TORONTO, JULY 25 -- Still angry over what they say is a government attempt to "criminalize" tribal traditions, Mohawk Indians involved in an armed standoff with police near Montreal said today that supporters are organizing a 10,000-member nationwide "peace caravan" to the disputed site Sunday.
Ovide Mercredi, vice chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the country's largest Indian policy-making body, said participants in the caravan would not attempt to confront police surrounding the site but would nevertheless attempt to deliver food and other essential supplies to the besieged Mohawks.
The planned demonstration is the latest in a series of protests across Canada of what the Indians claim is the government's refusal to settle centuries-old land claims and other grievances of the country's 700,000 Indians and Eskimos. Major protest demonstrations in support of the embattled Mohawks were still underway today as far from Montreal as British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Earlier this week, Canadian Deputy Indian Affairs Minister Harry Swain charged that Mohawks manning two roadblocks at the Quebec site are being led by an American "criminal organization" dominated by Vietnam War combat veterans. He was referring to a group of 75 to 100 members of the Mohawk Warriors Society -- many dressed in camouflage uniforms and carrying AK-47 assault rifles -- who are in control of heavily fortified roadblocks at the edges of the Kahnawake Reservation, along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, and the Kanesatake Reservation, 18 miles west of Montreal at the suburb of Oka.
The Indians accused the government of attempting to test public reaction to the possibility of an assault on the barricades by police and army troops. Mohawks leaders said they had received information that an attack by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was imminent, but authorities denied this.
The Indians also accused politicians in Ottawa of being insensitive to ancient tribal customs that they say are the basis of the protests.
The Warriors Society is deeply rooted in the Mohawks' martial history, going back to the 17th century, when bands in upstate New York allied with the British in the fur trade wars and conducted raids against what was then called New France.
Mohawks at Kahnawake said that under the tribe's matrilineal system, traditional longhouse chiefs are chosen by clan mothers, who in effect control major policy decisions by acting as electors of the tribal leaders.
Consequently, Mohawk leaders said, the clan mothers effectively have overall responsibility for the two barricades, having put the warriors in charge of day-to-day negotiating.
Mohawk tradition holds that a prophet called the Peacemaker appeared before the Mohawks and other warring tribes and cast their weapons into a cavern, resulting in a truce that led to the Iroquois Confederacy of the 18th century. But the prophet's 1,000-year-old Great Law of Peace also provided for warrior societies to defend the Indian nation's land and rights.
Young Mohawk warriors today still speak of a doctrine in which their dead will not rest in the spirit world until they are avenged for wrongs committed by the white man. They also recall with pride the military feats of their ancestors and scorn other tribes that were defeated by the whites or were assimilated into Canadian society.
The Kahnawake barricade was set up July 11 after Quebec provincial police attempted to dismantle a roadblock at Oka that was erected in protest against plans by the local town council to expand a nine-hole golf course onto 22 acres of disputed land adjacent to an ancestral Indian burial ground. A Quebec police officer was killed during a shootout with the Indians the same day.
Quebec police said they have opened hundreds of criminal investigations in connection with the death of the officer, Marcel Lemay.