Sunday, November 05, 2006

On the Other Side of the Barricade

Mohawk Warrior on an ATV in CaledoniaMuch of what has appeared on this blog concerning the Six Nations land protest in Caledonia, Ontario, has been admittedly one-sided. While I believe that the criticisms I presented were fair (in part), it is nonetheless unfair to cast one set of actors (the non-Aboriginal residents of Caledonia) as villains, while those across the barricades (the Six Nations Mohawks) are treated as beyond fault. Given the complexities of this case, and the lack of effective media coverage, I will do my best to balance my previous posts on this subject and then write no more about Caledonia. (One may access links to those previous posts on this page prepared for my class,ANTH 303 "Indigenous Cultures Today". In this post, I will be adding to that list links to other resources that are necessary for a more balanced understanding of this conflict and some of its actors.)

Even the terminology used here is problematic: we do not know for a fact that the residents of Caledonia are all non-Aboriginal, as some may well be members of Canada's "non-status" Indian majority, that is, descendants of those who married non-Aboriginal men and lost the right to live on their reserves. As for the Six Nations side, not all the protesters come from the Six Nations reserve, with some notable protesters traveling from areas well outside of the disputed land in the
Haldimand Tract in Ontario. It is not even clear to what extent the protesters legitimately speak for the members of the Six Nations reserve, since the number of protesters, even when swollen by those visiting from other reservations in Canada and the US, has always been a fraction of the total population of the reserve. Finally, it has not been established what the actual goals of the protest group are, and here one can hear many voices speaking within that camp, and even some individuals speak with many voices. This is the only a fragment of the many problems that lurk beneath the surface of this protest.

The Barricade as a Mirror
Canadian soldier and Mohawk Warrior 'face off' in Oka, 1990What struck me recently, and served as a warning to not rush into issuing blank cheques of sympathy, was that some of the louder voices on the Native side of the barricade are presenting some of the worst features of Canadian society back to itself in a kind of mimetic politics of reaction. One can find numerous examples of such expressions in Mohawk Nation News.

Where Canadians are perceived to be racist, the reaction is to treat all Canadians as usurpers, invaders, exploiters and in essence, enemies. At worst, Canadians are cast, to only slightly paraphrase, as "homogenized scum," who have "risen to the top of the pot" holding a boiled mixture. Canadians are perceived as rootless, wandering and lost, without even the slightest attempt made by these critics to fathom how Canada has become home to millions, and has been so for many generations in most parts of the country. This is an example of historical obfuscation of the contemporary, which happens when one's vision is entirely occupied by a selective reading of events that transpired two centuries ago or more.

Where Canadians are seen as demanding indigenous peoples to demonstrate their indigenous-ness in terms of a static continuity of cultural traits from pre-colonial times, the reaction is to engage Canadians in revisiting antique documents and colonial relationships. We are told by some of the protesters, members of one or another Mohawk Warior Society, that the band councils which rule their reserves are creations of the Canadian government and rule without legitimacy--they are non-traditional. Yet, these non-traditional entities have been in existence for the better part of a century, and one would expect that the novelty might have worn off by now, that invention has become convention.

Where Canadians are cast as lusting for power and profit, we are presented with ambiguous long-term goals of reclaiming Toronto and Montreal as Mohawk territory, and where lands cannot be returned, rents must be paid. Hence we have another layer of prospective proprietors, living off of usury, establishing themselves at the top of a landlord-tenant relationship, without any regard for the class position of those who will be called upon to pay these rents.

Mirror Images in Oka 1990Where Canadians are described as greedy individualists who turn land into a commodity, we are presented with Aboriginal claimants to land as private property, no longer owned by no one (as might have been the Aboriginal perspective) but rather owned by some and never others.

Where Canadians have tried to instill shame in Aboriginals, the reverse is to instill guilt in Canadians, including those who own nothing and rent everything. I sense an attempt to turn the tables, rather than a critique of inequality. Given that there are some super-profitable corporations in the Six Nations reserve, such as Grand River Enterprises (see this page from the Hamilton Spectator), one senses the possibility that profits are not distributed equitably among community members, and the politics of some members of the Mohawk Warriors Society may be of the invidious sort, seeking their own financial resources to sustain and propel their activities.

Who Speaks for Whom?
One of the many facets that remains murky is the relationship between the Mohawk Warriors Society and the reserves in which they are based. The Haudenosaunee Home Page, which presents itself as the official source of news and information from the Haudenosaunee, comprised of the traditional leadership of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora Nations, presents the Mohawk Warriors Society as itself a threat to Aboriginal sovereignty:

"The Great Law of Peace is very clear that the purpose of human life is to promote peace. As the Haudenosaunee, we are to be the people who build a long house of peace. We were to bury the weapons of war and not shed blood among one another. The Warrior Societies within our communities have subverted the Great law and have sought noting short of the total destruction of the Haudenosaunee Council of Chiefs for the mere purpose of making money for themselves. It is this perversion of the Great Law and the use of violence against their own people that casts each and every 'warrior' outside of the circle of the Great Law of Peace." [click here to read more]

Between Honour and Trash
Communication across barricades is of the most limited and perhaps damaging kind, and intellectually not much deeper than toilet graffiti. One member of a Mohawk Warrior Society told me of skinheads brandishing clubs shouting insults and taunts at the Mohawk protesters, with the Mohawk return consisting of "oh yeah, well come and get us," or "shut the fuck up, it's time for you to pay." Aside from the politics becoming monetized, it has become dangerously infantilized as well.

My impression of some of the Mohawk Warriors is of individuals caught between images of the honour and dignity of wise ancestors, and the trash of "white" popular culture, and desperately trying to crawl back towards the greatness of the ancestors by means of cash and resentful trash talk. One has to ask then if they have not already lost the "mother of all battles": the battle to resist the monetization of social relationships, the battle to resist incorporation into the "white" culture of money and consumption. I also don't think they realize what a powerful set of negative and contradictory images they created when they appropriated the partly finished condominiums built on the site at the centre of the protest in Caledonia: from a protest against "development" on their land, they moved into that same development and took it as their own. In the old "Third World Studies" literature, written by people such as Ali Mazrui, this was known as "negative dependency" and the "radical knock of entry into world capitalism."

Quite aside from this is the question of tact and consistency. It seems like a difficult line for a Mohawk Warrior to maintain a denunciation of colonialism while at the same time recalling with pride how the Mohawks were allies of the British in the fight against the Hurons and the French. To proclaim "we won" when condemning the principle of "might makes right," and then to do so in Quebec where even the licence plates are inscribed with the words "Je me souviens" (I remember), might be viewed by some as a potentially self-defeating provocation. Likewise, to condemn the "white man's courts," while praising the successful Noongar land claim in Western Australia, or to bask in the words of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, or to denounce colonization while making appeals to the authority of Queen Elizabeth II, all strike me as a confused and chaotic script that is still "under construction." It's as if the aim were to produce a discourse that deconstructs itself, that falls apart in the very act of being articulated, that evaporates in open air.

The Nationhood Trap?
We also come to the question of the "nation-to-nation" relationship that is especially advocated by members of the Mohawk Warrior Society. In practice, this is cast as an argument for sovereignty, for nationhood qua nation-state status (internalizing European notions of sovereignty and re-presenting them to Canada as Aboriginal), conflicting with the obvious reality that they are not such entities under international law and have no such recognition in the United Nations. That's actually not the most significant problem in my view. The more significant issue is whether such proponents have understood the ramifications of their quest. To be viewed, respected, and treated as separate nations means that they become foreigners with respect to Canada. In such a situation, rights to employment within Canada would be eliminated. In order to move from one corner of Canada to another, they would need passports, thereby reintroducing the same pass laws that were treated (and rejected) as an abomination of internal colonialism. Access to social services, such as health, education, and public works would also be terminated. In order to sustain a quality of life which most residents of their communities desire as evidenced by current practice, they would now have to pay to import "specialists" from Canada or elsewhere, which could cancel out any benefits to be derived from any rents to be paid by Canada for use of reclaimed Aboriginal lands. It's possible that this arrangement could even place them in a relationship of debt and dependency with the rest of Canada. Worse yet, it would sever many urban, non-status Natives from their homes of origin.

Land Rights...and Urban Natives?
And that, finally, is one of the crucial issues that we come to. Given that a majority of self-identifying Natives in Canada do not or cannot legally live on reserves, and instead live in urban areas, it is very difficult to see how "land rights," fought on the behalf of reserve-based minorities, is of especial relevance to the contemporary indigenous experience in Canada. What I am not seeing is how any of these issues, debates, and questions are being addressed by this struggle, and the discourse tossed across the barricades does nothing at all to shed any light on these subjects.

Other Links
For those who wish to investigate some of the issues raised above in a little more depth, one may visit the following pages:

While I certainly wish for an outcome that satisfies all parties and brings real justice, I suspect that divisions on both sides of the barricade will continue to deepen until this protest reaches a climax. Already it seems that what began as a reclamation has bow begun to feel like a state of siege for those involved. In the meantime, the best thing that I can do is to disengage myself from writing any further on this topic. I would still appreciate any commentaries from visitors, and I encourage ideas from all perspectives to be expressed, including if not especially those that are severely critical of anything that I have written.


Anonymous said...

Maximilian;You might find this interesting(link)Wasase speaks to many of the issues you raised.And I believe this new group attempting to engage with First Nations peoples here in Canada is on the right path and has identified away forward.The path will be hard,colonization has effected FN peoples to their very core and identity

e.g who represents natives(First Nations)
you have got to read the book of the same Wasase Alfred Taiaiake.

Anonymous said...

Hey Max. Ok I've written something up, you can see it at



Maximilian C. Forte said...

Dear Ahniwanika,

[I tried to post a reply on your very impressive site, but unforunately I did something wrong and I was told more than once that I failed a "captcha" test]

I hope that viewers will come to see your reply at:

I very much appreciate your reply. While you obviously found several passages of my mini-essay to be problematic, you expressed yourself with calm and patience, and I am very grateful for the points that you raised and the time you took in making these clarifications. I believe that these aspects you have raised with such clarity should help a lot of others to also come to a fuller understanding of what you rightly say is a very complex situation with a great number of actors. My hope remains that this, and other land claims, will be resolved in a way that all parties walk away satisfied--which is perhaps terribly naive, since that is rarely the outcome of such negotiations.

Many thanks again for your message, I will make sure to have my own site point to yours.

Max Forte

Maximilian C. Forte said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
granny said...

Sovereignty assumes nation to nation negotiations with Canada regarding land, compensation, governance and services. For example, part of the necessary compensation for settled lands ... like Caledonia ... can be paid in health costs, etc. These negotiations can be very fruitful, if creatively done to the benefit of all.

Nobody benefits if Canada goes bankrupt, but new partnerships - new treaties - can be forged that address the future.

granny said...

See responses to this blog at above discussion board.

granny said...

The pictures on your blog are misleading. None except perhaps the first one are from Caledonia. The army is not deployed in Caledonia.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

If you position your cursor on the images, captions appear that in both cases specify that the photographs are from the 1990 Oka crisis. The intent behind using those images was to symbolize what can happen to oppositional politics in direct confrontation with hegemony, that in some cases you end up with mirror images. The relevance of that applied to only some of the more extreme opinions that have come from the Native side of the divide, which in many respects mirror the more extreme opinions from the non-Native side. I believe that extremists on both sides are tending to grab much of the attention, and as I criticized one, I also criticize the other. If the extemes win, one can expect there to be violence, and I personally am not one cheering for such an outcome.

granny said...

Violence seems to be a few people's first response instead of last. No, not interested in anymore violent attacks.

Also from the time of Oka, at Kanewake just over the Mercer Bridge from Montreal.

It is easy for people to talk of the right to free (hate) speech, but it ... where does it lead that is constructive?
No, no more violent speech.
May be that's the line?