Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel (Kanien’kehá:ka Nation – Turtle Clan) first rose to prominence during her community’s resistance to a proposed expansion of a private nine-hole golf course into a sacred grove of pines near the town of Oka, Quebec in 1990. The resulting standoff at Kanehsatà:ke between Mohawk people and the Canadian army became known as the “Oka crisis,” and lasted for 78 days. Gabriel was chosen by the People of the Longhouse to act as a spokesperson for the community, and she became one of the faces of the struggle against the destruction of the pine grove.
The media has often presented the events at Kanehsatà:ke as a highly gendered event, with male Canadian soldiers facing off against male Mohawk warriors. The most iconic photograph of the crisis is one in which a soldier and a masked warrior stare each other down. The effect of this representation of the Oka crisis has served to erase the important role Mohawk women played in the resistance movement at Kanehsatà:ke. Gabriel was front and centre during the stand-off, acting as a key negotiatior and media spokesperson. She also spoke about the presence and leadership of women behind the barricades.
Gabriel has continued in her role as an activist for Indigenous rights since 1990. She has traveled internationally to speak about the events at Kanehsatà:ke. She has also participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues and the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In 2004, Gabriel was elected president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, a position she held until 2010. During the summer of 2012, Gabriel ran in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leadership race for the position of national chief.
She came last in the second round of ballots, with 17 votes, after which she threw her support behind Pamela Palmater.
Further Reading and Resources
Alfred, G.R. Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Conradi, A. Uprising at Oka: A Place of Non-identification. Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009) 547-566.
Obomsawin, A. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. NFB, 1993.
York, G. & Pindera, L. People of the Pines: The Warriors and the legacy of Oka. USA: Little, Brown, 1991.