The Paul Diabo case affects us all

©by Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country 4-08

Eighty years ago the Haudenosaunee, and particularly the Mohawks, were confronted with a serious threat to our ability to secure a living by practicing the skill of ironworking in the U.S.

The U.S. Immigration authorities were determined to arrest, confine and deport those Iroquois who resided in Canada but worked south of the border. The Americans may have been upset with the Haudenosaunee for its rejection of U.S. citizenship after Congress had enacted the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

The Haudenosaunee leadership realized that by accepting citizenship they would lose their treaty status and eventually all claims to be a distinct nation. They has also seen one of the condoled rotiiane, Deskaheh, banished from his home at Oshweken (Grand River) for humiliating Canada at the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Deskaheh (Levi General) had crossed the Atlantic using his own Confederate passport in an effort to persuade the League to have the Canadian government abide by its treaty obligations to the Haudenosaunee and remove a “band council” imposed by brute force at Oshweken to replace the traditional leaders. Deskaheh died at Tuscarora on June 27, 1925, but his acts of defiance would be carried on by many others including a Mohawk ironworker from Kahnawake.

The Confederate leadership believed they had a strong case which would overturn U.S. immigration laws regarding Aboriginal people but they needed the right person at the right time.

A young man, Paul Diabo Kanento, 36 years old in 1927, was asked to risk his freedom on behalf of all Iroquois cross-border workers. He had already been arrested and ordered out of the country when he had been found working on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia.

After making bail he returned to his job at great personal risk but was willing to sacrifice possible imprisonment for the people.

The Diabo case worked its way through the U.S. courts guided by Adrian Bonnelly, his attorney, and Edgar Clymer, a Pennsylvania businessman who worked with the ironworkers.

Kanento enjoyed great support at Kahnawake with the community pledging financial support by holding raffles and giving part of their own wages to his defense. The Confederacy at Onondaga and Oshweken also stood with him; meetings were held to discuss the case while a Grand Council went into session at Kahnawake on July 1, 1927, to insure Kanento had the endorsement of all the Iroquois.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided in favour of Kanento as it sustained a lower court ruling which held that the Jay Treaty, the document cited in Kanento’s defense, acknowledged an aboriginal right to cross the international border for employment and residential purposes.

The victory had its qualifications which are now coming into play at Akwesasne and wherever Native people elect to enter into the United States.

Current U.S. immigration rules state that under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 only those Natives who possess at least 50 percent Indian blood may use the Jay Treaty provisions. U.S. authorities have decided that this means any Native (Iroquois or otherwise) who wants to live, study, retire or work south of the border must prove through documents issued by the Department of Indian Affairs, or their own local Indian government, that they have 50 percent blood, meaning a minimum of four great-grandparents who must be certifiably Indian.

Native status cards issued by band councils and the DIA may be used to cross into the U.S. but they do not entitle a person to use the Jay Treaty or to benefit from the Diabo case. Since U.S. Immigration has made this determination other federal agencies have followed suit. The U.S. Social Security Administration, for example, will not enlist any Canadian based Native without proof they are 50 percent Indian by blood.

No blood quantum card, no SS card either and no way to work in the U.S. without filing for alien status, hence obtaining a “green” card. But, in an odd contradiction, the U.S. military will admit Natives without this provision.

The Paul Diabo case has affected us all in other ways. Because of his decision to challenge the U.S. laws the Six Nations Defense League was established by the Tuscarora leader Clinton Rickard. Later renamed the Indian Defense League of America it gave rise to a second wave of 20th century Native activism.

Rickard in turn influenced a young Mohawk teacher named Ray Fadden who then brought this “fire” to Akwesasne where a small group was waiting for the right moment to re-establish the longhouse. From Fadden came the Akwesasne Mohawk Counsellor Organization which led to the White Roots of Peace and the creation of Akwesasne Notes which fostered the birth of Indian Times and Radio CKON.

All connected and stemming from a young Mohawk man’s refusal to concede to the unjust laws of the most powerful nation on earth.