By Anthony Hall, August 25, 2008
The United States forms one element of a broader and more abstract polity known as America. While the term, America, has been appropriated to identify the most powerful country in Americas, the word should be reclaimed so that it applies equally to all citizens of the Western Hemisphere. The idea of America remains as elastic and as subject to revision as ever. Throughout much of its history America has been seen by many beyond its shores as a symbol of hope, as a promised land for those yearning to breath free? But what is to be made of the experience of the Indigenous peoples who were pushed aside or eliminated to make room for wave after wave of immigrants? Will freedom for some in America continue to be purchased at the expense of others? Will America look outward to the world with confident humility or is the idea of America to be henceforth associated with the corrosive xenophobia that brands all those who do not conform to imposed norms as deviants and possible terrorists?
A striking icon embodying some of the key choices to be made in the ongoing process of inventing America is the Six Nations protest camp set up in 2006 on the site of a suburban real estate project. The site's developers, Henco Industries, named their luxury housing project Douglas Creek Estates. This development at Calendonia near Hamilton Ontario was to have been identical to many thousands of others of its type that proliferate around towns and cities all over North America. The contested development lies just outside the Six Nations Iroquois Reserve but well within the territory six miles on either side of the Grand River that was transferred by the British imperial government to the King's most loyal Indian allies during the American Revolution. The transfer took place in 1784 to compensate its recipients for the loss of their Longhouse League's heartland. Without Indian consent the British government transferred title to the US government of the Six Nations' Longhouse territory in what is now upper New York state. To compensate the Six Nations for what they had lost, Sir Frederick Haldimand, the top military commander in what remained of British imperial Canada, gave them the Grand River Valley north of Lake Erie. The resulting Haldimand Deed is especially clear, succinct and unequivocal. It can be cited in full.
Whereas His Majesty having been pleased to direct that in consideration of the early attachment to his cause manifested by the Mohawk Indians, and of the loss of their settlement which they thereby sustained-- that a convenient tract of land under his protection should be chosen as a safe and comfortable retreat for them and others of the Six Nations, who have either lost their settlements within the Territory of the American States, or wish to retire from them to the British -- I have at the earnest desire of many of these His Majesty's faithful Allies purchased a tract of land from the Indians situated between the Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron and I do hereby in His Majesty's name authorize and permit the said Mohawk Nation and such others of the Six Nation Indians as wish to settle in that quarter to take possession of and settle upon the Banks of the River commonly called Ours [Ouse] or Grand River, running into Lake Erie, allotting to them for that purpose six miles deep from each side of the river beginning at Lake Erie and extending in that proportion to the head of the said river, which them and their posterity are to enjoy for ever.i
Throughout the nineteenth century the Six Nation settlers in the Grand River Valley were stripped of much of their lands through the usual array of unsavory and possibly illegal tactics. They were left with a reserve embodying only a small percentage of the territories transferred to them in the Haldimand Deed. The Six Nations community is the midst of Ontario's urban and industrial heartland. The community's rich heritage of treaty making forms one part of the history that makes Ontario the North American jurisdiction with the most diverse array of treaty agreements with Indigenous peoples. The Six Nations community is the most heavily populated reserve in Canada, with slightly more than twenty thousand inhabitants. It has many Indian-run businesses, including a radio station and Grand River Enterprises, a cigarette manufacturing enterprise that exports its products globally. This tobacco company pays its full share of taxes to the provincial and federal governments. Many of the men in the community have worked as high steel workers, a Mohawk specialty it seems. The Six Nations reserve is almost certainly the world's main nurturing ground for lacrosse players, an ancient Aboriginal game that for a time was Canada's national sport.
The Six Nations community is by no means a place of poverty and destitution, as are, tragically, many hundreds of other Indian reserves and reservations throughout Canada and the United States. Nevertheless Six Nations citizens continue to be faced with constant pressures to give ground to the non-Indian society pressing in around them. In 2006 a group of concerned individuals took action in an attempt to prevent yet another round of dispossession. They set up their camp on the Douglas Creek Estates construction site in order to call attention to the continuing injustices they face as well as the unbroken force of the Haldimand Deed. They attempted to organize their protest in ways that reflected the structures of their clan system at the basis of their traditional Longhouse League. Until 1924 the Longhouse Council, the decision making body of the Longhouse League, was recognized by Canadian officialdom as the functioning government of the Six Nations community. Then the Longhouse Council was forcefully removed from the community's seat of government by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The Mounties acted on the orders of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. King's decision to terminate the governing role of the Longhouse Council came in response to the embarrassment inflicted on the Canadian government by Levi General, also known as Deskahe. Deskahe had been sent to Europe by his Longhouse sponsors in order to inform the member governments of the League of Nations in Geneva that the Canadian government was not living up to the terms of treaties made in the course of Great Britain's colonization of North America. Prime Minister King ordered that the Longhouse system must be replaced by the regime of Indian rule created by federal legislation known as the Indian Act. In those years the Indian Act was amended and administered in an especially repressive way with a particularly close eye to preventing Indians in British Columbia from bringing forward any legal case involving assertions of their Aboriginal title.