BOOKS

The Mohawks’ war

A new book chronicles the Oka crisis

DAN BURKE August 19 1991
BOOKS

The Mohawks’ war

A new book chronicles the Oka crisis

DAN BURKE August 19 1991

The Mohawks’ war

BOOKS

A new book chronicles the Oka crisis

ONE NATION UNDER THE GUN: INSIDE THE MHAWK CIVIL WAR

By Rick Homung (Stoddart, 304 pages, $25.95)

Late last month, a book about conflict generated its own conflict. Rick Hornung’s One Nation Under the Gun: Inside the Mohawk Civil War deals with rifts that appeared in 1990 within the

Mohawk community of Akwesasne, a 28,000-acre reserve straddling the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York state. The book also examines last summer’s armed standoff between Canadian authorities and Mohawks from the Montreal-area communities of Kanesatake and Kahnawake. On July 25, the Quebec Superior Court imposed a temporary injunction on distribution of One Nation in that province. The reason: two prominent Kanesatake Mohawks, Ellen Gabriel and Denise Tolley, both of whom are quoted in the book, had claimed that remarks attributed to them were false and defamatory—and that Homung had not even interviewed them. But on Aug. 2, the Superior Court ruled that the women’s complaints were unfounded and lifted the injunction.

The legal battle pales in comparison with the Mohawks’ internal problems, which Homung documents with great thoroughness in the

book. Few of North America’s aboriginal peoples have dealt with the imposition of European civilization on their homeland as flexibly as the Mohawks have. As key members of the Iroquois confederacy who once shared custody of a rich territory that stretched from the Hudson River west and north to what is now southern Ontario and Montreal, the Mohawks have survived almost four centuries of foreign invasion and immigration by holding their ground—or

small parts of it, at least—and adapting to mainstream North America’s capitalist culture. But as Homung makes clear in One Nation, the survival-oriented evolution of the Mohawk people has also created some deep political divisions in the community. And those ruptures have given rise to a new threat to the Mohawk nation: the Mohawks themselves.

The civil war referred to in One Nation occurred in the spring of 1990 in Akwesasne, near Cornwall, Ont. Homung, a staff writer for the New York weekly The Village Voice, visited the reserve at the height of the armed conflict. The violent yearlong dispute had been precipitated by a movement—largely the initiative of Canadian Mohawks—to stop a flourishing casino gambling trade on the New York side of Akwesasne. The conflict reached a tragic peak on May 1, 1990, when two Mohawks were killed during an all-night shootout

in the Akwesasne territory of St-Régis, Que. Police officers from New York state, Quebec and Ontario then entered the reserve.

In One Nation, Hornung offers a detailed account of the events leading up to the killings before shifting his focus to last summer’s Mohawk uprisings in the Kanesatake Mohawk community and at the Kahnawake reserve. For the author, the common ground between the Akwesasne conflict and the subsequent sieges in Quebec is that the militantly nationalist Mohawk Warrior societies played prominent roles. The Warriors contend that Mohawks must secure their collective future by creating a sovereign state based on their traditional laws and customs, as well as on the modem practices of gambling and marketing tax-free cigarettes and smuggled heating oil. Homung writes that the Warriors “mixed the lore of the great, prehistoric civilization with the street smarts of a modem underground economy.” Homung, whose book is sympathetic to the Warriors’ point of view, places much of the blame for the Akwesasne crisis on the reserve’s anti-gambling faction. According to the author’s research, differences began to escalate into violence in 1989, when an antigambling mob vandalized Tony’s Vegas International casino in the New York region of the reserve, causing $460,000 worth of damage. That incident—followed by other attacks by the antigamblers on both the casinos and their supporters— prompted the Warrior societies to serve as protectors to the gambling business and the 800 jobs that it had created on the New York side of the reserve. In turn, band council leaders called the authorities for police assistance—an act of treason, according to such Warrior leaders as Akwesasne war chief Francis Boots.

Now, even such prominent Mohawk militants as Art Montour, who was sentenced in Syracuse, N.Y., to a 10-month prison term for organizing a Warrior blockade in Akwesasne, acknowledge that the conflict boiled down to a self-defeating struggle for control of the community. Says Montour: “The police are not our problem; it is how we work among ourselves.” As Hornung’s research reveals, internal divisions may also have prevented the Mohawks from presenting a united negotiating stance to benefit from last summer’s standoffs in Kanesatake and Kahnawake. And in Akwesasne, in the aftermath of the gambling conflict, the author found that even the leadership of the Warriors has dissolved into unfriendly factions. For now, the only independence the Mohawks appear to be gaining is from each other.

DAN BURKE