Still warriors: Kahnawake Mohawks are ready to take up arms to defend their beliefs
by Graeme Hamilton, National Post, July 9, 2015
KAHNAWAKE, QUE. — Early on July 11, 1990, when Bryan Deer’s radio crackled with news the Sûreté du Québec was moving in on Kanesatake with tear gas and concussion grenades, he and his fellow Mohawk Warriors in Kahnawake knew what had to be done.
Within an hour, they had seized the Mercier Bridge, preventing rush-hour traffic from crossing the vital link between their reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River and Montreal.
It was a show of support for their brethren in Oka, a community 45 minutes away that shares close ties with Kahnawake. The Mohawks there had set up a blockade to protest the expansion of a golf course into a pine forest they considered sacred. Many Kahnawake Warriors had already joined the fight at Oka, but taking the bridge shifted attention from a remote road to the doorstep of Quebec’s biggest metropolis and signalled to the province it should back off.
“We knew the outside was going to be upset, but that’s what we wanted,” says Deer, now 51.
It took a long, tense summer for that defiance to pay off. The two sides dug in: the Canadian Armed Forces eventually replaced the Sûreté du Québec and the bridge became Deer’s night-time home for the next seven weeks.
The blockade was lifted in late August after negotiations in Oka. Since then, though, the spirit of independence that gave rise to the clash has not only endured, it has hardened.
Today, Kahnawake in many ways operates as an autonomous jurisdiction. The band council discourages members from voting in provincial or federal elections. Its economy is driven by cigarette and alcohol sales, and gambling operations outside governments deem illegal but have been powerless to stop. Its membership law forces residents to leave the reserve if they marry non-natives — the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms be damned. The community runs its own schools, court and police force. Traditionalists travel the world on passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.
Asked whether the Warriors would once again take up arms to defend themselves against an outside intervention, Deer says simply, “We’re prepared for any incursion.’
On a recent weekday morning, five kilometres from the foot of Mercier Bridge, players sat around tables at Playground Poker with chips stacked high in front of them, eyeing their cards in a scene that would fit in Las Vegas.
Under Canadian law, such gambling is legal only in provincially sanctioned casinos, but Playground Poker does not have a lot of time for Canadian law. Run by a Kahnawake Mohawk and operated on Mohawk land, it and a few other poker rooms on the reserve are the most recent examples of Kahnawake flexing its jurisdictional muscle.
Eating breakfast in a restaurant next to the poker room, Kenneth Deer, Bryan’s father, points to the establishment as an example of Kahnawake asserting itself.
“We have this growing sense of entrepreneurship, how we can use this community to do things that maybe other people can’t do, to assert our kind of sovereignty and develop an economy that can employ people and contribute to the community,” he says.
Kenneth Deer is secretary of the Mohawk Nation Office in Kahnawake, which represents those who follow the traditions of the centuries-old longhouse. During the 1990 crisis, he was dispatched to Europe as an ambassador for Kahnawake, pleading the Mohawk case before the United Nations in Geneva.
“You have to believe you’re sovereign, and if you believe you’re sovereign you act like you’re sovereign,” he says. “That’s how Kahnawake really survives, because it pushes the envelope in that way. This is who we are. This is our territory, and we’re going to do what we think is important to us here.”
If Quebec and Ottawa have been reluctant to crack down on gambling and contraband, Kenneth Deer says, it is because they know whom they are up against. They don’t want another 1990.
“We don’t back down. We don’t shiver and shake because somebody says something,” he says.
That sort of resistance stretches back centuries among the Mohawks, says Gerald Reid, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut and the author of Kahnawake: Factions, Tradition, and Nationalism in a Mohawk Community.
It includes activism during the colonial period, resistance to the Indian Act system in the mid-19th century and a defiant strain of nationalism that emerged in the 1970s, focusing, among other things, on learning the indigenous language, which had been suppressed but not extinguished in residential schools and Roman Catholic day schools on the reserve, and a new emphasis on bloodlines that resulted in a violent clash in the 1970s when the Warrior Society moved to evict non-natives.
The fatal 1979 shooting of David Cross, a Mohawk who had been chased onto the reserve by an SQ officer, convinced Kahnawake it had to put policing in the hands of its native Peacekeepers. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came in to raid smoke shops in 1988, Warriors blocked the Mercier Bridge for a day in what proved to be a trial run for 1990.
Since 1990, the elected council has moved closer to the traditionalists’ vision of self-rule, called the Two-Row Wampum. Based on a 17th-century treaty between the Iroquois and European settlers, it puts the two peoples on separate, but parallel, paths.
As the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake declared in 1993, “The concept of mutual respect embodied in the Two-Row Wampum, in which Natives and Non-natives will not interfere in each other’s affairs, must now be brought to life. Our ‘row’ must be made strong enough to withstand any and all attempts by foreign powers to control it.”
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk from Kahnawake and professor of political science at the University of Victoria, says a disregard for outside governments’ wishes was deeply ingrained when he worked for the band council in the 1990s.
The approach was, “We’ll do it, based on our values and our principles, and the imperatives of our nations, and then we’ll defend it,” he says. “There was little attention paid to the need to have other communities and other governments validate what people in Kahnawake were doing.”
Joe Norton was grand chief during the Oka crisis and held the post until he retired from politics in 2004. He then entered the online gambling business that was sprouting up on the reserve. But two poker sites he owned, Absolute Poker and UltimateBet, were rocked by a cheating scandal and he sold them in 2010. Last month, he staged a return to politics, winning election as grand chief.
In an interview with Norton before the election, it is clear suspicions created by 1990 have not disappeared. He says outside authorities send spies into Kahnawake to target activities they consider illegal.
“It’s all part of the intelligence program,” he says. “That’s why we should have checked you first that you’re not here on a mission. I’m not dramatizing here.”
Despite his own troubles in the business, Norton supports the growth of the gambling industry on the reserve. It and the move by Kahnawake entrepreneurs into cigarette manufacturing are examples of how Mohawks “walk our talk” when it comes to economic development.
Tobacco is historically a product of First Nations, he says, but “there is such a tremendous amount of work to become legal in that industry that it just prompts us to say, ‘The hell with it.’ We don’t need that. We’ll create our own industry, create our own regime and we’ll go. Because trying to do it the white man’s way isn’t working.”
Looking toward future economic activities for the reserve, Norton raises the possibility of research and development of stem-cell therapies. People desperate for a cure travel to China and Mexico for treatments that are not approved in North America. Why couldn’t Kahnawake be a destination?
“We feel we’re under no such restrictions,” Norton says. “Backed by the right people, with the right kind of financing, that can happen here.” He says discussions are “at a preliminary stage” and does not identify potential outside partners, but he insists the idea is “not far-fetched.”
The Mohawks’ indifference to outside opinion is also on display in the debate over membership. Under Kahnawake law, anyone who marries a non-native is expected to leave the reserve.
Some Mohawks married to non-natives, including Olympic athlete Waneek Horn-Miller, are challenging the residency rules as a violation of the Canadian Charter. Federal Indian Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has called the rules racist and the Department of Indian Affairs maintains it has final say over who is a member of the community.
But Kenneth Deer says race is not the issue. With a resident population of just under 8,000 on the outskirts of Canada’s second-largest city, preserving the indigenous culture is a challenge. “The issue is assimilation. We’re going to resist assimilation,” Deer says. “It’s the government’s goal for us to assimilate, and inter-marriage accelerates that process.”
Although Grand Chief Norton has condemned the “mob rule” that led to the vandalism of one mixed couple’s home in May and signs declaring “Marry Out, Get Out!”, he says if a court ruled against Kahnawake’s membership law, he would defy the ruling.
Geoffrey Kelley, Quebec’s minister of native affairs, describes himself as the government’s “eternal dove” — a crucial role, considering the mess the hawks stirred up in 1990. But even he says there is always a delicate balancing act whenever Kahnawake is involved. “The Mohawks, if I can say this respectfully, always try to push the envelope,” he says.
Sometimes there is room for it to be pushed, and he says he sees “a lot of progress” in relations since the Oka crisis. One example that hasn’t made headlines is legislation adopted in December allowing Kahnawake to create its own workplace health and safety regime, which cleared the way for Mohawks to work on major construction projects on the reserve. There is also discussion of expanding the reach of Kahnawake’s court, which now handles summary-conviction and traffic offences.
But Kelley says he is unbending in his opposition to the sale of tax-exempt tobacco to non-natives. He hopes to persuade the Kahnawake leadership the easy-money tobacco economy provides a shaky foundation for the future.
“You’re 19 and you can get $30-an-hour to sit in one of those trailers, why go to CEGEP? Why go to university?” he says. “Sooner or later, I don’t think there’s a great future for the tobacco industry in Canada in general.”
His view is echoed by Kyle Delisle, director of Kahnawake’s Economic Development Commission. Nicknamed Dr. Doom, he warnsthe tobacco trade, now in decline, has removed the incentive for education — creating a troubling 25 per cent youth unemployment rate, nearly double the national average.
And while leaders hail the 1990 Oka crisis and the blockade of the Mercier Bridge for solidifying Mohawk nationalism, Delisle says it also reinforced Kahnawake’s isolation. For much of the past century, Kahnawake men made good money as ironworkers commuting to New York to build skyscrapers. But an ailing U.S. economy and the lure of work close to home in the tobacco trade dealt a blow to the tradition. Today, people are reluctant to seek work in Montreal, let alone New York,
“I think 1990 had that impact, where it became very insular and didn’t want to deal with the outside,” says Delisle.
Residents have also become less inclined to learn French, meaning their employment opportunities off reserve are limited. Even Kahnawake’s own businesses — golf clubs, poker houses, cigarette stores and gas stations — have to go off reserve to find anyone who can serve French-speaking customers, Delisle says.
He is also concerned the wealth generated by the tobacco and gambling industries on the reserve is concentrated in too few hands. A community survey found the richest six per cent of the population made as much money as the bottom 50 per cent. And because taxation is a dirty word among First Nations, there is no mechanism to redistribute the wealth to ensure the entire community benefits.
“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” Delisle says.
Compared with Canada’s many impoverished aboriginal communities, Kahnawake seems prosperous, he adds. But appearances are deceiving: “To people who come here, it looks like we’re doing well. There are a lot of brand-new cars. On the outside it looks good. But there are some deeper issues that need to be addressed if we are going to continue to have economic growth.”
For all that, since 1990 the Warrior flag has become a regular feature at native roadblocks, whether Mohawks are involved or not.
Alfred says the stand taken in 1990 showed “a willingness to sacrifice — to sacrifice politically, economically and physically — in order to defend our principles and our border, and actually act on the idea of indigenous nationhood in a real way.” And that act continues to hold weight with the government as well as First Nations people.
But it would be a stretch to call Kahnawake a model, he says. “Time has proven that no other First Nation is willing to do what we did in terms of confrontation.”
In Kahnawake, confrontation is a way of life. Bryan Deer says that if necessary, he would be on the front lines again “in a heartbeat.” And his 22-year-old son would be there faster.