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Six Nations Negotiates Land Claim as Standoff Draws the World’s Notice

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OHSWEKEN, Ontario – As the shock of the Ontario Provincial Police raid on land rights protesters spread across Canada and beyond, traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy chiefs resumed intensive negotiations with provincial officials.

Barriers around the contested construction site remained in place, and sympathizers around the country staged their own brief blockades of strategic points. Most dramatically, warrior society members from the Mohawk Tyendinaga Reserve in eastern Ontario stopped rail traffic on a central line for 12 hours, disrupting commuter service as well as freight shipments. But the sympathy protests ended peacefully as First Nation leaders urged calm.

Support for the Six Nations protests came from as far afield as Sweden and Oaxaca, Mexico. The International Indian Treaty Council filed a notice with the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. E-mails and Web blogs provided intense coverage, as did Canadian national newspapers. Opposition parties raised questions in provincial and federal parliaments. But the mainstream media in the United States almost totally ignored the story.

Negotiations have raised several ideas for compensating the Six Nations Reserve of the Grand River for the disputed property, on which a local construction firm wanted to raise a housing sudivision called Douglas Creek Estates. The Native activists who occupied the site two months ago say the land was taken illegally from Reserve territory. According to an official of local radio station CKRZ-FM, provincial officials before the raid had offered 600 acres in several other locations but were turned down.

Immediately after the police raid, negotiators for the Six Nations offered a buyout of the property. Local developers John and Donald Henning, incorporated as Henco Industries, have told local papers they have invested $6 million in the tract and have partially completed 10 houses.

At last report, negotiations were in a lull as the provincial and federal governments promised to appoint new representatives empowered to make an agreement. The elected band council earlier voted to delegate its negotiating authority to the traditional Confederacy chiefs, a significant gesture of unity between the two rival governments.

After a marathon session on April 23 that ran to 4 a.m., Mohawk traditional chief Allen McNaughton told the Toronto Sun newspaper, “It was a fruitful day. There’s still a few issues we have to resolve, and they’re not minor ones.”

The Douglas Creek protest, called a “reclamation action” by its leaders, has become the focal point for a series of long-festering complaints on land claims and the quality of aboriginal life. The Six Nations Reserve dates to the Haldimand Deed of 1784, awarded by the British Crown to its Haudenosaunee allies in the U. S. War of Independence. The original grant spanned six miles on either side of the Grand River from its source to its mouth in Lake Erie. It totaled 950,000 acres of some of the richest land in Ontario. Within 11 years, the British reduced the grant to 275,000 acres, starting a process that has left the Six Nations with less than 5 percent of the original grant.

The Douglas Creek site was taken by the colonial government in 1841, supposedly to build a plank road from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, but the occupiers say it was improperly sold. (Plank Road, now Highway 6, runs in front of the tract and was blockaded by the protesters as of press time.) The Six Nations council entered the Plank Road Tract as an official land claim in 1987, four years before it was sold to Henco. It is one of 28 parcels that the Six Nations land claim research office says carry outstanding obligations from the British Crown.

Although the elected band council supports the claims, it did not initially back the Douglas Creek occupation, which has been led since Feb. 28 by the traditional clan mothers with support from the Confederacy chiefs. The colonial government tried to replace the traditional authorities with the elected government in 1924, but the two institutions have since led a parallel and often contentious coexistence. Their bitter disagreement over the occupation ended abruptly with the police raid, when the band council endorsed the Confederacy chief’s leadership on the issue.