Behind The Lines In Kanesatake
By Paul DeRienzo

High Times: March 1991

"If the Warriors weren’t there, the people of Kanesatake–the Mohawk people, our brothers and sisters–would have been dead now," said Minnie Garo, a spokesperson for the Warrior Society in Akwesasne, New York.

Garo was referring to the 77-day armed standoff between Canadian authorities and 50 Mohawk men, women and children– a confrontation that catapulted the issue of indigenous people’s land rights into the national spotlight.

The conflict began in March 1990, when a group of investors tried to expand a private, nine-hole golf course onto land belonging to the Kanesatake branch of the Mohawk nation. Kanesatake is a checkerboard of small chunks of land that sits near the town of Oka, Quebec. The picture-postcard beauty of the town is amplified by densely forested hills, rolling farmland and the waters of the Ottawa River. Just 20 miles from Montreal, it’s easy to see why the Oka area is a popular summer tourist-spot.

The land at the heart of the struggle is about 60 acres of pine forest planted by Mohawks more than a century ago. The towering trees provide shelter for a Mohawk burial ground high on a bluff above the pristine Lake of Two Mountains.

To stop the proposed golf course, a group of men and women from the traditional Longhouse placed barricades on the main road through Kanesatake. The Longhouse is a form of participatory democracy similar to a New England town meeting. The foundation of the Longhouse are the Clan Mothers who appoint Chiefs. Decisions are made around a sacred fire where the group, with the assistance of spiritual healers, strives to reach consensus decisions.

The tense showdown between the Mohawks and the Quebec Provincial Police, also known as the Suerte de Quebec or SQ, continued into the summer. Then, without warning, on July 11, about 100 SQ officers armed with assault weapons challenged the Mohawk barricades. Mohawk spokespeople say they attempted to negotiate, but the SQ attacked behind a barrage of tear gas while firing in the direction of Mohawk women and children. According to Stanley Cohen, a Warrior Society lawyer, Warriors hidden in the forest returned fire.

Journalists at the scene say an unexpected change in wind direction blew the gas back toward the advancing line of police. As the gas cleared and the shooting stopped, an SQ corporal was found shot to death. Cohen insists the SQ, blinded by the gas, hit their own man. An autopsy on the dead corporal was performed by Montreal police, but the report is being withheld.

Later that same day, another group of Warriors from the Mohawk community of Kanawake (Just across the St. Lawrence river from Montreal), closed down the Mercier Bridge in support of the Kanesatake Mohawks. The seizure of the bridge, which carries 70,000 commuters a day, sparked a backlash by white French-Canadians in the suburban town of Chateauguay. Enraged at being forced to take a two-hour detour to get to work in Montreal, local racists (stirred up in part by Ku Klux Klansmen from over the border in the US) held demonstrations at the southern ramp of the bridge, where they burned an image of a Mohawk in effigy. On September 2, a 71-year-old Mohawk named Joe Armstrong died of a heart attack after being struck by a stone.

Throughout the summer, negotiations between the Canadian government and the Warriors in Kanesatake proceeded in fits and starts. Eventually, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ordered the Army to dismantle the Mohawk roadblocks. About 1,000 troops moved against Kanesatake on the night of September 1. Within a few hours, the Warriors were pushed back into a small area between the road and the Lake of Two Mountains.

On the afternoon of September 2, 1 arrived in Oka. Only town residents and journalists accredited by the SQ were allowed to pass through the SQ roadblock about three miles out of town. After a wait of several hours, I was granted permission to enter. On the other side of the razor-wire roadblock was an armored personnel carrier marked with racist, anti-Indian graffiti and an international NO symbol chalked over a crude drawing of an Indian. Masked Warriors armed with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles and foot-long combat knives, wearing military camouflage, jungle boots and hats with eagle feathers, guarded a turn-off from the main road about 100 yards past the Army lines. Meanwhile, the sound of Indian drumming floated through the pine trees.

The next morning, the campsite where I slept was buzzing with the news that a shot had been fired in Kanesatake, and that the Army had closed its noose to within a few hundred yards of the turn-off. Nearby, inside a treatment center, the Indians continued their protest. Though Maj. Allen Tremblay denied army responsibility for the shot, journalists on the scene said a young soldier had been led away and reprimanded only moments after the shot was fired.

A Warrior using the code-name Dehewerun agreed to an interview to explain why the Mohawks were compelled to make what appeared to be a hopeless stand against the Army’s superior firepower. "Native people across the country are depending on what happens here," he said. "They don’t want to be on the dole, and that’s where native people have been for the last 200-300 years. With a land base we have some insurance we can do that. What we’re doing here is the right thing to do. To lose your life for the right thing is not a bad thing."

As reporters conducted interviews and filed their stories by cellular telephone, negotiations between the holdouts in the treatment center and the Army were being carried out on a special phone line. One of the Indian negotiators allowed behind the lines to work with the Warriors was Terry Doxtator, a hereditary Chief of the Turtle Clan on the Oneida reserve near London, Ontario. Doxtator explained the principles guiding the Indian negotiators.

"When we talk about our gifts from the Creator, we look towards the four directions. Towards the East, we see the gift of kindness, and we have to deal with that. We look towards the South. and it’s the gift of honesty, and it’s a two-way street. When we get to the North, we all achieve what we’re looking for, and that’s the gift of strength."

After 77 days of armed confrontation, the Warriors agreed to an "honorable disengagement," but as they walked out together into the Army lines chaos erupted one more time. Shoving matches turned into fistfights, as soldiers fixed bayonets and fired warning shots.

The Mohawks were loaded onto buses and taken to a military base in southeastern Quebec. Forty-two men, women and children who had been in the treatment center were arrested. The women and children were quickly processed and released, but 22 men were held for two weeks until a judge released most of them without bail.

The release of the Mohawks on October 5 prompted a festive celebration. A caravan of family members, supporters and media people drove out to the military base where the Warriors were being held. The Indians wore red and white ribbons, symbolizing peace and determination. When they left the base, the caravan returned to the Mohawk territory of Kanawake. A big dinner was served and the Mohawk National Anthem was sung.

photo by John Penley

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