights must be brought into the NAFTA context.
Issues like softwood lumber, agriculture, gaming, communications – these are just some economic activities that have socio-economic impacts on First Nations and must be acknowledged as a matter of sovereignty and recognition of constitutional rights transcending the Canada/U.S. border.
New economies and existing relationships between Indigenous Nations and tribes tie together an opportunity for inter-tribal trade across a border established that would separate pre-existing Indigenous trading territories.
Article 36 of the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states: Indigenous peoples, in particular those divided by international borders, have the right to maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes, with their own members as well as other peoples across borders.
I am the Ontario Regional Chief, and also an Anishinabe from the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, a treaty with the British Crown before Confederation. Treaties like this and the 1795 Jay Treaty are evidence that Indigenous rights are constitutional priorities, holding the highest legal value and must be respected in NAFTA negotiations. Pre-confederation treaty holders have strong ties to the Jay Treaty because many of those treaties were treaties of military alliance and trade.
Canada, the U.S. and Mexico must recognize the full spectrum of rights of First Nations and tribes in trade and equal sharing of the economic bounty of North America.
Article III of the Jay Treaty says:
It is agreed that at all Times be free to His Majesty’s Subjects, and to the Citizens of the United States, and also to the Indians dwelling on either side of said Boundary Line freely to pass and re-pass by Land, or Inland Navigation, into the respective Territories and Countries of the Two Parties on the Continent of America… and to navigate all the Lakes, Rivers and waters thereof, and freely to carry on trade and commerce with each other…
No Duty of Entry shall ever be levied by either Party on Peltries brought by Land, or Inland Navigation into the said Territories respectively, nor shall the Indians passing or re-passing with their own proper Goods and Effects of whatever nature, pay for the same any Import or Duty whatever. But Goods in Bales, or other large Packages unusual among the Indians shall not be considered as Goods belonging bona fide to Indians.
The NAFTA discussions are similar today, with the additional onus that both Canada and the U.S. have agreed to ratify UNDRIP, and by doing so, acknowledge Jay’s Treaty as a valid foundational law affecting trade. The status of North America’s Indigenous Peoples such as the Potawatomi Nation, whose trade practices were recognized well before NAFTA must factor into the dialogue. NAFTA must not go forward without full recognition of constitutional protected rights of Indigenous Peoples in North America and the implementation of UNDRIP.
ISADORE DAY, Wiindawtegowinini, is Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief.