The Powerful Legacy of the Rotiskenrakéh:te - Those That Carry the Burden of Peace

Image by Amanda Strong

Image by Amanda Strong

Five years ago, my family and I were invited to attend the twenty-year commemoration of the “Oka Crisis” in Kanehsatà:ke. I was there in part to launch This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockade – a collection of narratives, poetry, and analysis I co-edited, from people outside of Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) communities involved, in celebration of the positive impacts the resistance had on us as individuals and as communities. I walked with my family up the famous hill, past the golf course to The Pines. It was hot and humid, and not ever one on the route was happy to see the procession. I worried for my kids safety, as I always do, but I wanted them to be present as part of the legacy of resistance that all Indigenous children are born into. The day before, I had sat in the gymnasium of the École Rotiwennakéhte School to witness and hold the words of warriors of every kind as they spoke about the 78 days in the summer of 1990. I learned about pain, sacrifice, persistence and the trauma those individuals took on and have been forced to carry with them.

I learned that very little has changed. No Kanien’kehaka community has control or influence over their territories in the face of on-going encroachment, environmental degradation and pipeline development. I learned that all of the root causes that lead to the “Oka Crisis” still exist, and that there is no political will on the part of Canada to talk about land outside of terminating our Treaty and or Aboriginal rights for these Kanien’kehaka communities or for anyone else.

Standing up, speaking out and protecting Indigenous lands, nations and bodies is one of the reasons Indigenous peoples exist today. At every point in our shared history, Indigenous peoples have been articulating this importance with diplomacy, we have been willing to take on personal and collective sacrifice to protect what is important to us, and throughout our colonial relationship with Canada, we have been pushed to put our bodies on the land.

This comes from a tremendous, unconditional love of our people and our families, our culture and languages and the land that sustains us. It comes from love, not hate. We have learned to use our righteous anger and resentment to protect and create Indigenous spaces where our kids can grow up to be the very best kind of people.

This makes me proud. Without this kind of resistance of the ones that have come before me, I wouldn’t be here as a Mississauga Nishnaabekwe in 2015. I wouldn’t exist.

Indigenous struggle rarely makes it into the minds of the Canadian mainstream, and when it does surface it is often without proper historical context. In the recent past, Canadians caught glimpses of this during the 1969 mobilization against Trudeau’s Whitepaper, and again in the mid-1970 when the Dene successfully voiced their critique of capitalism and industrialization in opposition to the MacKenzie Valley pipeline development through the Berger Inquiry and later through their brilliant articulation of the Dene Declaration. We saw it at several points in the 1980s whether that was Haida led blockade of Lyell Island which led to the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park, the on-going struggle of the Algonquins of Barrier Lake or the resistance and subsequent raid at Listiguj over salmon fishing rights preceding the “Oka Crisis”.

But our resistance goes deeper than this. It’s present when we teach our children our languages. When the Two Spirit and Queer youth organizers of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network discuss harm reduction with their peers, when the women of the downtown eastside of Vancouver organize tirelessly through the past several decades against the gender violence in their lives. It is present when we shatter the stereotypes you’ve been taught are true, it’s present when we speak back to racist comments in coffee shops and racist sports logos.

When I think of the “Oka Crisis” I think of the hundreds of Kanien’kehaka women in Kanien’kehaka from Kahnawà:ke and Akwesasne and across the country that organized the logistics to support the blockades and in response to the attack on and siege of Kanehsatà:ke . I think of the food, medical supplies, childcare and the worry. I think of their tremendous spiritual and political influence. I think of the principled leadership Kanien’kehaka women showed us from behind the barricades. I think of Ellen Gabriel, and how during the summer of 1990 she taught me about righteous anger, love and to come at injustice from a place of unapologetic strength.

The summer of 1990, for me, and many other people of my age was the most profound political education of my life. It has influenced my professional, artistic and activist life in a way I couldn’t have predicted. I learned the value of direct action. I learned the value of articulating our histories, perspectives and realities in a clear way. I learned what it looks like when Indigenous peoples live and act by using our own political traditions, systems of governance and values. I learned what principled action looks like. This was never a crisis, it was a radical transformation, and to realize the full potential of that transformation, when Indigenous peoples act with such conviction, Canadians should all listen and ask, what can I give up to promote peace?

Also see Ellen Gabriel's "Those That Carry the Burden of Peace".