COVER

A LEGACY OF DEFIANCE

THE MOHAWKS REVIVE A MARTIAL PAST

BRIAN BERGMAN July 23 1990
COVER

A LEGACY OF DEFIANCE

THE MOHAWKS REVIVE A MARTIAL PAST

BRIAN BERGMAN July 23 1990

A LEGACY OF DEFIANCE

COVER

THE MOHAWKS REVIVE A MARTIAL PAST

Were it not for the modem arms and the watching television cameras, the scene might have sprung from the earliest decades of the European conquest of the North American continent. In the eerie silence of the white pine forest, Mohawk fighters dressed for battle melted into the undergrowth—emerging without warning to challenge any intruder into the Indian encampment. Well inside their protective cordon, tense negotiations between the Mohawk leadership and representatives of the surrounding white forces went on under the watchful eyes of a handful of mainly older women—Clan Mothers who, in the tradition of the Mohawk Longhouse, would be consulted on any settlement. But among Mohawks of either gender, the iron-willed determination was palpable. Declared one 46-year-old Mohawk, Ronald Bonspille: “It is our land. We are willing to die here for our children, for our future.”

It was a defiance well-rooted in Mohawk history, both ancient and modem. In making their stand at Oka last week, an armed force of an estimated 40 self-styled Mohawk Warriors reflected a partly mystical and frankly martial

tradition, which once made the Mohawks the scourge of New France. Later, the Mohawks were among the most stubborn opponents of federal attempts to weaken traditional Indian authority. And in the past two decades, they have been in the forefront of an increasingly militant native-rights movement. Indeed, in

the wake of last week’s battle _

at Oka, Assembly of First Nations national chief Georges Erasmus warned that the well-armed and combative Mohawks could quickly become role models for other disaffected native groups.

Said Erasmus: “You are going to see more of these incidents. There are more and more people saying nothing else works.”

Warring: Ironically, the Mohawk Warriors—who find recruits on many of the tribe’s seven settlements and reserves in Ontario, Quebec and New York state—base

their paramilitary methods in part on a centuries-old tribal doctrine of peace. According to tradition, a prophet named The Peacemaker appeared at a time when the Mohawk and four other Iroquois groups were locked in intertribal warfare. The prophet cast all the tribes' weapons into a cavern beneath a pine tree and counselled them to live according to the Great Law of Peace, an ethical code that hereditary tribal chiefs later handed down and administered. The truce between the warring tribes led eventually to the emergence of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy.

Revenge: But the Great Law of Peace allowed for violence in defence of Iroquois interests. According to Marlene Brant Castellano, chairman of the native studies department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and herself a Mohawk, the Great Law established “very strong bonds of peace with anyone deemed to be on our side.” But, she added, the law also declared that “anyone who threatens our families—which by extension is the larger

_ family of the nation—is fair

game.” That strict code found further expression in a doctrine of revenge. “In Mohawk belief,” noted University of Toronto historian William Eccles, “if you spill my blood, I have got to spill yours. Their dead in the spirit world could not rest in peace unless they were avenged.” And history soon proved that Mohawk displeasure was a formidable threat. As allies g of the British during the furI trade wars of the 17th and z 18th centuries, Mohawks ^ based in what is now upstate ñ New York joined frequently

in raids against New France. It was during those decades of war over furs that ancestors of the Oka Mohawk settled for the first time on the banks of the Ottawa River, a day’s paddle west of Montreal. Other victories eventually extended the influence of the Mohawks and their Iroquois allies from the Hudson River almost to the Mississippi. Indeed, by 1690, according to Eccles, the Iroquois Confederacy was “the most powerful military force in North America.” Added Eccles: “The French feared the Mohawk far more than they did the English.”

But Mohawk dominance was brief.

When the Mohawks, along with most other Iroquois tribes, sided with the British against the American Revolution, George Washington’s troops responded by laying waste to their villages and farms. And when loyalist troops withdrew from the newly independent American states, many Mohawks accepted a British offer of land, settling at what are now known as the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford,

Ont., and on the Bay of Quinte, west of Kingston, Ont.

Disputes: But the Mohawks have since accumulated a lengthy list of grievances against the country that they helped to found. For one thing, they accuse the federal government—starting with the Indian Act of 1876—of trying to impose elected band councils in place of hereditary chiefs. And after the Second World War, Mohawks fought development of the St. Lawrence Seaway, claiming that its construction caused the flooding of Indian land and the curtailment of traditional fishing.

Throughout those disputes, the Mohawks’ militancy has set them apart from most other native Canadians. In 1899, 200 Mohawks on the Akwesasne reserve that straddles the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York state near Cornwall, Ont., drove off a force of police that the federal government had sent onto the reserve in an attempt to force the band to hold elections. Almost 70 years later, in December, 1968, Mohawks from the same reserve drew international attention when police arrested 45 of them while they were blockading the Seaway International Bridge at Cornwall, to protest Canada’s decision to charge a duty on goods imported by Indians.

At the same time, many Mohawk men volunteered for service during the two World Wars, the Korean conflict and in Vietnam. In each case, noted Bradford Morse, a University of Ottawa law professor who specializes in aboriginal issues, most showed a marked preference for active combat, opting in Vietnam for the marines or the Green Berets. Quipped Morse: “They don’t sign up to be radio technicians.”

But modem Mohawk militancy took on a new dimension in June, 1988. In that month,

armed residents of the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal—calling themselves members of the Mohawk Warriors Society—cut off access to the Mercier Bridge, which links the island city with the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. The action was a protest against a raid by 200 RCMP officers who searched stores on the reserve where they suspected Indians of selling cigarettes illegally. The scene was repeated last summer at Akwesasne, when about 30 armed Warriors blocked a highway to prevent New York state police from investigating a half-dozen casinos that

have operated in defiance of state law on the U.S. side of that reserve since 1984.

Last week, the Warriors again demonstrated their ability—and willingness—to mount a daunting display of force. The self-styled defenders of Mohawk sovereignty had been filtering into Oka in discreet carloads since the first barricade went up at the town four months ago. They ranged in age from 14 to their 50s, although most appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. Some older members had served in the U.S. armed services, returning with expertise in assault weapons and defensive deployment. Some of those skills were evident in the camouflaged trenches that dotted the forests sur-

rounding the Mohawk position at Oka, as well as in the strands of barbed wire that deterred intruders and the elaborate radio communications—conducted exclusively in Mohawk— with which the leaders kept in contact with outposts.

In their own eyes, the Warriors are true heirs to the legacy of the Iroquois Confederacy’s illustrious past. Indeed, their spokesmen claim only to seek peaceful solutions to their disputes. One, John Boots, a Warrior spokesman on the U.S. side of the Akwesasne reserve, likened the group to a “volunteer fire department” that serves only when it is needed.

But other Mohawks dispute the view that Warriors are upholding the best traditions of their people. Mohawk academic Castellano, for one, says that “many Mohawk leaders say that Warriors who resort to violence are not upholding the Great Law of Peace; that in fact these people who go about in battle dress and carry assault rifles are a law unto themselves.” And it was clear to most observers at Oka last week that the alliance between the Warriors and other Mohawk leaders was sometimes uneasy.

Roadblock: Indeed, tensions between the Warriors and other Mohawks have been evident in other Indian communities as well. At Akwesasne, detractors have accused the Warriors of funding their considerable arsenals through profits from gambling and cigarette smuggling. And at Kahnawake last week, some residents complained that Warriors had stripped local stores of food before erecting a roadblock on the Mercier Bridge, an action that effectively prevented many commuters from going to work in Montreal. “The Warriors did not consult the community about this and they left the reserve without supplies,” said one angry Kahnawake Mohawk who asked not to be named. ¡E “They were thinking only about 5 themselves.”

r Still, other observers said that the I Mohawk militants hold enormous ap| peal for a generation of young, disillusioned and mostly unemployed natives who feel that they have nothing to lose. Morse, for one, observed that with constitutional talks on native rights at a standstill and the courts still a costly and protracted avenue for redressing grievances, many Indians may decide that action modelled on that of the Warriors is their only recourse. That decision may be hastened, he added, by the perception that governments respond only when confrontations attract the media. Said Morse: “The current federal and provincial governments only pay attention when the cameras are there.” It was a conclusion likely only to be reinforced by last week’s battle of Oka.

BRIAN BERGMAN

ANN McLAUGHLIN

BRUCE WALLACE