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The long road

Grassy Narrows blockade fortified by people, not barriers

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In May 2003, Anna J. Willow, now an anthropologist at Ohio State University, set out to "discover what motivated members of Grassy Narrows First Nation to take direct action to protect their homeland from industrial clear-cutting." Her study of activism at Grassy Narrows and the complex relationship between the environment and traditional indigenous concerns, was published this year as Strong Hearts, Native Lands: Anti-Clear-cutting Activism at Grassy Narrows First Nation (University of Manitoba Press).

In this excerpt, adapted from the book, Willow describes the trip down Highway 671 north of Kenora, Ont., and the experience of first encountering the Grassy Narrows blockade.

The road to Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) winds like the tangled waterways of the English-Wabigoon River system. Or like the story of the Anishinaabe people who live there. It winds up hills and past soaring outcroppings of Precambrian granite, down again and around a bend to reveal a vast expanse of silent lake. In the summer months, sedges and aquatic grasses ring nearly every lake, begging the attention of passing moose. In winter, when few but coniferous trees and ravens seem to look on, each lake outlines a desolate plain of ice and snow.

From the Trans-Canada Highway near Kenora, one heads north on Ontario Provincial Highway 671 and makes slow progress toward the reserve, just over 50 miles and an hour and a half (give or take) away. Past Island Lake, Silver Lake, Wild Lake, Keys Lake, and Havik Lake, to name just a few. In fading yellow paint, outdated messages on rock faces inform visitors: "Powwow 40 minutes." "Powwow 20 minutes." Of course, no one from Grassy Narrows needs any reminders of their whereabouts. They know this road and its landmarks well. Most of the travellers on Jones Road (as the highway is commonly called) are destined for Grassy, although anglers and a few campers add to the traffic in summer months and sports hunters appear in fall. The occasional flatbed truck roars perilously past, hauling granite monoliths from a privately owned quarry. There are, however, no logging trucks. For those accustomed to travel in the region, their absence is palpable.

Only a couple more bends in the road and the highway comes to its official end. Here, one must make a choice: To the left lies the Grassy Narrows reserve, blandly designated English River #21 on most official maps. A hand-painted sign bearing the First Nation's clan-inspired insignia clearly marks the way to the reserve community. If, however, one continues to the right, past the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) station and its glaring lights, the pavement abruptly turns to gravel. After a 10-minute drive to the north -- bumpy and rutted in the summer and slightly smoothed by packed snow and ice in the winter -- the Slant Lake site comes into view.

For most of the blockade's first year, a stick blocking half the road demanded closer inspection. Supported by others of its kind, the stick hovered at waist height, bedecked with reflective orange-mesh vests. A mustard-coloured sign hung from the centre of the stick, proclaiming in bold letters:

 

PUBLIC NOTICE: YOU ARE IN THE GRASSY NARROWS TRADITIONAL LAND USE AREA. THIS IS THE ABORIGINAL TERRITORY OF THE ANISHINABE PEOPLE OF GRASSY NARROWS FIRST NATION.

 

This unassuming display, more than any other single object, represented the concrete, physical blockade as it stood when I arrived in Grassy Narrows. Yet its diminutive and impermanent presence fades rapidly in comparison to other features of the Slant Lake site, the activities that occurred there, and the rich meanings that underlie the events of the blockade.

The modest appearance of the Slant Lake blockade says a great deal about its social and cultural significance. When activists at Grassy Narrows make plans to head to the blockade to fish, share a meal, enjoy a campfire, or to spend a peaceful night in the on-site cabin, the physical barrier is not what they have in mind. No impermeable fortification ever stood here to stop the logging trucks. One blockader told me some of the Mohawk warriors who came to lend a hand during the blockade's exciting early weeks had quite a chuckle over the humble barricade. This was clearly not what recent Mohawk history, marked by the notorious 1990 Oka incident, had taught them to perceive as a roadblock. Here at Grassy, she seemed proud to report, people are the real blockade. Taken literally, her statement conjures images from the first night of the blockade, when Grassy Narrows youth stood in the stark glare of truck headlights with outstretched arms. But it is also true in a figurative sense; rather than the brief moments of confrontation portrayed by the media, it is the steady flow of social activity at the blockade that visitors like me remember most.

And so, assuming that one stops to read the sign (as many curious non-native anglers and hunters do), one's attention would instantly be drawn to the left. There blazes a campfire in a stone ring, perhaps tended by someone frying fresh walleye, perhaps simply enjoyed among friends and family. A pre-relocation-style log cabin-erected as part of a traditional skills youth education program-lies a bit farther from the road. Children play contentedly, happy to be outdoors and surrounded by playmates. For Anishinaabe activists and their families, the places to congregate, cook, and unwind are what the blockade is all about. The blockade is much more than a physical barrier; it is a way of being and a site of conscious cultural revitalization.

Somewhat ironically, the Slant Lake blockade makes use of an abandoned logging camp turnaround. Vacant for at least 40 years, thick brush covers two long-discarded cars from this distant era. Poplar sapling flagpoles propped in small spruce trees wave the flags of the Kanehsatake Warrior Society and Grassy Narrows First Nation. An upside-down Canadian flag -- the flag of a Canada in distress -- also flies. The sacred fire stands just behind, inside a teepee with a ragged appearance that bears witness to several fires. The sacred fire burned steadily from December 2002 until the fall of 2003 and is still periodically relit by community members.

While hardly a display of physical power, the blockade is both a symbol and an act of resistance.

To be sure, at times the blockade at Grassy Narrows was glamorous and confrontational. At these moments, it attracted the kind of media attention that thrives on such excitement. But for the most part, the blockade quietly endured -- and continues to endure -- as a symbol of the ongoing negotiations of power and identity that shape contemporary First Nations life. At least as important as its status as a site of overt resistance, the Grassy Narrows blockade is also a place where Anishinaabe people resist through the simple act of living.

The concept of resistance appears to implicitly call for an opponent -- for something or someone to actively resist. On the surface, it would be easy to point to the logging corporations that operate in the area as this necessary "enemy." And, at one level, this assessment would be accurate; when asked about the purpose of the blockade, most of the First Nation's activists initially cite a desire to bring the clear-cutting to a halt. But deeper issues are also at play. As my book describes, the story of the Grassy Narrows blockade cannot be understood as separate from the community's multi-generational struggle to endure in the face of political, cultural and environmental domination. As Grassy Narrows' deputy chief Steve Fobister once told me, "It's a long road."

 

In May 2003, Anna J. Willow, now an anthropologist at Ohio State University, set out to "discover what motivated members of Grassy Narrows First Nation to take direct action to protect their homeland from industrial clear-cutting." Her study of activism at Grassy Narrows and the complex relationship between the environment and traditional indigenous concerns, was published this year as Strong Hearts, Native Lands: Anti-Clear-cutting Activism at Grassy Narrows First Nation (University of Manitoba Press). In this excerpt, adapted from the book, Willow describes the trip down Highway 671 north of Kenora, Ont., and the experience of first encountering the Grassy Narrows blockade.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 J14

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