What are warrior societies?
BY TAIAIAKE ALFRED AND LANA LOWE
The history of indigenous peoples in the modern era is, fundamentally, a story of struggle to overcome the effects of colonization. And it is a story of the Canadian government’s manipulation of vulnerabilities that have been created through the process of dispossession. The indigenous struggle has expressed itself in efforts to gain intellectual and cultural self-determination, economic self-sufficiency, spiritual freedom, health and healing, and recognition of political autonomy and rights to use and occupy un-surrendered lands. The re-emergence of warrior societies in the modern era is one element of a larger struggle of indigenous peoples to survive.
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).
1970S: RED POWER ALLIANCES
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. It 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 emerged from within (and remain a part of ) indigenous communities. Like the Mohawk Warrior Society, they are grounded in the indigenous traditions of their own communities, and are accountable to traditional leadership bodies. 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 focused on the same fundamental problems; thus warrior societies and Red Power organizations naturally formed alliances 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), formed an alliance with the Mohawk Warrior Society during this time. 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 promotional poster produced by AIM in 1973 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. However the printer made a mistake and printed one feather instead of three! This flag has since been massproduced and can be found everywhere in the world (most recently it has been seen flying at the UN Conference on the Environment in South Africa) and has been adopted by many indigenous people in their defence of land and nationhood.
The Ojibway Warrior Society gained prominence in 1974 when they occupied Anicinabe Park in Ontario. This Society was 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. Tellingly, Louis Cameron, the Society’s leader, commented 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. Rather, 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 on 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. 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 in establishing 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.
OKA AND AFTERMATH
By the end of the 1980s, the Mohawk Warrior Society had 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. And in 1988, the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society emerged out of the community of Big Cove, New Brunswick.
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. First Nation politicians and leaders of established political organizations publicly denounced the confrontational approach taken by the organization, hoping to curry favour with Canadian governments in order to gain access to negotiating processes. AIM was nowhere to be found during 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.
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. 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, warrior societies had 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 coasts have cited the 1990 Oka crisis as a turning point in their lives, and the watershed event of this generation’s political life. Indeed, the Mohawk Warrior Society’s actions in 1990 around Kanesatake, Kahnawake and Akwesasne have provided crucial inspiration and motivation for the militant assertion of indigenous nationhood.
Young indigenous people in communities across the land saw 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 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. The Oka crisis led to an awakening and radicalization of indigenous consciousness, as well as a broadening of the spectrum of possible responses to injustice.
The Mi’kmaq Warrior Society had developed and maintained a presence in several Atlantic communities, including Big Cove, Listiguj and Esgenoopetitj. 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.
In 1995 in Vancouver, second-generation AIM activists established the Native Youth Movement (NYM), an urbanbased 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 so-called Treaty Process.
In 1997, the Okiijida Warrior Society formed in Manitoba as an alternative to urban youth gangs. The Okiijida Warrior Society soon affiliated with AIM 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. It is enabling indigenous youth to learn from elders about the importance of land, spirituality, and the sustained connections to their heritage. Though situated within a conflict between the community and outside interests, the blockade has established a fundamentally positive and motivating environment for those involved at the community level.
DEFENDING INDIGENOUS TERRITORIES
In 1999, the Cheam First Nation recruited members of the NYM to assist them as they engaged in their Fraser River salmon fishery in defiance of Canadian regulations. In 2000, these same 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 on-going 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 that were prejudiced against them. After the government refused to recognize the extreme disparity of access, the once uniformly cooperative indigenous community mobilized to demand fair treatment and the Canadian government’s conformity with international and domestic law. 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, with the commander of the East Coast Warrior Society (which had emerged in Esgenoopetitj during the fall of 2000) travelling to British Columbia to form an alliance 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 rehabilitation projects. 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.
This was a direct threat to the salmon fishery, the basis for their cultures and survival, and the federal government again failed 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.
DEFENDING INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES
What has become clear through the history of the warrior society movement is the continuing and impressive patience of indigenous people in 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, violent interactions have been instigated by police or other government authorities, or by local non-indigenous interests opposed to indigenous people. Indigenous communities are comprised of normally cooperative and peaceful people. In all cases, it is only when an overwhelming injustice is perpetrated against them in the face of possible mutually beneficial alternatives that these people, who are yet struggling to survive, rise up to demand just treatment and fairer relations with the settler society.
The warrior society strategy gains credence among indigenous people during a crisis situation because there is a deeprooted fear among all indigenous people that the Canadian government is seeking to annihilate their existence. Most indigenous people favour peaceful and non-confrontational methods of advancing their political agenda and of advancing the cause of justice. But at the same time, all indigenous people have direct experience with or second-generation memory of the genocidal intent and capacity of the Canadian state. All have direct experience with the virulent forms of racism that still exist in most rural parts of Canada. Indigenous people understand well how ordinary Canadians turn hostile and violent when indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition of their land rights or political rights threatens white society’s economic privilege on the land.
So, in a crisis situation, facing armed paramilitary force and the hostility of white society as a whole, in the context of impending violence capable of eliminating the very existence of their communities, the raw realities of the colonial relationship between indigenous peoples and the state are laid bare. In these situations, the warrior societies’ analysis of Canadian society is proven correct. The legitimacy of the warrior society agenda and approach flows from this dynamic. People do recognize in very pragmatic terms the necessity of defending the community in physical terms from outside aggression. The warrior societies provide a measure of national defence.
There is broad support among indigenous people everywhere for action, even militant action, against the continuing unjust process by which they are being dispossessed of their territories. The disagreement among indigenous peoples is about their capacity to effectively confront state authorities and to sustain a politic of contention, and whether or not the costs (violence, further deprivation, hostility of society, etc.) are worth the gains to be made in confronting the injustices facing indigenous communities. Thus, there is no need for a screening or filtering process whereby warrior societies would judge the merit of various conflicts and decide which ones are suitable engagements.
Engagement does not need to be rationalized. The operating assumption is that all indigenous communities are facing an injustice that needs to be confronted; the main factor influencing whether a warrior society is involved in a conflict is simply the existence of a conflict in a community where there is a warrior society with the capacity to respond. Simply put, warrior societies will become involved in conflicts between their nation and outside forces if the people call for their help, and if they possess the capacity to respond.
In this sense, indigenous people, through warrior societies, are acting on their basic right and responsibility to protect and defend their lands, their communities and their persons from unprovoked outside aggression.
Taiaiake Alfred is Kanien’kehaka and a professor in the Indigenous Governance Programs at the University of Victoria. Lana Lowe is a member of the Fort Nelson Dene First Nation and works with indigenous peoples in Central America. This article is a condensed version of a background paper by the authors entitled “Warrior Societies in Indigenous Communities,” prepared for the Ipperwash Inquiry and available on the commission’s website and in its archive.