Traditional and Religious Believers Are Not Terrorists

The labeling vogue of past generations was often to term both traditional and religious groups in Indian country as offbeat, sometimes as renegades, and possibly as outcasts within tribal communities. To a varying degree, these labels have existed since the first elected trustees began to administer Indian Reservation allotments. Increasingly however, this propensity has tilted towards American national security terms. It is conceivable that such groups will be scrutinized as domestic terrorist organizations because of their beliefs, in the future.

I specifically make the distinction between both traditional, as well as religious groups, because they have often been broadly associated. Language, history and ceremonial practice skill sets do not always lead to, or derive from, religious calling. It is also possible that the final legacy of residential school impact upon Onkwehonweh populations is the fracturing of transliterated language interpretation.

For instance, a prominent “Mohawk” language (Kanienkeha) speaker regularly reminds me that because so few are able to actually read into the subtle vocalization differences within the language, the probable intent or sometimes irony of the statement is mostly now lost. The fluent speaker has asserted that major Iroquois historical events have been sensationally overplayed in some cases, and are now dramatic examples embraced without question by genetic descendants and mainstream populations alike. “Words matter” as a saying takes on a whole new meaning when “how” you say the word becomes as important.

This point is important to consider since some “traditional” groups may be looked upon to carry on tribal ceremonies when in fact they are more accurately described as historical re-enactors. They are well intentioned and fashionably outfitted, and historically accurate native groups who may not be able to carry on their language. These re-emergent groups may also incorporate socio-historical events into their cultural observances. They provide an outlet to identify with a heritage, without sharing in it.

Other, more ceremonial-based groups may be reflecting language fluency in their demeanor and practice, and also they may be purposively avoiding political or historical issues, as their center of gravity. The focus on the ceremony as cultural maintenance is redemptive to such expression. The Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) have internal divisions among Longhouse society practitioners that contrast hyper-political groups among wider-reaching ceremonial population segments, as well as still others in between.

There is always a place for diversity on Turtle Island, hence the many relations. Mitakuye Oyasin!

Still, some traditional groups seem to attract more attention than others, including from both tribal and mainstream government law enforcement agencies. The February 2013 arrest of Muscogee Creek tribal member Wayland Gray in Alabama at a Poarch Band of Creek casino construction site on the Hickory Ceremonial Ground burial site fits this profile. Gray and other men from his Oklahoma reservation, identifying themselves as Warriors of Hickory Ground, journeyed to the area to honor dislocated ancestral remains that had been disinterred in the course of the project development. There they joined with local Poarch Band members in Christian prayer, drumming and singing on-site. Four men, including Gray were eventually arrested by tribal police and charged with trespassing. Additionally, Gray was charged with making terrorist threats at the scene by the tribe, and the State of Alabama has assumed prosecution of this Class C felony charge, apparently because part of the casino site is on fee land.

The episode highlights a difference in approach and resources within the greater Creek Nation, but also marks the first time since the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that a Native American has been charged with terrorism on tribal lands. As well, it is unlikely that it will be the last time either. In part this is due to underlying national security concerns which have seen federal law enforcement themselves take a more active role in Onkwehonweh demonstrations.

It seems that the greater the difference in social and cultural norms between the demonstrators and the affected government representatives, the greater the potential for misunderstanding is then possible. Traditional protesters operating outside tribal enrollment or affiliation further obscure the relative familiarity.

On June 9, 2006, on disputed land of the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada where the lengthy Caledonia protest took place over commercial development, this exact circumstance took place. United States Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms special agent Steven Dickey was present with US Border Patrol personnel observing the protest with Ontario Provincial Police, when the vehicle he was in was commandeered by protesters, who drove off with it. One protester, Trevor Miller, later charged in the United States, stated in court “Not in a million years did we think they were U.S. agents, being in Canada.”

Tensions between activist Onkwehonweh and tribal as well as federal governments should be kept in perspective. These diametric views symbolically began in 1492.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War Two veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.