BY SARAH BERMAN | VICE.COM
James “OJ” Pitawanakwat hasn’t returned to the Anishinaabe community on Manitoulin Island where he grew up in nearly two decades. He can’t, because in Canada there’s an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
Over the phone from his home on Saginaw Chippewa reservation in Michigan, Pitawanakwat tells me he feels a swell of pride thinking about the actions he took in the summer of 1995—actions that led to his arrest and conviction on mischief and weapons charges.
“I felt I was doing an honourable deed for our people and for the struggle,” he tells me of his role attending a sun dance in northern BC that escalated into an armed standoff between Indigenous land defenders and hundreds of military and police.
Having survived the Gustafsen Lake incident, one of the largest paramilitary operations in Canadian history, Pitawanakwat fled the country in 1998 and fought extradition on political and religious grounds. He was granted asylum in the United States.
Pitawanakwat’s story is an incredibly rare one, but years of experience have taught him not to reveal too much. Only recently, with APTN cameras rolling, did he tell a handful of friends and colleagues that he is a political refugee.
It seems a new government and pending call for an inquiry into the Gustafsen Lake standoff has offered Pitawanawkat an opportunity to shine a light on a conflict that has remained largely hidden from the public eye. VICE caught up with him to hear about his side of the story.
Pitawanakwat tells me his interest in fighting for Indigenous sovereignty was encouraged by elder and activist William “Wolverine” Jones Ignace, who mentored him at blockade in Adams Lake, BC that summer. There, the two learned about another dispute happening near Dog Creek reservation and went up to show support.
“He was charismatic, a leader, definitely in the elder leadership role and a voice for his people,” says Pitawanakwat. “That’s what drew me close to Wolverine.”
They arrived on the banks of Gustafsen Lake in July, where an annual sun dance ceremony was drawing ire from local rancher Lyle James. “He was bringing in cattle through those areas where the sun dance was,” recalls Pitawanakwat. “And he encroached upon a native burial ground, and that’s where the land conflict seemed to steam even hotter.”
The leaders of the spiritual ceremony responded by putting up fences to keep the cattle out. James called on authorities to intervene, claiming he had grazing rights privilege in the area. Pitawanakwat didn’t see it that way: “Even though he alleged he owned the land, there’s no documented evidence saying he could run cattle through a ceremonial site.”
Meanwhile, Pitawanakwat and others established a camp and worked with an Aboriginal rights lawyer to prepare a petition that called on government to restore rights to hunting and ceremonial grounds. By August 18, police had surrounded the area.
As Pitawanakwat remembers it, that day police fired a first round near ceremony leader Percy Rosette. “Percy responded with a warning shot, and apparently that was viewed as the turning point of the standoff,” he says.
Over the next 31 days, RCMP and Canadian Forces would deploy 400 officers, five helicopters, nine armoured vehicles and fire off 77,000 rounds of ammunition in effort to “neutralize” the camp. They also used buried explosives.
In a grainy police recording now available on YouTube, you can actually watch Pitawanakwat drive over hidden explosives in a dirt road. The truck is engulfed in smoke, but he and a passenger survive and escape on foot in a hail of bullets.
It had already been a hot summer for Indigenous sovereignty protest. Chippewas occupied a military camp in Ontario, and later members of the Kettle and Stony Point tribes occupied an Ipperwash provincial park they said was a burial ground. In the latter incident police shot and killed one protester and injured two others. Yet nobody died at Gustafsen Lake.
There was only one injury during the entire exchange. Pitawanakwat left the camp on September 15, and was arrested a few days after, charged with mischief and possession of a weapon for dangerous purpose.
Pitawanakwat was bailed out of prison in November, but says a BC judge banned him from staying in the province, even as his trial went forward. “I guess I was a symbol of resistance, and they didn’t want me canvassing the other Indian people of British Columbia,” he says.
During the trial, he says a publication ban prevented media from circulating footage of the police and military actions—something a US federal judge would later shame the Canadian government for doing. Pitawanakwat was convicted in 1997.
By 1998, Pitawanakwat had served a third of his sentence and was let out on day parole. Unsure of what would happen, he headed for the border. He was arrested in Portland, and learned Canada was seeking extradition.
In November 2000, a US federal judge ruled in that Pitawanakwat’s actions during the standoff were “of a political character” and qualified for an exemption under the extradition treaty between Canada and the US.
“The Gustafsen Lake incident involved an organized group of native people rising up in their homeland against an occupation by the government of Canada of their sacred and unceded tribal land,” wrote Justice Janet Stewart in her decision. “The Canadian government engaged in a smear and disinformation campaign to prevent the media from learning and publicizing the true extent and political nature of these events.”
Pitawanakwat was released from custody when he learned the news, though he was still required to wear an ankle monitor at the time. “I was working for awhile in Lincoln City, Oregon. My boss contacted me and said I was a free man,” he recalls. “I went to work, I smiled, I went home and had dinner and kissed my daughter. That was victory in itself.”
One day Pitawanakwat hopes to return home, which he says would require a pardon from the Prime Minister’s Office. Until then, he lives on Saginaw Chippewa reservation in Mount Pleasant, Michigan—pretty much the closest he can be to his home territory on Lake Huron without crossing the US-Canada border.
“I have a lot of healing and mourning with my family to do,” says Pitawanakwat of the separation. “I haven’t been home to see brothers, sisters and cousins pass away… I’m suffering not being able to go home to my homelands and swim in the waters I swam as a child.”
It also means he couldn’t return to Canada when his mentor Wolverine recently died. Before his death, the lifelong activist wrote a letter asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call for a public inquiry into the Gustafsen paramilitary operation.
“At this point, I believe everyone’s still grieving,” Pitawanakwat tells me. On his next steps, he adds: “We’re going to have to sit down and refocus our strengths again.”