Ellen Gabriel, …

Ellen Gabriel, Turtle Clan, Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk Territory


I began my activism before the “Oka Crisis” of 1990, not that it was noticeable.  Perhaps the best way to describe my awakening to the situation all Indigenous peoples experience was when I was a teenager in the mid 70’s reading Akwesasne Notes.  There in the Notes was an article regarding the Black Hills and how the Hopi and Navajo peoples were trying to stop uranium mining in their territory.  I remember reading a quote from an elder that digging uranium out of the earth was like pulling the lungs out of Mother Earth.  It was a statement that touched me as I had never heard anyone speak in such a way to defend the rights of Mother Earth.


As a child growing up in the 60’s and witnessing the peace and love movement of the “Hippies” my curiosity was piqued on issues like women’s rights, anti-war movements and of course love.  I was disturbed in listening to the news on television about the assassination  of Martin Luther King from racism and narrow mindedness. I would think that this was wrong, to hate someone simply because of their race.   


The sad thing was at that time mainstream media never covered any “Native” issues.  It was only community newspapers like Akwesasne Notes that reflected the realities of Onkwehón:we, at least that I knew of.  The AIM movement was heralded by many of the youth in my community but like any movement that becomes too strong, it becomes divided by government authorities spewing their propaganda to a public only too willing to believe the myths about “wild and savage” Indian peoples.


In the spring of 1990 I joined other community members in Kanehsatà:ke to fight against the expansion of the 9 hole golf course on the last of our communal lands.  Our barricade lasted 6 months with one of its most memorable moments in our history, manifested through an SQ raid against the people of Kanehsatà:ke’s barricade on July 11th.  A botched raid whereby they attempted to eliminate us in order to silence our voices through the use of force. It was a summer of hundreds if not thousands of human rights violations that remain unanswered to this day.  


The extreme measures that Quebec and Canada took to criminalize the two affected  Mohawk communities of Kanehsatá:ke and Kahnawake, reinforced my idea that being born Onkwehon:we, meant to be constantly attacked, especially if one holds strongly and firmly to the beliefs of our ancestors.


Since the Oka Crisis of 1990, or as I prefer to call it the Siege of Kanehsatake, I have traveled throughout the world speaking about the Siege, but as well about Indigenous peoples’ rights, history, culture, traditions and realities of Indigenous peoples of this Turtle Island.  I have participated in negotiations with government both provincially and federally and participated in various international forums.  I have listened to Indigenous elders, youth and people from through out Mother Earth  on the problems they have been experiencing because of colonial practices like the Indian Act and the Indian Residential School System.  But as well, I have heard from the frontline workers, community activists, professionals and academics who have solutions to restore peace and strength to our nations.


I have worked for my community Language and Cultural Center from 1992 to 2001 then at McGill University from 2001 to 2004 at First Peoples House.  In 2004 I became president of Quebec Native Women’s Association, a job I was honoured to have until December 2010.  Presently I am working as a consultant for the Kanehsatake Language and Cultural Center to help the efforts to revitalize and regenerate the Kanien’keha language in my community.  This past March I wrote 2 plays for Aboriginal Language Day Plays on the history of Kanehsatà:ke and the IRRS.


It is heartening to see that 22 years later that there is a more broader awareness of Indigenous peoples’ issues and human rights.  But in some ways, it is disturbing to see that colonial warfare machine is still alive and well in the guise of right wing politics that have fostered a new emergence of the 1969 White paper Policy.  The various pieces of legislation are discussed with the Government of Canada’s closed eyes and ears to accommodating Aboriginal peoples and their organizations concerns. 


As I look back at the Siege of 1990 I see that we are no closer to resolving our long standing historical grievances with the Crown.  Land issues go nowhere with Canada as they fast track third party interests while Aboriginal communities jump through the many hoops of Canada’s “land claims” policy.  The theft of our land and resources are legitimized through ANAC’s  “Land claims policy” that require the extinguishment of our rights to our lands further perpetuating the dispossession of our collective rights.  Sovereignty and self-determination these are key in accessing our lands and resources as we attempt to resolve our long standing historical grievances. 


But right wing rhetoric like Tom Flanagan whose breed of racism has been provided a platform in academia [for the sake of “academic freedom”] instigates further divisions amongst Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society for the sake of economic development.  Mr. Flanagan has called Aboriginal  “wasteful, destructive, familistic factionalism,”  claiming “they should not be entitled to self-governing powers, special tax exemptions or federal funding, but should be assimilated and their reserves divided up into parcels of individually owned, “fee simple” lands available for sale to non-aboriginal people and corporations.” [1]   We must examine all the consequences of what FEE SIMPLE entails as assimilation and the further dispossession to our lands and resources are at stake.   


Today as I put my name forward as the next advocate for First Nations peoples, the role of national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations I do so with trepidation, but as well, with the hope that like the 1990 Oka Crisis when Indigenous peoples in Canada woke up and started taking direct action to defend their lands, that Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island will wake up and defend their rights.  Indigenous peoples in Canada and throughout the world need strong leaders with the courage of conviction not to waver from upholding our self-determining rights.  A leader that must stay the course in spite of government’s tactics to maintain the status quo relationship or in spite of funding cuts; that has been our “Achilles heel”.    


Indigenous peoples rights are Human Rights.  We can no longer tolerate a moderate voice as we are facing a huge bureaucratic machine that has an endless amount of resources to dispossess us of our lands and our rights.


If Indigenous peoples are to succeed in decolonizing our relationship with Canada and more importantly amongst ourselves, than unity is required to assert our collective rights. 


I believe we can do it using many tools and walking with our allies who have supported us.  The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples would not exist today had it not been for our alliances with non-Indigenous peoples and civil society groups working in collaboration with Indigenous peoples.  We need our allies as we move forward. 


But as well, it is vital as well that we use our customary laws traditions as our base in the defense of our rights, along with human rights instruments.


We must work diligently to regenerate, revitalize our languages, customs and traditions to express ourselves in ways that reflect who we are as Indigenous peoples. 

We cannot forget what the White Paper policy’s intent was: assimilation.  As the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau stated in 1969 when he was Prime Minister of Canada “when you no longer speak your languages, practice your customs or traditions then you will have become assimilated.”


Our languages teach us how to protect Mother Earth who nourishes us and is the base of our identity.  As peoples of the land, we need to speak on behalf of our Mother Earth and all our relations to stop the madness that is contaminating the very environment that we rely on for our health and well-being.  While economic self-sufficiency is important, finding creative ways to achieve it is more important so we can protect the well-being of the people and our environment.


We must remember that the social problems in our communities originate from colonial policies, legislation and Doctrine of Superiority like the Doctrine of Discovery and Papal Bulls decreeing Terra Nullius.  These remain barriers to our freedom, dignity and hope for the future and they must be eliminated through honest and fair discussions with Canada.  But we must do so with the courage of our convictions as it is our rights that are at stake.  And by not using colonial structures designed to control us.


Our ancestors’ teachings have given us strength for hundreds of years and they fought long and hard to keep our languages, culture, customs and traditions alive.  Listen to Mother Earth and what all our relations are telling us in this time of climate change.


Our traditional knowledge which is embedded in our languages will help us all survive the changes that are coming.  Mother Earth can and will adapt, but can we?


Skén:nen – in peace




[1] Literary Review of Canada April 2012 Opportunity or Temptation? Plans for private property on reserves could cost First Nations their independence. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaq lawyer from New Brunswick who holds the new chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University.



2 thoughts on “Ellen Gabriel, …

  1. Thank you Ellen for being the wonderful person you are. I would like to commend you for stepping up to this challenge for our people. I am writing to tell that I do support you and that I would also like to see the issue of far to many Missing and Murdered women in the country, especially First Nations brought to everyone attention. Our leadership really needs to step up to the plate regarding this. The numbers are escalating and the unsolved murders are far too many. The families need to have answers and this violence against women has to stop. I look forward to hearing you address these issues on your platform/ Thanks so much and keep up the good work! Respect, Gladys Radek

    • nia:wen – thank you Gladys, I am glad to receive your comments. I have a video on blip where I address the important issue of murdered and missing Abriginal women. I do not have the address with me at this time but if you are on facebook, there should be a link there.
      thank you for your kind words and I wish you all the best
      warm regards

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