CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009
Alanis Obomsawin has been making quality films since 1971. This collection is made up of her films concerning the Mohawk demonstrations at Kanehsatake and Kahnawake in 1990: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995), Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man (1997) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000). Each film has won awards and can stand alone; however, the boxed set provides a depth to the Mohawk land issues that is sorely lacking.
To most Canadians, the word "Oka" has one of two connections: cheese or the standoff between the Mohawk Warriors and the Quebec government and Canadian army. That photograph of the face-to-face encounter between the Canadian soldier and the Mohawk warrior is burned into anyone's memory who was paying attention at the time. A number of facts are probably known to most people. The town council of Oka had planned to build a golf course on Mohawk land. The local Mohawks were opposed to this action and blocked access to the area. In support of this standoff, Mohawks at Kahnawake took over the Mercier Bridge and caused great irritation to commuters in Montreal. The army was called in and took up a counter position. This situation lasted for some time, and then it was over and everything went back to normal. At least that was how I remembered it. I did not have a clue.
270 Years of Resistance is like a huge tapestry. The situation at Oka is presented in such detail and with such a wide angle, the viewer feels as if he or she has actually been there. In Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Obomsawin presents what happened. The expansion of the golf course was not simply on Mohawk land, but it was in an area called "the Pines," a sacred Mohawk site. The protest began on 10 March 1990, with court injunctions and deadlines to take down the blockade. The area in question, once known as the Commons, was first used for golf in the 1930's. Mohawk cattle were driven away "by people with golf sticks." In 1947, the Commons and a burial site were expropriated. By 1961, the sacred trees were cut and the existing golf course was completed. The attempt to further expand the golf course set off the protest. With no end in sight, sympathetic Mohawks took the Mercier Bridge. On July 11,1990, tear gas was launched at the protesters. Shots were fired by both sides, and Corporal LeMay was killed. Both sides blame the other for this death; however, this event brought in 1000 police officers. In time, the police were replaced by the army. Obomsawin shows the activity both inside and outside the barricaded area——which is quite a feat since travel between the two areas was not allowed. The negotiations, the promises, the broken promises, the tension and the frustration -- all are felt, rather than just seen. Interspersed with the daily events, Obomsawin places historical information.
In 1721, the last of the Mohawk families was moved from Montreal Island to Kahnesatake. They were given a tract of land one mile wide and nine miles deep. This land had been used by the Algonquin and Nipissing people. The Sulpician Order was allotted a strip of land abutting the Mohawk land, but they wanted it all and managed to get it without Mohawk knowledge. When New France fell to the English, the Mohawks were to swear allegiance to the King. On February 8, 1787, the Mohawks were told that they owned nothing. The Sulpicians noticed the intelligence of one of their Mohawk students and brought him in with hopes that he would be destined for the priesthood. Unlucky for them, Joseph had access to historical documents which showed how his people had had their land taken. Along with the Algonquin and the Nipissing Chiefs, Chief Joseph marched up to the Sulpician house and demanded, "You have not dealt justly with us and we want you to leave our land." Although the Chiefs were threatened with a term in the Kingston Penitentiary, the first Oka standoff took place and required the Quebec constabulary to come and break it up. Chief Joseph was sent to prison.
The film comes back to the present standoff and continues with the detailed presentation of each major event. The tension and frustrations on all sides are evident. The Mohawks and soldiers are close enough to each other to pass comments and engage in the occasional physical confrontation. Obomsawin's camera work makes the viewer a third party observer, and we feel a part of each exchange. The names from the news take on human form, and we can feel their passion for the cause. The soldiers, at times, seem to be unwilling participants in this process, and the Mohawks do their best to make them feel uneasy: "If I was a soldier, I'd be ashamed to have been at Oka."
Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance is no doubt the most thorough treatment of the Oka standoff ever produced and should be required viewing for all Canadian History teachers. While the length of the film would not work in a classroom, parts of it could be shown when talking about Native Land Claims, Law or Canadian History. This is an excellent film and should be seen by everyone in Canada.
The vastness of Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance allows for many related discussions. I stated earlier that the boxed set is like a tapestry. What Obomsawin has done is taken parts of this tapestry and magnified it for further study. My Name is Kahentiiosta is one such part.
Again, Obomsawin tells one story, but it provides key background. The Mohawks along the St. Lawrence River once were able to hunt and fish in their own area. However, with the construction of the Seaway, the fishing was no longer viable. The Seaway cut through the Mohawk community, and families were forced to relocate. In the film, the viewer is looking down a street which suddenly becomes blocked by the side of a freighter, making it appear like a huge door is being slid across the road. When the CPR put tracks through the Mohawk forest, trapping or hunting was impossible. The Mercier Bridge, which cuts through Mohawk land, allows cars to drive through constantly from early morning. These are just daily reminders of how the Mohawk land has been reduced and how the community has had to adapt. So, when the standoff at Oka began, a number of Mohawk women felt compelled to go and support the Warriors. Initially they went to "tell the men not to shoot first," but they stayed in support of the occupation. Kahentiiosta is one of these women. She went because she was "representing not only themselves, but all Indian people who have watched their land being taken over for centuries. This time we were resisting." Kahentiiosta does not seem to be a firebrand or a trouble maker. She sits for much of the film simply describing what happened to her. However, as she speaks, clearly she is filled with rage and sorrow and pride. What happened at Oka was both terrible and wonderful, and she is proud to have been a part of it.
Some of the footage of the previous film is used here, but there is new material included as well. When the people left the occupied area, they were taken in for questioning. Scenes of a mother being handcuffed in front of her five-year-old child, of other women being fingerprinted and mug shots taken, show that they were considered criminals for their support. When Kahentiiosta is brought before the judge and asked her name, she replies, "Kahentiiosta." The judge wants her "real" name and refuses to set her free until she complies. "No," she says, "They've taken too much already". She is prepared to stay in jail, but eventually her lawyer presents her birth certificate, and, satisfied by that, the judge lets her go. While the Mohawk Warriors made most of the news regarding Oka, clearly this film shows that they had the support of the women as well. Kahentiiosta is only one woman, but she is not alone.
Enough information of the Oka standoff is presented in this film that My Name is Kahentiiosta could stand on its own. The length would be fine in a classroom and could be used in Law, Canadian History, Women''s Studies, Ethics or Family Studies.
In Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Obomsawin shows how a Mohawk Warrior named Spudwrench was severely beaten by soldiers. They say he attacked them, but that story is questionable. In Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man, Obomsawin shows who this man is. One of Obomsawin's many skills is her ability to let people tell their own story. In Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man, if the film had not been included in this box set, the viewer could think that this is a film about the Mohawk ironworkers and, to some degree, it is.
Randy Horne is a Mohawk iron worker and has been for much of his life. He figures he has five more years in him, "unless he falls first." He fell one storey once: "it's the sudden stop that hurts." Other ironworkers tell their stories. One broke both legs in a fall but was back to work as soon as he was able: "funny now, but at the time it hurt." Another worker who began at age 15 shows his hand missing part of a finger. Mohawks have been involved in ironworking for generations and have worked all over North America on projects including the Brooklyn Bridge, the World Trade Centre and the Rainbow Bridge. In the 1930's, there was no safety equipment with as many as 10 to 15 open floors. One speaker states that his first job was with his wife's uncle who fell and died. Another recounts how he watched his son fall. He broke his leg and punctured his lung. These are men who work incredibly dangerous jobs——often far away from home. However, come Friday night, they are back home to their families. This could involve a six hour drive, but, if it is possible, home is where they will be for the weekend: "We deal with it. It's our lifestyle, but it's hard." One man, 45 years an iron worker, has been home every weekend.
Home is Kahnawake. Here, everyone knows everyone else. There are 35 men and women on the volunteer fire brigade. The younger kids are encouraged to go to the Longhouse to learn the language and the dances. Everyone is welcome to the socials. Randy Horne has been in iron working for 24 years. He has worked in New York, Boston, Detroit and Kentucky. When he was in Kentucky, he could only come home every two weeks. He is a third generation iron worker. His father, uncles and brothers are all iron workers.
On 29 August 1907, the south side of the Quebec Bridge collapsed killing 100 men. Of those, 36 were from Kahnawake. During the construction of this bridge, the Mohawks' skill was noticed, and they were trained to be iron workers. Before that, they were used to haul rocks down the rapids to the bridge site. From then on, Mohawks were called upon for high steel construction.
When the Oka crisis was happening, all Mohawk iron workers came home to "protect their land." Randy Horne assumed the name Spudwrench——an iron worker tool. The film suddenly takes a major turn. Randy Horne, iron worker, family man and proud Kahnawake citizen, becomes Spudwrench, a Mohawk Warrior. One night during the standoff, Spudwrench is beaten nearly to death by four soldiers who entered the occupied area. After that attack, Horne could not get back to work for three months. Despite the beating, he states, "I'd do it again. It's always a struggle. Forget about the bad things. Get it out of your head and keep on living."
In the Oka news footage, the Mohawk warriors were presented as one dimensional characters with false names and often masked. Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man shows that these men were simply fighting for a cause that was (and still is) very important to them. This is an excellent film and could be used in Canadian History, Native Studies, Ethics, and even Careers as it gives a good indication of what iron working is like. Once again, Obomsawin takes an ordinary person and shows how deeply convictions can be held. The Mohawk work ethic and family devotion is a lesson to all.
In Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, there is film footage of the Mohawks leaving the occupied area. These are mainly women, children and the elderly. As they drive, they have to pass a gauntlet of angry Chateauguay commuters who are hungry for vengeance in retaliation for the closing of the Mercier Bridge. The onlookers throw rocks, and the Mohawks are terrified and, in some cases, are hurt as they try to pass by.
Rocks at Whiskey Trench tells this story. As before, Obomsawin provides some history. The Seaway construction and relocation of Mohawks, the building of the bridge and severing of the Mohawk land, the dumping of riverbed clay onto Mohawk farmland, the twinning of the bridge which required taking more land——all lead to the question, "Who actually owns that bridge anyway?" However, no one is asking questions here. The Chateauguay commuters were livid with the Mohawks for blocking the bridge and extending their commute. No one seemed to care about land issues and only wanted the Mohawks cleared from the bridge so they could drive to work.
Anyone leaving the standoff area was harassed by the mob waiting outside. One pregnant woman on the way to a hospital was blocked by the counter-protesters, and an ambulance carrying a boy with a broken leg was nearly tipped over by 15 men. One French language radio station host encouraged listeners to go meet the convoy of cars leaving the reserve. Two to three thousand people came out to watch the 50 to 75 vehicles trying to leave. The S.Q. insisted that each vehicle had to be searched before it could leave. Each car had to wait in the heat with the windows up. When they were allowed to go, they were told to go "and don't stop for anything." The road is known as "Whiskey Trench" as it runs between two Seagram plants.
As the cars drove by, the mob began throwing rocks. One man struck by a large rock later died of a heart attack. Removing shattered glass from a baby in one car took two hours, and the mother was made to feel responsible. The Mohawks felt that the police did nothing to stop the violence. One woman holds up a large stone that struck her father and tearfully asks who could throw this at an old man. As it turns out, her father is a Quebecker who married her Mohawk mother.
This is disturbing piece of Canadian history that is not being told. In footage of the Oka Standoff, one might see the cars driving as the crowd throws rocks, but that does not come close to how it felt for the people in the cars. One of the men actually charged in connection to this incident is unapologetic. A Mohawk comments, "Nothing can shock a Native as everything has been done to them repeatedly."
Rocks at Whiskey Trench is difficult to watch as it shows how violent and crazy ordinary people can get when their lives are made uncomfortable. At one point in the film, one person asks, "Should we die because of a nine-hole golf course?" The issue of Native land rights is not going away. Since Oka, we have had Ipperwash and Caledonia in Ontario alone. With the arming of border guards, the Mohawks are again clashing with the government as they do not want armed guards on Mohawk land. The past cannot be ignored as it allows a collective ignorance to cause great damage.
The boxed set also includes a booklet with biographical information and a number of essays on the films and the Oka Crisis. A detailed filmography, award list and film credits are also included.
I have a weakness for Alanis Obomsawin's films. She has a way of bringing in the viewer and of making her subjects very human. I feel like I know these people, and, as a result, I care what happens to them. In fact, I had hoped to connect with Mad Jap, a Mohawk Warrior featured in these films. It seems that he has passed away and that has saddened me. How I can be sad about someone I've never met is a testament to Obomsawin's skill.
This set should be in every high school in Canada and required viewing by all teachers.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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