The Strange Tale of Charlie Smoke
Michael Erard on a man without a country.
"Just look at me," says Charlie Smoke. "You can tell from my round eyes, I'm not Asian. You can tell from my straight hair, I'm not African. You can tell from my dark scrotum that I'm not white. There's only one thing left: I'm an Indian."
If only it were that simple. Smoke is a 40-year-old resident of Regina, Saskatchewan, who identifies himself as a member of the Lakota Nation, an informal association of North American Indians. Yet he has no birth certificate, no passport—no official form of identification whatsoever. And over the past year, his identity has become a matter of considerable dispute.
In June 2001, Canadian immigration officials sent Smoke a letter instructing him to appear in court for having illegally used his wife's Social Insurance Number—the Canadian equivalent of a Social Security Number. During the hearing, it became evident that Smoke's nationality was unclear. An immigration lawyer suggested that Smoke obtain Canadian citizenship, since he claimed to have been born in Ontario. But Smoke rejected the idea that he was a Canadian citizen. With equal vehemence, he refused to produce genealogical documentation that could allow him to live in Canada without citizenship as a so-called Status Indian in the eyes of Canadian law. "No one has the right to tell me I'm an Indian," he protests.
Canadian authorities suspected that Smoke's inability to supply the necessary documentation might indicate that he belonged in America, where he had lived for much of his life. This past January, they attempted to deport him to the United States. But because Smoke rejected the claim that he was a U.S. citizen, and because Canadian immigration officers couldn't find any evidence to the contrary, the United States did not allow Smoke across the border. After spending several days in jail, he was released on bail. For the time being, he lives in Regina in a state of bureaucratic limbo, unable to work, uncertain of his future—yet defiant and proud.
Smoke's Kafkaesque plight has severely disrupted his life. Many Canadians wonder why their government won't simply leave him alone. But from an ideological standpoint, Smoke's stateless predicament suits him just fine. He considers himself "pre-Canadian"—an aboriginal, first and foremost—and feels that he should be able to roam unhindered throughout North America. "We Indian people are also part of the indigenous flora and fauna of the Western Hemisphere," he writes on one of his three websites. "We have just as much right to grow wherever we desire in our own land. As long as we are not bringing harm to anyone, we have the right to move about anywhere we please."
One of Smoke's heroes is Deskaheh, an Indian who was not allowed to return to Canada after traveling in Europe in the 1920s. Like Deskaheh, Smoke is poised to become a popular figure among native Indians in Canada. The political overtones of his case ring clear in a community that widely resents the federal government for dictating, in many respects, what it means to be an Indian. To others, though, Smoke's complete lack of documentation makes him a suspect candidate for martyrdom. Al Molander, the manager of the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) office in Regina, reports that his agency's investigations have corroborated none of the facts of Smoke's story.
Last July, I traveled to Canada to try to figure Smoke out. I visited him in the small rental house on the south side of Regina where he lives with his wife, Lisa Big Eagle, their four children, and her two daughters from a previous relationship. He is a handsome man, with generous, wide-set brown eyes and long brown hair that is graying at the temples and worn in braids. Like many of us, he picks his tastes from the various cultural cross-currents of the 21st century. When I met him, he was wearing a black Rage Against the Machine T-shirt. A martial arts buff, he keeps Bruce Lee videos by the television. Playing up his sometimes spacey, Zen-like nature, he likes to compare himself to Ziggy, the befuddled comic-strip character who often stumbles into cosmic revelations.
At the same time, Smoke is fiercely devoted to his Indian heritage. He prefers to be called Wolf, and sometimes he goes by his full Lakota name, Sukmanitu tanka Isnala Najin, which means "wolf standing alone." His speech is peppered with Lakota words, and he considers any Indian who can't speak his native tongue to be illiterate. One evening he talked to me for several hours about the social structure of bison herds, proudly pointing to a painting he'd done of a Lakota deity called Pte San Win, or the White Buffalo Maiden. On one of his websites, he poses as an Indian freedom-fighter named the "Red Masked Avenger." He admires a Mohawk Marxist thinker named Karoniaktajeh, who taught that the orthodox account of the migration of indigenous Americans across the Bering Strait was a racist conspiracy perpetrated by white anthropologists.
Smoke says he was born around 1962 in Ontario at Akwesasne, a Mohawk reservation that straddles the St. Lawrence River and covers parts of Ontario, Quebec, and New York State. His mother died when he was 3 or 4, and his father—also a Mohawk from Akwesasne named Charles Smoke—died shortly afterwards. His maternal grandmother, a Mohawk woman, brought him to her reserve in Ontario. When she died, around the time Smoke was 8 or 9, the authorities shipped him off to non-Indian foster families—first in Ontario and then in the States. His foster parents put pressure on him to become more white and more Christian, and he eventually ran away. At 14, he ended up in Denver, Colo., where he worked briefly on a sod farm.
The young Smoke soon made his way back to an Indian community, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he was adopted by a Lakota medicine man named Vernal Cross. He began to drink, smoke marijuana, and would brawl constantly.
In 1981, at the age of 19, he joined a group of activists of the American Indian Movement in occupying 800 acres of federal land in the Black Hills of South Dakota—land considered sacred by the Lakota. AIM leader Russell Means called the occupation "Yellow Thunder Camp" and set up a spiritual "youth village" where strict rules against drugs, alcohol, and guns were enforced. Smoke, who was then known as Wolfslayer, gave up drugs and alcohol and acquired an American Indian Movement tattoo—the letters a, i, and m, arranged vertically in the shape of an arrow—on the middle finger of his right hand. Ward Churchill, a member of AIM who was also at Yellow Thunder Camp and now teaches American Indian Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, described Smoke to me as "one tough, tenacious son-of-a-gun, not to be taken lightly."
After a yearlong stint in a South Dakota jail in 1986 for burglary and injury to property, Smoke made his way back to Akwesasne for a few years to rediscover his roots. But he eventually became disenchanted with reserve life and fell in with the Mohawk Warrior Society, a group of vigilantes opposed to elected and traditional governments alike. In 1991, he moved out west to Regina, where he worked as the native-literacy coordinator for the public library and developed an all-native talk show for a local television station. There he met his future wife, Lisa, who "looked like a brown Julia Roberts," as he described her to me.
In 1995, Smoke moved back to South Dakota with Lisa to attend the Oglala Lakota College, a tribal school within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Smoke studied conservation biology and did field work with a buffalo herd belonging to the U.S. Park Service. Eventually, Lisa persuaded him to return to Canada. In October 2000, he accepted a job as a counselor at an inner-city high school in Regina.
Until his standoff with the Canadian immigration authorities, Smoke's closest brush with fame was a brief televised meeting with Prince Charles. During a visit to Saskatchewan, Charles spent 20 minutes in Smoke's classroom in Regina, where Smoke captivated him with traditional Lakota hand games. In the video of the encounter, you can see Charles's aides circling uneasily in the background, as though the prince were spending more time with Smoke than his schedule allowed. Smoke said to me that he should have used the meeting to political ends.
In June 2001, Smoke received a letter from the CIC, instructing him to attend an immigration hearing. At the hearing, a judge met with Smoke and a CIC lawyer to hear evidence and decide whether or not he could remain in Canada. Smoke's position was firm. "I consider myself a Lakota national," he said. "My ancestry is Mohawk and Lakota. And that's where my citizenship resides."
The CIC lawyer asked if Smoke had a birth certificate, which would allow him to establish Canadian citizenship. He said that he didn't, because he had been born at home. The adjudicator asked if Smoke's birth was registered with the elected band council at Akwesasne—the tribal leaders who are recognized by the Canadian government. Smoke said it wasn't. At the time of his birth, he explained, many traditional Indian families rejected the authority of the tribal council, since that form of government had been imposed on the Mohawks at Akwesasne by Canada. A common form of revolt was to refuse to register your children with the band.
When Smoke declined to take advantage of a six-month grace period to produce evidence that he was born at Akwesasne—evidence that might help him claim Canadian citizenship—the exasperated judge ruled that an order for Smoke's departure be issued immediately. If he did not leave Canada within 30 days, the judge said, a warrant would be issued for his arrest, and he would be deported.
On January 8, 2002, two Canadian immigration officers came to Smoke's doorstep to escort him to the border between Saskatchewan and North Dakota. Smoke was resistant, and a brief physical struggle ensued. After being held in jail for the night, Smoke was taken to the border. The Canadian authorities hoped that they could convince their U.S. counterparts that Smoke was an American Indian. His wallet contained a concealed-weapons permit from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that identified him as a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. If Smoke was a U.S. Indian, the United States would be obliged to admit him under Jay's Treaty, a 1794 agreement signed with the British Crown to allow free movement and trade to the Iroquois.
But the Canadian officials couldn't convince the U.S. authorities to take Smoke. A weapons permit wasn't convincing as proof of Smoke's membership in the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Furthermore, U.S. immigration law dictates that someone who wants to enter the States as an Indian must provide evidence that he has at least 50 percent Indian blood. The proof might come in the form of affidavits or family trees, but the Canadian officials could produce no such thing. So after several days in a Canadian jail, and a detention hearing, Smoke was headed home. About 50 supporters outside the hearing room had passed a cowboy hat around to raise the $1,000 bail, and when Smoke emerged, he was greeted with cheers.
To Canadian officials, Smoke's dedication to his cause is somewhat perplexing. To them, his life now seems more trouble than his cause is worth. His family struggles along on loans and welfare, and he hopes to sell some of his paintings to make some money. In the view of Al Molander, the manager of the CIC office in Regina, it makes no sense that someone potentially eligible to be a citizen or a Status Indian would refuse to do so. "If it were me," he says, "I would get status."
Molander's views are common among white Canadians, but they overlook the level of anti-government resentment that exists in the country's Indian communities. On my way to visit Smoke in Regina, I took a detour to a bingo hall in Kahnawake, a Mohawk reserve near Montreal. The purpose of my visit was to attend the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, a congregation of 900 First Nations delegates from all over Canada. The meeting opened with a colorful procession: Mohawk elders from Kahnawake, U.S. and Canadian veterans carrying battalion flags, and vice chiefs from each Canadian province. After a number of songs, prayers, and welcoming speeches, the AFN national chief, a 46-year-old Cree man named Matthew Coon Come, took the stage in a fringed suede jacket. He delivered a rousing speech in which he sharply criticized Robert Nault, the Canadian Minister of Indian and Northern Development.
Nault is attempting to further amend the Indian Act, a 126-year-old Canadian law that governs the relationship be-tween Canada and the Indians. In the mid-19th century, the colonial government of British North America began keeping records of individual Indians for the purpose of allocating benefits according to various Indian treaties. In 1951, the Indian Act was amended to establish an Indian Register, which consolidated the names of all the Indians who had ever been recognized as members of a First Nation by the federal government. Indians who can prove their descent from an Indian whose name is on the Register can become Status Indians, which makes them eligible to receive various forms of federal assistance—on-reserve housing, exemption from taxes, health services, educational benefits, hunting and fishing rights, and so on. Nault's proposed amendment would make the leaders of First Nations more accountable to their members—and to the federal government.
According to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, the Indian Act is one of the most litigated-against pieces of legislation in Canada. Even as individuals benefit from its largesse, they resent it. There are currently more than 200 cases pending against it, and almost as many reasons to question it. Not all indigenous peoples, for instance, are eligible to be Status Indians. For complicated historical reasons, the Inuit are excluded, as are the Métis, a mixed-blood group that has been in Canada since the 1700s. In fact, most indigenous people in Canada are not Status Indians. Of the estimated eight to ten million Canadians of native ancestry, most identify as white and hold Canadian citizenship.
Historically, the Indian Act has been a crude instrument of discrimination. In many respects, it was used to pressure Indians to assimilate into Canadian civil society. Until 1960, according to the terms of the act, an Indian could not vote in federal elections without first giving up Indian status. In addition, an Indian woman who married a non-Indian could no longer be considered an Indian, nor could her offspring. Chiefs of First Nations also criticize the act for imposing the same governmental requirements on First Nations regardless of their traditions, and for being repeatedly amended without enough input from natives. At the AFN meeting, Coon Come raged against the piecemeal nature of Nault's proposed amendments. "You don't modernize colonialism," he thundered. "You reject it, and consign the policies, attitudes, and practices it represents to the garbage can of history, like slavery and apartheid."
Many of the Indian Act's discriminatory elements were eliminated in a set of amendments passed in 1985, and the 1982 Canadian constitution affirmed rights for aboriginals. But native Canadians still resent that their rights are rationed out by Parliament. When I talked to Kent McNeil, a law professor at York University in Toronto, about the Indian Act, he conceded that in an ideal world the law would be done away with, and Canada would allow for the independent governance of Indian tribes in a manner that "respects their governmental powers and their rights to resources and land." But McNeil acknowledged the practical difficulty of simply declaring tribal independence, given that many tribes lack a working traditional government. "We're sort of stuck with it for the short term," he explained. "If you did away with it immediately, there'd be no governmental structure for lots of First Nations, because many don't have functioning inherent rights governments."
Akwesasne, the reservation where Charlie Smoke claims he was born, is a typical rural community, with pickup trucks in the driveways, satellite dishes poking out of the bushes, and painted roadside signs advertising home delicacies ("Fries") for sale. Narrow roads twist, then come to a stop at the edge of the St. Lawrence River. The two suspension bridges that connect the north and south shores of the river are usually visible over the trees. Akwesasne is one of 50 reserves or traditional territories that fall across the U.S.-Canada border. In the spring of 2002, it was a thoroughfare for young anti-globalization protesters on their way from the States to Quebec City.
Ever since Smoke's story became news in Canada, Akwesasne has attracted a slew of immigration investigators and curious journalists. No one has yet found evidence that corroborates Smoke's story. Neither of the two Charles Smokes—father or son—appears on the band council list. It's true, as Smoke insisted to the CIC, that many traditional Indians live here, which means they refuse to cooperate with the elected band council. But one might expect such stalwarts to participate in the traditional Mohawk longhouse—the old communal dwelling and headquarters—where no Charles Smoke is registered either. According to locals, however, such an absence isn't necessarily surprising, considering the mismanagement of all such lists. Kenneth Deer, the editor of The Eastern Door, a newspaper at the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, told me that the band lists are known for being incorrect. "There are more people like that out there than you think," Deer said, when I asked him about Smoke.
Still, unlike Smoke, many Indians who were never registered by their parents are now setting out to get citizenship or to register as Status Indians. Martin F. Dunn, a consultant on indigenous affairs to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, explained to me that Indians who decide to apply for status or citizenship do so not only to receive pension and health benefits but also to secure an identity in the world. "I've had a 60-year-old man on the phone in tears because he wasn't going to find out his heritage before he died," he told me.
For these reasons, Smoke is a puzzle to the Akwesasne community. To some Mohawks, the story of Charlie Smoke is getting bothersome. Donna Cole, the longhouse administrator, has offered to help Smoke determine his lineage, but he hasn't contacted the longhouse to straighten out the situation. Cole says no records exist for a man named Charles Smoke. She's seen Smoke on television several times. "Whenever he gives an interview, he says he's from here," she said when I called her. "If he is, he should give more information about his parents, but he just clams up." She seemed bewildered by his crusade. "I don't know what he's trying to prove," she said.
Doug George-Kanentiio, a Mohawk journalist, complained to me that Smoke is drawing detrimental media attention to the Mohawks. The Mohawk nation, he reminds, was once a model of Indian self-determination. (Mohawks and other members of the Iroquois, for instance, can travel abroad on a self-issued passport.) But over the last 15 years, he said, "we've debased it." Smoke, he feels, makes Mohawks look like troublemakers: "He's putting us all in jeopardy."
Having run around Canada following the threads of Smoke's story, I began to wonder if Smoke himself actually knows where his parents are from. Ward Churchill, who knew Smoke years ago at Yellow Thunder Camp, was the first person to suggest to me that Smoke might lack that knowledge. He recalled first meeting Smoke through a juvenile jail diversion program in Boulder, Colo. "He was a mixed-blood Indian kid," Churchill told me. "He'd been, as I recall, blind-adopted"—that is, denied access to information about his birth parents—"by a white couple in Longmont." Churchill speculated that Smoke is "native, but was denied knowledge concerning the particulars of his heritage, as a matter of policy." If so, Smoke's uncompromising attempt to define himself as the ultimate outsider is perhaps not the principled ideological stance he makes it out to be, but a practical—and perhaps psychological—necessity.
When I asked Smoke about Churchill's remark, he dismissed it. "I have always known who my biological parents were," he protested. "I just never knew them in one sense because they died when I was very young." Smoke also noted that he took exception to Churchill's suggestion that he has a "mixed-blood" heritage.
Nonetheless, Churchill's hypothesis is intriguing. In the United States, policies concerning the release of information about the birth parents of an adopted child are set by individual states. In New York State, where Smoke says he was adopted, the release of information depends on the consent of birth parents. If the puzzling tale of Charlie Smoke depends on his birth parents coming forward and if it's true—as he says—that they're both dead, his story may have no easy resolution.