Those who Carry the Burden of Peace

Those who Carry the Burden of PeaceKids 1990

Since the 1990 Kanehsatà:ke Siege or the 1990 “OKA” Crisis, the term “warrior” has been bantered around liberally to refer to those who protest, are protectors of the land, speak out publicly against oppressive colonial laws and in particular, refers to those who are arrested during protests.  However, the term warrior seems to have become an overused word in the Indigenous resistance movement.   There are various connotations to this word within the various Indigenous languages, but it is also important to note the interpretation of this word to the authorities.

In Kanien’kéha, the word is “Rotiskenrakéh:te” meaning those who carry the burden of peace.  In the younger days of our societies’ existence, Rotiskenrakéh:te were trained in combat using the game of Lacrosse to get “warriors” into shape.  But more importantly, they carried with them the teachings of peace and the customary laws of their peoples.  They underwent ceremonies to prepare them for physical battle, and when they returned they underwent more ceremonies, such as a condolence ceremony to cleanse them spiritually and mentally for what they had endured on the battle field.

Leaders like Clan Mothers and Chiefs were the voice of the people; they listened to what was in the hearts and minds of the people and brought forth issues of what needed to be discussed.  In Haudenosaunee customary laws, the women are the protectors of the land and hold title to the land, while the men were the protectors of the people. During the Kanehsatà:ke Siege, this kind of [governance] democracy was practiced by the people of the Longhouse and our allies.

After Kanehsatà:ke was attacked by the Sureté du Québec in the early morning of July 11th, 1990; the community’s strategy changed from that of a peaceful barricade on a secondary dirt road, to that of a defensive barricade.   For the sake of the safety of their families living in other communities, some men of the Mohawk nation and our allies wore masks.  Most of the community supported this strategy of mask wearing given the kind of torture tactics and violence police were using immediately after the raid.

What is often forgotten in this part of our history it the fact that majority of people behind the barricades did not wear masks and chose instead to continue the search for peace, and emphasizing the issue of our land rights to fight the  propaganda  campaign against the Mohawk people, enlisted by both the Federal and Provincial Governments.

It was in fact the media who automatically labeled us all Warriors, not the community.   In fact, many community members had mixed feelings about the Warrior flag and never identified with the term “warrior” due to some of the negative connotations associated with them during this period of time.  But in the end, many embraced this term as eventually the whole community of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawà:ke faced the Canadian Army and the Sureté du Québec; totally outgunned and outnumbered.

International and domestic human rights organizations condemned Canada for the thousands of human rights abuses committed by the Canadian Army and policing authorities, but to no avail.  The Mohawk people and our allies were criminalized for the fraud committed by Canada and Quebec, yet the real criminals remained free and instead acted the victim.  Our community has never fully recovered from this event.

I have often heard naïve Indigenous leaders threaten government with statements like: “if government doesn’t negotiate/act, they will have another Oka Crisis on their hands”.  The saying “careful what you wish for” has always sprung to mind when I hear this kind of empty threat,  as this is an extreme situation which no community or peoples should ever have to live through.  I hope and pray that it does not happen again in the future.

The media pounces on the proverbial machismo image associated when someone wearing a mask or a t-shirt emblazoned with symbol “warrior”, or a “warrior” flag, a symbol created by the late Mohawk artist Louis Hall.  Using the English or even French terms for warriors belies the movement of Indigenous peoples and our history of Resistance against colonial imperialism.

It is important to note that in times of war, women have always participated equally with the men on the front lines.

With the resurgence of the term “warrior” in our daily vernacular we must remember that, policing authorities and government have a different interpretation of this word which fuels their propaganda into misleading the public in their assumption that “warriors” carry guns or some kind of weapon and are involved in “illegal” activities.  And so there remains a clash of ideology in our interpretation of warrior from that of carrying the burden of peace, protecting the land, to that of a trained ‘warrior’.

This oversimplification and mis-leading of the public to characterize Indigenous activists and advocates as threats to the prosperity of Canada, has been used throughout history by the State to justify the use of force against Indigenous protestors and protectors of their lands.

For many Canadians and Indigenous peoples, the famous image of the Standoff of a masked warrior versus the Canadian soldier by Shaney Komulainan is the epitome of the “OKA CRISIS OF 1990” or the Kanehsatà:ke Siege of 1990.

The Standoff picture perpetuates a violent stereotype founded in history, a stereotype which has not
yet dissipated from the public conscience.  And while I admire, respect and am eternally thankful to Bradley Laroque, as well as others who put their lives on the line to support Kanehsatà:ke, I remain adamant this image is not reflective of our struggle.  Our struggle includes men, women and sadly, even children of our nations who for hundreds of years, have been forced to fight heartless colonialists for their lustful grab of our lands and resources.

Referencing the “Standoff” photo as an illustration which represents the essence of Indigenous peoples’ resistance delegitimizes our struggle.  It ignores the genocidal nature of the Indian Act; the racism and discrimination Onkwehón:we peoples still face,  and repudiates the historical efforts of resistance made by our ancestors to the theft of our lands and resources is justified.

In 1990, many brave men and women faced the Canadian Army and police without any masks or weapons.  We faced them exposing ourselves to danger as we were outnumbered and out gunned by a para-military force of police and army personnel who fearfully pointed their weapons at us and seemed only too eager to have a reason to use them against us

The truth is that the long standing historical grievances of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas have often resulted in conflicts because Canada, the US and other Colonialists have refused to negotiate in good faith with Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples are forced under duress, to enter into biased colonial courts who often interpret our rights in very narrow manner.  In fact, Canadian private property laws are based upon the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius.  Something the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has stated as “…racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust,”[1]

If any image reflects the reality Onwehón:we peoples’ have endured throughout our history with Britain and Canada, it is the racists burning their nightly effigies  of a Mohawk “Warrior” in Chateauguay.

A real warrior, uses peaceful means first; is one who honours, respects and practices peace in their daily lives; but has the ability to protect the people and the land when threats to their safety is imminent.

My hope is that any reference using the term “warrior” will be rooted in the compassion, honesty, and knowledge of what this term truly means in our Onkwehón:we languages; those in our nations who carry the burden of peace.  It should be used by those with the teachings of our ancestors and how serious and important it is to be the ones entrusted with carrying the burden of PEACE.

Skén:nen  tánon Shakwenien’tshera – in peace and respect
Ellen Gabriel


[1] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, preamble para, 4

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