When Ellen Gabriel set out to make a documentary film to begin correcting the record on the Siege of Kanehsatake, she decided to focus on July 11, 1990.
“I wanted to reclaim the narrative that’s been stolen from us and from our perspective of that first day,” she said, lamenting how colonial narratives still swirl around 1990.
She also wanted to highlight the role of women. The resistance has often been characterized in a way that centres Warriors, but it was the women of the community who agreed – in keeping with Haudenosaunee tradition – to serve as land protectors by going to the front ahead of police raiding the barricade, she remembers. And it was the women who were targeted that day.
“We agreed we would be the ones to be arrested, and the people who aren’t will get us out of jail. What we didn’t expect was to be shot at,” she said.
“There were some very brave women and young women who met the police without any weapons, and the police were aiming their weapons at our heads and hearts.”
Kanàtenhs – When The Pine Needles Fall, Gabriel’s 2022 thesis film through the New York Film Academy, has been recognized with seven awards, but its selection in the prestigious International First Peoples Festival is a milestone.
“It’s a great honour,” said Gabriel. “This is going to be the first time it’s going to be shown in this area, on my homelands. It’s quite a thrill.”
According to André Dudemaine, director of Land InSights, the organization that puts on the festival, Gabriel’s film fits with a theme the festival is going for this time around.
“This year, we’re very proud that the festival will be giving prominence to women who have been at the forefront of the fight to assert Indigenous Peoples’ rights,” he said.
“In her own way, Ellen Gabriel is also among these women at the forefront of these battles, and her film focuses on women’s activism, which may have been a somewhat neglected aspect of the resistance of 1990,” said Dudemaine.
“We’re very, very happy to be honoured, to be entrusted with this film.”
Gabriel envisions the documentary film, which has a 22-minute runtime, as the first in a series. She has already started work on a follow-up, which will explore the stories of the Kahanwa’kehró:non who blocked the Mercier Bridge.
Gabriel, who is also a visual artist, is drawn to the medium of film.
“I’ve always loved films. I love going to the movies. I love being immersed in a different world,” she said.
“For me, documentary filmmaking is another form of art, and it’s another form of activism,” she said. It has given her the opportunity to hear some stories for the first time, she added.
She hopes that her film can help reframe other aspects of the Siege of Kanehsatake, perhaps even helping to reshape how community members view its ongoing relevance.
“The community was divided then, and it’s even more divided now. People never took the time to understand what the whole issue of sovereignty and land dispossession is about. They just fly Warrior flags, they wear Warrior t-shirts, they cut the Pines – commodifying the Pines,” she said.
“Those Pines are sacred.”
She also wants to help inform youth who do not have a firsthand memory of the events of 1990.
“Even to help as a legacy, for the youth to understand that picking up a weapon was not our first choice – we didn’t even want them there,” she said. “It’s a complicated, multi-layered story. It’s just a way to begin a discussion, to teach the kids. Let’s teach the youth part of their history because it’s not in the curriculum in any of our schools.”
Kanàtenhs – When The Pine Needles Fall will be presented by Gabriel on August 13 at 4 p.m. at Cinema du Musee in Montreal.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 28, in issue 32.30 of The Eastern Door.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.