Warrior Societies in Contemporary Indigenous Communities

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 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 .