The Iroquois Confederacy Passport

written by A. L. Hart Havens on November 15, 2021

With Canadian Thanksgiving having recently passed and American Thanksgiving quickly approaching, mid-November presents itself as an opportune time to devote some attention to the passport and citizenship issues experienced by Native American Indian tribes, especially those tribal nations whose territories extend across the US-Canadian border.

The official sovereignty afforded to Native American Indians by the US and Canadian federal governments raises the question of whether this should equate to genuine citizenship status, whether tribes should have the right to issue their own passports, and whether these passports should receive the same recognition under the law as do US and Canadian passports.

And while they currently do not enjoy such privileges, one particular group of tribes has made considerable efforts to secure the recognition of its passport despite persistent stonewalling attempts by the US and Canadian governments.

This essay explores the little-known Iroquois Confederacy passport, which, in addition to being a fascinating story in its own right, also serves as an example of how passport-issuing private organizations and unrecognized self-declared sovereign jurisdictions could seek to achieve international recognition of their travel documents.

The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Indian tribes that have arguably been most severely affected by passport and cross-border issues are those of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, which consist of the Iroquois-speaking Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora tribes. It is notable that not all Iroquois-speaking tribes were included in the confederacy, and some of the outsider Iroquois-speaking tribes like the Cherokee were viewed as enemies.

Although the exact year of its establishment is unknown, the Iroquois Confederacy was co-founded by the legendary Mohawk chief Hiawatha and was already in place at the time of first contact with European explorers in the mid-1500s. And at the height of the confederacy’s territorial expansion and power in the early 1700s, the Iroquois Confederacy tribes dominated a large area across the broader Great Lakes region that was centered in what is now Upstate New York.

While the Six Nations had benefitted from siding with the victorious British in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the confederacy experienced a sharp decline soon thereafter during the time of the American Revolution, which was attributable to the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes siding with the Americans and the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes siding with the British. This caused an irreparable rift among the Six Nations and later to their separation across different political jurisdictions with the eventual demarcation of the US-Canadian border.

While the household name Iroquois originated from French colonists in the 1600s, the tribes themselves largely refrain from using this term and instead prefer their indigenous name – the Haudenosaunee, which translates to People of the Longhouse.

The US-Canadian Divide

The Haudenosaunee Grand Council of Chiefs, which acts as the central government of the Iroquois Confederacy, is today located in Ohsweken, Canada (near Hamilton in southern Ontario) and serves an Iroquois population of approximately 125,000 across the United States and Canada.

One of the most pressing concerns pertains to the cross-border rights afforded to the Iroquois and other Indians under various treaties that were signed by Britain and the early United States following the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Iroquois government contends that the US and Canadian governments have repeatedly failed to honor the terms of these treaties.

The grievances set out below, which present an overview of mobility-related complaints asserted by the Iroquois against the US and Canadian governments, are taken directly from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy website.

·   The Jay Treaty of 1794 and the Treaty of Ghent of 1815 contain explicit language recognizing and protecting Indian border crossing rights. The United States has implemented these rights for people – but not for goods.

·   Under U.S. immigration law, a person who is at least 51% North American Indian by blood has the same right to enter and reside and work in the United States as a U.S. citizen. However, this is not the same thing as having dual nationality.

·   Canada, on the other hand, has not implemented the Crown’s promises in these treaties that Britain made with the United States. We consider that, for Haudenosaunee purposes, there are both Aboriginal rights to travel through all of Haudenosaunee territory, and treaty rights to do so.

·   The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has affirmed, also provides for the rights of Indigenous peoples affected by international borders. Yet there are about two hundred Haudenosaunee families who are being denied full rights as a result of deficiencies in Canadian immigration laws.

Calls on the two governments to honor the aforementioned treaties have intensified over the past two years, as the coronavirus lockdowns have placed an added strain on the Iroquois population’s ability to move freely across the US-Canadian border.

The Iroquois Confederacy Passport

On the question of the sovereignty of Native American tribal nations, it is clear that the US and Canadian governments do not equate tribal nationhood with citizenship. Iroquois people therefore hold either only US or only Canadian citizenship in most cases, and a US-citizen Iroquois seeking to obtain Canadian citizenship (or vice-versa) must fulfill the destination country’s standard naturalization requirements.

And while the Iroquois are afforded some special privileges in cross-border travel between the United States and Canada, they do not enjoy any such rights when it comes to international travel in general. The Iroquois nevertheless proudly issue their very own Haudenosaunee Confederacy passport, which in recent decades has featured both light yellow and dark blue covers depicting various animals surrounding a large tree.

Although 1977 marked the first issuance of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy passport in its current design, there are documented accounts of Iroquois passports being issued to tribal statesmen for travel to Europe as early as 1923.

However, the repeated refusal by national governments to honor its validity as an international travel document has led to a number of incidents of denied entry and re-entry for various Iroquois people travelling on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy passport – most notably the Iroquois men’s national lacrosse team attempting to participate in international tournaments.

Although the passport has indeed been accepted in notable cases upon entering Japan, Israel, Bolivia, and El Salvador, return travel to the US and Canada was complicated by these two countries’ strict refusal to honor the Haudenosaunee Confederacy passport. The UK is also known for refusing to recognize the passport as a valid international travel document.

Given the pride involved in representing the Iroquois Confederacy in the Native American-invented sport of lacrosse, the Iroquois athletes have insisted on travelling to tournaments using their Haudenosaunee Confederacy passports rather than their US or Canadian passports. This insistence is often seen by outsiders as a silly political stunt and/or a futile attempt to achieve international recognition of Iroquois sovereignty.

The Iroquois Confederacy is nevertheless undertaking genuine efforts aimed at bringing about increased international acceptance. One step in this direction marks the planned addition of machine-readable features that will bring the Haudenosaunee Confederacy passport in line with international passport standards. It will likely be lacking an embedded biometric chip, however, a passport feature that the vast majority of the world’s UN member countries have adopted.

It should be emphasized that no other Indian tribe issues a passport that is anywhere near as significant as that of the Iroquois, which is presumably because none of the other major North American tribes historically occupy territories that currently straddle a national border.

At any rate, the treatment of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy passport moving forward will provide insight into whether other tribes can hope to create their own tribal passports for international travel. It may also shed some light onto the prospective future treatment of passports issued by micronations and aspiring yet still-unrecognized countries.

These obscure resources, which are quick, easy, and inexpensive to obtain, can serve as a convenient emergency backup option particularly for single-passport holders. Furthermore, these passports are ideally suited to round off a well-diversified repertoire of national citizenships and residency permits.