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The people of Six Nations are repossessing their land

Hillary Bain Lindsay
The Dominion:
April 19, 2006

According to the Six Nations Confederacy, women are the title holders of the land.

Sewatis has been at the Six Nations blockade since it began on February 28. "I was the first one to encounter your enforcement officer," he says. "I was peaceful and just explained the situation. [I said] 'I cannot follow your orders because I'm not Canadian. I'm Haudenosaunee.'"

The police officer he was speaking with didn't appear to know how to handle Sewatis' response to his order. Apparently, the fact that someone born and raised only a few miles from where they stood--just outside of Caledonia, Ontario--was not Canadian was a difficult concept to grasp. "So, I just told him 'You'll have to wait for my superiors to come,'" says Sewatis. "That's the kind of language they seem to understand."

I am sitting with Sewatis in his van. For over six weeks this is where he has slept. That is to say, when he has slept. Many nights he sits by the fire, keeping watch in case the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) chooses to invade the site.

From where we sit, we can see dozens of people gathered around the fire, singing, laughing and talking. To our left is a cookhouse that was recently built to feed the growing number of people that have come to support the repossession of Six Nations' land. There are several tents, a teepee and a couple of trailers scattered nearby.

It might feel like a camping trip except for the fact that we are in the middle of a construction site. There are no trees or grass and ten partially built suburban homes stand nearby. Henco Industries had hoped to build hundreds of houses here. Construction was halted on February 28 when the road to the site was blocked and Henco was informed that the land is not theirs to build on.

"We're here telling people that it's our land and it was illegally attained and it was illegally sold," says Sewatis. "That's just the plain and simple truth."

This is not "the kind of language they seem to understand."

On April 6, the Canadian government said that the Six Nations dispute is not about land rights. "This is not a lands-claim matter," said Deirdre McCracken, a spokesperson for the Minister of Indian Affairs Jim Prentice. She also said that the blockade "has nothing to do with the federal government."

But according to a statement released on March 20 by the women of Rotinoshon'non:we (meaning Iroquois or Haudenosaunee, depending on the language being spoken), the blockade has quite a lot to do with land--and with the Canadian government.

The statement outlines how "General Haldimand confirmed that Britain would affirm the right of the Six Nations to a tract of land six miles deep on either side of the Grand River, running from its mouth to its source." The piece of land immediately under dispute is only a small part of the much larger 'Haldimand Tract.'

This piece of history is not being debated. A plaque erected in Cayuga, Ontario by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board says much the same thing. The sign also notes that the land was awarded in 1784 in recognition of the Six Nations' help to the British Crown during the American Revolution. What the plaque says next is where the stories diverge. "In later years, large areas of this tract...were sold to white settlers."

According to the women of the Rotinoshon'non:we, however, "None of this land [the Haldimand tract] was ever legally surrendered." The women's statement carries a great deal of weight as, "Women are the 'Title Holders' of the land of Rotinoshon’non:we as recalled by Wampum 44 of the Kaianereh'ko:wa."

The significance of the previous sentence will be lost on most Canadians, who will have no idea what it means.

Indigenous nations have their own constitution (Kaianereh’ko:wa). "The idea that British Colonists or their descendents--like Canadians--were the only people who had 'law' is a legal fiction," says Kahentinetha Horn, a Mohawk elder from Kahnawake. Canada "has totally disrespected our laws and agreements to conduct a nation-to-nation relationship."

The Six Nations Confederacy has been called the oldest living participatory democracy on earth. Hazel Hill, one of the women active at the blockade describes how decisions are made: "There are fifty chiefs which represent the Confederacy Council and they have a clanmother with each chief. It is the people whose voice the chiefs and clanmothers carry. Any decision regarding land, comes first from the women, and then to their clans, and through the process of our council, when all are in agreement, or when consensus has been reached, only then does the decision stand," she says. "In our history of the Haldimand Tract, this has never been done."

In 1924, the Band Council system was imposed by force on Six Nations. In the place of the traditional government what critics refer to as "a puppet government" was installed using the Indian Act.

Since 1924, the Canadian government has done its negotiating with the Band Council, a system that is a part of and paid for by the federal government. "The Band Council," says Horn, "does not represent the Six Nations peoples according to international law."

In an open letter to local newspapers, Hill compares the government's agreements with Band Council to finding a few people in Caledonia to agree to sell their town to the people Six Nations. "Would that be legal?" she asks.

The Band Council system does not allow the voice of the people to be heard, says Horn. If the Canadian government wants to seek legitimate discussions, negotiations must be undertaken on a nation-to-nation basis. "There could then be an orderly settlement based on an orderly investigation of the facts and an orderly identification of the laws that apply," says Horn. "The reason Canada doesn’t want to do this is because it knows full well that when the process is complete, the facts will clearly show they have illegally invaded our land."

There is a large sign at the Six Nations blockade that reads "Oh Canada, your home on native land." The play on words from something as basic as the national anthem is appropriate for a standoff that could turn the meaning of Canada on its head.

"A lot of people have squatted on our land," observes Carol Bomberry. Pointing to Caledonia she continues, "This is one of the towns that is on our land."

Most Caledonians probably don't consider themselves squatters. Chances are they consider Caledonia home. What does it mean if Caledonia is not Canada?

Mike Laughing, one of the men manning the blockade, responds matter-of-factly. "Look at it this way: just imagine if all those people got to live on native land. Instead of paying taxes to the government they could be giving it to the true landlords, back to this nation," says Laughing. "If they didn't want to do that then they'd have to move. But we're not saying move away."

As for the small piece of land immediately under dispute, Bomberry has a similarly straightforward suggestion: she'd like to see the Canadian government buy the houses back from Henco Industries and restore the land to Six Nations.

The Six Nations Reserve, the most populous reserve in Canada, is currently less than five per cent the size of the original Haldimand Tract. "There's a ten year waiting list for houses," Bomberry points out. "Our population is growing every year. We need more room."

Acknowledging Indigenous land rights will, of course, mean much more than establishing who lives where or who pays taxes to whom. Laughing says he's at the blockade for the sake of his kids. Canada "has been standing on the back of an Indian for too long," he says. "It's time to get off and let us stand proud of who we are."

It is not only First Nations people that stand to benefit from a just outcome to the Six Nations standoff, says Horn. Native and non-native people alike are suffering from a system that is destroying the environment. Horn believes that under Indigenous title, the land would be treated with far more respect. "According to our constitution, we have to take care of the land, in other words we're environmentalists," explains Horn. "That's why it's important [for non-native people] to help us assert our jurisdiction."

People from across Canada and around the world have lent their support to the Six Nations' struggle. Hundreds of people have gathered at the site each time there has been a threat of the OPP moving in.

"The Canadian government calls themselves peaceful," says Sewatis. "I hope that they live what they say."

If the OPP chooses to invade, many at the site feel that it is their duty to defend their land and defend their people. "We're not seeking violence," Sewatis says. "I seek peace first...but, I believe in what's right."

Sewatis has seen how standoffs over land rights have ended before. "They think they can make peace by having a gun and having it their way," he observes. "We want to talk about peace and the laws and jurisdiction of the lands. We are going to utilize the great law of peace. We're going to offer it one more time."

At the time this article went to print, over 50 police cruisers were gathering in Caledonia and Six Nations was on "Red Alert."

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