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Six Nations: Good minds calm frayed tempers

Editors Report
Indian Country Today
April 27, 2006

The heated confrontation at Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, widened and deepened in the past week while at the same time showing sign of progress toward resolution. The deeply rooted Native sentiment on the land and against any type of physical aggression against their own people has stiffened the resolve of Six Nations clan mothers, chiefs and warriors after a bungling assault by police forces fanciful that they could arrest the ''trouble-makers'' and lay low the protesters' encampment.

It was not to be, and within half a day Canada was reminded that the peoples of the old Haudenosaunee Confederacy unite under stress and self-defend in ways most ingenious, straightforward and stark. By day's end, roads around the encampment site were blockaded, bridges were temporarily shut down and across southern Ontario rail lines were immediately threatened so that important train runs between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal were suspended.

Canadian authorities know, but still do forget, that when they deal with Six Nations people - particularly if the populous Mohawks are engaged - police assaults can trigger an intense, decentralized response among warrior societies. Just the protest at the railroad lines by Tyendinega Mohawks 350 kilometers (217.4 miles) away ''delayed service for thousands of passengers yesterday, and shipment of goods worth tens of millions of dollars,'' according to the Toronto Star newspaper. The railways protest ended April 22 after only a day's paralysis; but as this edition goes to press, the Kahnawake Mohawk warrior society is holding the Mercier Bridge in Montreal at bay, while Akwesasne residents leaflet motorists on the international bridge at Cornwall. Both of these bridges have been shut down by Mohawks before.

The warrior response is not always pretty or romantic. Often it bubbles with anger nearly impossible to contain. But it is a real and organic action/reaction based on a long historical memory. While one local paper described them as ''the so-called clan mothers,'' the circle of elder women who hold wampum and select chiefs and other officials for Six Nations longhouses can still cause great movement among their peoples.

Undoubtedly, the Six Nations traditional councils and longhouses are too often contentious, within and among themselves, on interpretations of the Great Law of Peace and on what courses of action to coalesce around. But some issues, most emphatically those relating to land, treaty rights and freedom from police aggression, particularly for elders and children, activate large numbers of Haudenosaunee people, extended relations that connect through impenetrable and unbreakable familial and clan ties.

Expectedly, the heat of action and youthful energy will recede to allow the Six Nations negotiating team, guided by the clan mothers and now led by the Confederacy chiefs in collaboration with band council representatives, to sustain what provincial and federal authorities describe as ''marathon talks'' held through the weekend of April 22 - 23.

These talks have apparently produced some breakthroughs as the Indian delegation grew in sophistication and unity and Canadian authorities contemplated the depth of sentiment and breadth of potential action on the Native side. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, Ontario Cabinet Minister David Ramsay emerged confident the dispute ''can be resolved peacefully,'' after the opening talks.

For the traditional side, the core longhouse governments of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in Canada, there was a victory just in having been recognized as lead negotiators by the band council government. The long tribal memory is keen on the details of Canadian ''regime change'' on Six Nations Reserve in 1924, an incident that reverberated in Europe as the League of Nations was petitioned by traditional chiefs of that day, notably the greatly respected Cayuga chief, Deskaheh.

It was Deskaheh who between 1921 and 1924, as ''Speaker of the Six Nations,'' first traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to make the case over land, jurisdiction and the right of a ''small nation of the world'' to survive and to govern itself according to its custom and tradition. Deskaheh was denied an official hearing at the League of Nations but continued on a speaking tour that garnered great attention and support for the Six Nations cause. Nevertheless, Canada attacked then as well, imposing the Federal Indian Act, exiling Deskaheh, dispersing the traditional government and installing an elective system that 80 years later is called the Six Nations Band Council and governs day-to-day affairs and services on the reserve.

The band council is here to stay, 80 years later, and is not nearly as nefarious as its origin. Yet a strong moral and, many contend, legal authority still rests with the traditional longhouses, which are culturally central to the communities.

For elected Chief David General and most of his council to defer authority to the longhouse government on the land claims negotiation is the biggest political change in nearly a century.

As Hazel Hill, not a clan mother but an elder longhouse woman leader who was wrestled to the ground by five police officers during the April 19 assault, told the Star: ''It's monumental. It's big. I can't even explain the enormity of what's happening.''

The hope is that the unity of Native leadership now in talks with Canadian authorities will sustain and deepen.

Already, the resolute stand has brought Canada to the dialogue it long avoided, and the reality of purposeful negotiation has brought the beginning of common approach to a community divided into elective and traditional systems.

One big obstacle to good relations is the standoff itself, which sees the camp occupants worried about a police assault and, in response, keeping important roads around the reserve blockaded. This is highly provocative and building intense anger among many non-Native local residents who are calling for force against ''the Indians.'' Interestingly, at least according to Haldiman County Mayor Marie Trainer, local residents still support the Native quest of land claims justice, reported CBC Newsworld.

It behooves the Indian activists to fully cultivate this lingering support and turn it in a positive direction.

Deskaheh, the ancestor chief who called on the world for support of Six Nations causes in 1924, wrote a letter to his people from his European mission. He requested from them a longhouse meeting back home, where ''you must combine all the good people ask [the Creator] to help us in our distress of this moment and you must use Indian tobacco, in our usual way we ask help from our Great Spirit.''

Deskaheh specified that the tobacco-burning must be done ''very early in the morning, so that our God may hear you and the children.''

We join Deskaheh's insightful call for the positive thought, so that good minds may prevail on behalf of our future generations.

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