Warrior Societies in Contemporary Indigenous Communities

Warrior Societies in Contemporary Indigenous Communities

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April 1, 2006

The following is an excerpt of the text “Warrior Societies in Contemporary Indigenous Communities” by Taiaiake Alfred, Ph.D. and Lana Lowe, M.A., written May 2005 (link to full text is below)


Contrary to the militaristic and soldierly associations of the term in European languages – and in common usage – the words translated from indigenous languages as “warrior” generally have deep and spiritual meaning. This deeper sense is exemplified, to use one example, in the English-Kanienkeha translation, rotiskenhrakete, which literally means, “carrying the burden of peace.”

The construction of the word is an indicator of the philosophical framework for understanding the role of the warrior within traditional indigenous cultures. The word is made up of roti, connoting “he”; sken in relation to skennen, or “peace”; and hrakete, which is a suffix that combines the connotations of a burden and carrying. Many people familiar with the history of conflict between the Kanien’kehaka and Canadian government agencies in the past two generation, and whose perspective is shaped by mainstream education and media, will probably find it ironic the concepts built into the word rotiskenhrakete have formed the contemporary Kanien’kehaka cultural and philosophical basis for the militant assertions of nationhood in their communities. But in fact, this understanding of “warrior” was one of the founding ideas of the Mohawk Warrior Society that emerged in Kanien’kehaka communities in the 1970s and 1980s, and there remains a strong link between such traditional teachings and the motivating ideas of the contemporary indigenous movement in other nations all across the land.

There are many related words at the core of traditional indigenous cultures that, due to the relative simplicity and limitations of the English language, can only be translated using the single term, “warrior.” In fact, the single English term has multiple connotations and a much broader usage in indigenous languages and in the traditional cultural life of indigenous societies. Again using the Kanien’kehaka as an example of this: in the ceremony of Condolence, in which grief is assuaged and new chiefs are raised up by clans, young men of the nation are referred to as Rotiskenhraketakwa; in the traditional Thanksgiving Address, in which gratitude for our place in creation is expressed, the sun is called Rotiskenhraketekowa.

The complexity inherent in indigenous conceptions of being a warrior is explained by Thohahoken, a Kanien’kehaka cultural teacher: Rotiskenhraketakwa are like conscript fighters, men who would normally not be fighting except when conscripted to defend the peace,
Oyenko:ohntoh are more akin to the Japanese samurai. One of our more sacred protection medicines is tobacco, oyenkwehonwe, and in the old days it was cured by hanging it up in the rafters of the longhouse, arhenton, “in the shadows.” Thus, hanging tobacco in the longhouse rafters protects the house. Oyenko:ohntoh are not conscripts, but sacred protectors; they are anonymous shadow warriors in a secret society whose duty it is to protect the house.

This is the depth of understanding and appreciation of being a warrior missing from the notion expressed in the English term, and lacking from more modern and less culturally grounded notions held even by indigenous peoples themselves. The great Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. has written on the ancient values within indigenous societies surrounding warriors and war chiefs: they had a sense of personal worth, of a mission to be accomplished, and of a relationship with the life forces of the greater cosmos in a measure that we have not seen since. Fighting overwhelming odds, suffering the loneliness of knowing the situation was hopeless, and maintaining their sense of person was an achievement few of us can conceive and none of us can match.

There is in fact great consistency in indigenous cultures on the idea of the warrior. What follows are a few illustrative examples from among the many different indigenous cultures

The term “Warrior Society” is also used occasionally by First Nation (mainly in the United States) military veterans groups, and in this context – groups akin to the Royal Canadian or America Legion – it should not be confused with more authentic usages discussed in this paper.

• Kuna (Central America): napa-sapgued, “One who protects or guards the land, or nature.”
• Dakota (Plains): akicita refers to those who have engaged in war combat, though linguistically the word is related to akita, which means “to seek.”
• Wsanec (West Coast): stomish means those who protect the territory and defend the names with honour and discipline.
• Pawnee (Plains): heluska, “the warrior, the war dance, the war, battle, struggle”.

The Pawnee saying, tu-da-he, as explained by a Pawnee language teacher, beautifully exemplifies the traditional indigenous idea of being a warrior: Tu-da-he, “the war, the battle, the struggle is good, sacred, right.” Life and the everyday struggles of living, good or bad, is the epitome of life. It is how you know you are living. Nothing is easy, and because it isn’t easy, one should truly value the blessings. In a warrior society the warrior ideal is how life is lived. It is what you do, it is who you are–you fight. Defeat is painful, but it is only temporary because you still live to get yourself up and see the dawn.

To link the ideas in traditional cultures with contemporary ideas and practices of people actually involved in warrior societies, I spoke with Teyowisonte, a man who has been involved with the Mohawk Warrior Society in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory since his early teen-age years. As part of my research for the book, Wasáse, I interviewed him about his concept of a “warrior” and sought to convey to people how this modern-day warrior understood himself as such.

I began the conversation by remarking on Teyowisonte’s evident, from a quick look at his bookshelf, reliance on what may be called, “revolutionary” literature, in particular the work of the Argentine communist and hero of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara.

TA: Che Guevara’s basic message was one of armed resistance. Armed force, violence, used against the United States as the centre of empire. This is key to his idea. Is that a good message to be sending to our people?

Teyowisonte: That’s something I struggle with: the thirst for adventure. You have to keep it disciplined, that whole adventure part. It’s like boxing, in a way. I have my training tips taped to my fridge to remind myself: “Never Get Mad.” Because if you take off that discipline, you’re leaving yourself subject to something you’re not expecting.

TA: That sounds like something from The Art of War.

Teyowisonte: I think it’s more my boxing training, because it’s something I figured out on my own. When I read The Art of War, it just reinforced what I already knew. It’s kind of like our traditional Longhouse teachings, they reinforced what I already knew from Star Wars! (Laughter.) I’ll tell you, my evolution as a thinker started when I was 14 years old, as a fighting person. From 1990 on, I was just waiting for the next fight. I wouldn’t say I wasted my teenage years, but since then, I’ve dedicated my life to that cause. My weekends were spent at checkpoints, going on recon patrols, patrolling town, patrolling the perimeter, learning how and then timing ourselves on how fast we could dismantle AK-47s. That was our culture at the time. Every day was just waiting for the next war. When is it going to happen? Of course, we were all taught that the ideological basis of what we were doing was the Longhouse, and we were taught the Longhouse way of life. So, from that point on, I studied what I was going to be fighting for. That’s what we did. But over time, we became disillusioned with our leaders, after finding out that what they were fighting for was more about what was going into their own pockets rather than for the good of the Nation. Once I found that out, I left the rhetoric and I started trying to find the true meaning of our teachings: peace, power, and righteousness; the power of the good mind. From that point on, you could say I became more open-minded. I started talking to people whom I would have considered “the enemy” when I was a bit younger. I moved away from thinking that the Warriors were a secret society. I started to believe that we should be more open about what we think, and the things our teachers were talking about. That’s when I felt a burden lift off of me. You know? I felt a lot more comfortable with what I was doing and with the things I was talking about.

A key part of Teyowisonte’s interpretation of being a warrior is what he explained to me as the “national defence” function of the Warrior Society involving, potentially (as with the Oka Crisis in 1990) “armed resistance” to violence and aggression by non-indigenous governments. I questioned him about the implications of taking such a position on the role of the warrior today, not so much in terms of physical capacity but in terms of the social and cultural context of indigenous community life today.

TA: Most people react with fear or scepticism when you start talking about armed resistance.

Teyowisonte: A significant number of our people are complacent. They are stuck being too comfortable. They don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their standing, you know? They don’t want to lose their jobs; they don’t want to rock the boat. And unfortunately, in their minds, when you bring up weapons, that is about the most boat-rocking kind of thing that you can do.

TA: What do you mean by “armed resistance?” Are you talking about pulling some IRA or PLO kind of activity or what?

Teyowisonte: I don’t think you can justify doing things like blowing up buildings or killing innocent people. We can’t justify initiating armed activity. Especially in our case, it’ll just do damage to the cause. Our weapons are strictly, strictly, for defence. The only time weapons should be used is when all peaceful means have been exhausted.

TA: What does that mean?

Teyowisonte: That means when the leadership is at a stalemate and the only thing that is going to save us is to pick up our weapons.

TA: So “armed resistance” is the defence of life, property, and wellbeing?

Teyowisonte: I always say it like this: “The Warrior Society is in the business of defending people and territory.” You’re the one who said the word, “property,” but I wouldn’t even include businesses myself. Us Mohawks, particularly the Warrior Society, got a bad name because we were always associated with cigarette smuggling and super bingos. I’ll tell you something, when I was out there, it wasn’t for cigarettes and bingo. I was defending the people and the territory.

Teyowisonte’s responses clearly indicate that, in the Mohawk Warrior Society, ideological commitment to defend land and communities from physical invasion by outside forces is framed within a well-thought ethical perspective. Their perspective on the use of violence is tempered not only by the direct experience of military engagement with Canadian police, paramilitary, and army forces, but also by the effects of psychological and social stress of armed conflict upon the community itself.

Theorizing violence and armed conflict in this way has led the modern Mohawk Warrior Society toward the development of an ethically reasoned and conceptually refined idea of “revolution” that is far from the simplistic notions of raging against power most often-times attributed to warrior societies in the public mind.

TA: In your mind, how will the revolution unfold, and what will be your role in it?

Teyowisonte: First of all, I hope that my vision will be victorious here in my own community. From there, it will expand and harmonize with the rest of our nation and then with the other Iroquois nations. Once we have that, the ultimate vision is for a union of independent indigenous nations in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. That’s my ultimate vision. It’s similar to what Che had in mind for South America, but he didn’t make it because he jumped the gun and went right away to armed revolution. In my vision, I don’t think of revolution in the common contemporary sense of the word. I see “revolution” in the technical sense of the word, meaning our situation will evolve, or revolve.

TA: That’s interesting, because the original meaning of the word, in Latin, and in early European thinking, was, as you say, “technical.” It described a cycle or something coming around again.

Teyowisonte: I think that each indigenous society had achieved a nearly perfect utopia-like state in our social and political organization. But because of colonization, we were de-evolved: we lost what made us great. We lost our culture, we lost our freedom.

TA: Is your vision of the future a threat to white people?

Teyowisonte: I could see the ultimate stage of the indigenous revolution being so. But as far as our nation goes, we’re not a threat to them. As Mohawks, we’re bound by the principles of the Two Row Wampum, and we have to respect each other’s independence and each other’s way of life. Hopefully, an indigenous revolutionary movement would thirst for something similar to the guidelines of the Two Row, so that it wouldn’t look to banish white people from the continent or to storm their parliament buildings and bring them down. Although, if you think about it, that would be pretty cool! (Laughter.) Victory to me means everybody having political autonomy, economic independence, and a way of life that they choose, including white people.

It is evident in the juxtaposition of the traditional philosophical ideas with their modern interpretation by Teyowisonte that contemporary indigenous ideas on warrior societies reflect a strong cultural and spiritual basis outside of militaristic notions of being a soldier. There is in fact a culturally-rooted warrior identity in indigenous cultures, and that identity manifests in the contemporary context in the form of cultural and spiritual assertions of survival. The Kanien’kehaka experience will be shown to be the same as other nations, as the following description of the development of warrior societies in the among the Mi’kmaq, Ojibway, and West Coast peoples makes clear.

The ultimate goal of the warrior society is to defend indigenous lands and people from external threats, particularly state authorities, in order to achieve justice and eventually peace. To achieve this goal, the warrior society’s objectives are three: 1) organize a group of indigenous people who are ready, willing and able to physically defend the land and the people at all times, 2) maintain a presence in the community representative of a warrior ethic, and 3) develop a political, cultural and ideological consciousness that is rooted in the territory and traditions of the community/nation in which it originates.

In all of these situations, warrior societies are groups of young indigenous people who both embrace the complex responsibilities of a traditional warrior and the requirements of defending their people and land against imminent and violent threats. Any discussion of the potential use of violence, or indeed of the experience of violence being used against indigenous people, are contained strictly within an ethical framework rooted in traditional cultural values and always considered within the context of selfdefence in response to immediate threats of violence to communities or persons.

The full paper can downloaded from here (pdf)

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