Though the image of the camouflage clad warrior facing off with police at a barricade has been sensationalized by the mainstream media, it is actually far from accurate. The role of the Haudenosaunee Warrior, or Rotisken’rakéhte, is as much about defending his land and people from invaders as it is about promoting peace, unity and well-being within the community.
“I was taught it was about a responsibility to go and check on older people to make sure they’re okay; to stop and see if that single mom needs some food. It’s those responsibilities,” Kanenhariyo told the Two Row Times in an interview. “It’s not just about resistance, and certainly not just about protests and roadblocks.”
The Kahnawake Warrior Society was re-established in the early 70’s, with the approval of the Kahnawake branch of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, as a way to both defend the Longhouse and to carry out the resolutions of the council. The Unity Flag, now a symbol of resistance and unity widely recognized by Indigenous peoples around the world. The image was created in the mid-1970s by Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall, a Mohawk artist and writer. It was created as a way to unite Onkwehonweh people, as the Peacemaker intended when he conceived the Great Law of Peace – the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.
To achieve this unity and to effectively defend our territory and our sovereignty, said Kanenhariyo, who belongs to the Kanienkehaka nation, the Rotisken’rakéhte must learn and live the responsibilities that a man carries within their matrilineal society.
“In our society…men and women’s responsibilities are different. They’re equally important, but different,” he explained.
While it is the responsibility of the women to “make sure everything functions” by managing and organizing the day-to-day affairs of the families, the men is responsible for providing everything from meat to safety and protection.
“All boys upon manhood become Rotisken’rakéhte. They have the obligation and responsibility to provide safety and security and protection for the nation,” he said. “That’s really what we’re talking about: the protection of the Skén:nen (peace) of the people. Even in the household, the men always have to be considering their wife’s Skén:nen and the children’s Skén:nen.”
But growing into a Rotisken’rakéhte is neither easy nor a single person’s task. Rather, said Kanenhariyo, it is a community effort which can only be properly executed when the families live and reunify under their traditions and original families and clans. In fact, an issue hitting indigenous communities just as hard as the case of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, he added, is that many of the kids are being adopted out of their communities.
“Part of the reason for that is our clan system isn’t working as intended and isn’t able to accomdate a baby that needs a home. So fixing that clan families addresses that issue, because the whole clan family is responsible for that child – it’s all the mothers of the clan,” said Kanenhariyo.
The Warrior Society was created during a time when the spirit of the people itself, particularly those of the men, had been “beaten down” so repeatedly that they barely felt in a position to stand up for themselves, said Kanenhariyo.
“So during the ’60s and ’70s that (spirit) began to be revived, and it began strengthening itself, and it spread quickly to other communities,” he explained.
Indeed, when Hall created his first unity flags, which began as four-inch paintings he’d give as presents to the community kids the old poet and painter babysat, the purpose was to keep the kids together.
“It was his teachings to them to always be together and always be united and to not back down,” said Kanenhariyo. “That this is your land and your territory and your birthright to be here.”
The revival of the role of the Rotisken’rakéhte has been making some big strides, said Kanenhariyo.
In the 2006 Caledonia stand-off between Six Nations and the federal government, for instance, Kanenhariyo recalls the mobilization of the Rotisken’rakéhte once the OPP perpetrated violence against the women and children as something positive. Though not many men had been present at first, leaving the resistance instead to the “more than few women” who bravely held their posts, when the community demanded their action, they responded.
“But the moment the word got out that women were attacked and kids were tasered, my clan mother sent us,” recalled Kanenhariyo. “She said, ‘You’re going right now.’ Then they called a clan meeting and told all the able-bodied men to get out there. We got there and there were 2,000 others!”
As the Rotisken’rakéhte continue to grow in influence and strength, indigenous people have had to resist a colonial system which continues to marginalize the Onkwehonweh community, though Kanenhariyo sees potential for more growth.
“I’d like to see at some point in the future where there isn’t a single man in our territory who doesn’t consider himself Rotisken’rakéhte first, and who carries that responsibility seriously, and knows his obligations and responsibilities to keep his people safe.”