Fighting for Their People: Meet Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Warriors

Mark Melnychuk

  • A look at the men who are continuing the tradition of Indigenous warrior societies in Saskatchewan.

A soldier’s helmet, a gas mask and a knife feature prominently on a shelf.

There are stacks of gun magazines and books for everything a soldier might need in the field, including a survival manual and a U.S. Army Special Forces medical handbook.

This isn’t some military barracks, but Chris Big Eagle’s home on the Ocean Man First Nation, located almost 20 kilometres north of Stoughton in the province’s southeast.

Sunlight from outside pours in with a red tint, filtered through a flag that hangs in a window. It’s the flag of the Mohawk Warrior Society, depicting the head of an Indigenous man at the centre of a golden sun on a blood red backdrop.

On a wall decorated with newspaper clippings and pictures, one photo shows an Indigenous man clad in camouflage, sunglasses and a mask. He stands face-to-face with a Canadian soldier.

It’s an iconic image captured during the Oka crisis in 1990. Opposed to expansion of a golf course and condos on land claimed by the people of the Kanesatake reserve in southern Quebec, the Mohawk Warrior Society faced off against the Canadian Army.

Contemporary warrior societies began emerging in the 1960s as a way for Indigenous people to protect their culture and land. The movement gained momentum and exposure at the height of the Oka crisis.

Chris Big Eagle, a member of the Cree Warriors Society, stands in his room in his home on the Ocean Man First Nation. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

Men like Big Eagle, who grew up in the Internet age, have now taken the movement online. They share images of members attending community events or protests while wearing the signature camouflage fatigues and waving the Mohawk Warrior Society flag. Big Eagle is active on Twitter and Facebook, frequently speaking about issues facing Indigenous people and sharing stories about the history of warrior societies.

Big Eagle’s social media profiles depict him wearing camouflage face masks. The selfies are clearly influenced by the iconic imagery from Oka, and Big Eagle proudly points out that the Indigenous man in that famous photo is Brad Larocque, a resident of Saskatchewan.

For Big Eagle, becoming a member of a warrior society is his way of doing something about the injustices his people face. Part of his role includes providing other warriors with survival supplies and training materials. Big Eagle won’t say if he’s physically travelled to hot spots such as the Standing Rock pipeline protests, but says he takes the role seriously.

“You have to be willing to sacrifice yourself to be an Indigenous warrior,” says Big Eagle.

Academic research on warrior societies is rare. One of the few academics who has written on the subject is Taiaiake Alfred. The University of Victoria professor has studied Indigenous movements, such as warrior societies, for the past 27 years.

In an article he co-authored with Lana Lowe on the development of warrior societies in Indigenous communities, the movement is described as a way for Indigenous people to rebel against colonization and a history of oppression. It’s also a way of “expressing an authentic Indigenous identity.”

Items in the room of Chris Big Eagle, a member of the Cree Warriors Society, in his room in his home on the Ocean Man First Nation. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

Some Indigenous warriors are willing to go to extreme lengths to honour those duties.

In 2014, a document called Defend the Territory was published by a website called Warrior Publications. The document contains instructions for tactics and strategies Indigenous communities can use to repel incursions by Canadian police or military. Some of the methods include ditches that can immobilize armoured vehicles, or ways to flush the eyes after exposure to tear gas.

If a warrior society does ever take such actions, it’s always done in a defensive nature, according to Big Eagle, a member of the Cree Warriors Society since he joined in 2010.

Big Eagle believes there has been a steady rise in the growth of Indigenous warrior societies in recent years. He credits it to Indigenous people finding empowerment in a system where they feel powerless.

Part of what motivates an interest in warrior societies, according to Big Eagle, is fear. He says Indigenous people don’t feel safe, and don’t believe Canadian police have much interest in protecting them.

“Being Indigenous, I’m just afraid there that basically I could be killed and basically Canadian society won’t care,” he says.

Those fears were inflamed by the shooting death of Colten Boushie, and the subsequent acquittal of Biggar-area farmer Gerald Stanley.

Big Eagle is calm and collected when describing warrior societies. He clearly takes his role seriously and speaks with knowledge and authority on the subject. But when addressing the death of Boushie, he doesn’t hide his anger.

“It was just a complete injustice,” he asserts. “When that came down, it just pissed me off.”

Part of the reason for wearing the camouflage, says Big Eagle, is the idea that First Nations people are still at war with a colonial government. Genocide is still being carried out through an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Chris Big Eagle, a member of the Cree Warriors Society, sits in his room in his home on the Ocean Man First Nation. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

Another concern of Big Eagle’s is the protection of First Nations land from mining and resource development.

His environmental concerns are practically on his doorstep. A pump jack sits on a property across the road from his home. In 2017, a pipeline buried 50 years ago on Ocean Man First Nation spilled 200 cubic metres of oil into the ground.

“It makes me feel worried about the future,” he says.

Big Eagle is noticeably agitated about the plight of Indigenous people in Canada. From his point of view, they are at the mercy of resource companies and police forces. They aren’t entirely powerless though, and warrior societies are a way to fight back.

“When they (Indigenous people) stand up for themselves, basically it does feel good,” he says.

Stern-looking men wearing camo fatigues makes for intimidating imagery, but it can also result in a one-dimensional understanding of warrior societies.

Speaking on the phone from Victoria, professor Alfred says the military-style imagery is a surface-level way of looking at warrior societies. It also may be a dated depiction of the movement, a snapshot from the 1960s or 1970s when that imagery was more dominant.

Alfred describes the evolution in warrior societies into a movement that is now more concerned with the traditional teachings of what it is to be a man in Indigenous culture. Those can include family-oriented responsibilities or serving a community, rather than simply being a soldier.

“The more time you spend pursuing the idea of warrior society, or what it is to be a warrior, the deeper understanding you get in terms of what your responsibilities are, and how much it involves being a good solid person who is committed to sacrificing for the benefit of the community, rather than somebody standing on a barricade waving a gun around,” says Alfred.

“Although it can’t be denied that at times in our history that’s what warriors have done, but anyone who thinks that’s the only thing that warriors do doesn’t understand the concept,” he adds.

Ronald Elliott mans the barbecue in the parking lot of Regina’s Cree-Land Minimart.  A flag representing the American Indian Movement (AIM), which established its Saskatchewan chapter in Regina last October, flaps in the wind.

The 26-year-old wears a hoodie and leather vest with AIM’s logo on the back. It shows a hand giving the peace symbol combined with the image of an Indigenous man wearing two eagle feathers.

A steady stream of people stop by and order burgers. The proceeds will help AIM carry out community projects such as picking up used needles and cleaning up the neighbourhood. It may not evoke the heavy imagery of staring down Canadian troops, but it echoes the dedication to serving one’s community of which Alfred speaks.

American Indian Movement (AIM) Saskatchewan member Ronald Elliott Jr. stands next to an AIM flag at the Cree Land Mini-Mart on 5th Avenue. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

“Everybody wants to help and everybody wants to be better, like we want to make the community better. We all just want to hang out and walk around and feel safe,” says Elliott, originally from the Okanese First Nation.

He moved to Regina eight years ago to look for job opportunities and wants to study business administration, possibly at the First Nations University of Canada.

Elliott believes he had fewer prospects back on the reserve. There aren’t many jobs to be had, and he describes it as a place where little changes, not uncommon complaints from young people who leave their small towns in search of better things in the big city.

Growing up there wasn’t all bad. His reserve provided youth programming, martial arts classes and healthy relationship workshops. That sense of community is something Elliott saw lacking in Regina.

“Nobody helps each other. Out here everybody’s kind of on their own,” says Elliott. “I think that was the main thing that made me want to do something, because people got to help each other, you know?”

He likens his urge to help the Indigenous community to waiting for a bus to jump on; AIM seemed to be the right fit.

AIM isn’t commonly referred to as a warrior society, but shares an ancestry with it. Alfred’s paper, notes warrior societies tend to develop in indigenous communities, while AIM is more urban-based.

AIM falls under what’s referred to as the Red Power movement, established in the U.S. during the 1960s to resist oppression and discrimination. According to Alfred, AIM and warrior societies both provide an outlet for the frustrations of young Indigenous people.

Relatively new in Saskatchewan, AIM’s current focus is growing its members, currently at about 22. Elliott says AIM wants to have a presence in small rural towns, where he says racism is more rampant.

“We’re not going to lay there and take it anymore,” he says.

But Elliott says AIM has no interest in violence. It just wants to protect Indigenous people.

American Indian Movement (AIM) Saskatchewan member Ronald Elliott Jr., right, tends to meat on a barbecue at the Cree Land Mini-Mart on 5th Avenue. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

He believes there’s been an uptick in interest toward First Nations activism thanks to Indigenous people having made significant progress in their collective recovery from past traumas.

“There was a whole lot of dysfunction on the reserves and trans-generational abuse, and I think people are starting to deal with that, and they’re starting to get over it and now they actually want to help,” says Eilliott.

The tough, leather-clad appearance of AIM members also holds some appeal for Elliott. To him, they look like the type of people who get things done.

With the destruction of Indigenous culture through colonization, Alfred says Indigenous men were left without positive role models. Because of this, some men have looked back to traditional ways for a path to affirm their masculinity.

Big Eagle didn’t have a father figure growing up, but doesn’t agree with the idea of that influencing his interest in warrior societies.

He was around three years old when his father went to prison for murder. He has some memories of talking to him on the phone, but broke off contact years ago.

Big Eagle is a vocal encyclopedia on the subject of warrior societies, but has little to say about his parents. He’s ashamed of his father’s criminal actions, and doesn’t wish to speak to him. The same goes for his mother, whom he says was an alcoholic and a drug addict. She’s been “MIA” from his life.

Big Eagle attributes his fraught family history to becoming self-reliant. At age 16, he began learning to live off the land and bought books to teach himself survival skills.

He doesn’t believe the lack of a father figure should be seen as a common trait for Indigenous warriors, saying many of his colleagues come from stable families.

Not unlike many kids, Elliott watched his parents divorce when he was 10, but has otherwise had a stable family. His siblings let him stay with them when he moved to Regina.

American Indian Movement (AIM) Saskatchewan member Ronald Elliott Jr., right, and vice president Tony Bunnie, display their patches at the Cree Land Mini-Mart on 5th Avenue. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

Warrior societies are commonly associated with Indigenous men protecting their lands from outside interference, but there’s more to it than that. As Alfred says, being a warrior can also be about asserting a positive role for men in a community. That’s the main purpose behind Indigenous Warriors: A Youth Warrior Society, founded by Stanley Joseph Cote in Yorkton last year.

Cote, from the Cote First Nation, supports groups opposing the construction of pipelines, but isn’t interested in joining that effort. In a phone interview, Cote explains that he’s more interested in getting Indigenous youth on the right path, and finding solutions to prevent more murdered and missing Indigenous women.

Cote, 44, says he wants to show youth there’s more in their community than drugs and alcohol.

“As a nation, a society we need our peacekeepers, our protectors for our people, for our women, for our youth, for our elders,” he says. “And we need to do more for them.”

Cote still holds onto the practice of wearing camouflage at events. It’s a symbolic gesture that warriors are fighting for their people.

Stanley Joseph Cote, who resides in Yorkton and is from Cote First Nation, is the founder of Indigenous Warriors: A Youth Warrior Society. REGwp

“That’s basically the message that they want to give when they’re wearing the camo,” he says.

Alfred has seen no evidence of warrior societies having a revival nationally. Instead, he believes the energy that drove warrior societies in the past has morphed into other forms of political activism among young Indigenous people. These young people, says Alfred, are also participating in broader political movements that don’t just involve First Nations people.

“There is more activism on issues and less political organization around nationhood, and the focus of many politically-motivated Indigenous people has shifted from defending land and Indigenous sovereignty to environmental and social and cultural focuses,” says Alfred.

The Justice for Our Stolen Children Camp is an example of that shift. Erected on the lawn across from the Legislative Building for 197 days until dismantled in September under the weight of a court order, the camp’s purpose was to raise concerns about how the province’s foster care system treats Indigenous families.

Among the flags surrounding the central teepee that housed the sacred fire, one was a Mohawk Warrior Society flag. Cote visited the camp, and Elliott regularly volunteered there to chop wood, do night security and keep watch over the sacred fire.

During a sweltering August day, Elliott joined some of the other camp’s members to practice raising a teepee. The heat wave and activity taking a toll, Elliott sat down in the shade for a drink of water. The Legislative Building loomed in the background.

“I’m trying to get the hang of these politics,” says Elliott.

He learned about Canada’s levels of government in school, but didn’t think he’d need it in his future. That changed with the camp consuming many of his days. Elliott wants to get reacquainted with politics.

“I got to learn it all over again pretty much.”

Cote sees warrior societies as a way of reviving long-held cultural traditions. The idea of First Nations people rising up to help their kin isn’t a new concept. It was there long before Christopher Columbus, says Cote, and still is.

“Our people were always like this. We’re peacekeepers, we are providers and we are protectors.”

Original People’s Resistance

Onkwehón:we Rising : Basic Points of Unity
Onkwehón:we Rising : Glossary of Onkwewen:na
Onkwehón:we Rising : Glossary of Radical Terminology
American Indian Culture : Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle
An Open Letter to the American Indian Movement by Jimmie Durham
Ward Churchill: Pacifism as Pathology
I Am Indigenist : Notes on the Ideology of the Fourth World by Ward Churchill
Acts of Rebellion : The Ward Churchill Reader
Acts of Rebellion : Ward Churchill Reader
From a Native Son : Selected Essays on Indigenism 1985-1995 by Ward Churchill
Marxism and Native Americans edited by Ward Churchill
Perversions of Justice: Indigenous Peoples and Angloamerican Law by Ward Churchill
Struggle for the Land : Native North American Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Colonization by Ward Churchill
Since Predator Came: Notes from the Struggle for American Indian Liberation by Ward Churchill
Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality – A Sourcebook by Unsettling Minnesota
Pacifism as Pathology
“Some People Push Back” – On the Justice of Roosting Chickens by Ward Churchill
The New Face of Liberation by Ward Churchill
The COINTELPRO Papers by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall
Agents of Repression – The FBI’s Secret War on the Black Panther Party by Ward Churchill
The American Indian Movement’s Stance on Libya and Venezuela
Towards Unsettling Paths
500 Years of Indigenous Resistance by Gord Hill
500 Years of Indigenous Resistance
Indigenous Resistance and Anarchism with Gord Hill