Warrior Societies In Contemporary Indigenous Communities

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by Taiaiake Alfred and Lana Lowe

To explore the history and impacts of indigenous revolutionary organizing in Canada, we are pleased to publish excerpts from Taiaiake Alfred and Lana Lowe’s paper “Warrior Societies in Contemporary Indigenous Communities”.  The excerpts we have chosen discuss history and spiritual aspects of indigenous resistance that are misrepresented by the Canadian state.  With interviews and an historical overview, Alfred and Lowe argue that warrior societies are integral to contemporary indigenous nationhood and sovereignty struggles.  The full text of this article is available on the website of the Ipperwash Inquiry at http://www.ipperwashinquiry.ca.

Taiaiake Alfred is a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) author and educator. He is the author of three books, Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors, on Native nationalism, Peace, Power, Righteousness, an essay on Indigenous ethics, and Wasáse, on the regeneration of the warrior ethic. He currently holds a Canada Research Chair and is a Professor in the Indigenous Governance Programs and the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria.

Lana Lowe is a member of the Fort Nelson First Nation (Dene).  She has recently completed a Master’s degree in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria, where she also earned an undergraduate degree in Geography.  She is currently on a solo motorcycle journey across the Americas. She has worked as a Land Claims researcher for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs in Vancouver, Canada.

It is the aim of this paper to provide factual information on the development and current reality of warrior societies in indigenous communities. Providing a comprehensive explanation of every aspect of warrior societies in the context of the indigenous rights movement in the current era would be impossible in the scope and timeframe of this project. Thus, the paper will focus on the history and contemporary features of warrior societies that are most directly related to the political engagement of indigenous peoples with Canadian state authorities.

It should be noted at the outset that the paper will focus on indigenous movements and organizations located and operating within the Canadian state’s claimed territorial boundaries. Although there are many historic connections between indigenous movements, including warrior societies, across the border between the United States and Canada, the situation today is such that aside from individuals’ movement across the border the only relevant cross-border connections are related to expressions of ideological or philosophical solidarity – there are no relationships between warrior societies across the Canada-US border that manifest in coordinated political action, save for among Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) people, whose territory is bifurcated by the border itself. Thus, the paper will focus on communities, organizations and activities that are located within the borders of Canada, and organizations within the borders of the United States are referenced only as they impact these organizations and situations.

There are a limited number of published studies on various indigenous-state conflict situations, and many official reports prepared for legal processes or government bodies. But none of this research is capable of providing a solid analytical foundation upon which to develop defensible conclusions on the nature and impact of warrior societies. There has been no in-depth and systematic, or otherwise methodologically sound and rigorous, research done on warrior societies at all. All of the information that exists in the published record on warrior societies is journalistic in character, or is politically biased in favour of police agency or government bias toward the criminalization of indigenous people who act against government policy or in contravention of Canadian laws.

The re-emergence of warrior societies among indigenous peoples in the modern era is one element of a larger struggle of indigenous peoples to survive. Warrior societies are a means by which indigenous peoples take direct action against colonization and the history of their dispossession. Colonization in effect disconnected indigenous peoples from the sources of their existence as indigenous peoples. In the long process of gaining control over indigenous nations, Canadian governments and other institutions of Canadian society have created false images of indigenous people to suit the imperatives of dominion – the Savage both vicious and noble, the Indian, and now the Aboriginal. Warrior societies are most accurately understood as attempts to express an authentic indigenous identity in the face of these false instrumental-to-empire identities generated by Canadians. A warrior society operating in the context of an indigenous nationhood struggle is the practical expression of indigenous peoples’ efforts to survive in an authentic sense by reconnecting to the sources of their strength – the land, their spirituality, their culture, and each other. In order to survive, indigenous people have been reasserting their true selves and resolving to survive in all senses of the word.

If one is to view a warrior society as in some way fundamentally different than other means of expressing an indigenous authenticity, the question must be asked, Why? Canadians accept and celebrate indigenous movements for cultural restoration; indigenous spirituality is acknowledged as an aspect of the healing process, etc. Why is it that reconnecting to land and asserting nationhood, which are just as much a part of recovering from colonization, are criminalized by the state and disdained by the Settler population? The obvious answer is that land and nationhood assertions have political and economic implications. Culture and spirituality and the arts are tolerated by Canadian society because for the most part they are depoliticized and integrated into the social and economic institutions of Canadian society – they are non-threatening to the interests and identities of Canadians. It is important to acknowledge the basic political character of the perspective of the Canadian state and of Settlers themselves, on all assertions of this one aspect of indigenous peoples’ struggle to survive. With respect to warrior societies especially, special care must be taken to acknowledge the inherent prejudices within Canadian culture and to place the structure and activities of warrior societies in the context of the broader struggles of indigenous peoples to withstand the historic and continuing effects of colonization.

THE WARRIOR IN HISTORIC AND CONTEMPORARY CONTEXTS

To link the ideas in traditional cultures with contemporary ideas and practices of people actually involved in warrior societies, I spoke with Teyowisonte, a man who has been involved with the Mohawk Warrior Society in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory since his early teen-age years. As part of my research for the book, Wasáse, I interviewed him about his concept of a “warrior” and sought to convey to people how this modern day warrior understood himself as such.

I began the conversation by remarking on Teyowisonte’s evident, from a quick look at his bookshelf, reliance on what may be called, “revolutionary” literature, in particular the work of the Argentine communist and hero of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara.

TA: Che Guevara’s basic message was one of armed resistance. Armed force, violence, used against the United States as the centre of empire. This is key to his idea. Is that a good message to be sending to our people?

Teyowisonte: That’s something I struggle with: the thirst for adventure. You have to keep it disciplined, that whole adventure part. It’s like boxing, in a way. I have my training tips taped to my fridge to remind myself: “Never Get Mad”. Because if you take off that discipline, you’re leaving yourself subject to something you’re not expecting.

TA: That sounds like something from The Art of War.2

Teyowisonte: I think it’s more my boxing training, because it’s something I figured out on my own. When I read The Art of War, it just reinforced what I already knew. It’s kind of like our traditional Longhouse teachings, they reinforced what I already knew from Star Wars! (Laughter) I’ll tell you, my evolution as a thinker started when I was 14 years old, as a fighting person. From 1990 on, I was just waiting for the next fight. I wouldn’t say I wasted my teenage years, but since then, I’ve dedicated my life to that cause. My weekends were spent at checkpoints, going on recon patrols, patrolling town, patrolling the perimeter, learning how and then timing ourselves on how fast we could dismantle AK-47s. That was our culture at the time. Every day was just waiting for the next war. When is it going to happen? Of course, we were all taught that the ideological basis of what we were doing was the Longhouse, and we were taught the Longhouse way of life. So, from that point on, I studied what I was going to be fighting for. That’s what we did.

But over time, we became disillusioned with our leaders, after finding out that what they were fighting for was more about what was going into their own pockets rather than for the good of the Nation. Once I found that out, I left the rhetoric and I started trying to find the true meaning of our teachings: peace, power, and righteousness; the power of the good mind. From that point on, you could say I became more open minded. I started talking to people whom I would have considered “the enemy” when I was a bit younger. I moved away from thinking that the Warriors were a secret society. I started to believe that we should be more open about what we think, and the things our teachers were talking about. That’s when I felt a burden lift off of me. You know? I felt a lot more comfortable with what I was doing and with the things I was talking about.

A key part of Teyowisonte’s interpretation of being a warrior is what he explained to me as the “national defence” function of the Warrior Society involving, potentially (as with the Oka Crisis in 1990) “armed resistance” to violence and aggression by non-indigenous governments. I questioned him about the implications of taking such a position on the role of the warrior today, not so much in terms of physical capacity but in terms of the social and cultural context of indigenous community life today.

TA: Most people react with fear or skepticism when you start talking about armed resistance.

Teyowisonte: A significant number of our people are complacent. They are stuck being too comfortable. They don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their standing, you know? They don’t want to lose their jobs; they don’t want to rock the boat. And unfortunately, in their minds, when you bring up weapons, that is about the most boat rocking kind of thing that you can do.

TA: What do you mean by “armed resistance?” Are you talking about pulling some IRA or PLO kind of activity or what?

Teyowisonte: I don’t think you can justify doing things like blowing up buildings or killing innocent people. We can’t justify initiating armed activity. Especially in our case, it’ll just do damage to the cause. Our weapons are strictly, strictly, for defence. The only time weapons should be used is when all peaceful means have been exhausted.

TA: What does that mean?

Teyowisonte: That means when the leadership is at a stalemate and the only thing that is going to save us is to pick up our weapons.

TA: So “armed resistance” is the defence of life, property, and well being?

Teyowisonte: I always say it like this: “The Warrior Society is in the business of defending people and territory”. You’re the one who said the word, “property,” but I wouldn’t even include businesses myself. Us Mohawks, particularly the Warrior Society, got a bad name because we were always associated with cigarette smuggling and super bingos. I’ll tell you something, when I was out there, it wasn’t for cigarettes and bingo. I was defending the people and the territory.

Teyowisonte’s responses clearly indicate that, in the Mohawk Warrior Society, ideological commitment to defend land and communities from physical invasion by outside forces is framed within a well thought ethical perspective. Their perspective on the use of violence is tempered not only by the direct experience of military engagement with Canadian police, paramilitary, and army forces, but also by the effects of psychological and social stress of armed conflict upon the community itself.

Theorizing violence and armed conflict in this way has led the modern Mohawk Warrior Society toward the development of an ethically reasoned and conceptually refined idea of “revolution” that is far from the simplistic notions of raging against power most often times attributed to warrior societies in the public mind.

TA: In your mind, how will the revolution unfold, and what will be your role in it?

Teyowisonte: First of all, I hope that my vision will be victorious here in my own community. From there, it will expand and harmonize with the rest of our nation and then with the other Iroquois nations. Once we have that, the ultimate vision is for a union of independent indigenous nations in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. That’s my ultimate vision. It’s similar to what Che had in mind for South America, but he didn’t make it because he jumped the gun and went right away to armed revolution. In my vision, I don’t think of revolution in the common contemporary sense of the word. I see “revolution” in the technical sense of the word, meaning our situation will evolve, or revolve.

TA: That’s interesting, because the original meaning of the word, in Latin, and in early European thinking, was, as you say, “technical”. It described a cycle or something coming around again.

Teyowisonte: I think that each indigenous society had achieved a nearly perfect utopia like state in our social and political organization. But because of colonization, we were de-evolved: we lost what made us great. We lost our culture, we lost our freedom.

TA: Is your vision of the future a threat to white people?

Teyowisonte: I could see the ultimate stage of the indigenous revolution being so. But as far as our nation goes, we’re not a threat to them. As Mohawks, we’re bound by the principles of the Two Row Wampum, and we have to respect each other’s independence and each other’s way of life. Hopefully, an indigenous revolutionary movement would thirst for something similar to the guidelines of the Two Row, so that it wouldn’t look to banish white people from the continent or to storm their parliament buildings and bring them down. Although, if you think about it, that would be pretty cool! [Laughter] Victory to me means everybody having political autonomy, economic independence, and a way of life that they choose, including white people.

It is evident in the juxtaposition of the traditional philosophical ideas with their modern interpretation by Teyowisonte that contemporary indigenous ideas on warrior societies reflect a strong cultural and spiritual basis outside of militaristic notions of being a soldier. There is in fact a culturally rooted warrior identity in indigenous cultures, and that identity manifests in the contemporary context in the form of cultural and spiritual assertions of survival. The Kanien’kehaka experience will be shown to be the same as other nations, as the following description of the development of warrior societies among the Mi’kmaq, Ojibway, and West Coast peoples makes clear.

The ultimate goal of the warrior society is to defend indigenous lands and people from external threats, particularly state authorities, in order to achieve justice and eventually peace. To achieve this goal, the warrior society’s objectives are threefold: 1) organize a group of indigenous people who are ready, willing and able to physically defend the land and the people at all times, 2) maintain a presence in the community representative of a warrior ethic, and 3) develop a political, cultural and ideological consciousness that is rooted in the territory and traditions of the community/nation in which it originates.

In all of these situations, warrior societies are groups of young indigenous people who both embrace the complex responsibilities of a traditional warrior and the requirements of defending their people and land against imminent and violent threats. Any discussion of the potential use of violence, or indeed of the experience of violence being used against indigenous people, are contained strictly within an ethical framework rooted in traditional cultural values and always considered within the context of self-defence in response to immediate threats of violence to communities or persons.

THE MODERN WARRIOR SOCIETY MOVEMENT

Contemporary warrior societies emerged in the late 1960s, with the rise of the Mohawk Warrior Society at Akwesasne and Kahnawake. The Mohawk Warrior Society was established by a group of young people committed to reviving traditional Kanien’kehaka teachings, language and structures in Kanien’kehaka territories. Accordingly, the strategy and tactics employed by the Mohawk Warrior Society are community and/or land based. The overall strategy was to repossess and protect Kanien’kehaka territories according to the Kaienerekoawa, the Great Law of Peace. The tactics employed by the Mohawk Warrior Society included barricades and roadblocks (to prevent Canadian and U.S. authorities from entering Kanien’kehaka territories), evictions (of unwanted people living in Kanien’kehaka reserve lands) and occupations (repossession of lands within Kanien’kehaka territory).

The emergence of the Mohawk Warrior Society coincided with the emergence of what was termed the Red Power movement, an urban based movement established in the United States to resist oppression and discrimination against indigenous people in all of North America. The overall strategy of the Red Power movement was to raise political, spiritual and cultural awareness among indigenous people and to advocate for what at the time were called “Indian rights”. This political awareness was grounded in the philosophy and tactics of the American civil rights movement: sit-ins, rallies and marches to pressure the US and Canadian governments to treat indigenous people fairly and to honour treaties. It is worth noting that contrary to the Mohawk Warrior Society’s strong roots in Kanien’kehaka cultural and spiritual traditions, the Red Power movement reflected the diverse racial and national backgrounds of its urban membership and was grounded in a pan-indigenous culture and spirituality that was not reflective of a single nation exclusively.

There were other fundamental differences between warrior societies and the Red Power movement. Warrior societies emerge from within (and remain a part of) indigenous communities, thus like the Mohawk Warrior Society, they are grounded in the communities’ indigenous traditions and are accountable to the traditional leadership. Red Power organizations emerged from within urban centres, were highly mobile and often formed a loose network of “chapters”. They focused their activities in urban centres unless called upon by people in indigenous communities during times of crisis. Once in a community, a Red Power organization was held accountable to its hosts and adjusted its approach accordingly. Whatever the differences between them though, warrior societies and Red Power organizations did draw on the same spirit of discontent among young indigenous people and they did focus on the same fundamental problems; thus warrior societies and Red Power organizations did ally in conflict situations.

Warrior societies and the Red Power movement expanded throughout the 1970s, often working together during episodes of crisis and mobilization. In 1973, the Mohawk Warrior Society stood in armed resistance against the Quebec Provincial Police at Kahnawake. The prominent Red Power organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM) allied with the Mohawk Warrior Society during this “siege at the Longhouse”.3 While AIM had received widespread attention during the siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota earlier that year, this was the first time the Mohawk Warrior Society had drawn attention from mainstream society and from governments.

Later that year, AIM adopted the term “warrior society” for its promotional poster, A Red Man’s International Warrior Society, and attributed its imagery and words to the Kahnawake Mohawk Warrior Society leader, Louis Hall (Karoniaktajeh). The text of the AIM poster is illustrative of the spirit of the times and of that movement:

Pledged to fight White Man’s injustice to Indians, his oppression, persecution, discrimination and malfeasance in the handling of Indian Affairs. No area in North America is too remote when trouble impends for Indians. AIM shall be there to help the Native People regain human rights and achieve restitutions and restorations.

The poster depicts a Mohawk man (indicated by the three upright feathers of the Rotinoshonni style Gustoweh, or headdress) standing atop inverted United States and Canadian flags. This imagery gained prominence in 1974, when the Mohawk Warrior Society re-established the territory of Ganienkeh after repossessing Kanien’kehaka lands that had been occupied privately in New York State. Karoniaktajeh himself was instrumental in the repossession of Ganienkeh territory, and it was there that he unfurled the “Indian Flag,” sometimes called the “Ganienkeh Flag”. The flag symbolized a mighty Union of Indian Nations, depicting a generic indigenous man’s head with long hair and one feather (symbolizing, according to Karoniaktajeh, indigenous peoples being “all of one mind”). Since Ganienkeh was envisioned as the staging ground for such a union, it was adopted there. Later, Karoniaktajeh designed a flag for the Mohawk Warrior Society that depicted a Mohawk man’s head on the same background of the “Indian Flag” – a sun on a red background.

The Ojibway Warrior Society also gained prominence in 1974 when they occupied Anicinabe Park in Ontario. The following excerpts from a 1974 interview with Louis Cameron, the leader of the Ojibway Warrior Society, capture the spirit and intent among the Ojibway people involved with the warrior society movement at that time:

Q: How do you feel that the violence or confrontation tactics you are using differ from the violence of the government?

Louis: First of all, our war is a just war, a people’s war. We are fighting oppression, we are fighting profiteers, fighting private interests. The people are justified – they’ve been killed in the hundreds in the last ten years.

Q: How have they been killed?

Louis: As a result of the force of that whole oppression pushing that expression inwards on the Indian people. As a direct result of that they drown, die of fire… or sometimes they shoot each other…Whether you call it violent or not, our struggle is progressive – it fights for our people. It fights for human rights. We are fighting for brothers and sisters we have lost, for land we have lost. We’re fighting for unity with a lot of other people across the country who want the same things.

We want free government, we want self-determination, we want our own land back, our own nations, our own governments. The treaties have been signed and they’ve been violated – they just use them for manipulation purposes.

Q: Louis, you were one of the founders of the Ojibway Warriors Society. Could you talk about why you started the Warriors Society, and what it stands for?

Louis: It began by itself; a lot of women and a lot of men started expressing that: “Where else can we go?”… You know we’ve tried a lot of things and still look at our communities – the Indian communities are really sad – the Indian people are fighting each other. So these people have a lot of frustrations, a lot of anger and they are seeking justice. We looked around and the only organization that we saw that had the kind of feeling that served the people is the feeling that is connected with AIM. We saw that some Indian people really had been putting their dreams, their hopes, their frustrations together – and it’s a human movement.

In Kenora they put us down if we say we believe in AIM. So for the purpose of our own people here we titled the movement – which is the same movement as the American Indian Movement across the continent – the Ojibway Warriors Society. It serves the people, it puts the aims and aspirations of our people together, especially the feeling of being Indian people. It started from this. Throughout the reservations and in town they’re always asking us: “What organization are you from?…What organization do you represent?” And finally, our people said we’re the Ojibway Warriors Society. Myself, it doesn’t matter what title you put on it. It’s the movement that’s important.

Q: Why did the Ojibway Warriors Society decide on an armed occupation of Anicinabe Park in Kenora?

Louis: This summer we planned… a four day conference with ceremonies on behalf of our people and by our own people. In these four days we called for a discussion on the last takeover of Indian Affairs. We talked about Wounded Knee, we talked about March 1965, in Kenora – we talked about these sorts of things, about serving our people and getting it on. At the same time we looked at the Kenora situation and how we can combat the kind of violence our people face and the reservation communities. There was pretty close to a thousand people there for four days… And we came to the decision after the fourth day that this just cannot go on another day.

So this came from the suggestions of the people that were here. It was a decision made by the people. The action that we’re getting from our people on the reservations now is that they’re doing a lot of thinking in a different way. A new kind of thinking, a new kind of movement is happening on the reservations right now.

Q: Do you think you have a lot of support among your people?

Louis: Well, I don’t know how to say a lot – but we have a great amount of support from our people.

Q: How is this shown?

Louis: They’ve come down here ever since we’ve been here. We’ve occupied this place for the last 16 days now, and there has been a steady group of 150 people here but a lot of people travel in and travel out. In sixteen days we’ve had about 2000 people here already. The come and talk. We’ve had old people here and women and everybody. We have general meetings with them. A lot of people come on the weekends and sit down and talk. We also get phone calls and letters.

Q: What do you think are the chances of winning any or all of your demands?

Louis: Well, first of all, you know that we have a list of demands that you would consider impossible – a list of demands that a lot of people wouldn’t comprehend. We have to have a complete changeover in the Canadian government, we have to have a complete changeover in the Canadian law system and various departments in the federal and provincial governments – there has to be a lot of drastic changes in those establishments. These are the kinds of demands we are putting forward…

If we are going to get killed here, I want to know that I’ve asked for everything, I want to die right. I’m not just going to ask for a piece of bread and then get shot without even getting it. When we jeopardize our lives here, and many of our people get shot, it’s not impossible for us to ask for the ultimate changes in this country.

Q: Under what conditions will you lay down your guns?

Louis: I don’t think that this is a possibility at all. Hopefully the conditions will be that from now on Indian people will be armed no matter where they are.

Q: Would you lay down your guns if the police laid down their guns?

Louis: (Laughs) All the police in Canada and the army would have to be disarmed before we disarmed too. It’s not just to ask Indian people at this point in time, at this stage, to put down their guns. It’s very unjust because it’s all they have left…

There have been hundreds of shots fired at us by vigilantes and there have been some shots fired by uniformed police officers firing in the direction of the park. We’ve stated that we took up guns to protect our people, to serve our people. It’s the only tool we have left to serve and protect our people.

We didn’t advocate any violence, and we never will advocate any violence. What we are advocating is confrontation – direct confrontation with the federal government, the provincial government and the town council. All along we’ve been willing to negotiate in good faith. All the violence is coming from the outside – threats from the police, from the town council, from the vigilantes. All that violence is coming from the outside – not here.

Q: During part of the time we have been talking, the drums have been playing and people singing in the background. Can you tell me why?

Louis: We have sacred ceremonies all the time. We have sweat lodges, every sunrise there is a pipe ceremony where we burn tobacco, and in the evening we have the drums. Part of it is for having fun and part of it is for being serious. It’s one of the things that we must go back to. We must go back to our own people, back to our land, back to the sacred things that we believe in.

It is clear from Cameron’s comments that the Ojibway Warrior Society in the 1970s was fundamentally similar in ideological orientation to the other movements that emerged during that era. The Ojibway Warrior Society appears to have been a unique combination of the urban and “revolutionary” (in outlook and strategic objective) Red Power movement with the culturally and community rooted Mohawk Warrior Society. Perhaps the most telling of Cameron’s comments is that the name “warrior society” was only chosen because of its growing currency at the time and in response to pressure from outside of the movement to label itself – it is quite evident that the Ojibway Warrior Society did not stem from an ideological struggle, but that ideology and the label of a warrior society was grafted onto a movement that developed within the Ojibway community and in North western Ontario in response to systemic and immediate injustices against indigenous peoples. In this basic way, the Ojibway Warrior Society joined AIM and the Mohawk Warrior Society in the list of organic movements expressing long standing grievances in a vocabulary that reflected both traditional culture and contemporary political discourse.

Later that same year, in the fall of 1974, the Bonaparte Indian Band in the interior region of British Columbia set up an armed roadblock on the highway that passed through their reserve to demand better housing. Several AIM members were present at the barricade and Chief Ken Basil looked to the leaders of both AIM and the Ojibway Warrior Society for support, declaring, “between 2,000 and 3,000 militant Indians might come to the reserve from Kenora, Ont., and Wounded Knee, S.D. if the blockade resumes”.

Later that year, Louis Cameron and members of AIM led a Native People’s Caravan to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where they were met with barricades and riot police.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Kahnawake-based Mohawk Warrior Society expanded to the neighbouring community of Akwesasne and was instrumental to the establishment of a lucrative cigarette trade that generated revenue for both the Warrior Society and the traditional governments in the Kanien’kehaka communities. Meanwhile, AIM intensified its activities in British Columbia and Alberta, establishing chapters in major cities and attending the roadblocks, sit-ins, and “fish-ins” that were springing up throughout western Canada and the United States. By the end of the 1980s, the Mohawk Warrior Society had strengthened their presence in Kanien’kehaka communities and drafted a Code of Conduct framed within the structures of the Great Law of Peace. They had also been embroiled in several armed conflicts with Canadian and United States’ authorities as a result of police invasion and raiding of reserve cigarette stores, casinos and bingo halls.

In 1988, the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society emerged out of the community of Big Cove, New Brunswick. Soon after, the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief, Georges Erasmus, warned Canadians that warrior societies were springing up on Indian reserves all over Canada and that younger indigenous people were becoming impatient with the intransigence of government in dealing with indigenous peoples’ land and governance issue:

We may be the last generation of leaders that are prepared to sit down and peacefully negotiate our concerns with you. The next generation may resort to violence if governments continue to ignore native concerns.

While Erasmus’ statement was an exaggeration and an ill-advised attempt by a moderate leader to leverage the young people’s political discontent to create some advantage for First Nations negotiating land claims, it nonetheless showed that there was a growing awareness of the fact and of the influence of warrior societies in indigenous communities and consciousness.

Meanwhile, AIM’s influence had all but disintegrated. The nature of the organization as a transient, urban-cultured movement had prevented any lasting connection to indigenous communities, and it failed to gain widespread support from indigenous people. AIM members were subsequently harassed, arrested and incarcerated by United States and Canadian authorities, while First Nation politicians and leaders of established political organization, hoping to curry favour with Canadian governments in order to gain access to negotiating processes, publicly denounced the confrontational approach taken by the organization. During the time through the mid-1980s when several indigenous communities in the interior and northern part of British Columbia took direct action to defend their territories from ongoing unsanctioned and rapacious resource extraction, AIM was nowhere to be found.

In 1990, the Mohawk Warrior Society faced off with the Quebec Provincial Police and the Canadian Army to prevent the expansion of a municipal golf course in Kanesatake, another Kanien’kehaka territory. Even for the Mohawk Warrior Society, the swell of media attention was unprecedented. Images of armed, masked men dressed in army fatigues, defending their land and the people from the full force of the Canadian state shook mainstream Canada and galvanized indigenous people from coast to coast. By the mid 1990s, Erasmus’ warning was seeming to have been proven prophetic as warrior societies emerged throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Manitoba.

Many of the people who became involved in the warrior society movements on the east and west coast have cited the 1990 Oka crisis as a turning point in their lives, and the watershed event of this generation’s political life. Indeed, in terms of providing inspiration and motivation for the militant assertion of indigenous nationhood, the Mohawk Warrior Society’s actions in 1990 around Kanesatake, Kahnawake and Akwesasne stand alone in prominence in people’s minds and effect on the later development of movements across the country. This is not to say that the Mohawks consciously and directly spread their approach to other nations, but rather, there was more of a modelling effect. Young indigenous people in communities across the land saw through the Mohawks’ action that it was indeed possible to defend oneself and one’s community against state violence deployed by governments in support of a corporate agenda and racist local governments. Perhaps even more importantly, young indigenous people recognized the honour in what the Mohawks had done in standing up to what eventually were proven to be unjust and illegal actions on the part of the local non-indigenous government. This psychological effect, an awakening of indigenous consciousness and radicalization of the agenda, as well as the broadening of the spectrum of possible responses to injustice was the crucial impact of the Oka crisis on indigenous political life generally, and on the warrior movement in particular.

After the Mohawk stand in 1990, indigenous resistance came to be virtually defined in terms of the approach, technique, vocabulary and style of the Mohawk Warrior Society’s actions during that summer. Illustrative of the Oka crises’ impact in personal terms on the later development of the warrior society movement, one member of the West Coast Warrior Society told me in 2002 that he was “born at Oka”. By this he meant that in his mind and in the way of thinking common among members of warrior societies, they came into existence as warriors when they were awakened to their true indigenous selves in 1990. It was the Mohawks’ action that jarred them from their confusion about being indigenous and crystallized their sense of what needed to be done to create justice in the relationship between indigenous peoples and Canada.

The Mi’kmaq Warrior Society had developed and maintained a presence in several Atlantic communities, including Big Cove, Listiguj and Esgenoopetitj. Lawrence Bernard, co-founder of the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society noted, “it was hard to recruit for the society at first, but that changed after Oka”.  In 1994, the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society made headlines when they seized land once occupied by a residential school and demanded the land be returned to the Mi’kmaq people. A year later, the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society was called in to protect the community of Eel Ground as they conducted their traditional salmon fishery in the Miramichi River in defiance of Canadian regulations.

At the same time, although not involving a warrior society, in British Columbia, 400 RCMP officers were deployed with paramilitary force and using armoured vehicles and land mines to remove 21 indigenous people from lands leased to an American rancher. Initially, the people had gathered for ceremonies; as the siege wore on, indigenous activists arrived clad in camouflage and waving the Mohawk warrior flag. Soon, support roadblocks were erected throughout the province.

A year later, in Vancouver, second generation AIM activists established the Native Youth Movement (NYM), an urban-based youth organization grounded in Red Power traditions, philosophies and tactics. They too, wore camouflage and masks and carried the Mohawk warrior flag. For three years, NYM engaged in sit-ins, rallies and marches throughout British Columbia to protest the province’s Treaty Process.

In 1997, the Okiijida Warrior Society formed in Manitoba as an alternative to urban youth gangs such as the Manitoba Warriors and the Indian Posse.  The Okiijida Warrior Society soon affiliated with the American Indian Movement and worked to raise awareness about indigenous peoples’ relationship with the Canadian government and encourage people to pressure Canada and the United States to treat indigenous people fairly. Since 2002, the Okiijida Warrior Society has helped the Grassy Narrows community in Ontario maintain a blockade preventing logging trucks from entering their territory. The Grassy Narrows blockade continues to this day, and is actively supported by the people in the community. It is a highly visible and accessible site, both physically and psychologically, and indications from people involved are that the blockade has served a galvanizing purpose and is enabling indigenous youth to learn from elders about the importance of land, spirituality, and the sustained connections to their heritage in an environment that, while situated within a conflict between the community and outside interests, is fundamentally positive and motivating for those involved at the community level.

In 1999, the Cheam First Nation recruited members of the Native Youth Movement to assist them as they engaged in their Fraser River salmon fishery in defiance of Canadian regulations. This marked the beginning of a close relationship between the community and members of the Native Youth Movement. In 2000, these members formed the West Coast Warrior Society. Soon, they donned their fatigues and set up a three month roadblock to protect Cheam fishing camps. Later that year, the West Coast Warrior Society travelled to Esgenoopetitj to assist local indigenous communities in that region in their ongoing conflict with local fishers and Canadian authorities over the conduct of traditional fisheries by the Mi’kmaq.

Since 1999, the Mi’kmaq people of Esgenoopetitj had been asserting their treaty rights and conducting their own lobster fishery in defiance of Canadian regulations. The regulations being imposed on the Mi’kmaq people spelled out restrictive and in their view unacceptable terms of indigenous involvement in a government regulated fishery. Whole communities were only allowed to fish with just a few thousand traps, while the large commercial fishery comprised of non-indigenous individual licensees, were granted usage of several hundred thousand traps per license, representing several million traps collectively. Adding insult to injury, the Canadian government’s rationale for restricting the Mi’kmaq’ traditional fishery was stated as being on account of conservation concerns. It was only after the government refused to politically recognize this extreme disparity of access and application that the once uniformly cooperative indigenous community mobilized to assert and demand fair treatment and the Canadian government’s conformity with international and domestic law – Canadian politicians had refused to intervene with substantive changes to the whole fishery lobster scheme.

This resulted in several clashes with Canadian authorities and citizenry. By the fall of 2000, Esgenoopetitj was under siege and the waters of Miramichi Bay became the frontline. Warrior societies, activists, politicians and media descended on the community. Members of the Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Okiijida and West Coast Warrior Societies all joined the Esgenoopetitj and Listiguj Rangers in defence of Mi’kmaq communities and fisheries.

When the fishing season was over, the warrior societies dispersed back to their home territories. In 2001, the commander of the East Coast Warrior Society (which had emerged in Esgenoopetitj during the fall of 2000) left for British Columbia and aligned with the West Coast Warrior Society.

In 2003, the West Coast Warrior Society was summoned to help five Saanich communities in protecting the viability of the Goldstream salmon run in Saanich Inlet from a commercial fishery opening proposed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Large commercial fishery interests were demanding access to salmon runs that had been restored through the indigenous community’s own habitat rehabilitational projects – commercial fisheries for the particular species of salmon being proposed by DFO in the Saanich Inlet itself has been off limits by agreement of the Canadian government and the Saanich people for years. The same inequity faced by the east coast communities and fishers was now facing these west coast indigenous communities: large fleets and corporate interests in the commercial fishery were to be given access to fish for maximum commercial harvest while the indigenous communities would receive token access and benefit from the resource. With the basis for their cultures and survival, the salmon fishery, under such direct threat and with the federal government again failing to intervene in a principled manner, on the invitation of the five Saanich communities and supported by the communities’ band councils, the West Coast Warrior Society remained in the community for five weeks preparing to block the commercial fishery. In the end, the fishery was cancelled without physical confrontation and the West Coast Warrior Society left the communities.

The West Coast Warrior Society, its membership being mostly members of a neighbouring indigenous nation, the Nuu-chah-nulth, has since moved away from this approach and does not position itself as an “on-call force” for all indigenous community resistance. The Red Power inspired strategies, philosophies and tactics that marked its early years has given way to a “defending the nation” approach and the members of the WCWS are now working to ground themselves more solidly their own Nuu-chah-nulth communities, traditions and structures.

What is clear through these examples is the continuing and impressive patience of indigenous peoples to resolving political matters in principled, fair, and legal (via international and national conventions) ways. In every instance where conflict has arisen between warrior societies and Canadian authorities, the violent interaction was instigated by police or other government authorities, or by local non-indigenous interests opposed to indigenous people. In all cases, it is only when overwhelming injustice is perpetrated againt them in the face of possible mutually beneficial alternatives, do indigenous communities comprised of normally cooperative and peaceful people, who are yet struggling to survive, rise up to demand just treatment and fairer relations with the Settler society.

The local conflicts outlined above have occurred in separate jurisdictions, but are structurally similar, especially in the case of the east and west coast fisheries. However, whatever the conflict’s complexion and character of community mobilization, the same underlying tensions between the Settler and indigenous society are tested when just and fair relations in a situation are in order. A cursory political and economic analysis of these situations obviously shows how governments unabashedly approve, maintain, and advance lop-sided and wrong-headed directives favouring non-indigenous corporate interests or the economic and political interests of the non-indigenous population. In the face of this systemic and sustained masquerade of “good governance,” each instance of indigenous resistance to the injustices of the situation are cross-referenced and validated by other indigenous people against the backdrop of continual colonial transgressions against their own communities. This has resulted in seemingly separate and distinct indigenous peoples studying, paying homage to, and adopting different elements and tactics of the principled resistances that warrior societies exemplify. This cascading of contention from one community to another happens organically based on the application of intelligence on an information base that includes direct experience and knowledge of what is happening in other communities. There is no persistent network of strategy and communication among the warrior societies involved in these actions – the collective experience and similarity of sentiment in indigenous communities when faced with unjust treatment is a powerful enough spur to collective action and solidarity.

Notes:

1. This section draws on my analysis in Taiaiake Alfred, Wasáse: indigenous pathways of action and freedom. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005.

2. The Art of War is a classic text of war strategy and political counsel by the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu.

3. Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera, “The Psychology of Fear: The Rise of the Warrior Society,” in People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka (Toronto: MacArthur and Company, 1991), 174.

4. American Indian Movement, Red Man’s International Warrior Society, Poster, (1973).

5. Cameron, Louis, and Ojibway Warrior Society. Ojibway Warriors’ Society in Occupied Anicinabe Park, Kenora, Ontario, August 1974. (Toronto: Better Read Graphics, 1974) 5-12.

6. “Chiefs Turn Backs on Indians’ Armed Stand,” The Province, (August 27, 1974).

7. See James Burke, Paper Tomahawks: From Red Tape to Red Power (Winnipeg: Queenston House Publishing, 1976) for an interview with Louis Cameron describing the events on Parliament Hill.

8. “Native Violence Threatens as Youth Grow Frustrated,” Windsor Star, (June 2, 1988) A17.

9. Kelly Toughill, “Warrior Society Steps to the Front,” Toronto Star, (August 30, 1998).

10. Marvin Perreault, “20th Century Warriors,” 1997 (cited January 25, 2005), Available at: http://www.vcircle.com/journal/showquestion.php?fldAuto=39&faq=2 .

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From the Red Power Movement to Idle No More

Native American protest, 1971

Native American protest, 1971

A former member of the American Indian Movement looked back at the days of Red Power and said, “I didn’t think of it as ‘a string of successes’ at the time, but I guess that’s what it was.  It was a time when you questioned things, when what you hadn’t really thought about became pretty obvious. It was a time when you could make a difference.

Red Power stands for mass, united, militant action. Red Power, like Black Power, set off a wave of action and a level of consciousness in both the indigenous and non-indigenous communities, which has never really ended. Before we get to the parallels between the Red Power movement and Idle No More, let’s look at the international context in which it took place, some of the key events of the older movement, some of the debates that arose during this period, as well as the legacy left behind by this movement.

Most scholars date the movement as roughly between 1969 and 1978, covering events that took place in North America. The end of the 1960s marked the end of the post-war economic boom, and the beginning of a series of recessions. When the economy is in crisis, the corporations and the governments that serve them need to obtain their profits in increasingly aggressive ways. In Canada, the search for new sources of oil, gas and electricity, led to a head-on collision with indigenous communities.

At the same time, there was inspiration from anti-war and liberation movements. As one historian of the movement described the Alcatraz occupation: “The occupation and the Red Power Indian activist movement that followed in its wake took their places alongside the civil rights movement, the black power movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the many other movements dramatizing the grievances of and demanding rights for women, Latinos, Asians, gays, the poor, and the disabled.”

Members of the Black Panther party in Oakland, California protested a new ban on firearms in front of the California capitol building. Over 30 members were arrested and co-founder Bobby Seale was taken into custody.

Members of the Black Panther party in Oakland, California protested a new ban on firearms in front of the California capitol building. Over 30 members were arrested and co-founder Bobby Seale was taken into custody.

American Indian Movement

As early as June 1961, representatives from more than 60 tribes met in Chicago and issued a “Declaration of Indian Purpose”, and growing out of this was the National Indian Youth Council” (NIYC) of young, mainly urban native activists. It was one of the first native activist organizations formed during the civil rights era. Indigenous people adapted the civil rights’ sit-in’s to “fish-ins”: fishing “illegally” in waters traditionally used by native people, and the precipitating events were court restrictions on native fishing. The fish-ins resulted in legal victories, but equally important organizational lessons including alliances between local tribal groups and national organizations, and attracting media attention to influence popular opinion and the courts.

In 1968, The American Indian Movement, best known as AIM, was formed in Minneapolis Minnesota.  It was inspired by the Black Panthers and was set up to address similar problems: police harassment, racism and poverty. It had its strongest bases in urban settings, but quickly became known on large reserves across the US and Canada. The best known AIM leaders were Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier.

The 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Franciso, was a turning point: led not by local tribes but by a “national” or supra-tribal organization (in this case the “Indians of All Tribes”), and activists began targeting urban centres and/or national monuments or property as “surplus” government land that belonged to the indigenous people.

The occupation began with just over 80 indigenous people on November 20, 1969. Due to the high level of political consciousness that had developed by 1969, there was tremendous solidarity with the occupation—because of the success of battles fought by other minorities, e.g. blacks, and the Vietnamese abroad, and the awareness of the hypocrisy of government policy. The native activists also drew in celebrities like Dick Gregory, Marlon Brando (who refused his Oscar because of the federal government’s treatment of native people), Johnny Cash and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The Alcatraz occupation lasted 19 months. The impact was electric and widespread. As one person said, “Every once in a while something happens that can alter the whole shape of a people’s history. This only happens once in a generation or lifetime. The big one was Alcatraz.”

Another important event was the “Trail of Broken Treaties”, a caravan of hundreds of indigenous activists from across the country to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington in November, 1972, immediately prior to the presidential election.

There was also a shift to longer-term occupations in the early 1970s.  The most famous of these was at Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota (the place of the US massacre of the Lakota Sioux in 1890). The conflict in Wounded Knee was related to the internal divisions in the tribe (Oglala Lakota Sioux) over its chair, Richard Wilson, who some saw as corrupt and totally co-opted by the BIA. Wilson’s opponents, supported by 250 AIM members from outside Wounded Knee, led a siege for 71 days.

An American Indian Movement (AIM) guard posted at a roadblock outside Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973.

An American Indian Movement (AIM) guard posted at a roadblock outside Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973.

Subsequent tribal-based occupations occurred in 1974 and 1975, and were of varying duration, in locations everywhere from New York state, to Wisconsin, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington.

In the early 1970s, there was a shift from “supra-tribal” events to issues more rooted in specific communities, and AIM re-focussed from the city to the reservations. By 1975, AIM began to make a priority of establishing or strengthening connections with indigenous peoples internationally, leading to an AIM offshoot called the International Indian Treaty Council.

Red Power movement

The precipitating event for the Red Power movement in Canada was the federal government’s release of its “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy” or a “White Paper” for discussion, in June, 1969—the same year as the Alcatraz occupation. This document sought to extinguish all distinct status for First Nations people, the very status guaranteed under existing laws. The White Paper would have been the death knell of distinct First Nations cultures and rights, as paltry as these rights were under the Indian Act (enacted in 1876). The assimilation goal that underpinned the White Paper represented a continuation of longstanding colonial policy of the Canadian state.

As the First Nations writer James Burke noted: “Given all this , one would think that the Indian’s special status is more of a millstone than a crutch. Not from the Indian’s standpoint, though, for poor housing is better than no housing, inadequate education is better than no education, and inferior medical care is better than no medical care…But there’s more to it than that. There’s the land – the land upon which thousands of Indian people reside and believe to be theirs, as well as other vast tracts which they claim belong to them due to treaty or aboriginal rights. Without land, Indians would be unable to sustain the idea of native nationhood. As they would put it: where there’s land, there’s hope. Hope for independence both cultural and economic.”

But Red power was already evident in Canada before the release of the White Paper. In March, 1969 at a conference of the Manitoba Indian and Metis Conference, Jeannette Corbiere from Toronto stated: “the only way to gain equality is not to ask for it, but rather to lay claim on it… We will not only rock the boat, we will sink it if need be.”

Key events

What is striking about the Red Power era, and what distinguished it from other periods of native resistance, is the frequency of actions taken, and the direct action focus they took—as opposed to the lobbying efforts which were the main tactic used previously.

In January 1970, 200 Indians and Metis occupied the Alberta “New Start” Centre in Lac La Biche because the government cancelled its research programs. The summer of 1973 saw the occupation of the office of the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa, and the occupation of the Minister of Indian Affairs office in Kenora. The summer of 1973 also saw the Cache Creek, BC highway blockade to protest poor housing conditions on reserve. On October 16, 1973, hundreds of Mohawks fought police and smashed windows of band council offices on the Caughnawaga reserve in Quebec.

The 1974 armed occupation of Anicinabe Park, near Kenora, Ontario.

The 1974 armed occupation of Anicinabe Park, near Kenora, Ontario.

The year 1974 was seen by some as the turning point in the Red Power movement in Canada. One of the key events was the occupation of Anicinabe (municipal) Park in Kenora, Ontario, in July 1974. Louis Cameron from the nearby White Dog reserve organized a conference in the park, but participants decided they needed to do more to assert their rights and make their demands heard. An Ojibway group said the park had been wrongfully taken from them by the city of Kenora in 1959, to whom it had been sold by the federal government without Ojibway permission.

But the July conference created an atmosphere to articulate other demands e.g. an end to police harassment in Kenora, better medical and dental services, removal of a particular judge (S.J. Nottingham), creation of a police college for First Nations peoples and cultural training for white police, creation of a local human rights committee, and appointment of First Nations justices of the peace.

This occupation was the first time in this period that First Nations people used arms to increase pressure to ensure their rights.  The occupation lasted 39 days, involving a stand-off between 100 First Nations participants (including support from members of AIM) and police. There were dozens of arrests but subsequent acquittals, and the leaders of the main national First Nations political bodies spoke out against the action as condoning violence.

The next main event that year occurred on Parliament Hill in September 1974 immediately after Anicinabe. The event was planned as a demonstration to raise awareness of the plight of indigenous people.  To build support, Louis Cameron, a leader with the Ojibway Warriors Society and of the Anicinabe occupation, went around Canada and launched the Native People’s Caravan to get people to Ottawa by Sept. 30. He succeeded in attracting 900 people.

On Parliament Hill, there were three lines of police. Indigenous people were unarmed, but police had bayonets and tear gas, and charged on the native people.

1974 Occupation of Anicinabe Park. 2/2

1974 Occupation of Anicinabe Park. 2/2

As Cameron observed, “I think that the event of the riot police attacking the people of the demonstration was a retaliation of the federal justice department of Canada and also particularly the Province of Ontario to retaliate on the native people for their armed insurrection at Anicinabe Park…We took up guns and freed ourselves from that (government dictatorship) but in return, the police and the government came running down with guns and clubs.”

There were numerous events in BC as well. For example, in 1975, there were five different protests. In March, 250 people from the Nazko and Luskus bands near Quesnel declared themselves sole occupants of hundreds of square miles of land in central BC. In April, Quatsino band members threatened to shut down the copper mine at Port Hardy, Vancouver Island, unless the company agreed to make $600,000 payments twice a year to compensate for the destruction of marine life in Quatsino Sound.

In April, 60 native people demonstrated on Highway #3 in the southern interior of BC near Hedley, over cut-off land claims discussions. Those from the Kitsegukla band set up a blockade on the road leading to the Kitsegukla Valley logging operation over land claims. A hundred members of the Seton Lake band blocked the BC Rail in near Lillooet, halting a Vancouver-based passenger train. The April conference of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs saw 188 chiefs renounce all federal aid, and give a statement that their members would no longer apply for government permits to hunt and fish.

There was also opposition to government energy plans. The James Bay Energy Corporation was diverting major rivers to create hydro power, but there was resistance by the James Bay Cree and Inuit communities. There was also the fight of the Dene people against the MacKenzie Valley pipeline in the Northwest Territories. The Dene resistance arose in response to the process, and to the fact that they had a land claim of some 400,000 square miles in the area.  The NWT Indian and Metis Federation stated it would use “any means necessary” (à la Malcolm X) to defend the claim.

In 1975 the Dene people called for independence and self-determination within the country of Canada.  This struggle evinced considerable support from the Canadian population. As described in one sympathetic newspaper – “Native activists have also sought support from organized workers and northern whites who are concerned about the land and the environment.  In a most significant development, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and the United Auto Workers have taken a stand in favour of a just land settlement BEFORE the pipeline is built. “

Debates within the Red Power movement

One debate was about tactics. One objection to AIM was that it was not sufficiently rooted in local communities to have credibility e.g. its members wouldn’t know local habits or culture. Disagreement about tactics was somewhat related to generational differences, and somewhat related to lack of real inclusion.

In Canada, another debate emerged between some First Nations men and women. First Nations women were discriminated against under Sec. 12 (1) (b) of the Indian Act whereby First Nations women who married non-First Nations lost their status as registered Indians (vs. First Nations men who married non-First Nations women did not).  Jeanette Lavell took the case of discrimination up legally. In 1974 she went to the Supreme Court of Canada and she lost the case, which led her to form Indian Rights for Indian Women-which led to debate within native communities. This particular struggle was later won through Bill C-31 passed in 1985.

Other debates took place between Red Power and government-funded Indian organizations. Government relied on the organizations they funded to minimize the effects of the Red Power movement, to dampen militancy.

For example, at a March 1969 Manitoba conference, Dave Courchene from the Indian Native Brotherhood denounced Red Power as “swelled heads”, and media depicted INB as the “reasonable” ones. These government-funded leaders were referred to as “uncle tomahawks”–though people like Courchene himself would denounce the government five years later when its “partnership” initiatives did not live up to their name e.g. only token native involvement in education programs.

Other debates were created by conservative thinkers within the native community. The best example comes from a lawyer, William Wuttunee, from Alberta. He wroteRuffled Feathers: Indians in Canadian Society, and agreed with those on the right that the best way forward for native people was to assimilate into Canadian economic and political life.  He supported the 1969 White Paper and, not surprisingly, was called upon frequently by the federal government to act as a native spokesman.

Relationship with other progressive forces in Canada

Many native people understood the links between their oppression and corporate greed. There were explicit anti-capitalists in the movement, just as there are today with groups like Idle No More.

Idle No More National Day of Action

Idle No More National Day of Action

Some Red Power activists were heavily influenced by nationalist struggles for self-determination happening in Africa and Vietnam, and in their ideological explorations found that Marxist explanations of the causes of oppression and imperialism made the most sense.

Maoist thought and maoist groups in Canada, like In Struggle and the CPC-ML, attracted some native activists like Vern Harper, who offered the following analysis of events in 1974:  “One of the key factors that made ’74 a turning point was that native activists, for the first time in their generation, realized that there was non-native support for their cause.

The isolation of the natives, used by the state, is no longer effective…We see trade unions, progressive left groups, church groups such as the Quakers, even liberal elements give support, such as funds, telegrams, participating in demonstrations, letters to Members of Parliament denouncing the tactics of the state, to help us. There’s a more militant and revolutionary theme emerging, which is beginning to get support from all elements of the native movement…Native and non-native people are seeing that capitalism doesn’t serve the masses.  It only protects the capitalists’ interests…”

Another native Marxist was Howard Adams from Saskatchewan. In 1975, he wrote: “If Native organizations are not politically active on a regular basis they cannot come together with non-Native people – it institutionalizes special status and gives a message to non-Natives that says ‘our problems are different form yours and our solutions are different.’ However, in fact, the problems are the same in the end; a small number of rich people get all the benefits of the capitalist society, and the vast majority, Native and non-Native, face constant insecurity and poverty.”

Native people and non-native people had lots of hope whenever the NDP was elected. In 1972, the NDP was elected in BC. Premier Dave Barrett appointed a First Nations leader Frank Calder to his Cabinet, but as a “minister without portfolio” – so Calder had no effective mandate. This same duplicity was shown by the NDP in Manitoba. During the Berger inquiry into the MacKenzie Valley pipeline meeting in Winnipeg, the NDP declined to make a submission. They knew that if they supported the pipeline, they would be unpopular with ordinary people. But if they spoke out too loudly against the pipeline, they would be hypocritical, as such opposition would fly in the face of their own behaviour towards native people, e.g. through support of hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba (flooding of South Indian Lake) and forced relocations.

Challenges, successes, and decline

Historically, and to this day, federal and provincial governments divide indigenous people by alternating their point of contact between national leaders and Band leaders, whatever will help the government get through its agenda the easiest. Outside the movement, both the NDP and labour leadership failed to consistently support indigenous struggles in a vocal, visible way, even though individual members of NDP and labour were counted as allies by activists. Internally, there was a lack of structure (e.g .AIM to this day prides itself on its loose structure), illusions about international law and the UN, and a belief that self-determination on its own would solve the problems of poverty and inequality.

But the challenges faced by the Red Power movement were far outweighed by the tremendous legacy left by the actions in the 1970s. There was a high level of activity coinciding with self-determination movements in Africa and Asia and liberation movements in North America, greater regional and national coordination, greater independence from government funding, and recognition of native bureaucracy as part of the bigger problem.

Among the victories were: forcing the government to withdraw its 1969 White Paper (in 1973), cultural renewal (which also affected non-indigenous people), funding for social programs, increased access to education and increased content (e.g. native studies programs), increased confidence to resist with greater frequency and militancy of actions.

The end of the movement in the late 1970s and into the 1980s coincided with a downturn in struggle internationally, and across various movements that had been ignited after 1968. The decline of Red Power was also due to government co-optation, by including indigenous “leaders” in policy consultation, and police repression (similar to what happened to the Black Panthers). The US arrested AIM leaders Leonard Peltier and Anna Mae Aquash, and infiltrated the organization, and Canada repressed warrior groups with surveillance, police break-ins and arbitrary arrests.

Comparison with Idle No More

The thread between the Red Power movement and Idle No More is with the 1990s confrontations in Oka and Gustafsen Lake, plus the native youth movement and warrior societies of the early 2000s. Indigenous activists look to the histories of both their own peoples, as well as struggles elsewhere. Red Power activists were inspired by the Black Power and Vietnam struggles.

The Warrior Societies were inspired by the Zapatistas, the Palestinian Intifada, and by the analysis of capitalist globalization and the need for alliances among indigenous peoples, students, workers and all oppressed people. Idle No More comes on the heels of the Arab Spring, Occupy movement, and the “printemps érable” in Quebec.

Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

There are also a number of differences. First, Red Power was led more within the US while INM began within Canada.  Second, like the civil rights, Black Power and anti-war movements, the public face of Red Power was male-dominated—whereas the public face of INM is much more female, alongside other movement leaders like Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, Maude Barlow, etc.

Third, whereas Jeanette Lavall was opposed by many Chiefs and Councils for fighting discrimination against First Nations women, there is more unity today between men and women—with women leading the movement, challenging the oppression of indigenous women (like the missing and murdered aboriginal women), with support from INM men. Fourth, while both movements had a level of support from non-indigenous people, INM has explicitly called for, and achieved greater support—including internationally. Fifth, the root causes of the issues people are facing are increasingly being identified with capitalism, to a greater degree than took place in the movements of the 1960s and 70s. Finally, there is a greater connection between militants in one movement and another, e.g. in the climate justice movement.

All of these factors mean that the potential for non-indigenous activists to link arms with their indigenous sisters and brothers is higher than when Red Power first made its mark. As Quebec students wrote in solidarity with Idle No More: “Indigenous peoples have been the greatest victims of this elite’s agenda to plunder resources in Quebec and Canada. But in the territories of the Algonquins, the Innu, the Mohawk, the Atikamekw, and elsewhere, they have also been this agenda’s fiercest opponents.

Because of their aboriginal rights, Indigenous peoples have the best chance to stop the destruction of our shared lands and waters and to manage them sustainably. We should support these struggles, in the name of mutual respect. We want to think and act for the generations to come. Now is the time for overcoming old divides by building new alliances. For too long native and non-native peoples have been pitted against another, precisely because this elite feared nothing more than the discovery of our mutual interests.”

Photos included: By Black Powder / Red Power Media