“As a medicine person, Canada doesn’t have the right to tell me what I’m going to put in my medicine bag and what I’m not. No one in Canada has the right to tell Indigenous people that we don’t get to be free,” said Kanenhariyo, the owner of Mohawk Medicine, a healing centre raided by the Six Nations police.

The Six Nations reserve is Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) territory, given to them in the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784 for their military support of the British colony during the American War of Independence. The proclamation stated they would take possession of land “six miles deep from each side of the [Grand] river beginning at Lake Erie.” The area had previously been Mississauga territory.

Marijuana as culture

The relationship between the Crown and the people of the Six Nations reserve is meant to be governed by the Two Row Wampum, a treaty of peace, friendship and mutual respect between the the Crown and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is made up of the Six Nations — the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), Onyota’a:ka (Oneida), Ononda’gega’ (Onondaga), Gayogoho:no (Cayuga), Onondowa’ga: (Seneca), and Ska:ru:re (Tuscarora).

The Two Row Wampum also explicitly states that the two governments — Six Nations and Canada — are not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Efforts by the federal and provincial government to impose Canadian law, such as the criminalization of marijuana is, in fact, a violation of the Two Row Wampum.

Hawk, Kanenhariyo and others who have been criminalized assert that they are practising their inherent rights as Indigenous people. Marijuana and hemp have been a part of Indigenous cultures for thousands of years.

“There’s lots of evidence to prove that this is part of our culture and so it is the plan of many First Nations people to move this forward, and so if that includes a challenge at the Supreme Court then so be it,” said Tim Barnhart, a spokesperson for the [National Indigenous Medical Cannabis Association.

Indigenous use of hemp has been documented since the earliest colonists sailed down the St. Laurence River. As late as the 1930s, the community of Caughnawaga, now known as Kahnawake, was still growing large amounts of marijuana. Indigenous people have used the plant historically and do so presently.

Governments in conflict

The Canadian government has consistently interfered in Indigenous nations’ right and ability to practise their cultures and to build strong economies. Recently, this has involved a heated and long-term battle over tobacco. Other examples include the refusal of the Canadian government to provide tools, equipment, seeds and animals to Plains and Wood Cree, as stipulated in the 1876 Treaty 6, and the banning of Indigenous ceremonies in 1880.

“We need our land back and we need freedom and we need to be supported in that.”

Federal authorities have also consistently interfered with and shaped the form of Indigenous nations’ governance. In 1924, the band council system was imposed by the RCMP on the Haudesaunee Confederacy at the barrel of a gun. Ever since there’s has been an [ongoing conflict between the traditional government and the band council government. Similar situations have occurred and exist still in many different Indigenous communities and nations, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake being one recent example.

Many Haudenosaunee people see band councils and Indigenous police forces as institutions maintained by the Canadian government in order to stop self-determination efforts by Indigenous communities. These institutions are used to enforce Canadian laws and policies in communities that, according to international and Indigenous law as well as the Canadian constitution, should be governing themselves. The criminalization of Indigenous people for using and selling marijuana is a case in point.

The Six Nations band council and the Six Nations police are imposing Canadian law on Indigenous people on the Six Nations reserve. But many Six Nations residents, including Hawk and Kanahariyo, reject the band councils, asserting instead the power of traditional governance and the Two Row Wampum.

‘We need freedom’

“I feel that we have the right to self-determination, that we have the right to determine what we want, what path we choose to take in this industry,” Hawk told Ricochet. “The government on both levels have left First Nations people out of the whole industry or the thought or process of anything. There was no consultation with anybody.”

There is a growing fight between the Canadian government and First Nations people who want to practise their culture by being part of the marijuana industry and regulating themselves. It remains to be seen if the federal and provincial governments will fulfill their legal obligation to consult First Nations and act to uphold section 35.1 of the Canadian constitution on Aboriginal rights. They have yet to do so, and the issue could ultimately be decided in the courts.

Today, almost a century after the RCMP imposed a band council on the Haudenosaunee, the core issue continues to be self-determination. As Kanenhariyo said, “We need our land back and we need freedom and we need to be supported in that.”