In Washington, three dozen Indians from Maryland’s Pescataway Reservation picketed the Canadian embassy, chanting, “Canada take your hands/Off Mohawk lands” and “Maple leaf/Sign of the thief.” On New York City’s chic Avenue of the Americas, 500 hard-hatted members of the Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers union marched to Indian drums, demanding that the Canadian consulate there work towards a peaceful solution to the standoff at Quebec’s Kanesatake and Kahnawake reserves—home to 50 of their Mohawk co-workers on the city’s high steel girders.
And in Minneapolis, another demonstration was more dramatic.
There, in the city where the American Indian Movement was bom 22 years ago, 40 AIM members and supporters invaded the Canadian consulate in a downtown highrise on Aug. 28, seizing its official flag and burning it on the street. Said Vernon Bellecourt, an AIM organizer since 1969: “We felt it was the most peaceful and powerful form of protest against what the Canadian government is doing to our people.”
In fact, as Indians across the United States mobilized in support of Canada’s Mohawks, many say that the crisis reawakened native militancy on both sides of the border. Said Skip Mahawk of the San Francisco-based International Indian Treaty Council: “This is uniting the indigenous people down here. People are realizing we’ve got to come together as a nation and support our relatives.” The Treaty Council organized three demonstrations outside the Canadian consulate and helped to co-ordinate others as far away as Berlin and Sydney, Australia. Declared Bellecourt: “It has energized the fight. I would think you’re going to see a lot more actions like this.” Ignite: Bellecourt said that the experience may reignite U.S. Indian militancy, which has been dormant for more than a decade. His personal pilgrimage to Oka during the summer revived memories of the explosive native demonstrations that rocked the United States in
the early 1970s and brought movie stars Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando out to march to the movement’s drummers. In an echo of that turbulent time, Bellecourt last week encouraged former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson to take a film crew to Oka. Despite being turned away from the barricades by the army, Jackson and his crew shot scenes for his first syndicated TV talk show, to be
broadcast on cable across the United States.
Bellecourt’s younger brother Clyde, a Chippewa from Minnesota’s White Earth reservation, helped found AIM in 1968 to monitor reported police harassment of Indians in Minneapolis. Following the example of the black civil rights movement, AIM swiftly grew. Within a year, militants had begun a 19-month armed occupation of Alcatraz Island, offshore from San Francisco. In 1972, Vernon Bellecourt and 400 others took over Washington’s Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters for one week in an
attempt to press native claims. And in 1973, Clyde Bellecourt took part in a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, the historic South Dakota battle site where the U.S. Cavalry slaughtered hundreds of Lakota Sioux in 1890. The standoff against U.S. armored personnel carriers 83 years later left two Indians dead and one U.S. marshal paralysed for life.
But as the FBI pursued the AIM leadership and the protest movements of the 1960s faded, many Indian firebrands went home to help fight poverty and despair. Suicide and alcoholism rates are soaring among Indians and their average unemployment rate is 40 per cent— and on some reservations as high as 95 per cent, compared with a national average of six. Clyde Bellecourt returned to Minneapolis, where he now works with the city’s police to combat violence among Indian street gangs. And Gerald Hill, a veteran of the Alcatraz occupation, armed himself with a law degree before going back to his Turtle Clan on Wisconsin’s Oneida reservation, where he is part of a team of tribal lawyers fighting challenges to treaty rights. Said Hill: “What Oka does is it wakes us up. They’re not using the armed militia against us, but the same damn thing is happening down here as they try to whittle away our rights.”
Fast: In fact, the Mohawk standoff in Quebec has galvanized support far beyond the militant Indians. Even the conservative Washington-based National Congress of American Indians— whose more than 500 chiefs have avoided AIM’s radicalism—joined in reading a statement of support outside the Canadian Embassy last month. And on Oct. 12, demonstrators from across the country plan to invoke the example of Oka as they begin a fast on the steps of the Capitol to focus attention on the ongoing forced relocation of Navajos from Arizona’s Big Mountain reserve to make way for mineral exploration.
That hunger strike is intended as a dress rehearsal for continentwide native demonstrations schedg uled over the next two years to t; protest the impending 1992 celeI brations of the 500th anniversary 5 of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America—an event that Indians regard as tragic. And even after it has ended, the Oka standoff continues to be an incentive to the North American Indian movement. Only hours before the Mohawks’ bitter exit from behind the razor wire last week, a fax message went out to activists on both sides of the border from Warriors at the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal. Like an updated version of a tribal drum, it called for solidarity in a struggle that it declared had not ended, but in fact had just begun.
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