The Political Significance of the Reclamation: An Interview with Brian Skye
The following article that it is one of three from a round table discussion by Upping the Anti on the important land reclamation effort now being carried out by the Six Nations people of the Grand River Territory, and the role of non-native solidarity work in that struggle. To begin with, Brian Skye of Six Nations, who has been heavily involved in the activities of the site, provides his perspective on the significance of the reclamation and the place for external support. Jan Watson, a local Caledonia resident and founding member of Community Friends For Peace and Understanding with Six Nations, then talks about the work she has been involved to build support in her community for the Six Nations reclamation. Finally, we interview three longtime members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty – AJ Withers, Josh Zucker and Stefanie Gude – to ask for their thoughts about organizing support as non-native activists.
Even though they are older (2006) I will be posting all three as they continue to speak strongly about what is going on at the reclamation site and how non-Native activists and radicals can best work in Solidarity with the people of the Six Nations.
Can you tell us who you are and what your connection to Six Nations and the reclamation is?
My name is Degunohdohgae. I am of the Cayuga Nation, Wolf Clan, Six Nations. My colonial name is Brian Skye. My original name, Degunohdohgae, translates into English as “between villages” and that’s who I am as recognized by the Confederacy. I’m at the reclamation site because of the history that is there. As a writer of historical plays, the reasons why we are at the reclamation site as a Confederacy aren’t lost on me.
Our symbol in relation to the colonial countries was the Two Row Wampum, the two rows symbolizing the respective paths of our Confederacy and the non-native country or peoples that we were making the agreements with. The idea behind the symbolism was that we would continue on our path without interrupting their government and religion, assuming that they would show us the same respect and wouldn’t try to force their laws, religion and governments on our people. So that history is something that I’m well aware of. That is part of the history of how we came to be in this part of the country along the Grand River and it’s that history that we are affirming by exercising our rights with the reclamation on the outskirts of Caledonia.
How would you situate the reclamation in terms of the last 50-100 years of resistance to Canadian colonialism in this area? Do you have any thoughts as to why it came about when it did or why people decided to carry it out at this time?
It has certainly been the most high-profile of our protests because of the aggressive action of the OPP on April 20th 2006. However, there have been several other reclamations or protest actions, although these were brought to an early end by the Band Council. The Canadian government wants to deal with the Band Council as they represent the system imposed by the Canadian state to govern the people of Six Nations. But that’s not the recognized system; the recognized system is the traditional system of the Confederacy. In terms of this reclamation what really galvanized us were the actions of the OPP following the orders of Judge Marshall, and this chain of events brought things to where they are now.
The OPP thought that support behind this reclamation was low when they raided. They weren’t aware of the traditional oral history that goes on within communities, or if they were aware of it, they didn’t give it much weight. The traditional oral history affirms that we had always owned Plank Road (the area which includes the “Douglas Creek Estates”). From 1835 on it has been passed down from generation to generation that we owned it and that it was taken from us. Everyone knew that. But we also knew that since the Canadian government only deals with the Band Council, if it was pushed to any type of action the Band Council would just be bought off again as it had been at Bing Island in Dunville, as it had been at Red Hill Creek, as it had been at the Glebe Farm in Brantford or the occupation of the Department of Indian Affairs offices at Brantford. Different actions that had occurred in the past had similar results. In this case, however, events took a different course as seven different members of the Band Council thought it wise that the traditional Confederacy government should take the lead in negotiations.
I think that the mandate for the Confederacy to negotiate came through on April 17th, 2006. Three days later the OPP thought they could just wipe away the protesters and that would be the end of it. What their actions actually did was to unify all of Six Nations including the Band Council supporters, the Confederacy supporters, the longhouse traditional people, and the church people. All were united by the injustice perpetrated against our people by the OPP. And again, all these people knew the oral history about the ownership of Plank Road. So they knew that what we were doing was absolutely just. If it had been something that was up in the air, that they weren’t sure about, it definitely wouldn’t have been a strong unifying movement. But, in this particular situation, it was a fully Six Nations supported reclamation.
How significant is it that the Canadian government is negotiating with the Confederacy? What is happening with the negotiations that are taking place?
From what I last heard, Ottawa can’t prove that they own the leases or that they ever bought the property, since payments were never made to the two financial bodies that were supposed to control monies from those leases. Essentially, Ottawa has said ‘we can’t prove it so what do you want in lieu of it?’ So now it’s a question not of providing proof, it’s a question of how does the Canadian government and the provincial government say to us that we are right and what should be done about it. But that doesn’t make things easier. If anything it will probably entrench people into trying to get us off the land. Since they can’t do it legally they’ll probably try and do it physically, by provoking a state of emergency through which they can try and rally the rest of Canada to support them. Our Caledonian neighbors have fully bought into the Canadian government’s stories about that not being our land. What they’ve been sold is a false story of conquest and a claim that as a people we no longer exist. Well unfortunately for them, we do still exist and we do still own the land.
What kinds of alliances are being made between yourselves and groups of supporters in Canada?
We have a lot of support from non-native groups. I don’t know that I want to actually put names out there. Generally I can say that yes we have received a lot of support. A lot of groups have come out and a lot of unions have expressed their support, because this is an issue of having freedom of speech, which is one of the aspects that has solidified support from non-native groups. The fact is that this reclamation is part of reclaiming our land rights, exercising our right to control the future of what is being done with the land on the Haldimand Proclamation. We’ve looked towards the future and we don’t want to simply exploit the land as a resource; it is something more precious than that. And I think that this has been echoed by non-native support groups who also want to look out for the future not only of the country but of the world. Things cannot continue the way they have been going because the world will just not support it ecologically. It’s a humanistic battleground; once you’re there you understand the humanity that is behind it. It’s not about adversity, it’s not about heroism, it’s a peaceful reclamation and as such it is focused on the land and the future.
There are a lot of non-natives in this region – literally millions of people – and a fair number of them are fairly supportive of indigenous rights in general and indigenous people and Six Nations in particular. What should those who want to be in solidarity with your struggle do to get involved?
It comes down to the individual and what they would see as a satisfactory give and take. If a person is a chef or a cook in a restaurant and he wants to come out and show support or he wants to get involved in some way, it would probably be best if he came and worked in the kitchen. If they’re a computer programmer and they want to show their support, then it might be in a financial way or it might be in helping out with our computer systems. In utilizing their skills and abilities they’ve helped us make it through another day. They make a contribution and they take that back knowing that they have done something. We can’t do that with every person, and allow them free access to everything, so what’s important is patience. Networking is important and just having the patience to know that at some point in time if your heart is in the right place you will be allowed to assist us.
How do you assess the support work that’s going on with groups like Community Friends in Caledonia or other support groups in Toronto or elsewhere?
First of all, the fact that there is actually an organized Community Friends group was somewhat of a surprise to me, and this may have been the first one in regards to other protests such as Ipperwash or Oka. I’m sure there wasn’t a Community Friends group in Oka. Since I have done some other actions in this area, it has never been the case that the non-native community has said okay we support you and we’re going to have a group that actually does things to support you. So that was a wildcard, something that was unheard of and that came as a pleasant surprise. As for the other groups that have been involved at the site and the protests, the things they have done to bring public attention to what is happening here are necessary. I think they also need an outlet to show to themselves and feel that they’re making a difference to the world and making a difference to the people here at the reclamation site who they have come to know and trust and have some regard for, so that again is positive. Groups like Community Friends or the other groups that are out there doing different things to support us can be bridging groups between us and the rest of Canadian society.
There’s a danger of the OPP coming back in. They’ve always stated that they won’t, but then again on April 19 they said they wouldn’t come in. Another thing that we have to be aware of is that some people might not want to come out to the reclamation because there are racists out there in Caledonia, there are white supremacists, and there are angry rednecks who view the non-native supporters as traitors. I must also recognize that our people have been oppressed for a long time, most of their lives. And this reclamation has given them a sense of pride and, in some of them, although it’s not a positive thing, it made them lash out at non-natives, and made them treat non-natives poorly. Those situations have occurred. It’s unfortunate, but it is a result of the colonization process and the genocide that has occurred. So these groups and the people in these alliances have to have patience, understanding, and the ability to be accommodating in some instances.
How should alliance groups and bridging organizations relate to Six Nations? Should they be relating through a framework established by the Confederacy or should they be relating through the people that are present at the site?
It all depends on what the bridging organization or group wants and what their structure is. Seeing how this is so far a grassroots organization or movement, it has to maintain its level of involvement with that same focus. Because the people of the reclamation site are the grassroots of that process I think that grassroots support groups should primarily relate to them. If a grassroots group were to try to go above that grassroots level then I think you would lose a connection there. If it was a funded organization, a government run organization of some sort or a union organization, I think you would be more attuned to a balance of understanding with the negotiation table and work through them. If it was your government meeting with our government I don’t think that any type of grassroots group would have any involvement at that level, although they could present information at the table.
How have the people of Six Nations met the challenges of maintaining a presence at the site given the tremendous sacrifices that people have had to make? What other lessons are there to be drawn by people who might want to do similar actions?
I guess there are varying accounts of what you might term a success. Definitely we have gotten through it so far, the negotiation process is still going on, and that’s all that we can really hope for. However,our needs at the site itself aren’t currently being met and in terms of the group dynamic, we don’t always get along. That’s unfortunate but that’s part of living with each other as a family. However much we try to leave our personalities at the gateway to the site and as much as we all want to live equally and cohesively, it is not always possible. However, we do have unity in one respect, and that is for the reclamation site itself, the land which we are there to reclaim. So it’s important to remind all the individuals, who have brought us this far that they’re special. Making sure they know that they’re the reason that we are at the table negotiating. Just letting them know that they’re appreciated, and that they are honoured for their work and their sacrifice. And it’s in trying to meet their needs and wants, trying to forecast and foresee what will be needed to make every day run smoothly, that you develop a cohesive unit ready to do what is necessary for the reclamation process.
What did you mean when you said that people’s needs weren’t currently being met?
Basic needs aren’t being met. Our food is substandard. The nutrition that the guys are receiving now will leave them susceptible to colds and flues. Their nutritional needs aren’t been met and that’s due to financial constraints. Things like warm clothing and firewood to keep them warm on the posts are needed, and those needs have to be met. It’s an issue of drawing from the community constantly. It’s not a question of waste, it’s just a question of not having access to resources that are out there but are not getting to us. We met with the Band Council recently and they turned down a budget we requested. We asked them for $10,000 a month and they turned that down while granting $948,000 to spray for gypsy moths on the very same night that we asked for money just to feed and clothe our people and buy medical supplies, gas, diesel for generators, etc., the things needed to keep that site as a secure and safe area. These needs aren’t being met by the Band Council or the cigarette profiteers, whether it’s GRE, the multimillion dollar company that makes cigarettes and distributes them around the world or whether it’s the local smoke hut owner whose rights as Six Nations confederacy members are being upheld and defended by people at the reclamation site. The Band Council loses sight of the fact that we are essentially their lobby group for self governance. We’re there to make the Band Council and Confederacy stronger; we’re not there to take away their power.
What do you envision when you look ten years into the future? What changes will the reclamation have brought about for the people of Six Nations?
First of all, I see us winning this in its entirety. There will be a new understanding of what our jurisdiction is along the Grand River watershed. I hope that ten years from now the Canadian people will be educated as to why that has occurred and that racist views will be dispelled and that the Canadian government brings the proper understanding of these issues to their people. That’s what I see as being the paramount necessity. I see The Grand River watershed as being a focus for understanding that within the Haldimand proclamation we have jurisdiction over development and anything that progresses along those lines must be looked at from the viewpoints of our concern for Mother Earth and future generations. We must be focused on what and how they’re going to live and what we need to do to continue to be the protectors of the land.
The obstacles that I see coming out of this is that there is a lot of money associated with the lease payments that have been held in trust, lost or invested elsewhere. The estimated amount is $843 billion, so I see that as a potential hazard. It would not be a good thing if that were just given back; there’s just too much healing that has to go on before things like that can occur. And again we have to be very careful when we talk about jurisdiction and what our Confederacy is going to do with that. If they continue to take things slowly and proceed cautiously, I don’t see that as being a bad thing. It has taken us this long for the recognition of jurisdiction from the Canadian government, so if it takes even 10 years for the entire process to work itself out in relation to jurisdiction over land, resources, law, justice, administration of health, education, that will be a good thing. Considering that its been over 200 years since the proclamation ten years is not such a long time.
Posted on November 4, 2009, in Indigenous Struggles and tagged North America - Canada. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Political Significance of the Reclamation: An Interview with Brian Skye.