Will we see a resurgence of indigenous warrior societies in B.C.?
One summer afternoon, RCMP and Vancouver police officers stopped a van on the Burrard Bridge. With guns drawn and lights flashing, they arrested the three Native men in the vehicle.
It was a dramatic takedown, and it demonstrated one hard truth about Canada’s relationship with aboriginal peoples, says Taiaiake Alfred, a University of Victoria professor in the faculty of human and social development and a Bear Clan Mohawk. It’s a timely matter to ponder as the country marks National Aboriginal Day this Thursday (June 21).
“Canadian authorities are extremely threatened by any kind of rise of indigenous nationhood,” Alfred told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They’ll go to any length to criminalize and to disrupt a true indigenous movement in favour of one that seeks to align itself with Canadian objectives.”
Alfred makes this point because the Burrard Bridge incident, on June 27, 2005, eventually led to the demise of the West Coast Warrior Society. Formed in 2000, the group engaged in direct actions to defend aboriginal land rights and fishing rights.
Its members, wearing fatigues, set up a road blockade to protect the fishing camps of the Cheam First Nation. They travelled as far as New Brunswick to help the Mi’kmaq First Nation in its conflict with non-Native fishermen and Canadian authorities.
The three WCWS members had just legally purchased rifles that would be used to teach hunting skills to Native youths. On the scene were elements of the cross-agency Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams.
The men were released without charges. Less than two months later, the WCWS disbanded, citing intense police pressure. In a statement, the group declared that it never advocated violence.
No group has since openly operated as a warrior society in B.C. “Most indigenous people have been taught to accept Canadian law and to see their nations as defeated,” Alfred said.
About three years before the 2010 Winter Olympics took place in Vancouver and Whistler, a clandestine group that called itself the Native Warrior Society stole the Olympic flag flying outside Vancouver City Hall to honour a dead First Nations elder.
Alfred suggested that the void left by the WCWS may be an indication that many Native people in B.C. have given up the tradition of physically defending their communities. But he also noted that the youth may take on this challenge if aboriginal communities recover their sense of pride about their identity.
“From that point, I think, indigenous warrior societies will emerge organically because the young people will recognize how colonized they are,” he said. “And they’ll want to make changes in their lives and defend their ability to live as indigenous peoples and not be further pushed into the assimilation framework.”
William Lindsay of the Cree-Stoney Nations is the director of SFU’s office for aboriginal peoples. He explained that warrior societies are a modern creation that sprung up during the 1960s, an outgrowth of the Red Power movement in North America. “It was, essentially, like the civil-rights movement,” Lindsay told the Straight in a phone interview.
According to Lindsay, aboriginal people will continue to fight for their rights, but not all of them will consider themselves members of warrior societies.
“First Nations people today are educated,” Lindsay said. “They’re aware of the history of colonization in this country. They’re aware of how their people have been treated. What they’re doing is part of the process of decolonization. Some call themselves that [a warrior society], and they’ll dress the part. They’ll put on the bandanna around the face and put on the military fatigues.”
Eldon Yellowhorn, an associate professor of archaeology at SFU and a member of the Piikani First Nation, noted that warrior societies have evolved with the times.
“The type of warrior society that is often active these days is more akin to a self-help movement, where warrior societies is a euphemism for a social network that employs traditional motifs as a way to organize or rally around a cause,” Yellowhorn told the Straight in a phone interview.
For UVic’s Alfred, warrior societies will persist as part of enduring assertions for indigenous nationhood. “It’s based on the idea that we were here first and that we never surrendered,” he said.