One people, one passport

by Cheryl Cornacchia

As with other travellers, Kenneth Deer's passport was issued by his native land. After blazing the trail in Switzerland in 1977, he's had little trouble with foreign nations accepting his Haudenosaunee paperwork

Inside Kenneth Deer's passport are ink stamps bearing the names of a host of familiar nations - Switzerland, Brazil, South Africa and Libya among them.

The only unfamiliar one is embossed on the front cover: Haudenosaunee.

It doesn't say Canada, where Kahnawake Mohawk resident Deer was born 61 years ago.

And it doesn't say Iroquois nation, which is how Samuel de Champlain would have recognized Deer's provenance.

Nor does it say Six Nations confederacy, which is how the old British colonial administration in Canada called it.

Haudenosaunee is the word the Iroquois - 150,000 Mohawks, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora spread across southern Quebec, Ontario and New York State - use to describe themselves as one people.

"I only travel with my Haudenosaunee passport," Deer said last week after returning from a United Nations meeting in Geneva.

"It's not as easy as having a Canadian passport but it is a commitment I have made." Deer's passport is an exceptional document in the world of diplomacy, where separate passports for aboriginal peoples is a sensitive issue all over the world where indigenous people have been displaced by colonial immigration.

And, now, the Haudenosaunee are in the process of updating the passport they issue with security features that could widen its acceptance and international recognition.

Most Mohawks and, for that matter, most North American aboriginals travel internationally on a Canadian or United States passport.

But for the past 23 years, the Haudenosaunee passport has been what Deer, an internationally recognized advocate of the rights of the world's indigenous peoples, has chosen to travel on.

"It makes a political statement," he said.

He has visited 20 countries on the passport, several of them multiple times.

His trip this month to Geneva - the home of the United Nations Human Rights Council - was his sixth to Switzerland this year.

Of all the countries to which he travels, he said, Switzerland has been the most open.

In 1977, it was the first country in the world to recognize the Haudenosaunee passport.

At the time, a delegation of Haudenosaunee chiefs had travelled to Geneva for the first UN meeting on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Those delegates were the first to travel on the Haudenosaunee passport, believing that if they travelled on Canadian or U.S. passports, they would undermine their desire for recognition as a people and their right to self-determination.

The political decision caused quite a stir back then, Deer said, but when Switzerland accepted the document, a precedent was set and travel has become somewhat easier.

There are now about 1,000 of the passports in circulation.

In 1987, when Deer travelled for the first time on the Haudenosaunee passport, he said he was stopped by Swiss immigration officials - but only because he had not obtained advance approval or a visa from the Swiss embassy in Canada, a diplomatic mistake he has not repeated.

"Generally, people are sympathetic," he said.

"They understand what we are trying to do, our place in North America and that there should be some way, some how that we can express who we are.

"We are not trying to embarrass any government, but rather to exercise our right to travel as Haudenosaunee." And travel he has.

In 2001, Deer went to Durban, South Africa, for the World Conference Against Racism, and "got back the day before 9/11." "God shines on me sometimes." That same year, he visited Hokkaido, Japan, on the invitation of the Ainu, indigenous people there, and later that year to Australia.

In many cases, he said, he asks for assistance from diplomats, politicians and organizers of the various events to which he has been invited.

"It often takes political work," he said, alluding to the strings that often must be pulled.

In 2006, for instance, he had no trouble when he went to Bolivia for a pan-American conference on indigenous peoples.

"It helps when Morales has invited you," he said of Juan Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous head of state since the Spanish Conquest.

The following year, things went equally smooth when Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, extended the invitation for a similar event there.

But while high-placed invitations can grease diplomatic wheels, they can also present ethical dilemmas.

Back in 1991, Deer flew to Libya when the Mohawks were nominated for the Muammar al-Gaddafi prize for human rights. It was just after the 1990 Oka crisis.

"I found out Nelson Mandela was given the award in 1988," he said of that visit.

The award was given to another North American Indian group and there was no need to go back.

From country to country and, indeed, from year to year, he said, political circumstances change and they often affect a country's willingness to accept the passport.

But, Deer said, his will rarely wavers.

In 1994, he hired a human rights lawyer when immigration officials refused to let him and another Kahnawake Mohawk man travelling on a Haudenosaunee passport into the Netherlands.

The judge ruled that they had been treated unjustly because the Haudenosaunee passport had been accepted previously, Deer said.

More recently, Brazil refused his request in July to travel there on the Haudenosaunee passport - even though he attended the so-called Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992.

He suspects politics involving the indigenous peoples in Brazil may have something to do with the refusal.

But he added: "I don't cry about it. As a point of principle, I just stay home."

ccornacchia@ thegazette.canwest.com


  1. Tim Spooner, AucklandSeptember 28, 2009 at 1:19 PM

    Try and get a visa to New Zealand mate. You won't get far!!

  2. Why do you say that, Mr Spooner? Does it have to do with the poor treatment of the Maori?