Customs agents lack cultural awareness and respect for Indian tribes along the US-Canadian border


Last Updated: 9 years

In Montana, the 49th parallel marks a 545-mile-long line along which the state rises to meet three Canadian provinces. This International Boundary, commonly referred to as the border, distinguishes two nations and was born of negotiations that helped end the American Revolutionary War.

But to members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Blackfeet Nation, among others, the U.S.-Canada border is an arbitrary line demarcating ancestral lands, separating families and undermining tribal sovereignty.


In the most trifling circumstances, the border poses an annoyance to tribal members who regularly travel between Canada and the United States for family visits, council meetings or cultural and religious ceremonies. However, in other instances, either due to a lack of cultural awareness or a misunderstanding by officials with Customs and Border Protection, tribal members have been deeply offended or had their travel plans derailed.

Too many tribal members share horror stories of family members who are prohibited from crossing the border.

Too many tribal members share horror stories of family members who are prohibited from crossing the border because they do not have a passport (they are not required to possess one) and of religious or cultural items that are unknowingly desecrated by Customs personnel, such as eagle feathers, sweetgrass or sacred medicine bundles.

“A lot of law enforcement and border patrol are ignorant about our culture and tradition in general,” said Vernon Finley of the Kootenai Culture Committee. “They don’t understand that as a tribe who lives along the border, we are allowed to move fluidly throughout our territory. We always have been. And they don’t understand the significance of our religious objects.”

Since the 1783 Treaty of Paris established the boundary between Canada and the United States, many indigenous North American tribes have become a people divided. In Montana, populations of Kootenai and Blackfeet straddle the international border, with communities dispersed on either side of the boundary.

Tribes are divided among two countries

There are, for example, seven bands of Kootenai spanning international and state borders – five in southeastern British Columbia, one in northwestern Montana and one in northern Idaho – but the members all share the same tribal council. The Blackfeet Nation is divided into four tribes, one in northern Montana and three just across the border, in southern Alberta.

But as laid out in Article III of the 1794 Jay Treaty, American Indians may travel freely across the international boundary for employment, study, religion, commerce or immigration.

“We cross all year long for all kinds of reasons,” said Laurence Kenmille, records research manager at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes enrollment department. “We go there for the tribal council when the seven bands get together. We have language-sharing events and cultural meetings. The travel is constant.”

Travel became more restrictive for everyone after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001

Travel became more restrictive for everyone after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the International Boundary, commonly considered the “world’s longest undefended border,” was no exception. Congress passed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which restricted the list of documents acceptable for entering the United States. And although the list of acceptable documents included tribal identification cards, the revision has led to escalating conflicts over their legitimacy.

In the past year, those conflicts have prompted several meetings between CSKT tribal officials and representatives from Customs and Border Protection, and have led to a series of discussions about developing an enhanced form of the existing tribal identification cards, as well as making cultural awareness and sensitivity training mandatory for border security personnel.

Proposed tribal cards would be microchipped with personal information

As proposed, the new identification cards would use radio frequency identification microchips similar to what was proposed under the REAL ID Act. And while there is no argument about the efficiency of the tags for border crossing, the data fields contained within have raised concern about privacy and security.

Lynn Shozda, who works as the Customs public affairs liaison and agriculture specialist at the Sweetgrass port of entry, assured tribal members attending a recent meeting that the enhanced identification cards would contain a narrow range of personal information, limited to a photo, name, date of birth and country of citizenship.

“There would be a small amount of data encased in this card,” she said. “We hope that puts to rest some of the unease about privacy.”

Kenmille has researched the technology thoroughly and is instrumental in the ongoing dialogue. He said an enhanced identification card is acceptable, as long as privacy concerns are met and the costs associated with upgrading the current system are not exorbitant.

He would like for the tribal government to create the cards “in-house,” and pointed to the success of other tribes that have adopted the system as evidence that it can work. Currently, five tribes have shifted to the enhanced identification cards, including the Kootenai of Idaho.

Until the CSKT implements the program, however, Kenmille hopes to see a more uniform understanding of the rights of Native Americans while crossing the border.

Shozda said valid tribal identification cards are still acceptable, and that efforts to educate border security officers at all ports of entry are being made.

Cultural insensitivity and lack of awareness by customs agents is pervasive.

Kenmille said the issue of cultural insensitivity and lack of awareness is just as pervasive, and looks forward to seeing what changes can be made to the Customs training protocol.

“Border crossing has always been a problem,” Kenmille said. “We have individuals who cross the border with religious items and there is no recognition by the border patrol that these are sacred objects. They desecrate them, either by handling them or forcing individuals to open up their medicine bundles. They need to be educated.”

Sunshine Nicholson is a member of the Kamloops Indian Band in British Columbia, and is married to a Gros Ventre tribal member from the Fort Belknap Reservation. A third-year law student at the University of Montana, she has lived in Montana since 2006, has a Canadian passport and a U.S. Social Security card. She and her husband regularly travel back and forth across the border, and both have experienced problems she said never should have arisen.

“It’s annoying because depending on which port of entry you go through and who stops you, there is always different treatment,” Nicholson said. Although she frequently crosses without incident, she described one frustrating incident when a border patrol officer insisted that a green card was required for her to re-enter the United States.

“Obviously that wasn’t true, but it was insulting,” she said. “As a law student you try to understand these things. You think about your rights. I was able to explain why I didn’t need a green card, but then you think of all the people who can’t articulate their rights, like maybe a Kootenai elder who doesn’t know the law or isn’t accustomed to defending his rights. You have to feel for them.”

Nicholson also has friends and relatives who routinely cross the border to perform in powwows and religious ceremonies, but who will no longer travel with their authentic feathers and regalia because they fear the sacred items will be confiscated.

“It is a reality that a lot of people face right now, and it’s degrading because some of these objects are so sacred that people don’t even discuss them,” she said. “And then at the border someone with no grasp of the cultural importance starts thumbing through them. I think some sort of cultural competency training would help.”

Shozda said she and the agency have taken those concerns seriously and will move forward with regular cultural sensitivity training at Montana’s ports of entry.

Better recognition of rights of Native Americans is needed along entire International Boundary

Kenmille said he hopes to see better recognition of the rights of Native Americans across the entire International Boundary.

“This doesn’t just affect the Kootenai,” Kenmille said. “It’s tribes all along the 49th parallel and up the St. Lawrence River. We need to be able to pass through our ancestral lands freely.”

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at