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Angel's story

by Rana Encol

Rana Encol writes on the transformation of a young Mohawk warrior during the days of the Idle No More movement  in Halifax. Photo Miles Howe
Rana Encol writes on the transformation of a young Mohawk warrior during the days of the Idle No More movement in Halifax. Photo Miles Howe

Rana Encol wrote this story over two years ago. We believe it’s still worth reading.

Angel feels like a nobody in the city but knows he’s different whenever he walks into a store.

Angel went to high school in Brantford, Ontario: a pretty white place except for a small minority of native kids. Other kids would bump shoulders with his group and throw around racial slurs—if a bank got robbed it must be Indians from the reserve, they’d say.

Walking down the street after sundown, he’d tell himself not to walk too close to anybody on the sidewalk.

The first time Angel went fishing on the reserve, he remembers thinking, this is what it means to be me. I’m supposed to be fishing with these nasty bugs everywhere.

He feels a sense of belonging he never felt in the city; he feels close to the land.

Angel Marcus Panag was born on November 16, 1993 on the banks of the Grand River on Six Nations Territory in present-day Southern Ontario.

After the American Revolutionary War of Independence, the Crown promised the Mohawk nation and the other Six Nation Indians 950,000 acres, “six miles deep of each side of the Grand River, … to the head of the said river which them and their posterity to enjoy forever” (sic).

Less than five per cent of the original grant remains in Six Nations possession. The agreement held that funds from the lease or sale of Six Nations land were to be deposited in a “Six Nations Trust Fund”—but the money was invested in colonial settlement infrastructure without repayment to the original grant holders, and the remainder of the fund was rolled into federal government coffers after Confederation.

When a land developer purchased the land for a residential subdivision known as Douglas Creek Estates in 1992, the Six Nations sued the federal and provincial government in 1995 for “all assets which were not received but ought to have been received, managed or held by the Crown for the benefit of the Six Nations.”

Tired of the lack of consultation and compensation for the use of their historical territory, a group of Six Nations members erected tents and road and rail blockades to peacefully occupy the land in 2006. They stayed there for over seven years.

Angel recalls feeling torn during the land dispute because he had friends who were both white and Aboriginal. But he joined his family, bringing canteens of coffee and bags of raisin bread to friends and family members gathered on a portion of the highway blocked off by parked cars and barbed wire.

Angel is one of the first men in his immediate family to go to university—first at Dalhousie and now at Fanshawe College.

He is a young leader in the Idle No More movement which he describes as a “civil rights movement for the 21st century.”

* * *

Angel’s dad would tell him a story about an eagle which used to hang out with chickens.

One day he saw other eagles flying and he wondered why he couldn’t fly like them. So he left the chickens and started hanging out with the eagles and he started to fly.

Beyond a good father, it takes a village to raise a child. Until Angel was three, he was raised by both sets of his grandparents while his father worked long hours at clothing factory and his mother studied social work.

When he was six, his family moved to an apartment building on Jane and Finch in Toronto because of the embarrassment when his father lost nearly everything in a legal dispute with his brother.

One of Angel’s first memories as a child was hearing a gun shot behind the apartment building when he was playing on the deck.

* * *

Angel belongs to the Turtle clan of the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Six Nations. Friends of his grandfather helped build the Empire State building in New York.

Mohawk people are known to be fearless workers, unafraid of heights and dangerous conditions. From 2006 until 2010, the Mohawk Warrior Society was listed on the Terrorist Watchlist of Canada, a strange flashback to the Oka Crisis: a 78-day standoff between the Canadian military and defenders of sacred Mohawk land against the expansion of a golf course.

Angel draws a line between passive resistance and nonviolent resistance. “Passive is being soft in a way, letting someone push you around,” he says, drawing parallels between the the nonviolent protests of the 1960s Civil Right movement. He likens the Mohawk way – and the radicalization of some people in the movement – to the Black Panthers.

The Oka Crisis was a perfect media storm: it pinpointed a particular conflict at a particular geography at a particular point in time. By comparison, Idle No More is a vast ocean embracing a larger target: the protection of Mother Earth with occasional crests of peaceful activity that has resonated with indigenous and non-indigenous people worldwide. It’s harder for journalists and pundits to describe. Activists at the grassroots are so far removed from the power play-offs between Indian Act chiefs and elected government officials, it’s no wonder the movement is characterized by multiple personality disorder.

But Stephen Harper and the Aboriginal business elite are irrelevant to the spirit of the movement, attests Mi’kmaq Elder Billy Lewis, who has been on the front lines of resistance since he arrived in Nova Scotia by boxcar some decades ago. He lives in Dartmouth and carries around a red pocket book where he records all of his appointments: meetings at the Mi’kmaq Friendship centre; language classes; media interviews.

Angel met Billy when he needed a ride to Truro for his first speaking engagement at a concert rally on January 17; Angel rode shotgun while Billy passed on stories excavated from decades of Indigenous resistance.

The difference between First Nations and the Canadian state, in Billy’s words, is that the First Nations has no standing army. But Mohawk warriors aren’t gunslinging soldier ready to march on a dime; they are ordinary people ready to defend themselves by the direction of clan mothers and spiritual leaders.

Billy is a spiritual leader. Every Thursday, he takes a group of urban natives, young and old, male and female – and anyone else who happens to be interested – on a 25 minute drive to a sweat lodge in Dartmouth for spiritual healing. He describes the symbolism of the lodge as essentially a return to the womb of Mother Earth, organized in quadrants that form a mnemonic device for dialectical relationships such as dark and light, woman and man.

Angel can’t really describe his first experience at a sweat. You have to experience it for yourself, he says, but knows that the Spirit informs the social movements in Aboriginal culture. The energy at Caledonia as very spiritual and communal, and Idle No More has been a reprise of that feeling on a grander scale. The first march in Halifax started with a smudging ceremony.

“Every time we start something it starts with a prayer; every time we end something it ends with a prayer,” he says.

What is smudging? Angel describes it very slowly.

“They have herbs and they burn them, so it’s lit on fire and there’s this really pleasant smell that comes out of it. They go over to everyone and you you take your hand and pull the wind towards you, over your head to bless your entire body and towards your body. It’s a really spiritual experience and that’s just a blessing, you know?”

Angel was raised in a Christian church and has only started to scratch the surface of Aboriginal spirituality. He knows that the eagle is very important. During the first Idle No More protest held in the new year in Halifax, an eagle soared above the Grand Parade.

“The Eagle is like an angel … the stairs between the human world and the heavens.”

* * *

In a front page photograph on the Sunday, January 27th edition of the Chronicle HeraldAngel’s face is the only one in focus. He carries a Mohawk warrior flag and an expression of grim determination.

The image is from the march organized from the Shubenacadie residential school grounds near Indian Brook as part of a global day of action. It was there that the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul supervised what were to become victims and survivors of a system that existed only at this site in Atlantic Canada from 1923 to 1967.

The next day, Angel woke up early to rejoin where the march picked up from the Holiday Inn lobby in Dartmouth, altogether a different clamour and din from the day before – a catered affair, with the classic cries of “no justice, no peace,” abbreviated by the caravan of Halifax regional police cars that gently rolled to provide safety, not scrutiny to the marchers.

The first time Angel heard of the movement was when his friend texted him while he was downtown one day in mid-December of last year, giving him word that people were congregated a couple of blocks from where he was, at City Hall, where the Friendship treaty was signed with the Mi’kmaq people. He recorded video of the protest and uploaded it to YouTube, where it garnered 2,000 views in two weeks.

A lot of the comments made on the Internet piqued Angel’s interest further because of their negativity and misinformation, so he contacted the organizers of Idle No More and Facebook and educated himself. Since then, he has spoken at rallies in Truro and Halifax.

NDP MP Romeo Saganash introduced a private member’s bill asking the federal government to comply with the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in parliament when it resumed in Ottawa the Monday morning Angel and hundreds others crossed the Angus L. MacDonald bridge. In the lobby of the Holiday Inn, elder Emmett summarized the movement succinctly:

“Nation First,” he said. “Not First Nations rights first, Nation first.”

Angel and more than a hundred men, women and children wound up Gottingen Street, where heads ducked out of Tony’s and Kit Kat’s in part curiosity, part perfect collusion and exploded into a rainbow of winter coat-bundled little eyes and smiles outside of the Mik’maq Child Development Centre and the Friendship centre – chants of “protect our water, protect our land” morphing into “Sponge Bob Square pants.” On Citadel Hill the group stopped to remember that Edward Cornwallis’ proclamation to legalize the hunting and scalping of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children was still enshrined in legislation in the 1990s. Despite the dark stain of Nova Scotia’s colonial history, the actions on this day were quite family-oriented and uplifting, recalling the last great civic upheaval in North America.

Occupy. From displaced tent city dwellers in Nashville to urban squatters in Zuccotti Park, the people’s ire had been directed at the corporate American financiers who speculated the market into its fatal collapse, at the heart of which the foreclosure of so many middle class American homes epitomized how not only jobs, but the notion of a stable home was lost in the recession. Idle No More struck the same chord, where the Land Surrenders policy and the Navigable Waters Act amended in Bill C45 represented a direct threat to the two most basic elements of human shelter and survival: land and water.

The two-day march in Halifax echoed the group of First Nations who walked 1100 km in -40 degree weather from Northern Quebec to Parliament over two weeks. The weather was -15 but felt like -20 with the windchill and Emmett sagely reminded everyone to cover their faces as they crossed the bridge and not to fret if the bridge started to shake as we approached its zenith. The Mi’kmaq honour song drifted among the marchers but louder than anything was the endless span of blue sky that equalled the fantastic scale of the cold. White and red the Mi’kmaqi and Mohawk flags flapped against this incandescent blue.

In his poppy red overcoat and black felt cap, clear blues eyes, and steady smile, Billy was a bright presence in the round dance circle in the Commons. After the dance, everyone gathered around a stage to listen to labour representatives, young activists, educators, and allies.

Angel walked up to speak at the microphone.

“Our elders can shed light on injustices that have taken place in the past, so the youth can pick up the pieces of the past.

“Like football, the generation before picked up the ball and ran with it as far as they could, and they had to drop it.

“And the next generation picked it up and ran with it as far as they could, and then they had to drop it.

“I think It’s important for our generation to pick it up and run with it through the end zone and actually get that touchdown.”

Angel doesn’t speak his own language, like many other First Nations people, who have systematically been stripped of their language and culture through assimilation and residential schools. He believes Idle No More is an unprecedented. historical moment to raise consciousness about his people and people from other First Nations. He hopes to see language programs in schools. He’d like to see his people’s history and struggle as widely learnt and taught as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. He’d like to see his people become successfully self-sufficient and self-governing.

In the last week of January, Angel brought forward motion at Student Council that the Dalhousie Student Union officially support Idle No More. It was shot down the first time. The second time, it passed with about 90 per cent of the student vote and only two objections, making DSU the first student union to support the movement in Canada.

Angel says that the only failing of the student council that day was that he and his fellow councillors had no media connections to publicize the victory. He was put in office on the executive team by his predecessor and didn’t feel engaged last year because of a stagnant council; this year, however, he says he’s felt empowered to enact changes.

Dalhousie hasn’t always had the most progressive student body: a long history of racism predates Occupy and the student movements for lower tuition in Nova Scotia. At one point, it was very rare for Aboriginal or Black students to be admitted in its halls.

Nova Scotia still has a long way to go in terms of institutionalized racism. Angel recounts how police picked up one of his friends in Truro and dropped him on the side of the highway on a night when the temperature dipped below -15. By the time they got to hospital, his friend had frostbite and had to have two of his fingers removed.

* * *

When Angel was a child, there were no toilets on his reserve. Every ten or fifteen houses would share one outhouse. The leadership has changed much since then and the Six Nations reserve currently one of the most self-sufficient reserves in Canada. It does not run a deficit (unlike a reserve in Nova Scotia like Indian Brook, a reserve in Nova Scotia which is $10.5 million in debt).

The reserve has a fire hall, police station, a plaza with individually owned business and restaurants, a library, a community centre, and a polytechnic college. The reserve has its own police forces and Brant County Police or Haldeman County Forces cannot come onto the territory.

Since the early 2000s, it’s not uncommon to see barbed wire and signs that read, “Enter at your own risk,” at some entry points to the community. Some people are afraid to enter, says Angel, because of its former reputation of being stringently anti-white, anti-European, and anti-colonial.

On a typical weekend, kids might leave the reserve to play lacrosse (“it has that rough and tough Mohawk spirit to it”) or hang out at the mall in Brantford. Older kids might leave to go to school.

The Chief has generally been Mohawk because they are the most populous nation, but band council must be comprised of equal representation from all six Iroquois nations that live on the reserve: Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora, as well some Mississauga and Delaware.

Balanced and fair leadership is of utmost importance, especially in this moment of uprising.

Billy says that in Nova Scotia, many grassroots groups are wary of so-called oil chiefs who use Idle No More as leverage to negotiate deals with the government. After all, they are Indian Act chiefs being paid by the federal government through the Department of Indian Affairs. Very few reserves would be able to operate even basic infrastructure like water and electricity if the government cut off their funding, which is why it’s a very brave for a chief to take a stand against the government, apart from Harper’s chosen circle. Some leaders are, unfortunately, only thinking of their own pockets and their pensions.

“Always check the leader, what the leader is doing,” says Angel.

So what does it mean to be one?

“Being a leader means being humble. Feed other people before you feed yourself. There shouldn’t be any hunger in your community if you’re a true leader. If you care so much about the situation of your people, why are you collecting huge amounts of salary? These people have nothing, no insulation in their walls, they can’t drink the water…” he muses.

“What does it mean to respect our elders? To renovate our longhouses? If people are more culturally engaged, will they engage in less crime?” asks the city kid that grew up in Toronto, in Brantford, in Halifax.

“I don’t know, I think I should be a Chief one day,” he jokes.

 

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