Much progress was achieved during the May 2011 occupation to preserve Snake Mound, one of 57 remaining ancient Haudenosaunee burial mounds in Toronto’s High Park, near the edge of Lake Ontario.
For years, BMX riders had been desecrating the area, — known to the Indigenous community as Snake (or Serpent) Mounds — by excavating the mounds to build a dirt track.
In April, Chief Arnie General, accompanied by Clan mothers and Faith keepers from Six Nations, went to Snake mound to see what they believe are ancient Iroquoian burial grounds dating back 3,000 years.
“I feel very disgusted with the people here in this area,” said Six Nations Chief Arnie General. “Maybe not all are of the (same) mentality, but those who don’t care about my people.”
The Mounds were carved into rounded hills, jumps and dips. For the many who believe the site is sacred, it was the ultimate disrespect.
The Haudenosaunee community and the Taiaiako’n Historical Preservation Society (THPS) had been lobbying the city of Toronto for over eleven years, to protect the sacred grounds and restore the area.
In April, a meeting was set up between the THPS and Toronto City Councillor Sarah Doucette where she was presented with information about the Snake Mound, and that the City of Toronto’s main archeologist Ron Williamson, was working under a suspended license. The state of his credentials had not been denied. Doucette said she would research the issue and then respond, however, there was no subsequent contact.
In early May, a group of residents local to High Park formed the Friends Of Snake Mound (FOSM) to support the work done by the THPS. The two groups hosted an information event that garnered a flurry of media attention both good and bad. The mainstream media perpetuated the lack of scientific rigor and ethical handling of the situation by the city and Toronto Parks Board by parroting the position that there is no archeological site at Snake Mound. Fortunately, there was one point of agreement: that the BMX activity was destroying the natural environment.
While many members of the BMX community acknowledged the special environmental and historical value of the site, many others remained intransigent.
Despite concerns within the Snake Mound-support community as to whether further changes in the landscape might adversely affect the site, it became evident that taking down the jumps was the only way to stop the greater danger of cycling.
In order to see the site repaired, it was agreed that Peacekeepers from the Native rights group Red Power United — brought in at request of the Clan mothers, Chief Arnie General and the THPS, would take on the dismantling of the bike jumps and help with reconstruction of the mounds.
While each party’s motivation were starkly different, the ends would be the same.
On May 13th, Red Power United peacekeepers with support from the FOSM and THPS started to occupy the disputed burial grounds at High Park.
Harrison Friesen, a spokesperson and peacekeeper, told BASICS. “This has been an issue that has been going on for eleven years. Trying to get these jumps taken down. Trying to get the city to enforce the by-law and keep the bikers out.”
“It came to a head when we had a meeting with city hall and the Toronto police. A decision was made amongst our peacekeepers that enough is enough.” Friesen said that “at first it was very stand-offish with the city and the police, they didn’t want us in here.”
“We basically had to let them know that we don’t work for the city, we don’t work for the police. This ain’t nine to five for us, this is part of our culture, part of who we are as native people.”
“We’ve had bmx riders come up to the fence. We have been very diplomatic, we’ve been educators – educating people on the history and what’s taking place here,” said Friesen.
Surprisingly, there was no animosity directed towards the bmx bikers.
“It’s a very good thing that’s happening down there,” [Snake Mound] said Rastia’ta’non:ha (aka David Redwolf), executive director of the THPS.
Rastia’ta’non:ha, whose name means “Protector of the Ancestors,” had been assigned by Clan Mothers, the task of protecting the mounds and to get Toronto officials to designate snake mound and other historically significant sites, off limits, so that they could be restored and protected.
Rastia’ta’non:ha and the peacekeepers used what’s known as the 1792 ‘Gun Shot Treaty,’ —which allows native people the right to hunt within the sound of a gunshot from any lake or river, and would be able to camp within sixty-six feet of their shores or banks.”
Within days of the occupation, the City of Toronto provided permits to have fires to keep warm, provided a port-o-potty and a shed to store tools. While the City rejected any idea of a native burial ground it appeared the City had given into the occupiers.
While much of Manitoba was fighting back epic floodwaters and Albertans were witnessing the flash-fire razing of Slave Lake, the Battle of Snake Mound was making headlines in Toronto.
“The Natives are revolting!” cried the people.
“Yes they are!” agreed the press.
Toronto’s public High Park had been torn apart —literally limb by limb— by BMXers using their off-road mountain bikes as a destructive force against a piece of inner-city nature.
But, instead of condemning these miscreants, the media had instead turned on a small group of Native rights activists who, with the city’s invitation and permission, had put up an encampment and had begun repairing the damage caused by a youthful gang of cyclists with little or no respect for public property.
It even made the front page of the National Post.
Toronto Sun columnist, Joe Warmington, even cited the Natives’ “illegal campsite” — a pejorative slightly less provocative than “occupation” — as a land claim grab (it wasn’t), and then he wondered where the protesters would find their next bogus traditional burial ground within Toronto’s urban plain.
As the media questioned both the validity of the Natives claim to the site being a burial ground and the city of Toronto’s testing, Friesen said that he wasn’t concerned with the media or the city’s tests, as “we follow our traditions and oral history, the things that are passed down from generation to generation, tell us that this is a sacred burial site.”
Amongst Native people oral history is as important as scientific proof.
Friesen also put into question the legitimacy of the tests, “we don’t agree that they’ve tested in this area. They say they’ve done 40 tests in here, but it wasn’t in here. It was around various parts outside of the area. And the guy that did the testing wasn’t licensed. He didn’t have a license to do the testing.”
To bring an end to the dispute the city negotiated with the group, who said they would leave once a temporary fence was put in place to protect the area and provided they could return each day to help with restoration, they believe resembles the original burial ground.
Finally, after eleven years, the city of Toronto employees were at the site, putting up the requested fence.
One of the Native rights activists remarked, that he had never seen a fence go up so quickly. “Apparently, the city won’t listen to you unless you act.”
The self-described First Nation’s occupiers of High Park have promised to tear down their illegal campsite wrote Warmington in Sun News.
‘If they are true to their word, it very well may have been the fastest Native land claim settlement in Canadian history.’
The next day, the Natives, to their credit, packed up their tents, extinguished their ceremonial fire just as they had promised at the outset and ended their five-day occupation.
In the end, Margaret Dougherty a city of Toronto spokeswoman said “We do not recognize it [Snake Mound] as burial ground nor is it recognized by authoritative experts as such.” She said the province also accepted the city’s conclusions.
“The space is ecologically significant, and we’ve reminded bikers that off road biking isn’t allowed and we intend to enforce our bylaw.”
According to Dougherty, cooperating with the Natives wasn’t a sign the city recognized their claims to the area. Despite, at the time city staff had no problem with Native groups — which were not sanctioned by the city as community organizations — helping dismantle the BMX ramps, or agreeing to the condition that they be allowed to assist in the rehabilitation of the site.
At the end of May, extreme right-wing anti-native activist Gary McHale arrived in High Park from Caledonia to “protest” what he called “Mohawk Warriors” who he falsely claimed were occupying the site and who, he claimed, wanted to keep everyone who is not native off the land.
In a Joint News Release by CANACE and the Caledonia Victims Project, Mchale said “We will begin with speeches and hand out literature. We will then march down towards the illegal occupation and – in keeping with the new City of Toronto policy – post signs declaring “No Whites Allowed,” “No Jews Allowed,” “No Blacks Allowed.” Literature will be handed out to local homeowners about the danger near their homes.”
The morning of May 28th, Toronto Police contacted McHale, about his plans and also informed him that people were not allowed in the fenced off area. At the same time the Toronto Police made it clear to him that no one would be permitted to attack him personally or any member of his group.
While McHale’s distortions appear ridiculous, they result from and flourish under the attitudes of government, the Parks and police who all did their part in suppressing the Iroquoian history of Toronto, and in attempting to deny access of Indigenous people to their sites.
According to Jon Johnson, an adjunct professor at York University, High Park is one of the few places in the city that hasn’t been developed, and documented, undisturbed burial grounds have been found there.
To Indigenous people, burial grounds are to be given proper respect; the belief that a spiritual ‘essence’ remains bound to the body after death means that remains should never be disturbed. It is also understood, the living have a responsibility to ensure protection of their ancestors remains.
In return Indigenous ancestors continue to guide and protect present and future generations.
Sadly, David Redwolf, director of the Taiaiako’n Historical Preservation Society and keeper of the Mounds passed away Jan 22, 2012. Arnie General, Chief of the Onondaga Beaver Clan also died peacefully in Hamilton on April 10, 2016 in his 84th year.
Originally published on May 16, 2015, Updated April 21, 2016.