Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance Remains Revolutionary Indigenous FilmmakingMovies Features documentaries
It would be a mistake to assume that the presence of neo- or post-colonialism means classic colonialism has ended, far from it. Even in this supposedly enlightened and liberal age, governments still encroach upon Indigenous lands and peoples, continuing a project of removal and disappearance that has been going on for centuries.
The task for any documentarian trying to convey the colonial struggle is to make the past feel alive and active in the present. Settler historians record colonial conflicts as “incidents” in their periodized history as they try to sell us on the idea that events have endings. But for the decolonial documentarian, events resonate, stack and compound on one another.
One such artist keenly aware of how documentary filmmaking engages with the colonial project is American-Canadian director Alanis Obomsawin. As a member of the Abenaki tribe, Obomsawin has endeavored to tell stories about Indigenous histories and worldviews through her films. Her most widely known film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, has been given an impressive new 30th anniversary Blu-ray release that thoughtfully celebrates the resilience of a people and an extraordinary director.
Obomsawin’s seminal work chronicles the colonial land grab at the center of the 1990 Oka Crisis, which primarily took place near Oka, just outside of Montreal. Provincial officials and private companies ignited the flames of conflict when they decided to encroach on Mohawk land, called Kanehsatake, to extend a luxury apartment complex and its golf course. No Mohawk people were brought to the business table. When the court and city officials made it clear they were going to continue their expansion and were unafraid to move the Mohawk people out by force, Indigenous peoples from around the world came to Oka and Kanehsatake to lend their support on the barricade and give up their lives if necessary to preserve Indigenous identity and territory.
But this dispute goes back far further than 1990. As the title indicates, Kanehsatake is a story about the 270 years leading up to the crisis. Through cleverly designed animated slides, Obomsawin flips the content of the traditional ethnographic documentary and deftly reminds us that this is an ongoing history of displacement and disappearance. Non-Indigenous people have rendered Indigenous people and history in only two dimensions throughout most of the history of ethnographic films, often drawing Indigenous people to fit their own image. Obomsawin fills in this historical background with a vibrant story of conflict and courage.
More than a history-teller, Obomsawin is also a skilled empathy-maker. She allows us the opportunity to meet community members on their terms. She puts her camera close to their faces to see the heartache and history these people have endured while not shying away from the grit, rage and faith that sustains the coalition of tribes as they fight on the barricades and bridge blockades. She unpacks this beautifully in her commentary, provided on the new release. Her conversation with Canadian feminist scholar Monika Kin Gagnon brings in even more of the human element, as Obomsawin recounts her memories of filming and the people she met. Contrary to colonial narratives, her work irrefutably proves that Indigenous people are alive, present and politically astute.
When necessary, Obomsawin changes her modes, moving from compassionate interviewer to guerilla director-warrior, getting anxiously close to the rock-throwing and riots the white citizens have started to express their anger at the Native blockade. Obomsawin moves from the pines to the streets with an elegance that sweeps us up in the frenetic movements of the crisis. She and her camera never waver as troops move in. By standing resolute as a witness to history, the invasion becomes palpable and dire.
Because of her expert weaving of past and present, the encroachment of Canadian military forces on Oka, Kanehsatake and their environs feels more like rehearsed moments of history than a flashpoint of violence inside a vacuum. As the blockade of a significant bridge escalates the conflict, white supremacist settlers say the actions confirm the “savagery” of Indigenous folks while other whites cry out that such violence shouldn’t happen “in Canada” and that martial occupation is “not Canadian.” But thanks to the long view of history that Obomsawin instills, nothing surprises us. Her work exemplifies that such colonial force and dispossession made Canada the “liberal” country it purports to be today.
While Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance is about the years leading up to the crisis, what makes this new release so exciting is that it endeavors to preserve the ripple effects that happened afterward. The release is about 303 years of resistance. Included are three subsequent films by Obomsawin about the Oka Crisis and its aftermaths. By including the complete cycle of films, we get a revolutionary sense of perspective.
The first short film, My Name Is Kahentiiosta, follows the exhaustive legal battle of Kahentiiosta, who, after being arrested during the Oka revolt, is jailed indefinitely because a judge would not recognize her Indigenous name. In a short time, Obomsawin renders this little moment part of a more extensive denial of Indigenous identity and lifeways. Following that is Spudwrench, about Randy “Spudwrench” Horne, a working-class member of the Mohawk who took a crucial stance on the barricades during the Oka crisis. By using his tools, some of which go back centuries, Randy becomes a way for us to experience the passion and pride of constructing and maintaining a sacred community. The final film, Rocks at Whiskey Trench, reconfronts the white violence perpetrated by police and citizens during the struggle. Like Spudwrench, this film takes us deeper into the plans and organizing that supported this historical fight for Indigenous people. In doing so, Obomsawin concludes her cycle with a stark reminder that these moments of violence continue—and continue to have lasting repercussions.
Colonialism is an ongoing project. It will portray challenges to its order as aberrant events perpetrated by people who resist “civilization.” But the decolonial documentarian knows that a diachronic worldview undermines this attempt to control and standardize history. It shows repeated patterns of domination, revealing persistent motivations. But it also shows collective resistance as different, with differing groups coming together to push back against the attempted eradication of another. As Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and the other films included on this release demonstrate, the colonial battle is a battle for resources. It always has been. When the Mohawks shut down Mercier Bridge, they cut off a vital supply line until they were listened to. In turn, releases like this one become a vital resource for this persistent struggle. It is an educational resource that preserves and advocates for Indigenous voices and ideas on behalf of past generations, all for the benefit of those to come.
B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.