The Curse of Self-Awareness – The Oka Crisis 1990

As the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis is upon us, there is a new Indeigogo film project underway that seeks to recount what happened during that year-long struggle, and how it has impacted upon the First Nations people ever since.  Here is a video about the project, and an essay that I wrote many years ago now on what began that summer of 1990. You can contribute the project by clicking HERE (url doesn’t work in youtube video).

The Curse of Self-Awareness         by Joanna van der Hoeven (originally posted on The Druid Network)

As I sit here, looking out the window, watching the clouds float by in a pale blue sky, I am reminded that the fights and troubles of humankind matters not to them. Still they float past, unrattled by humanity, simply being. The forsythia is in bloom, the sun is out and casting shadows upon the ground. The curse of self-awareness is not upon them. They know nothing of land ownership. They all share in this world, living where they can, with no knowledge of property deeds, legalities and borders. On this bright afternoon, I am reminded of Kanasetake, and the Oka Crisis that began on March 11, 1990 in Quebec, Canada. Why? Because I am human. I carry these memories and cannot forget them. The curse of self-awareness.

Land ownership. The concept is entirely human. The wolf knows its territory, but once the wolf has died, the concept of any claim on land is lost. It cannot be handed down to others through a Will, or any legal documents. You cannot take your land with you when you die. The concept of territory to a wolf is to ensure a sufficient food supply for a hunter and predator. It will share this with the pack, should it be part of one. The wolf does not own its land, it merely claims the right to live on it. With writing these words, I am reminded of Chief Seattle’s words in a letter to the US government, “I never said the land was mine to do with as I choose. The one who created it is the one who has a right to dispose of it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to return to yours.” Are these words creating a boundary, or defining a territory? In this global village, can we truly live in a land without borders? Where walls and fences do not exist? Can we ever return?

The fight for land ownership, or defending a territory? Are they one and the same? I think there may be a difference between the two, which essentially always ends up merged into the former. The Oka Crisis, spring 1990. The snows were receding, the air beginning to soften with the call of the season. I was sixteen, just graduating from high school and moving on to college later that fall. The news on the television came through as we sat down to our evening meal. The Mohawk people of the Kanasetake reservation had put up roadblocks, to stop anyone from entering land they held sacred. A year previously, the mayor of Oka, Jean Ouellette, decreed that the pine forest, which included a native burial ground next to the reservation, was to be cleared to expand a golf course from nine to eighteen holes. Ouellette was also a member of the golf club. The golf club stood to make a profit for this expansion.

The ownership of the land had been in dispute for 260 years. The governor of New France in 1717 granted the lands to a seminary priest to hold on trust for the Mohawks. The Church then expanded on this agreement, to enable them to have ownership of the entire land, and began selling off the resources. The Mohawks rose against the missionaries but were imprisoned by the police. The remaining land was sold by the missionaries, who then left. In 1961, a nine hole golf course was built. The Mohawk nation legally protested but to no avail, the land was already being cleared right next to their burial ground. Through much red tape, the Mohawk demand was finally thrown out, “failing to meet criteria”.

And so, in 1990 the roadblock was erected. For years the natives and their European descended counterparts had shared the land, though not in fair and judicial proportions. This was not the golf club’s fighting for territory from which to live. It was not necessary to its survival. It stood to profit in excess of what it needed. Land ownership and greed, hand in hand. Respect for the territory of another pack, lost. Self-awareness leading to selfishness.

The Sûreté du Québec, the Provincial police force, were called in by order of the mayor on July 11. The warriors at the barricades turned to the matriarchs for advice, asking whether they should keep the amassed weapons. The women replied that they should not be used unless the SQ opened fire first. Tear gas canisters were thrown in by the SQ along with concussion grenades. CBC reporter Laurent Levigne was live on the radio at the time, and said that he heard the first shot of gunfire sound. When asked from which side, he replied he thought it came from the SQ police. The reporter could no longer continue with his report, and had to retreat due to the teargas. Corporal Marcel Lemay of the SQ was shot and killed during the brief gun battle. After the funeral, flags from both opposing forces were raised to half mast.

The idea of land ownership did not stop there. Racial hatred had begun to show it’s ugly head, fanned by radio host Gilles Proulx and echoed by the federal member of parliament for the district of Chateauguay, who spoke of exiling natives to Labrador, “if they wanted their own country so much”. The new wolves were attacking the forced roadblock where before there had been none. Divides were perhaps not created between people, but solidified that summer. The Mohawks fought to defend their land from the awaiting bulldozers and golfers. They recalled their previous entreaties to grant them the land that they lived on, and the many refusals. The land became a tool of war. Blood lay upon it. I pause here, to ask myself – did the land care? Did the pines weep as the guns shot across the barricades? The dawn continued, regardless of the attack. Did the land care? Was the self-awareness of the humans provoking this encounter? Did the mourning cries of the ancestors at that sacred site awaken the hearts of the warriors and the women? Or did the wind blow through the boughs as it always had, heedless of the humanity beneath its green canopy?

On August 29th, two days after my 17th birthday, the negotiations came to an end after the army had been called in. The stand off had lasted for three months. The army came through the barricades and the women ordered their warriors back. The guns were slowly put away. By 25th September the fights were with hoses and water balloons.   On 26th September, the warriors threw their guns into a septic tank and surrendered, with the ceremonial burning of tobacco lingering in the air. The First Nations Policing Policy was developed, and Canada listed on Amnesty International’s list of human rights violators. A year later, the mayor was re-elected, and when asked if he could have done things differently, he said that he would not have changed a thing. For nine holes in the ground, a man lost his life.

The fight for land ownership or the fight for territory. The right to live on your land or the right to own the land upon which you live. On 1st April 1999 a new territory, Nunavut was created in Canada. In Inuit, it means ‘Our Land’. 85% of the population are Inuit. To me, this raises another question though. Is this simply another way of claiming land to own? Of setting up borders? Is this an answer to the problems? Our global community, should it even know any boundaries? What would happen if land ownership simply ceased to be?

Memories flood through us every day. The curse of self-awareness. And outside my window, the sun is still shining.


  1. CBC archives, online ( [accessed 5 April, 2006]
  1. Wikipedia, The Oka Crisis, online, ( [accessed 5 April, 2006]
  1. Wikipedia, Nunavut, online, (, [accessed 5 April, 2006]


“Ohenton Kariwahtekwen”


THE PEOPLE Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people. Now our minds are one. THE EARTH MOTHER We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.

THE WATERS We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms-waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water. Now our minds are one.

THE FISH We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.

THE PLANTS Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come. Now our minds are one.

THE FOOD PLANTS With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting of thanks. Now our minds are one.

THE MEDICINE HERBS Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines. Now our minds are one.

THE ANIMALS We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so. Now our minds are one.

THE TREES We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life. Now our minds are one.

THE BIRDS We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds-from the smallest to the largest-we send our joyful greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.

THE FOUR WINDS We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds. Now our minds are one.

THE THUNDERERS Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We are thankful that they keep those evil things made by Okwiseres underground. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers. Now our minds are one.

THE SUN We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun. Now our minds are one.

GRANDMOTHER MOON We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon. Now our minds are one.

THE STARS We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to the Stars. Now our minds are one.

THE ENLIGHTENED TEACHERS We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers. Now our minds are one.

THE CREATOR Now we turn our thoughts to the creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. Now our minds are one.

CLOSING WORDS………. We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way. Now our minds are one.

Resource: Peace for Turtle Island website: [accessed 5th April 2006]

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