Tulalips object to law requiring passport at border

For Patti Gobin, a stop at the U.S.-Canada border is as much of a childhood memory as listening to the ancient tribal stories of creation.

Since she can remember, Gobin and her family crossed into Canada to visit family members and attend special ceremonies.

There were funerals and potlaches, weddings and longhouse meetings. Like many Tulalip tribal members, Gobin was raised with the belief that the Northwest coast’s Salish people were one, tied together by ancestral roots despite an international border drawn by colonists.

Even today, Gobin travels to Canada as often as once a month. When she stops at the border, she often uses her Tulalip Tribes identification card.

And when U.S. law changes and border guards begin asking each person for a passport, Gobin believes they should still accept her tribal identification card.

“I believe it’s my sovereign right to cross that border using my tribal ID,” Gobin said.

The Tulalip Tribes and others are petitioning the federal government to allow them to cross back and forth across the border without passports. Anything less is a violation of the treaties they signed with the federal government that acknowledged each tribe’s sovereignty, they say.

“The tribes are asking that the documentation that their tribal government issues be used like a government passport. The tribes are sovereign,” said Tim Brewer, an attorney for the Tulalip Tribes. Brewer added that many Indians consider themselves to be dual citizens — of both the U.S. and their tribe.

Tribal members are also arguing that the imminent requirement creates a financial hardship (the standard fee is about $100) in order to travel land they believe was theirs first.

The Coast Salish family of tribes stretches from Bella Coola and beyond in British Columbia to the northern Oregon coast. Their ancestral land was historically veined with waterways and footpaths used by American Indians to trade and visit with one another.

Today, Indian teenagers often cross into Canada for winter ceremonies, which are sacred, closely-guarded coming-of-age practices. Hundreds of Indians cross the border each summer for the annual Coast Salish Canoe Journey. Adults check in on elders, and tribal leaders confer with their counterparts in British Columbia.

“A lot of our ancestors are buried up there,” said Michael Marchand, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Until 1846, when the Oregon Treaty established the boundary between the U.S. and Canada that separates what is now Washington state and British Columbia, Indians considered the entire region to be their land.

Last summer, the Tulalips, along with at least 11 other tribes, submitted documents to the federal government asking that tribal members be exempt from the pending passport requirement.

The National Congress of American Indians, a Washington, D.C.-based tribal advocacy organization, has also lobbied the government on the tribes’ behalf.

It’s unclear when the passport requirement will become active.

Initially, lawmakers decided to activate the requirement this summer. Last month, federal lawmakers approved a delay for that requirement until at least June 2009.

Tribal leaders say it may take until then to reach an agreement with the federal government.

The NCAI has been in “constant contact” with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, but phone calls and lobbying documents are of no use if they’re ignored, said Heather Dawn Thompson, NCAI’s director of government affairs.

“Specifically, what we asked for was that any tribe be able to use a tribal ID card,” Thompson said.

So far, federal lawmakers have drafted details that offer exceptions for tribes that straddle the U.S.-Canada border, and they have considered opening up specific crossing points to tribal members using tribal identification cards.

In those cases, it’s possible that tribal members will be required to give details about their reason for crossing, but tribal members say they have a right to keep their ceremonies secret.

Western Washington’s tribal members will take action if the federal government tries to force them to share what they consider sacred, said Jewell James, a Lummi tribal leader.

“If our form of spirituality is being interfered with, then I favor protest. We’ll march on the Peace Arch,” he said, referring to the arch that towers near the border crossing at the northernmost point of I-5.

James said several Coast Salish tribes may try to create their own passports. They wouldn’t be the first in Indian Country to do so.

Members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in New York state, which includes the Mohawk, Oneida and other Indian nations, have used their own passports to travel internationally since the 1970s, said Jeanne Shenandoah of the Onondaga Tribe, a member of the confederacy.

The confederacy created the passports so that a group of tribal members could attend a United Nations event in Switzerland.

“We did not want American passports because we are not American citizens,” she said. “We have absolute jurisdiction in our territory. We have maintained our self-governance, and we never gave it up.”

“We do sometimes have a hard time, but it mostly depends on the person we encounter,” she said.

Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon said he’ll encourage members of his tribe to march in protest if every other option to reach an agreement with the federal government is exhausted.

First, Sheldon said the Tulalips may create a tribal passport.

“If the Tulalips need to provide a passport template even to other tribes, we’re more than happy to do that,” he said, adding that a document issued by the tribe would defray costs for poor tribal members who have lived their whole lives on the reservation.

Many tribal elders were born at home, so they don’t have the documents needed to apply for a U.S. passport, Gobin said. Even if they had the required documents, some Indians wouldn’t be able to afford the fee, she said.

“There is this illusion that my tribe is rich,” Gobin said. “Well, we’re rich in natural resources and we invest back into what we have, but that doesn’t mean the individual tribal member has the funds to pay for a passport.”

Coast Salish tribes from Canada and the U.S. have discussed creating a passport together, Gobin said.

“We’re all one people,” she said. “The only thing that divided us was when treaties were signed by federal governments. That wasn’t our choice.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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