A Flag for one, A Flag for All
The Mohawk Warrior Flag: Outgrowing its Creation
As a child growing up in Ontario in the 1990s, the OKA Crisis was still fresh in the minds of the nation. It was something learned about in schools across the province. I remember seeing pictures of men in bandanas and balaclavas, holding guns. They were represented by a vivid red and yellow flag.
The Oka Crisis was a land dispute that included a 78 day standoff. It started in July 1990, between the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and the Sûréte du Québec provincial police. Later, it escalated to include the Canadian armed forces.
The standoff occurred as an organized resistance to the expansion of a golf course and the erection of a condominium that was set to infringe on the pines wooded area that was used by the Mohawk peoples. This area contained a graveyard and was also used for ceremonies and Lacrosse.
The indigenous community petitioned to city council but felt unheard and ignored. A peaceful blockade of a dirt road in the Pines in Kanesatake was started that lasted a few months. The Township of Oka filed for a court injunction to dismantle this protest and Quebec Provincial Police came armed to the area with tear gas and M16 rifles. A firefight occurred between armed Mohawk warriors and the police, killing one officer. This led to a full-fledged blockade.
The indigenous community across the country banded together in solidarity. Protests popped up across the country in support of the Mohawk peoples’ right to land and to be respected.
The Kanien'kehà:ka and their fight to be heard was the centre of media attention. Their symbol was the Karoniaktajeh Louis Hall’s warrior flag. The flag became famous as a symbol among indigenous groups as a sign of resistance to colonial oppression.
Originally, the flag was meant to be a symbol of unity and called the “Unity Flag” or “Indian Flag.” It was a flag depicting a long haired indigenous man’s profile facing left over a sunburst. The sunburst was atop a red background. It was redesigned in the 1980s by Karoniaktajeh Louis Hall for the Mohawk Warrior Society, serving as a symbol for the vanguard Kanien’kehá:ka Nation when carrying out their duties for the people.
During the Oka Crisis, the flag became a symbol for Indigenous unity and resistance and it maintains that symbolism up to today. Across Canada, the flag has been flown during various protests. The Mi’kmaq flew the flag during the lobster dispute at Esgenoôpetitj between 1999 and 2002. The flag was also seen at rallies during pipeline conflicts at Standing Rock, in Wet'suwet'en territory and most recently, at Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
Globally, the flag is gaining traction as a protest flag used to symbolize freedom from oppressive forces. It has also been seen in places like South America, Australia, New Zealand and even Palestinian territories.
This flag is powerful. The context in which it was conceived and the intention behind its creation was beautiful. It was a symbol for a colonized group to understand that there is value in unity and value in knowing and loving your culture and history. This message resonates with everyone who is part of a colonized group and it transcends the Mohawk people of Kanesatake. I would not be surprised to see this flag more prominently used in the future, as its meaning is better understood.
For more information on how the flag has had an impact on Canada see Ka’nhesí:io (Jessica) Deer’s article: https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/oka-crisis-the-legacy-of-the-warrior-flag
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