- Associated Press - Sunday, August 1, 2010

ONONDAGA NATION, N.Y. | Young men have gathered in the longhouse for the feather dance, and the sounds of their singing filter outside, where Mohawk Chief Howard Thompson sits.

His people call him by the same name his predecessors have borne for 1,000 years. Each month, when he gathers with the 49 other chiefs from the six Haudenosaunee nations, he stands to speak in the language of his ancestors. When the 50 come to a decision, they don’t take a majority vote. Instead, as it has for a millennium, the leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy decide by consensus.

Mr. Thompson awaits the start of a meeting of the Haudenosaunee Peace and Trade Committee, where tradition will grapple with the outside world. The issue is passports.

Last month, the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team missed the world championship in Britain rather than travel overseas under U.S. or Canadian passports. The members’ Haudenosaunee passports were deemed inadequate in a post-Sept. 11 world — partly handwritten, lacking in high-tech security features.

Haudenosaunee Documentation Committee Chairman Karl Hill peers from behind wire-rimmed glasses as he explains how the confederacy has spent upward of $1 million to bring their identification into line with the U.S. government’s new standards. For now, the handwritten Haudenosaunee passports can be easily counterfeited, he says.

But, he adds, that would never be reason enough for the lacrosse players to travel on another nation’s document. Such a choice would betray their national identity — an identity he says is as valid as ever, even though his people shop in American malls and watch American television and study at American colleges.

“It means that we’ve survived,” he says. “The fact that we’re still here is a testament to our survival. Now why on earth would we give that up and call ourselves U.S. citizens?”

Unless someone told you, you might not even know you’d driven into Onondaga Nation.

On this dusty, four-lane road, the border is invisible. There’s no fence, no painted line and no one to stop and ask you for ID.

Although the gas station accepts only U.S. currency, children in language classes here are taught a different name for the man featured on the dollar bill. In the Onondaga tongue, George Washington is still called the “Town Destroyer.”

For many Americans, the brutal past has become little more than a historical footnote covered briefly in school. But no one here has forgotten the killings, the disease and the forced marches that scholars say reduced the native population in what came to be the United States from more than 4 million in 1492 to just a quarter-million 400 years later.

No fences mark the borders, residents say, because the people do not believe in fences. Any built by outsiders serve only as a reminder of internment camps.

Today, the question of identity for the estimated 5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives within U.S. borders is complicated. About one-third identify themselves as more than one race. Some serve in the U.S. military. Many have blended into American life.

Although all American Indian tribes defend their right to independence, many see that autonomy as limited, their role akin to that of a U.S. state.

But in Onondaga Nation, many feel deeply that this place is in no way a part of the United States of America.

Residents still talk about the tour bus that pulled up to the longhouse, its occupants asking, “Where are the teepees?” But it’s rare for outsiders to venture past the smoke shop, drive the unmarked roads and be invited into people’s homes.

Conversations with leaders and residents quickly reveal that many think they have the same central concerns their ancestors did. There are those here who remain uneasy when they head out into the world built by people they still call “the Europeans.”

In the Onondaga Nation is a field where the boys can play lacrosse. The sport played on American school fields is but a cousin to the medicine games played here on the land. No outsider has ever been allowed to see those, says Gewas Schindler, a member of the Iroquois Nationals team, ranked No. 4 in the world.

That secret game was once used to fight off the diseases of the white invaders. It is still considered a gift from their Creator, and still used to ward off illness.

Mr. Schindler, 34, says that when he plays that game, he feels different, stronger. He never gets tired. For the nine years he’s been a professional, he says, he’s felt guilty about taking money for something that feels like so much more.

Ask people here whether they’re angry about the past, and most everyone will deny it.

But even after he is warned that the wood in his toddler son’s new lacrosse stick is easily broken, John Parsons pounds the handmade stick rhythmically against the ground as he lists the ways in which the U.S. government is still wronging him and his people: It imprisons Indians for breaking the rules of the outside world. It asserts “the European mindset, where the king or whoever can tax you, and own you.”

On the other hand, the Carousel Center Mall and its nearly 200 stores are just 20 minutes away, in Syracuse.

“The mall is there,” says LeeAnne Cornfield, Mr. Parson’s wife. “I’m up there every weekend.”

Like everyone else on American Indian lands, they must straddle two worlds. To buy most things, they must leave their trailer and spend their money outside the nation.

It’s not simple, being a nation within a nation.

Onondaga Nation leaders say they don’t accept federal funds directly, although nation members are eligible for U.S.-funded medical care. In many American Indian nations, state and federal money pays for health clinics, for education and for poverty assistance. But, the nations pay fees to states to open casinos.

Some nation residents willingly carry both American and Haudenosaunee passports. Some see the nation’s government as an unwelcome buffer separating them from public services.

But others are angry at what they see as encroachments on their nation’s authority. Earlier this month, someone tried to derail an Amtrak passenger train traveling through the Haudenosaunee’s Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. Investigators noted a sign left nearby, apparently protesting a federal law that threatens to limit American Indian cigarette sales.

U.S. law is clear on the topic of sovereignty: The American Indian nations are defined as “domestic dependent nations,” and the Supreme Court has always affirmed Congress’ right to make decisions for the nations — and to break treaties when doing so is in the interest of the U.S., says Eric Cheyfitz, director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University.

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