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The Role of Settlers in Indigenous Struggles

Questions arising from the Six Nations land reclamation

Indigenous Politics

By mid-March, 2006, when activist communities discovered the land reclamation at Six Nations of the Grand River, carloads of non-Aboriginal supporters from Toronto, Montreal and beyond made almost daily trips to the site loaded with supplies and youthful activists eager to staff the cookhouse, help out in the first-aid tent, or do a security shift. At night gaggles of underdressed youth would huddle at the fire, soaking up community gossip directly from “the real grassroots” (as one white activist described members of the Grand River community).

In the three months following the April 28, 2006 OPP raid on the Six Nations land reclamation, it wasn’t unusual to find times when there were more white settlers camped out on the reclaimed territory than members of the Grand River community. Some activists were there for the early morning raid and have described the experience of nearly being arrested in everything from public events to on-line downloadable videos. It’s worth noting that all the people charged by the OPP that day or since were Native; no non-Natives are facing charges, even though many were on the site before, during and after the raid.

Hoping for Trouble?

At the risk of generalizing, these were the same activists who monitored the goings on at Akwesasne, Kahnawake and Kanehsatake in January and February, 2006, when there were rumors of an impending RCMP raid on the Mohawk tobacco industry. Toronto activists formed contingency plans on the best ways to bypass possible police blockades to get (mostly white) bodies and supplies into Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in the event of a raid. They were the same activists on the edge of their seats, sending out e-mail notices and forwarding updates on the Tyendinaga land dispute. As one Native activist noted, “It’s as if they’re hoping for trouble so they’ll have something to do with themselves.”

It’s not as if white settler support to various struggles isn’t needed and appreciated. Indeed, one cannot help feel respectful at seeing them put their very bodies on the line beside our own people on some occasions. But questions continually arise as to the role of non-Aboriginal supporters in Indigenous struggles.

When the Toronto-based Co-alition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty formed in the spring of 2003, its Native founders envisioned a network of non-Natives who could lend their support to Indigenous struggles around Turtle Island, while we all decolonized our mindsets and educated ourselves about Indigenous culture, history and current affairs. The group was to be led by an “Indigenous Caucus,” whose role was to define the issues, how they would be addressed and by whom. At the outset there was resentment from a few non-Native activists, who voiced a concern that all they were being asked to do was “legwork.” The logic of how their ignorance of our history and culture might impact their praxis and jeopardize Indigenous actions (not to mention lives) was seemingly lost on them.

Counteracting Genocide Is Political

Others were disappointed to learn that we considered the cultural programs, language classes and ceremonies political activities because of their counter-genocidal nature. If we weren’t blockading, occupying, or protesting something, we didn’t qualify as political.

Still others were starved for information to help them understand the issues from an Indigenous perspective. Requests from non-Aboriginal “supporters” to speak, co-organize activities and write for non-Native publications soon tested the capacity of the Indigenous Caucus, whose original ten members could not keep up with the invitations. Some requests were motivated by a sincere desire to learn and develop relationships, while others were clearly token invitations, issued at the last minute by organizers who had no intention of following up on the issues we put before them, or, better yet, assumed that their issues were our issues. (If only we had a hundred bucks for every time we were asked to share a panel with Quebec sovereigntists. And just whose land would Quebec be sovereign over, we wondered?)

Nevertheless, we were the darlings of Toronto’s Left for a couple of years but alas, it couldn’t last.

After the April 28 raid on Six Nations, we lost our place in the hearts of Toronto activists. We had been dormant for a year, and our now four-person Indigenous Caucus spent more time trying to respond to the needs of white activists in Toronto, desperate to support Six Nations, than we did working in our own community (a possibly fatal mistake for the organization). The Six Nations reclamation was a sexier, action-packed, historic confrontation on which young, white activists could cut their teeth. Naturally the Confederacy and its supporters out on the land appreciated the supplies and cash donations. A few basked in the hero worship, and, of course, jokes abound about impending births of mixed-race “reclamation babies.”

Framing Indigenous Struggles

It’s always been alternately amusing and lamentable to the Indigenous Caucus that a publication produced by sympathetic white activists who wanted to educate other settlers on the Six Nations land reclamation featured the infamous photo of the burning railway bridge on its cover, supposedly out of admiration for the warriors. Ironically, the same photo graces the opening page of hate websites opposed to the reclamation. The incident happened on one day of a siege that is almost a year old. The unused bridge was burned to prevent OPP access to the territory after the community had already been attacked. Yet, both supporters and opponents seized on the “burning bridge” photo to illustrate their respective points. Even supporters frame our struggles in ways that suit their own needs and perceptions. Had they consulted the Clan Mothers, who have consistently urged faithfulness to The Great Law of Peace, what photo might have been chosen to put on the cover of the publication?

So, what is the summary impact of settler support to the Six Nations land reclamation and other Indigenous struggles on Turtle Island? Nobody wants to return their cheques, but we have to wonder what price we may pay for non-Native support. Are staffing the barricades, spooning out canned spaghetti lunches to the warriors, or chopping firewood the best ways that white settlers can support our struggles? Or is that more our job than theirs?

The speaking requests that the Indigenous Caucus gets nearly four years after our founding indicate that our goal of “decolonizing mindsets” is still a valid one. Indigenous people comprise less than ten per cent of the population of Canada. We need allies in our struggles. Mother Earth needs allies. But after settlers learn the horrific and brutal truth of how Canada established itself literally over the dead bodies of our ancestors what, then, are their responsibilities? What do we expect of them? How do we hold them accountable? And how much responsibility do we have to take for their education, when our people are struggling for their very survival?

As Tyendinaga threatens to explode with another land repossession by our people, these questions loom large over Turtle Island.

This article appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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