COVER

AN ANCIENT WARRIOR CODE

THE MOHAWKS’ MILITANT RULES

DAN BURKE August 6 1990
COVER

AN ANCIENT WARRIOR CODE

THE MOHAWKS’ MILITANT RULES

DAN BURKE August 6 1990

AN ANCIENT WARRIOR CODE

COVER

THE MOHAWKS’ MILITANT RULES

As a young Mohawk radical, Mike Mitchell once stood at the vanguard of the militant native rights movement on the Akwesasne reserve, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border near Cornwall, Ont. In 1968, protesting a decision by Ottawa to tax goods imported into Canada by Indians, he helped to organize a blockade of the Seaway International Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River between Ontario and New York state at Akwesasne. But now, Mitchell, serving as the elected chief of Akwesasne’s Canadian band council, is resolutely opposed to the new Mohawk radicals, the members of the Warrior societies.

Earlier this year, he helped to form a force to oppose gambling establishments on the U.S. portion of the reserve, a move that led to a confrontation with the pro-gambling Warriors. That violent conflict, which erupted into gun battles that left two men dead on May 1, resulted in Canadian and U.S. authorities ordering a police occupation of the reserve, an action that Mitchell defends as necessary for the safety of the community.

But he added, “Now, we have a full-time Warrior Society walking around with guns and declaring war on whoever gets in their way.”

Indeed, with the Warriors’ battlefield expanded to Oka, Que., and Montreal’s Mercier Bridge, there were other expressions of alarm last week. Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Harry Swain called the Warriors a “criminal organization,” and Jacques Parizeau, leader of Quebec’s opposition Parti Québécois, labelled them “terrorists.” But the traditional chiefs of Akwesasne also con-

demned the Warriors’ intervention at Oka and the Mercier Bridge. The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs of Akwesasne issued a statement saying, “The existence of a paramilitary group calling itself the Warriors will only hamper matters and destroy real efforts of settlement.” The chiefs’ council spokeswoman, Barbara Barnes, said that she agreed with Swain’s

assessment “100 per cent” and called the Warriors “a gang of criminals.”

But the July 11 Sûreté du Québec assault on the Oka barricades gave the Warriors a chance to claim a moral high ground on the issue of native rights. Declared Francis Boots, a spokesman for the Akwesasne Warriors Society: “We are standing up for what is right.” Added Allan Delaronde, 50, one of the war chiefs of the Warriors at the Kahnawake reserve at the southern end of the Mercier Bridge: “People are realizing we are not what others claim we are. We don’t go off terrorizing people, institutions and governments. We are only defending what little we have left.”

For Kahnawake Warrior Paul Delaronde, 37, and other Warriors, part of what they defend are the ancient Mohawk traditions and laws promoted by the bands’ Longhouses. The Longhouses are the traditional part-religious, part-political decision-making institutions of Mohawk society that have continued to exist despite Ottawa’s efforts to replace them with elected tribal councils. The main tradition is the Great Law of Peace, a code of conduct that brought peace to warring Iroquois tribes—the Mohawks among them—before the European settlement of North America. Under the Great Law, violence was not permitted— except in defence of Iroquois interests. That heritage underlies the modem Warrior societies, which first began appearing in the early 1970s with the aim of fighting for Mohawk sovereignty and land claims. Estimates put their membership at as high as 120 at several reserves on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Observed Paul Delaronde: “We are not breaking our own law—we are carrying it out.”

Militant: The Warriors do not recognize the authority of ^ the elected tribal councils, I which they say have been im| posed on the Mohawks by the u 1876 federal Indian Act. And many of them credit the emergence of their societies to 72-year-old Kahnawake resident Louis Hall, a leading member of the reserve’s Warrior Society and Longhouse. Hall was one of the leading militants in a 1972 incident in which Kahnawake Mohawks forced the eviction of 1,200 non-Indian residents living on the reserve. Following that, he laid the groundwork for the Warrior societies by writing several tracts calling on Mohawks to “unbury their weapons and fighting spirit” and reclaim lost territory. And that message has clearly influenced a generation of younger Mohawks. Said Don Martin, a leading member of the Warriors on the Kahnawake reserve: “Louis Hall is my mentor.”

At the same time, the results of Hall’s militant brand of activism have added to its appeal. In 1974, he and a group of radical Mohawks took over an abandoned girls’ camp at Moss Lake, in upstate New York. They maintained their armed occupation of the territory until 1977, when the state government agreed to lease the Mohawks two tracts of land in the vicinity of Plattsburgh, 100 km south of

Montreal. That territory, renamed Ganienkeh by the Mohawks, has since become a Warrior stronghold.

Pride: As well, there appears to be little doubt that the Warriors are extremely wellarmed. Last week, John Coleman, managing editor of a U.S. combat magazine, Soldier of Fortune, spent several days talking to Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake and Kahnawake and said that he plans to write a 5,000-word feature article for the November issue. Said Coleman, a veteran of she years in the U.S. army and 3% years in the army of the former white-ruled Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe: “They’ve got ample firepower, enough to take on a police force, and probably enough to give an army a good run for its money.”

But the Warriors can point with pride to other incidents in which they acted for the good of their community—without violence. In February, they joined with environmentalists to

resist a plan to build a recycling plant for construction waste on the U.S. portion of the Akwesasne reserve, already one of the most polluted areas of New York state as a result of industrial waste from such companies as General Motors Ltd. The reserve’s council had approved the project, which would handle up to 800 tons of waste a day on an area near environmentally sensitive wetlands.

Casino: The project has since been mothballed because the Warriors and their environmentalist allies pressed for tests on two initial loads of debris that showed that they contained high quantities of PCBs and other potentially dangerous substances. Said Ward Stone, New York state’s official wildlife pathologist: “The

Warriors stopped any further shipments from coming in. They were right.”

At the same time, many Mohawks clearly consider the Warriors’ militarism dangerous and undesirable. A particular flash point has been the Warriors’ support of the Akwesasne casinos—illegal under New York state law— and a lucrative cigarette-smuggling trade on the Kahnawake and Akwesasne reserves. The Warriors defend those pursuits by saying that, under the principle of Mohawk sovereignty, white man’s law does not apply on the Mohawk reserves.

But the opponents of the Warriors claim that the smuggling and casino operations are helping to destroy the Indians’ traditional way of life—and provide clear evidence that the Warriors have no real desire to protect Mohawk traditions. Said Akwesasne’s Mitchell, who also serves as a faith keeper—overseeing ceremonies—in the band Longhouse: “I stepped

in because I could see corruption seeping in. Right behind cigarette smuggling, you get drugs and guns.” Added Theresa Square, an employee of Akwesasne’s Canadian band council: “They are using the fight for our rights and sovereignty as a guise. A lot of them were never traditionalists.”

Still, some Indians acknowledge that many Warriors may also be sincere in their adherence to traditional values. Harold Tarbell, former chief of the U.S. tribal council at Akwesasne, said that, in addition to older Mohawk fundamentalists inspired by Hall, the Warriors’ current membership includes many youths who believe in Mohawk sovereignty and the preservation of their culture. But Tarbell charged that also present in the mix are the dregs of Mohawk society. Observed Tarbell: “Some of the guys on the front lines are our biggest drug dealers and alcoholics and worst family men. The hard part is that we all have to work to rebuild our sovereignty.”

Assault: For their part, the Warriors say that many of their critics are nothing more than puppets of Canadian and U.S. Indian affairs departments, whose primary aim is to maintain power over the reserve. Indeed, the gun battles between the proand anti-gambling forces in which two men died on the Akwesasne reserve last spring provided clear evidence that the Warriors are not the only Mohawks willing to adopt militant measures to achieve 9 their ends. Steelworker Mike 35 Benedict, a new member of

0 the Akwesasne Warriors,

1 told Maclean ’s that he joined ° the society after witnessing

an assault last year by antigambling activists on a group of their rivals. Said Benedict: “I kept hearing the Warriors were real violent. I found out different.”

Despite the Mohawks’general show of solidarity in the face of the standoff in Oka, controversy over the Warriors continued to simmer. It is a conflict that has split families and friendships—including that of Mitchell and Boots, who grew up together in Akwesasne. Picking up a book that had been salvaged from an Akwesasne building set on fire during the recent hostilities, Mitchell turned to a page and pointed to a photo of Boots holding a lacrosse racquet. “He used to be a friend,” said Mitchell. “It’s going to take a long time before we get a healing process here.” For some Mohawks, at least, the Warriors’ bold stand at Oka has simply widened the differences within the Indian community itself.

DAN BURKE in Montreal