People of the Pines

by Pindera, Geoffrey York,
ISBN: 0316902713

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Behind the Barricades
by Douglas Glover

ON July 11, 1990, the Surete de Quebec police attacked a party of Kanesatake Mohawks protesting the expansion of a golf course onto land to which they had no legal title, but which they regarded as theirs by tradition. The attack took place in a small forest of pines next to the existing golf course. Some of the Mohawks, notably those belonging to the Warrior Society, took up defensive positions, and shooting broke out. The police fell back, one of them mortally wounded, and a Mohawk shouted in triumph: "I think we got one "

Thus began the celebrated Oka crisis of two summers ago. It lasted 78 days, with the Mohawks, behind their barricades, facing first the Surete de Quebec and later the Canadian Army. Sympathetic Kahnawake Mohawks blockaded the Mercier Bridge across the St. Lawrence. Residents of Chateauguay, the community most affected by the bridge closure, rioted. Politicians scurried for cover or practised ferocious damage control.

What began as a protest over property rights quickly escalated into an international media event, with the Natives and their supporters (including a radical lawyer from New York, U.S. soldiers, and Buddhist monks) demanding Mohawk sovereignty, recognition of land claims, and immunity from prosecution for the gun-bearing warriors.

But the Mohawks themselves were divided, and as the summer wore on, moderates drifted away from the barricades or attempted to negotiate compromises with government officials. By September, the Mercier Bridge had reopened, and the Warrior Society at Oka could not muster enough fighters to man its perimeter when the Canadian Army advanced.

Geoffrey York, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, and Loreen Pindera, a CBC-radio reporter, spent much of the crisis behind the lines with the Mohawks at Kanesatake. In People of the Pines, they record Native triumphs (the tenacity of the coalition of militants and moderates and the surge of support that swept the country) as well as disasters (drunken warriors trashed abandoned homes, reporters were threatened, a warrior named Ronald Cross assaulted other Mohawks).

Hardly anyone comes off looking heroic, diplomatic, or even competent in this book. Mohawks claimed to he able to buy guns in downtown Montreal with police permits throughout the confrontation. The vaunted Warrior Society never put up a fight (after the initial exchange) and let the army surprise it on September 1. The Quebecois of Chateauguay are portrayed as racists.

York and Pindera quote an anonymous Canadian soldier who summed up the situation: "These people are convinced that they're right. They have a certain patriotism. Unfortunately, they are tossing aside the laws Of Our white governments. They're in a vicious circle."

People of the Pines is a valuable document. It is a first-hand account from inside the barricades at Oka and an illuminating apologia for the Warrior Society. But it has flaws, not the least of which is a prolix style that puts -a premium on vagueness and repetition.

People of the Pines is not a work of history, if we take the phrase "a work of history" to mean a piece of writing that is organized around the analysis and criticism of sources. Nor is it a work of balanced journalism, since York and Pindera are openly in favour of Native self-government and seem to condone the violent tactics of the Mohawks at Oka. (One telling omission is their studious refusal to ask who shot the police officer on July 11.) And it is not a work written by people with a deep or accurate knowledge of Native culture. York and Pindera emphasize cultural trivialities such as the Iroquois use of corn or the custom of cutting false-face masks from century-old live trees (this is repeated twice and is wrong). What is missing in this book is any inquiry into the way Native cultures think - not what opinions they hold, but how they arrive at them.

The truth is that many Natives no longer have a deep and accurate knowledge of their own culture. It is one of the thundering ironies of the Oka crisis that the Mohawk Warrior Society relies for its inspiration on an English translation (if a Seneca version of the Iroquois Great Law of Peace published in 1916 by an anthropologist named Arthur C, Parker, who once described the Iroquois as "a race still in mental childhood."

York and Pindera ,,imply swallow the Warrior Society line that Parker's version of the Great Law is somehow more authentic than oral versions (mislabelled "pacifist") recited in Iroquois longhouses or, for that matter, translations by anthropologists with better reputations for accuracy (Hewitt) or a grounding in linguistic anthropology (say, Michael Foster in the National Museum of Man Mercury Series).

What we call Native culture is really a mixture of strands - oral traditions that have been altered through contact with Europeans, borrowings from other Native Cultures, bits of anthropology that have been re-adopted by the Natives, and white culture that has simply been adopted wholesale (concepts like "sovereignty" and "nation" are borrowed from the discourse of Quebec separatism; the Mohawks at Oka talked Vietnam-style military jargon and code-named themselves Act TV characters).

The word "traditional," which both the Mohawks and the authors toss around its an all-purpose justification for Native actions, begins here to take on a highly ambiguous hue.

York and Pindera make it clear that the Mohawks are a people in confusion and pain. They show the Mohawks and Canadian politicians trapped in opposing, politicized discourses whose syntax veils divergent histories, cultural personalities, and goals.

But it does no good to keep saying the same thin,, over and over. What is required is it higher level of translation, a bridging of the gap. People of the Pines may be just the definitive account of the Oka crisis, written by Anglos sympathetic to a particular brand of Mohawk nationalism and the use of violence, to achieve it.


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