Indigenous People Say Oregon's 'Domestic Terrorists' Are Just Fighting Over Native Land

Two Indigenous people remember the Oka crisis, and have some experience going head-to-head with the Canadian government.
January 29, 2016, 5:50pm
Photo via the Canadian Press/Shaney Komulainen

A month-long land dispute between anti-government militia and federal officers in Oregon is evoking memories of another standoff that ended 25 years ago north of the US border.

VICE News spoke to two people who were at the forefront of the Oka standoff, widely considered the most famous land dispute in Canadian history. The Indigenous people in the heart of the conflict say if the group in Oregon were people of color, there would be no hesitation to label them — like the Canadian government labeled Indigenous people at Oka — "domestic terrorists."

For Serge Simon, Grand Chief of Montreal-area reserve Kanesatake, the standoff in Oregon reminds him of the struggles his community has endured to defend their rights. But he emphasizes that it's like comparing apples with oranges.

"What's going on in Oregon is not a fight for ancestral or treaty rights, it's simply a group of people who don't agree with their government," says Simon.

Related: FBI Releases Unedited Footage of Oregon Militia Spokesman's Fatal Shooting

Simon was at Oka in 1990 when one Quebec provincial police officer was shot to death, an Indigenous elder died after he was struck in the chest by a boulder thrown by a Canadian protester, and a Mohawk teenager was nearly killed after she was stabbed by a soldier. The standoff saw Indigenous people fortify their territory, blocking police. Eventually, the Canadian army halted the construction of a golf course and luxury condos on the indigenous peoples' ancestral land, which included a sacred burial site.

A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka. Photo via the Canadian Press/Bill Grimshaw

"Looking at the situation, it's kind of like 'well how do you like it' type of thing," he says, noting there's some irony in white men being upset over stolen land. "Because it's been done to us, now they know how we feel when you see these lands that your nation could have used for one thing or another, and seen the occupation of what used to be their territory."

An American Indian tribe, the Burns Paiute tribe, who are caretakers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that the militia group occupied, have said the group is not welcome. "The protesters have no right to this land. It belongs to the native people who live here," tribal leader Charlotte Rodrique told reporters at a press conference outside the cultural centre near the refuge in early January.

Bundy's occupation has left one of his own dead, and has put a half-dozen others in jail. He and his fellow militants have had no qualms about threatening force, publicly vowing that they were "willing to kill and be killed" over the sentencing of two fellow ranchers, who were found to be the source of a fire that destroyed swaths of a wildlife preserve.

The occupation has largely dissipated following the arrests, but a core group of militia members have vowed to stay.

Simon can understand how the situation escalated. He says the one comparison he can draw between Oregon and Oka is "the potential for violence. You can compare it to that."

"It starts with a little roadblock and an occupation, and then it leads to more confrontation. It leads to little clashes, war of words, until finally silence, and then the confrontation begins: The violence."

"It starts with a little roadblock and an occupation, and then it leads to more confrontation. It leads to little clashes, war of words, until finally silence, and then the confrontation begins: The violence," he says.

At Oka, police corporal Marcel Lemay was shot dead by a bullet of unknown origin. The day the standoff ended, a Canadian soldier stabbed 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller close to the heart with his bayonet.

Related: The Long Shadow of the Oka Crisis on the Children Who Were There

Horn-Miller, who, at 14-years-old, cooked food for the Mohawk warriors for three weeks during the crisis, said the two standoffs had "polar opposite" goals. While both were standoffs over land, Oka was about protecting ancestral territory while Oregon was an attempt to illegally take land, she explained.

The Oka crisis, which profoundly changed the relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government, led other First Nations to draw similar lines in the sand. The 1995 Gustafsen Lake Standoff in British Columbia also saw the federal government call in the army when Indigenous land owners stood their ground over unceded territory.

Horn-Miller, who went on to become an Olympic athlete, remembers then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called the Indigenous people at Oka "terrorists" and ordered in the military. In the Oregon standoff, she remarked, there's been a reluctance to call the group "domestic terrorists," even though they were heavily armed. The military was not called in, and local police say they tried to cool tensions.

"When we were called terrorists, it was such a shock," she says. "We weren't terrorizing anyone — we were being terrorized."

Related: Militia Leader and Two Others Surrender Near Oregon Wildlife Refuge

When it comes to the Oregon standoff, which she says has been perceived as "cowboys" in the "Wild West," Horn-Miller isn't impressed. "If it was native people it would be: 'You're breaking the law and the law applies to everybody, and we've got to crack down.'

"It's interesting that they let [the Oregon conflict] go on as long as it did, because had those been anyone of color or Indigenous people, there would have been troops in there a lot earlier," she says, calling it a stark difference based on skin color.

"Indigenous people learned a long time ago that when you do have a protest, or if you're trying to stop something happening, you don't go armed, you go peacefully," she continued. "Because we have been attacked, and have learned the hard way that the government will attack you before asking questions, and ask questions after."

Simon also has a hard time feeling sorry for Bundy and his crew.

"It's difficult for me to have any sympathy for either side when I know that the land they are fighting each other over is land that they stole off of native people," he says.

He says he feels solidarity for the native people who had original claim to the territory that Bundy is fighting for.

When it comes to Oka, even though the standoff is over, Simon says his community is still reeling from the aftermath of conflict.

To that end, he does have advice for Bundy.

"There's always the solution when you talk," Simon says. "And they're not talking properly to each other."

He laughs. "Maybe what we should do is offer the Iroquois [nation] service of diplomacy. Send them up to Oregon to see if they can't mediate the dispute."

Follow Rachel Browne and Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: _@rp_browne & _@HilaryBeaumont

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