Kwa'y^hneha - The Rabbit Dance
Two boys set out on a hunting expedition one day, as they had many days before and as they would many days after. They were chasing small game in the lush forests that at one time were an interconnected wonder of the world, but are now sparse remnants of a vanishing eco jewel. These boys were raised alongside the riches of the forests.
The towering gum trees, the girthy oak trunks, the sweet sassafras stems. They knew about the threatening poison ivy, to avoid the snake pits, not to wander off trails that they understood. The great forests were vast, dense, rich, and powerful. The landscape deserved respect; the boys knew how to give it.
These boys found themselves extending the boundaries of where they’d been before. Honing their craft of hunting, tuning the skill of exploration, pushing their limits to grow their knowledge. This day this excursion took them to a clearing where they had never been.
They looked over a small hill and their eyes widened. The boys looked at one another - silently asking each other: “are you seeing this too?”
I came to 1492 Land Back Lane with a tent, a week’s worth of clothes, some basic items, and a lot of questions. I needed to know what this camp was about. I wanted to know how serious the threat of police violence was - it’s very real I would later find out through tales of a raid a few weeks previous. I needed to wind down my preconceptions and ideas by immersing myself in the culture and life of people risking so much for the unborn faces in the earth.
I - like the land defenders - am Ukwehu:we. We are the people original to these lands. It was important for me to help tell this story from a perspective different from the way legacy media was telling it. I have never gone to this land action for the purpose of extracting a story, I am there to give narrative sovereignty to a people who have been the subject of too many one sided tales.
I knew a few things before I arrived to camp late on a Sunday night.
On July 19th, 2020, in the evening land defenders moved onto unceded Haudenosaunee lands that were close to being heavily developed. Free prior and informed consent to develop these lands was not attained. A construction project to be named Mackenzie Meadows would effectively destroy the ability to resolve the disputed status of the land and this heavy land alteration was and is set to begin.
Land defenders stopped this development and have renamed the land 1492 Land Back Lane and intend to keep it as Haudenosaunee territory - in the words of one of the many land defenders Skyler Williams - “forever”.
The land is within the Haldimand Tract of land - six miles or 10 kilometres of land on either side of the banks of the Grand River - that was promised to the Six Nations people in 1784. Haudenosaunee people have been dispossessed of these lands ever since despite their constant protest and disagreement throughout the process. Haudenosaunee people dispute Canada’s claims that they surrendered the land and have been steadfast in their claim that they do not have the moral, spiritual, or legal authority to sell land, even if they wanted to.
As a result of the 2006 land reclamation at Kanonstaton across the street from 1492 Land Back Lane the government of Canada could never produce a document that showed the Haudenosaunee people or their delegates surrendered the lands. In 2009 the government rested its case on the argument that they believed the Indigenous leadership “had intent” to sell the land, and withdrew from negotiations.
To this day no surrender document has been produced. To this day the request for land back through peaceful means has been met only with offers of lowball financial settlements. To this day the federal government is content to offer the direction to take it up in a Canadian colonial courtroom.
The University of Windsor Faculty of Law perhaps summarized the underlying issues in their letter condemning the inaction of Canada, the failure of the legal system, and supporting the land defenders at 1492 Land Back Lane:
Haudenosaunee people have been actively resisting land theft and other colonial acts of violence, challenging government encroachment, asserting their rights to exist and asserting their rights to remain the caretakers of their land, governed by Haudenosaunee law.
They await justice.
I spent a lengthy period of time setting up a tent in the dark. Not the smartest call on my part. With a call from a loved one and video calling technology I figured it out in a short 45 minutes or so.
I stopped, I looked up, it soon dawned on me that the only thing above me was the boundless expanse of the universe. Below me was the foundation of all life as we knew it. For a moment I felt like what it would feel like if our people had this land back.
Countless frolicsome rabbits crawled all over each other. They hopped and played, and made quite a ruckus. The boys were engrossed by their jovial dalliances to the point where they started to accidentally reveal themselves to the rabbits. When they saw a giant rabbit behind all the others their wonder overtook their caution and they tumbled down to where the rabbits were.
Two men stood in front of me. The older of the two had thick blood and clay caked together on his elbows. His hair was matted with sweat and soil, and skin, dirt, and clothing all blended together. His face was smudged with earth, only broken up by lines of salty sweat that had cleaned downward paths contrasting the earthy spots.
Earlier, numerous state officers had slammed his body into the ground, his face smashing into the very earth he sought to protect. This Indigenous man seemed more frustrated and tired than anything else. He told me that several dozen officers had descended on the scene and that by use of sheer numbers they were picking off land defenders with group tackles one by one. After his arrest he was pinned to ground by officers while the raid continued. The police then placed this man in a hot paddywagon for an even longer period of time before the long ride to the state holding cells.
I am concerned about giving details about hair colour, size, weight, age and more because the state police and prosecutor can use this information to incriminate people I speak about. All the names and characteristics of anybody I speak about have basic details changed to protect their identity. The criminalization of Indigenous people and their supporters is real.
The other man was younger, and he barely spoke. I have seen the look in his eyes before in the eyes of others. The seriousness of being accused of a criminal act and all of the ramifications was washing down his face along with the sweat from the beating sun and stress of being forcefully arrested. He mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t have a record...I’m going to have to go to court to deal with criminal charges...what is going to happen to me now?
“Does anybody have a smoke?”
I looked off into the horizon towards Six Nations and 1492 Land Back Lane and I could see smoke off in the distance coming from the intersection of where the farms and trees that make up traditional Haldimand County meet this neo-suburbia and the colonial boundaries of Six Nations.
It was August 5th. Earlier this day the state police blocked Mackenzie road at the North and South access points beginning a siege of 1492 Land Back Lane. They blocked access while shuttling in state police paddy wagons, SUV’s and squad cars. Several squadrons of dozens of officers descended on the peaceful land reclamation and in small clusters started to overtake land defenders one by one. These officers had side arms, but social media video shows officers with firearms out, either a bean bag gun, or a rubber bullet gun, or some of both.
”We didn’t know if it was a rubber bullet gun or not; what we did know is that when an officer has a gun out, they mean business,” An eyewitness said to me, “and when bullets go whizzing by your head you wonder if you are thinking your last thoughts.”
The state police siege was going well until they were overwhelmed by the numbers of supporters pouring in from Six Nations. Once the peace was broken open, it was broken open hard. Tires burned at 1492 Land Back Lane, the Kanonstaton reclamation site from 2006, and a truck tire was launched over the highway 6 bypass overpass and set ablaze. The black smoke billowed as a sign of distress. Police were driven back from the Fifth and Sixth line entry points to the Six Nations reserve. The tactical advantage of strength in numbers held by OPP coming from Simcoe, Brantford, Hamilton, and beyond was lost.
The Six Nations community turned out hard to defend their brothers and sisters from this state sanctioned eviction by police force.
By the time the sun set on August 5th the land defenders had reclaimed 1492 Land Back Lane. The unceded Plank Road artery joining Hamilton to Hagersville was choked off and back under the control of Haudenosaunee people. People who were content to let things play out as they may at 1492 Land Back Lane were now directly involved.
A new camp at the intersection of Sixth Line and Highway Six sprung up. This new Six and Six camp became the junction housing the veterans of Kanonstaton keeping a watchful eye for the return of state violence. The fire that was lit in the people was stronger than ever.
This police raid was not successful. This time.
The boys were not sure what to expect next, the rabbits just included them in their play. This was a delight for the young hunters, the rabbits, and even the head rabbit. The boys laughed so hard their sides hurt. They played follow the leader, tried to catch each other in games of tag, and danced around following the rhythm and tone of the head rabbits thumps and movements.
They danced and played well into the rest of the day.
My week in the camp spending time at Six and Six and over by the lacrosse grounds and new cook house stands as one of the most culturally resurgent times in my life. This camp is a collaborative vision of young people, their guidance from their families, and help from people all across Turtle Island. There are frequent visits from celebrities - again I can’t name them for their own safety - artists, journalists, and more. As I spent time collecting stories, breaking fresh breads, and eating kabobs prepared from scratch and barbecued for us by allies of the movement, all I could see was life springing from every direction.
The courts, politicians and police are quick to point out the criminality of the camp. Indigenous people are no stranger to being criminalized. The real crime here might be pushing back against a status quo that has done little but extract wealth from the backs of Indigenous people and shows no signs of being capable of much else.
One of the low morale points of my time at the camp came when I listened to the court hearing overseen by Justice Harper. On August 25th Justice Harper extended previous injunctions against land defenders at 1492 Land Back Lane and against blocking any and all of the roads in Haldimand county - even though by the time of his ruling the roads had been cleared as an act of good faith. He disregarded the action as a land claim and outlined steps within the framework of Canada to submit land claims that had not been followed. He also - based only on social media posts - named Skyler Williams as the leader of this land action pinning civil and potential criminal liability on one person.
“There is no award of damages that could adequately compensate either Haldimand or Foxgate in the cases before me,” Justice Harper said and central to Canadian values is the rule of law, “it applies to everyone, without exception”.
When Justice Harper started to speak of reconciliation and condemn land defenders, a Haudenosaunee woman attempted to address the court. The judge was unwilling to use his discretion to modify his courts rules to allow her to address the matters at hand. He called this attempt to engage the courts unfair because the OPP lawyer and other lawyers had sent their submissions in writing in advance.
Justice Harper had discretion to allow a Haudenosaunee woman to address the court. He chose not to allow it. He continued to condemn Haudenosaunee people for not participating within the Canadian framework in his singular view of the rule of law.
Here is some of what the Haudenosaunee women wanted to say:
Courts violate and criminalize the rights and responsibility of our women by preventing us from fulfilling our responsibilities to the land and our future generations in accordance with Haudenosaunee Law.
We must also speak to the emotional and spiritual harm that these injunctions bring to our people. Our people should never have to suffer emotional distress for engaging in traditional laws and customs and the land should never have to suffer from the absence of our caretaking. We denounce this system for sowing violence and disrupting the peace within our community.
These words, this sharing of Haudenosaunee values, were never spoken in a court that is decorated with our wampums and teachings, but has no capacity to apply them.
After a suppertime of great food and conversation people were nourished in their bellies and minds. Different people broke off into different groups, but one of the Haudenosaunee art leaders - let’s call her Auntie Pauline - asked if we could sing some social songs. We put a couple sets of camper chairs in two rows facing each other, but seeing the rattles and drums we doubled our rows as men and women jumped into our lines with their camper chairs to help us sing.
We built up our confidence a little bit with some Kayo:wa ohtahkwaka:yu - Old Moccasin Dance songs. Kayo:wa songs are upbeat earth songs with a quick beat and swinging melodies meant to get people off the benches of the longhouse and out onto the floor swinging their hips. It also gets the singers feet stomping in unison with the strokes of the water drum stick and shakes of the rattle. We stirred up dust with our feet, joy in our hearts, and friendly laughter when one of us missed a note or beat.
It’s important that everybody gets a chance to hold the water drum and offer a song if they can, but if not to at least take it for a moment to contribute some of your energy to the music, good will for the people, and thankfulness to our mother the earth through that drum. Sometimes this gets overlooked and I always ask myself how good of a song someone might have offered that never got a chance. It reminds me of meetings where only the loudest people talk, maybe the quiet people have better ideas? Maybe we should ask them what they think. Maybe instead of talking they are sitting there with thoughtful solutions for our issues, not just thinking about what to say next. It’s the same with our songs. In my home community some of our littlest singers can belt out some of the biggest songs you want to hear.
What really sets Haudenosaunee social songs apart from any other musical culture in the world is how it’s meant to be interactive. Our whole way of being is meant to be this way. When we play lacrosse, if you can play, you should play. When we cook a meal if you can help cook it up, or clean up, you should help. When we make a decision, you should really make some time with your family to add something to the conversation that helps that decision get made. Our democracy, our society, and even our musical ways are meant to be participatory.
I can hear the playful scolding of many a singing societies head singer saying to many a crowds, “This is a SOCIAL not a SHOW-cial!” urging people to partake in the songs and dance.
This is why it is a very good thing when people pull up the chairs to sit with the singers. It’s wonderful when people get up and swing their hips - even if they don’t know the specific swings - when the music gets going. When that singer calls and you call back it sets the world in the kind of balance that calibrates our society in tune with the rhythm of the universe.
Auntie Pauline took the drum and asked my friend who was leading the songs to sing a rabbit dance. He eased into the song gently as we all shook rattles and Pauline played the water drum. Not everybody in our newly formed 1492’ers singing society knew this one really well. It has a sort of one-two beat that mimics the way a rabbit hops along. We caught on as quick as we could as he sang the lead, “Yo ho, yo hawiyo, yo howiyo, yo-oh ha yo, oh-oh!”
Then we all sang in unison following along, “Yo ho, yo hawiyo, yo howiyo, yo-oh ha yo,
“Yo-ho!” sang a voice in perfect rhythm in less than a fraction of a second from way up high in the sky off in the distance. Our spirits were lifted. Even our friend Ohnekákliˀ from the construction team had joined in the as part of the 1492’ers. We laughed as we sang carrying on singing until our eldest brother laid down, and our grandmother rose up.
For a moment it seemed we all forgot about police, racism, and the people who hated what this camp was about. Through song and tradition we were able to put our restless minds at ease. We just sat and sang, or in some cases, just built roofs and sang.
As the boys walked back to the village they were recalling their tale to each other. Each eagerly interrupted the other with the details they found to be most exciting. They skipped to the rhythm of a rabbits thumping, and acted out what they had just done.
They got back to the village and as they started to tell their story everybody was drawn to the boys. Soon they saw fit to not just tell the story, but to bring their loved ones right into the story. Exhilaration just erupted from the hunters and they got out a water drum and a horn rattle and they acted out the part of the head rabbit, directing their friends and families like the little rabbits.
The people joined in because they could feel the meaningfulness that the boys had from this experience. Life in the village could be hard, it was meant to be that way to help the people build character. That is what made this respite from daily tasks so meaningful. This is some of what draws Ukwehu:we people like these villagers together.
The boys sang, the people danced, everybody became closer, and more thankful. Men and women locked arms and danced - and hopped - around in a circle. The music rang across the fires and through the longhouse in the village into the night. And they sang, “yo ho, yo hawiyo, yo howiyo, yo-oh ha yo, oh-oh…”
“Yo-ho!” the people answered.
And that is how the rabbit dance came to the Ukwehu:we people.
The Ontario Provincial Police have been like hunters in the weeks since I left the camp. Pressure to do something from Justice Harper, local politicians, the Premier, even a local Police Services Board has been mounting. The camp is also drawing more and more support across two months now of reclamation. This pressure puts the police in a position of having to show some results.
The difference between the hunter boys and the police is that the boys don’t have to hunt. They aren’t just hunters, they are sons, brothers, cousins, singers, and children at play. In Ukwehu:he culture our people have roles and responsibilities. Storytellers. Farmers. Runners. Chiefs. Corn soup cooks. Artists. Hunters. Singers. Dancers. Medicine people.
Ukwehu:we people are versed in a wide range of skills and are expected to be as autonomous as possible. We are to be like a standing branch that can establish itself outside of the tree if needed. The OPP are strictly required by Canadian law to enforce the law as passed down to them. They have discretion on how to enforce, but not on whether to enforce.
This can be difficult in a time when a just version of Canada should be reckoning with its past. Laws have been tools of racism and oppression. Land has been stolen. Tactics condemned when used by other nations have been used by this nation state of Canada against the people who happened to live here. Their only crime was that they wanted to live here in the way they have always done.
The only crime I saw at 1492 Land Back Lane was that people wanted to live on their lands in the way they have always done. I understood as I laid my head on the pillow each night that the police - like hunters - could come to the camp at a moment's notice. Their system has deemed this peaceful reclamation as criminal.
Simply stepping foot on the camp is illegal in the way the Canadian court system works. There is no room for discretion. There is no consideration for whether this land was acquired fairly. Injunctions - meant to preserve the status quo - rule four times out of five in favour of developers or the Crown against Indigenous land claims. These rulings authorize the police to remove land defenders regardless of merit, destroying the land they seek to protect, and acting as a de facto denial of the claim.
The hunters must hunt.
There are songs to be heard, dances to be learned, art to be made, and beauty to behold. There is laughter around fires. There are concerts, lacrosse, and the food is so good. Perhaps the best part of cultures coming together is when they break bread together, eat homemade barbecue kebabs, or spend a day working on the perfect bowl of corn soup. Apparently, this is criminal in the eyes of Canada though.
What gets lost on a lot of the storytellers coming from legacy media is how Indigenous people are no stranger to being criminalized. Right or wrong to this day we are seen as guilty. This is what is happening at 1492 Land Back Lane, as this is what always happens with our people. Our way of life has been viewed as wrong since the day Columbus got lost. This is barely different.
As I write this people are being arrested, over 20 was the last count I heard. The law is not allowed to consider the merit of the land claim itself, or even the broader sense of justice around Canada’s ongoing crimes against the people Indigenous to this territory.
Let me say that again. The law is not working off merit. It is not working off a broad sense of justice. It is doing what it does.
It is sending hunters - this time the O.P.P. - to hunt Indigenous people and their supporters. This is what Canadian law does and is doing. The politicians locally are literally cheering them on. The provincial politicians are standing behind them, and the Federal government that holds the covenant chain is practically nowhere to be found.
I pray for a different outcome. But Ukwehu:we people have become prey. I am prey.
As of the time of this writing I have been arrested. I thought we could learn to play, dance, and sing together. I surely underestimated the hunter’s instincts.
This will not be the time the rabbit dance came to the kolahkowánhne - Canada.
This article was written on location at #1492LandBackLane by Oneida Bear Clan journalist Karl Dockstader with the support of the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre