ONE NATION UNDER THE GUN: Inside the Mohawk Civil War » Grand River Country

ONE NATION UNDER THE GUN: Inside the Mohawk Civil War

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    The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)
    July 5, 1992 Sunday Final Edition
    SECTION: STARS; Pg. 13
    ALEXANDER NORRIS The Montreal Gazette
    ONE NATION UNDER THE GUN: Inside the Mohawk Civil War
    by Rick Hornung (Pantheon; 294 pages; $22).

    At first blush, it’s hardly surprising that many liberal-minded and left-leaning Canadians expressed sympathy for the Mohawk Warrior Society during the armed standoffs at Oka and Kahnawake, Quebec, in the summer of 1990.

    Here, after all, were native people fighting an obviously righteous battle. Who could disagree with their struggle to save a sacred pine forest from money-hungry developers who wanted to turn it into a golf course? Who couldn’t see some good in their challenge to a state that had robbed natives of their land, rights and dignity?

    Throughout the crisis, media reports generally bolstered the Warriors’ image as valiant defenders of the land, men who had no choice but to take arms to defend their way of life. But as the standoff wore on, some journalists began looking beyond the Warriors’ rhetoric, to think critically about the paramilitary group and its origins.

    And what they discovered was hardly comforting.

    SOME OF THE very Warriors who were claiming to speak on behalf of all Mohawks, it turned out, had led a group that used guns against their own people, in defense of casino interests, only a few months earlier at the Akwesasne territory, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border near Massena. Far from being the “traditionalists” they claimed to be, the Warriors had been denounced as outlaws by the aging traditionalist chiefs of the centuries-old Iroquois Confederacy. The confederacy consists of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora, Cayuga and Oneida Indian nations. The Iroquois have inhabited most of what is today New York state since before the arrival of European settlers.

    Louis Hall, the Warriors’ chief ideologue, has publicly called for the execution of these Iroquois chiefs as “traitors.” Indeed, Hall’s racist, homophobic and frequently violent rhetoric — his calls for whites to be shipped back to Europe, for example — made the Warriors look more like a nutty, extreme-right group than anything resembling a progressive Indian-rights organization.

    That the Warriors were bankrolled by fast-buck casino and tobacco interests, often against the democratically expressed wishes of ordinary Mohawks, only reinforced impressions that the militia did not represent the entire Mohawk nation. The group was further discredited midway through the crisis, when a broad-based coalition of Kanesatake Mohawks (those living near Oka) accused the militia of intimidating local natives and cynically hijacking their land-rights struggle to advance the commercial interests of Warrior backers from outside the settlement.

    IT WASN’T EVEN true that all legal, peaceful avenues to save the pine forest had been exhausted when the Warriors took up arms in Oka. The botched provincial police raid that sparked their standoff would have given no one the go-ahead to chop down the pines had it succeeded; it was only meant to force natives to dismantle their protest barricade.

    In fact, the lawyer who represented Kanesatake’s band (tribal) council at the time has said he was well on his way toward obtaining an injunction that would have prevented anyone from felling the trees. Even if that failed, peaceful civil disobedience remained an option: Haida Indians in British Columbia had already used it with great success to save a much bigger chunk of forest from loggers’ chain saws.

    Sadly, all of this appears to be lost on New York City writer Rick Hornung, whose breathtakingly naive “One Nation Under the Gun” is a poorly executed, sloppily researched and unconvincing pamphlet for the Mohawk Warrior Society.

    HORNUNG’S BOOK focuses on confrontations in 1990 and ’91 in Akwesasne, Kahnawake and Kanesatake. It is so excessively reliant on Warrior sources, so rife with factual errors — I counted at least 15 serious ones — that the few pieces of new information Hornung turns up (primarily dealing with internal splits in the Warrior movement itself) are of dubious validity.

    Among his more laughable errors, Hornung asserts that the Mercier Bridge is “the only direct link between Montreal and the southern suburbs” (it isn’t). He says Leon Shenandoah — Onondaga Indian Nation chief and chairman of the Iroquois Confederacy — was present at talks to end the standoff when, in fact, he was hundreds of miles away on the Onondaga territory, south of Syracuse.

    Hornung even writes of a gun battle — “between anti- and pro-gaming Mohawks” in Kahnawake — that never took place.

    Hornung’s errors might be more excusable if his book offered some compelling historical or sociological insights into Mohawk policies, or if it painted a convincing portrait of the Warrior leaders on whose quotations he so heavily relies.

    It does neither.

    ANALYSIS OF THE Warriors’ financial and political backing is almost non-existent. The group’s ongoing attempt to overthrow their Confederacy elders is left unexplored, as are the Warriors’ ideological roots. Hornung seems blissfully unaware that the rise of the Warriors coincided with an upsurge in the Mohawk tobacco trade. Did it ever occur to him that the two phenomena might be related?

    Hornung appears unaware, too, that a major theological and political debate now rages within the Iroquois nations over two sharply contrasting interpretations of the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. Unquestioningly, he accepts Warriors’ explanations that their acts follow that law.

    When dealing with violent incidents thought to involve the militia, its leaders are generally given the last word. We often do not hear from the other side of the dispute; the Warrior version is accepted as fact.

    HORNUNG ALSO FAILS to give depth to his main characters, neglecting to describe their appearance, demeanor, backgrounds, their sense of humor, even their ages. Players in his story end up as little more than names with opinions. And the book isn’t even a good read; it’s burdened with tedious accounts of brawls and long passages of windy rhetoric.

    Hornung is a writer for New York City’s left-leaning Village Voice. He credits “colleagues at the Center for Contemporary Radical Thought” in his book’s acknowledgments. One presumes he adopted his sympathetic approach to the Warriors because he considers them a progressive group fighting for the liberation of the Mohawk Nation. What he fails to understand, as any true leftist should, is that politics — and war — have always had a lot to do with economics, and that economic imperatives — in this case, the greed of cigarette smugglers and casino operators and the conflicting interests of the Canadian and Quebec governments — had a lot more to do with the “Mohawk civil war” than the Warriors would care to admit.

    Too bad Hornung didn’t do a little more basic research before jumping to his conclusions. Mohawks and sympathetic non-natives deserve better.

    Alexander Norris covered Mohawk politics for The Montreal Gazette for three years. He was present at Kanesatake and reported on the Oka conflict for most of the length of the standoff between the Warrior Society and the Canadian Army.

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