Mohawk Airwaves and Cultural Challenges: Some Reflections on the Politics of Recognition and Cultural Appropriation After the Summer of 1990

Lorna Roth (Concordia University)

Abstract: This paper closely examines the phone-in community radio service of Kahnawake as it emerged and evolved during and after the Kanehsatake and Kahnawake/governments' confrontation in the summer of 1990. Reflecting on an incident in which a community group in LaSalle attempted to appropriate the Kahnawake airwaves for their own political ends, the paper raises questions about constituency-group control, ownership, and cross-cultural sharing of First Nations community radio airtime and cultural content.

Résumé: Cet article examine en profondeur le service de ligne ouverte offert par la radio communautaire de Kahnawake tel qu'il a évolué pendant et après la confrontation entre les différents palliers gouvernementaux d'un bord et Kanehsatake / Kahnawake de l'autre durant l'été 1990. Analysant une tentative de la part d'un groupe communautaire de LaSalle de s'approprier les ondes à Kahnawake pour ses propres fins politiques, nous soulevons des questions en rapport avec le contrôle, le partage et le droit de propriété qu'auraient différents groupes d'intérêt et / ou culturels.

The telephone... made it possible, in a sense, to be in two places at the same time. It allowed people to talk to one another across great distances, to think about what others were feeling and to respond at once without the time to reflect afforded by written communication.... Party Lines created another kind of simultaneous experience, because in the early systems bells rang along the entire line and everyone who was interested could listen in. (Kern, 1991, p. 188)

... Indeed, a wondrous fabric of speech is here woven into the record of each day. (Baxter, 1906, p. 235)

Recent writings on the politics of recognition and identity have critiqued the ways in which First Nations cultural and traditional practices have been borrowed, recontextualized, and inscribed in public histories and other mediated documents by non-Natives (Doxtator, Cardinal-Shubert, Hill, among others). At the heart of the issue is a response of First Nations peoples to the centuries-old practice of cultural appropriation to which they have been subjected. Since early cross-cultural contact, indigenous arts, crafts, songs, spiritual traditions, words, and stories have been collected by non-Natives and widely circulated in mainstream society as popular evidence of "primitive" artifacts and practices. In a seminal article entitled "In the Red" (1989), author Joanne Cardinal-Shubert describes the last decade using Thomas Shales' notion of the "ReDecade." By this, she says, he means "a decade without a distinctive style of its own; a decade characterized by the pervasive stylistic presence of all previous periods of history" (Cardinal-Shubert, p. 27). Cardinal-Shubert argues that "Native culture, which retains a distinctive style of its own," is still very attractive to the public because of its orginality as authentically Canadian" (ibid., p. 27). Thus, the desire for its preservation persists. This motivates the establishment of indigenous undertakings and organizations aimed at the protection of cultural properties and interests from control by outsiders. It is also the basis of recent arguments for cultural distance and distinct identity formation and reinforcement activities.

Since "cultural appropriation" has emerged as a critical issue within First Nations' discourses, the concept has mainly been applied to analyses of the appropriation and recycling of visual and literary products and traditional cultural practices. In the context of the Mohawk /governments' conflict3 of 1990, for example, a blatant attempt on the part of two Oka entrepreneurs to copyright and commodify all of the names, aspects, and events of the Kanehsatake/Quebec Police Force/Canadian army confrontation stimulated Mohawks' deep resentment of non-Native opportunism. The suffering of Mohawk people reconstructed into objectified, commodified forms and marketed by non-Natives as souvenirs of the crises raises serious issues about cultural ownership and control over the writing of one's own history. Who has the right to write history and to document culture? Can history and cultural development processes be owned and controlled as cultural property?

This essay is about a challenge to the Mohawks' possession of their own history by a small group of Lasalle, Quebec, non-Native residents involved in daily interactions with Mohawk community radio operators. It is also about the ways in which radio airwaves, a cultural resource common to all the peoples within Canada, can be used, shaped, and appropriated to promote specific political agendas. My first objective in this essay is to construct the Mohawk radio airscape during the summer of 1990, with particular emphasis on talk-back programming. Second, I would like to extend the general debate on cultural appropriation by showing how it can apply to the very scarce resource of indigenous-controlled community radio airwaves, the legitimate voices which occupy this territory, and the ideas disseminated by its cultural producers. The example I shall use is based on the 1990 experience of the Kahnawake community radio station (CKRK) which represented one of the two inside views of the Mohawk /governments' confrontation (the other being that of the Kanehsatake community radio station).4

Two Historical Cases of Airwave Appropriation in Canada

Mediaspace as a site for struggle over dominant meanings and the voices which express them has become a widely recognized issue of late (Bennett, van Dijk). In the early 1990s, legitimate alternative, complementary, and community radio services number in the hundreds in Canada--with at least 150 of them being operated by indigenous communities. It is not surprising that constituency groups, whether they be ethnic, First Nations, political, labour, or any other group would want rights to control the kind and content of discourses that represent them in the mediated public sphere. It is also predictable that those who do not easily get direct access and control over their own radio frequency, because of distance or lack of financial or human resources, might take--without official permission--that which they have not been allocated through customary legal methods.

The history of appropriating airwaves in Canada has tended to be related to the illegal capture and use of an airwave frequency, such as the one which was utilized in Pond Inlet in the Northwest Territories in 1964. In this year, a local Inuit group within the small community on northern Baffin Island innocently put together an inexpensive radio station and began to broadcast culturally-relevant programming without going through the conventional regulatory channels of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Its existence was discovered, years later, when two pilots flying over Dorval airport in Montreal heard the Inuktitut programming and could not identify the language. Thinking it was Russian, but knowing that no Russian plane was in the vicinity, they had the air traffic control tower employees research the source. They discovered that the voices originated from the tiny community radio station in Pond Inlet. Apparently, the sound waves had travelled unusual distances due to atmospheric abnormalities on that particular day. The radio station was contacted by the CRTC and procedures were normalized accordance with Canadian broadcasting regulations (Mayes).

Another similar example of the pirating of radio airwaves took place in Montreal in the mid-1980s, when two teenage boys set up a small station in a residential basement in Nôtre Dame de Grâce and transmitted their own amateur programming. Audience reach extended to a radius of five neighbourhood blocks (Personal Interviews with "Eric" and "Daniel").5 When the CRTC discovered this home-made station, they began to make demands on the two to conform to radio regulations. Eric and Daniel decided to abandon the project after being discovered, because it was no longer "illegit" and, therefore, "less fun" (ibid.). Their motivation for the operation of this station was obviously different and far more personal than that of the Inuit in Pond Inlet.

The Kahnawake Mohawk case, which is the subject of this essay, differs from the latter two examples of appropriation. The Mohawks operate a legitimate, English / Mohawk-language, licensed station at 103.5 on the FM band in the Montreal region. The issue of appropriation which arose in the fall of 1990 had nothing to do with pirating a frequency. The story is far more complex than this and had to do with the distorted assumption by an English-speaking LaSalle community group that it could borrow both the Kahnawake radio frequency and the historical experience of the Mohawks to apply to their own narrow political and economic objectives. It was a very problematic assumption based on the LaSalle community group's self-interested reading of the implications of the summer of 1990. But first, some background on Mohawk community radio and in particular CKRK's phone-in show, which will place the LaSalle attempt at appropriation into a historical context.

Mohawk Radio and the Conflicts of 1990

In Quebec, many minority ethnocultural /multiracial communities and aboriginal nations (Mohawk, Cree, Inuit, Attikamek-Montagnais, Algonquin, Mic Mac) are actively involved in radio production, but this fact is not well known because of short-range audience reach and lack of funds for publicity. During the summer of 1990, this anonymity changed in the Mohawk territories as the multiple voices of the Mohawk people broadcast over very small radio stations CKRK in Kahnawake and CKHQ in Kanehsatake took on a broad and very important public profile.

The Mohawk /governments' confrontation during the summer of 1990 marked many political turning points in Native/non-Native relations in Quebec and Canada. It also made visible to the larger public an emergent trend in some Native community media undertakings. There are two distinct audiences for Native programming located within urban regions: the "insider" First Nations community in which the service originates, and a broad-based, culturally and racially heterogeneous, "outsider" audience who can eavesdrop on the programming of the Native community. The range of station reception is, of course, dependent on the power of the transmitter and antenna chosen by a given comunity. For example, a low-power transmitter of 5 to 10 watts, such as that of Kanehsatake, will limit the distance of a station's reception and will therefore serve a small "outside" audience, such as its immediate neighbours of Oka and Hudson (across Lac St. Louis). A transmitter of 50 watts, such as that of Kahnawake's community radio station, spills over into a much larger territory. It is received in Chateauguay, other south shore communities, and the western sections of the island of Montreal. CKRK's audience also includes the listeners of CKHQ, weather permitting. The station directs its antenna towards Kanehsatake, in the hope that atmospheric conditions will carry their signal to the other Mohawk community. In general, CKRK is a better-known station than CKHQ, having been on the air since 1980. Furthermore, CKRK is easier to access with more than one phone line and a fax.

During the conflict, both communities used their radio stations as public address systems to provide their local listeners with daily information of a strategic nature necessary to survive their ordeals throughout the summer. The most critical differences between radio stations CKHQ and CKRK were in their cross-cultural audience reach and in the mobility of their staffs.


Because Kanehsatake is not a reserve, the land occupied by the Native population is a patchwork quilt of territory. CKHQ is located on a road that was occupied and regularly surveyed by Canadian security officials during the conflict. If CKHQ staff had left the station, there would have been no guarantee that they could have returned. For this reason, two dedicated Mohawk broadcasters, Marie David and Bev Nelson, decided not to risk the closure of the station. They made the difficult decision to live there, instead, not knowing how long they would be away from their homes and families. They ate minimally because of food shortages, and slept at the community radio station from July 11 until the very end of the crisis on September 26, 1990.

Kanehsatake radio's local audience size remained fairly stable throughout the summer. CKHQ reached residents on the uncontested Native territories, occupants of the Treatment Centre involved in the conflict and neighbouring populations. As CKHQ access to the outside world was limited, the station used its one telephone and fax line to link up with national and international support groups as an on-site witness to the unfolding events, which were locally reported by telephone.

Audience numbers were further multiplied as other radio stations across, and outside of, Canada were alerted to the important role the station was playing in the day-to-day survival of the community. Mohawk broadcasters were telephoned and interviewed by Canadian and international radio and television services almost every day during the conflict. Excerpts from the stations' programming were sometimes supplied to other stations by telephone or occasionally sneaked out by a supportive Montreal journalist for rebroadcast on Montreal, regional, national, or international stations, which had larger audiences.


Kahnawake, a reserve, is much larger than Kanehsatake and its interior was not occupied by the Canadian authorities. The population, therefore, had freedom of movement within the village territories, and in some cases, limited accesss to the outside world, through crossing over the St. Lawrence Seaway by boat to Lachine or Dorval.

During the summer, CKRK staff was limited to three (including station manager Conway Jocks). Some staff had evacuated the community when they realized how long the confrontation might last. Others, who were non-resident, had decided not to risk entry because of the anger and hostile reactions of the anti-Mohawk residents of the surrounding communities through which they would have to pass to get onto the reserve.

At a time just after the federal government's financial cutbacks to Native communications technical, administrative, and program development, Radio Kahnawake became the loudest First Nations broadcast voice in southern Quebec, reaching over 300,000 listeners during its peak listening periods, which included its phone-in show (Higgins, p. 14).6 CKRK played a pivotal role in providing alternative forms of information and was strategic in at least two ways: (1) it built a public opinion support base for the Mohawk position; (2) it acted as a conflict mediator of the many small and large crises as they occurred.

One of the outstanding features broadcast on CKRK during the summer of 1990 was its phone-in show, The Party Line. The rest of this essay focuses on the The Party Line, its history and context, its particular style, its role within and outside the community, its host, its significance as a vehicle for promoting cross-cultural communications, and the important and unpredictable impact it stimulated within neighbouring communities.

CKRK: Action and Reaction Centre

CKRK, the Kahnawake Mohawk Radio Broadcasting system, began in 1978 as the communication voice of the Kanienkehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center, a local institution dedicated to the promotion and reinforcement of Mohawk culture and language. The community radio station's primary goal was to circulate Native information within Kahnawake and to propagate the discussion of issues pertinent to Mohawk tribal members. CKRK has played a critical role in reinforcing Mohawk cultural beliefs and in facilitating open discussions about subjects as far-ranging as land claims and how to bring up children the traditional way. Establishing a forum for existing Mohawk-language speakers, it provided a support for the revitalization of the spoken Native word and the creation of a more vibrant cultural environment for elementary school students attending the band-controlled Mohawk immersion school system on the reserve.

CKRK's original secondary objective was to "inform our drop-in listeners of who we are and what we believe in" ( Jocks, p. 1). To accomplish this purpose, CKRK's management erected a 50-watt antenna giving the station an audience reach well outside of the local community perimeters. This technical decision permitted the Mohawk peoples' broadcasts to be easily picked up in the southwestern districts of Montreal and most south shore communities, resulting in a direct opportunity to use the medium for cross-cultural public relations purposes. This, no doubt, had both positive and negative consequences before, during and after the crisis: positive because non-Native outsiders could hear "insiders' views" and develop a broader and perhaps more balanced perspective on the complex background issues; negative because of the risks of appropriation by outsiders seeking "their own" tool or vehicle of representation.

CKRK management claims an attempt to maintain a policy of neutrality in regard to reserve politics since 1989, when its potential influence within the community became recognized and tested by local groups competing for persuasive powers. Because this was widely known at the time of the governments / Mohawk confrontation, the station became one of the public sources of information and communication most trusted by its dedicated community of listeners--composed mostly of English and Mohawk speakers. There is no French spoken at the station and very little used in the community. In the summer of 1990, this meant that if French radio and television programming were to be monitored for public attitudes toward the confrontation, the information would have to be supplied by bilingual listeners who volunteered to translate for the staff and English-speaking listeners.

CKRK's policy during the confrontation was to act as "normal" as possible, maintaining the usual diversity of programming. Music Playlists tended to have high message value, e.g., Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon or The Freedom Song by Frosty, a well-known resident of Kahnawake. The station featured and transmitted the following kinds of program elements: surveillance information; survival tips; hints on how to extend limited resources; public service announcements regarding military and police manoeuvres; the comings and goings of residents; political negotiations updates; news updates from the field; appeals to the public for calm and sobriety by members of the Band council; prepared answers to public questions; conversations with witnesses and participants from the front lines; ads; and political statements. The station became one of the most important vehicles for keeping the town informed in a fairly calm manner and for retaining open channels to outside communities. Talk-back radio programming was the most effective way of encouraging and promoting communication with outsiders.

Talk-Back Radio

Talk-back radio has long been acknowledged as a potent medium for producing public debate because it enables dialogues among participants from outside the framework of "produced radio" programming (Moss and Higgins). It opens up a mediaspace in which anyone within the reception range can anonymously contribute what they consider to be a meaningful statement about the subject being discussed. In other words, callers can openly speak out and take on a variety of personae in which contentious statements may be made with less potential for negative consequence than there would be should one's image be publicly visible. This, of course, is not to say that talk-back radio operates without any constraints at all. First, in Canada the Broadcasting Act (1991)7 and Radio Regulations (1986) do not permit the broadcasting of abusive comment that is intended to expose a group of persons to hatred or contempt on the basis of race. Second, the host and production team control the mechanics of the program, including how the host takes up, interprets, and reframes the comments of the callers.

What distinguished CKRK's phone-in program from those at other stations in Quebec was its advantageous position of being "inside the barricades" thereby providing access to the actual voices of people involved in the conflict and the attempts at its resolution. Of course, CKRK staff could also monitor most other regional broadcast channels and provide their listeners with both a dual and a more complex perspective. Other stations could not provide this range of voices.

The Party Line phone-in program became the time in which Mohawk community solidarity was cemented. It also became the point of cross-cultural exchange with the outside world. This latter accomplishment made The Party Line very different from most other English and French phone-in programs broadcast throughout Quebec.

There were many similarities, however, with other talk-back shows. Each station attracted same-language speakers with common sets of preliminary assumptions about the political nature of the conflicts. Most callers' statements were used by the hosts to build support for the stations' and /or their own preferred or dominant interpretive rationales for the confrontation and its historical unfolding. Callers sometimes challenged the hosts' particular visions/versions of the crisis and got into heated debates over the air. Many participants just loved a good verbal sparring session with a contentious host.

The Party Line: Cultural Dialogues

When the SQ attacked the Oka barricades we reported it as straight news, but on that same newscast we also included an item that earlier that day, some men, obviously Warriors, beat up MUC officers on the reserve following a police chase.

Within a few days we realized the barricades would be up for awhile and the situation would worsen and the radio station would be an important element. I determined then that I would call on my military experience and instituted a policy of calm, dispassioned and reasoned damage control, as if I weren't part of what was going on. Public enemy number one was rumor. There was a strict rule of confirming the more serious reports and ignoring the rest. Our goal was to be of service to the community in a time of crisis. ( Jocks, p. 5)

During the summer of 1990, limited staff made it necessary for the station to make programming adjustments. Most important, the station wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy. To aid in community communications, the station manager saw the value of the phone-in program as a means of "keeping important conversations going." So, an extended phone-in show was approved at the beginning of the summer. Easily accessible for community information exchange, the first phone-in shows reported such high listenership that Jocks decided to install a talk show over the lunch hour and a second show in the evening between 7 and 9 p.m., sometimes lasting till 10 p.m. After trying out as host himself, Jocks found his time was needed for more urgent matters. He approached Nathalie Foote, a former announcer at CKRK and one of the few who had remained behind the barricades. Initially reluctant, she decided to take it on. "The program soon turned into a barricade jumper, the only direct link with the outside world for us inside who were rapidly taking on a fortress mentality" ( Jocks, p. 7).

During the summer of 1990, CKRK's The Party Line opened with an Indian prayer:

Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I come before you--one of your many children. I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and drop. I seek strength not to be superior to my brothers, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy--myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so when life fades as a fading sunset, my spirit may come to you--without shame.

This was followed by an announcement of the Talk Show rules. These were quite simply:

  1. No foul language was to be used on the air.
  2. No use of last names would be permitted. If anyone wanted to leave any last name with the station, they were requested to ask to speak with someone at the office and s/he would transfer the person.
  3. No naming of people coming onto or going off Kahnawake land was permitted.

And finally came the familiar--"CKRK. You're on the air."

Over the four-month period, The Party Line program emerged as a local and regional focal point for the organization and dissemination of critical information and public opinion. Nathalie handled crisis radio well. She was patient, direct, and psychologically soothing. She knew that not only the community members, including the Warriors were listening, but also that many of the Chateauguay and Lasalle people would be eavesdropping. Friendly and chatty, she would often ask the first caller about the situation in their local neighbourhood, as she does here on July 30:

Are your kids able to go out without mishaps? Are you able to go to stores for groceries? How do you feel about the army situation?

She would then respond to the agendas and issues delivered to the show by other callers.

Her show became very popular over the summer, as she began to demonstrate one of the most innovative uses of radio to which I have been exposed. With sometimes over 100 calls an hour coming in, she developed a technique for diffusing tension--psychotherapeutic radio--much like a broadcast form of Tel-Aide. In her soft-spoken voice, without traces of a local Mohawk accent, Nat invited callers to explain their feelings throughout the crisis. She encouraged some of the perpetrators of racism to call and target their hostilities in her direction, even if they spoke only in broken English. Here is an example of her conversational strategy:

For the residents in Chateauguay area who did, indeed, call for the army to come in, I'd like to hear how you feel now that they are here. I'd like to hear your side of the coin. Let's just flip it over there. (August 16, 1990)

On other occasions, she invited Mohawk effigy burners and "throwers of rocks at Mohawk cars" to come forward with their explanations and their verbally-articulated racism.

She hoped that a response to this kind of plea would substitute for physical brutality. The reasoning was that, as Martin Luther King had suggested, if violence is the language of the inarticulate, the opportunity to publicly speak might diminish the need to act out physically. Many listeners responded. At the end of their hostile comments, she would say "Thank you" and hang up. She rarely "blew her cool" and maintained a fairly consistent level of diplomacy through some very tense periods. Nat developed new ways of using radio to diffuse hostile energy. She used radio for catharsis and conflict mediation.

In a broader sense, needing access to information from as many sources as possible made CKRK dependent on "outside" audience participation in news collection. Coalitions were necessary if the Mohawks wanted to be as informed as possible under the circumstances. As a result, the station management encouraged its audience members to become amateur journalists in their own right, calling or faxing the station with details of the conflict from their individual or groups' experiences and perspectives. This, very likely, attracted many pro-Mohawk activists to CKRK's programming, as a way of contributing a small amount of energy to a cause which they supported but over which they had very little power to influence.

Hundreds of English- and French-speaking callers, many of whom were non-Indians, responded to CKRK with pledges of their solidarity or with advice to Kahnawake residents of police build-ups in a particular region. Some telephoned to warn others of potential racial harrassment in certain locales off the reserve. Many called to congratulate the Mohawks and to wish them well. Some called to recite poems that they had written in response to their personal upset at the conflict. Bilingual (French / English) business-people from Chateauguay stressed their concern about the possible economic consequences of the developing ethnic cleavages that were becoming more pronounced each day the Mercier bridge stayed blocked. French-speakers among the audience would report their barometer readings of public opinion among the French population, derived from their consumption of regional print, radio, and television coverage.

Cross-cultural audience contributions to Mohawk "insider" programming encouraged an active and committed form of listening and strong identification with the station because of the stakes involved in keeping the community informed. Consequently, participating in local information gathering for CKRK might have provided some with an inflated notion of their "making a difference."

A Different Sort of Appropriation

CKRK's The Party Line added two critical elements to the range of broadcasts within the public mediaspaces available that summer. First, it became an interactive audio billboard for the internal community under siege. Second, it encouraged cross-cultural conversation exchanges between those inside and those outside the Mohawk barricades. Mohawk radio became a very powerful tool of communication during the summer of 1990 because it offered associative and participatory links that enabled more thorough psychological identification between audiences and on-air hosts to take place than is probable with conventional radio services.

CKRK's deliberate use of phone-in conversation times with non-Native listeners demonstrated that Mohawk people in general were not the "stereotypical" Warrior-like savage Indians that had been depicted in much of the mainstream media. Although limited in number, CKRK hosts were able to communicate in reasoned and un-Warriorlike terms and consequently helped to break down some of the simplistic public characterizations that "all Mohawks are Warriors."

In inviting non-Native listeners to access their programming and eavesdrop on internal discussions going on within the Mohawk community, CKRK staff hoped to and did recruit a lot of support for their political, social, cultural, and land claims positions. But along with that support came such strong identification by some that a blurring of the cultural and racial differences that constitute the desirable foundation of Mohawk identity emerged. The risk of too intense a level of identification with the Mohawks' position due to conversational contacts between "insiders" and "outsiders" opened the possibility of an "outside" group, such as the one in LaSalle, siezing the opportunity of appropriating Mohawk issues and using existing Mohawk radio resources for their own political and economic gain.

Conway Jocks describes this over-identification as resulting in nostalgia, appropriation, and commodification consequences:

Following the capture of the Kanehsatake Treatment Centre, the station returned to normal scheduling as the deejays reassumed their programs. For a while we kept the evening talk show, but then we realized the majority of callers were from out of the community, still feisty, still looking for a cause. The program was eliminated for that reason.

Two other events prompted me to cancel the evening talk show. We began receiving calls from Lasalle for our intervention in stopping a land development on a local golf course. And then a developer wanted to build a new golf course on an island formed by the Seaway near Ste. Catherine. Clearly, our listeners were turning to us for a solution to their problems. But enough was enough, especially with golf courses.

... There's a separate group of hangers-on too. These are the visitors, mostly the ones who marched in peace demonstrations and yet subscribed to para-military magazines and claim to be instructing the young people in guerrilla warfare. They come back to seemingly sniff and relish the air.

Another phenomenon I didn't expect were 'KRK groupies. We have three who have resisted all efforts to dislodge them. There's Ginger from Cateauguay, Ann from Verdun, and Steven from Lasalle.

After things settled down, we began to receive media visitors who also wanted to view the scene of the action to either get the tenor of the community or tell us what they did during the experience. ( Jocks, pp. 10-12)

The nostalgic attempt to prolong the excitement of the crisis and to visit its site for gaining a better understanding of its context was fairly predictable. These reactions were harmless and easily dealt with by the Mohawk radio staff. But the Lasalle listeners' attempt to control the agenda of the Kahnawake station airwaves and insert their own voices and issues into its programming was somewhat more problematic. To some extent, it was not surprising. After all, until the termination of the crisis, their participation had been solicited by CKRK, and from their perspective, why shouldn't the pattern continue? Furthermore, the golf course issues seemed so similar to them.

On the other hand, their self-interested request for help from the Mohawks demonstrated that they did not understand the political significance of the event for First Nations constituency groups across the country. Could the Lasalle group, indeed, not have realized how seriously the land conflict was bound up with issues of race, incommensurable cultural values, and cross-cultural political misunderstandings and processes? Just how deeply had they identified with the Mohawks? How could they not have recognized the historic significance and long-range political implications of Native heritage arguments and aboriginal land use and occupancy rights? Was there not a difference in the LaSalle group's understanding between the significance and treatment of land as a capital asset, i.e., as it is generally perceived by non-Native peoples, and the specific meaning of "territory" to First Nations' peoples? Did the LaSalle group not politically understand the basis of the land claims issues which had precipitated the Kanehsatake/Kahnawake/governments' confrontation in the first place? How could they have had the naïvete to ask for Mohawk support for their own golf course and land development issues?

Concluding Comments

Much of the rampant anti-Mohawk racism displayed in the summer of 1990, as well as Mohawk identity construction itself, is based on visual markers--the colour of one's skin, the shape of one's facial features, the kind of hair one inherits, the culturally-identified clothing and decorative symbols one chooses to wear. To hate or discriminate against someone because of their race or ethnoculture is to dislike their visual representation, as well as their thoughts, words and behaviours.

In the case of the Mohawks' conflict coverage on community radio, the colour-blindness of the medium became very apparent. As an aurally-biased tool of expression, radio captured and reflected cultural differences through speech patterns, but it did this while rendering the powerful visual symbols of Mohawk identity invisible.

The visible barriers of race, the audible sound of the Kahnawake Mohawk accent, and the fear of "Mohawkness," which might have been more readily stirred up if callers were to have been faced with the sight and Indian-accented voice of a "real" Mohawk inside the barricades, could be easily diffused by listening to the soft and comforting messages of the broadcasters whose aim it was to keep everybody calm and "normal." Furthermore, the disembodied voices of Nat and Conway specifically (both of whom have spent a good portion of their lives in the United States and have no trace of a local Mohawk accent), rendered it difficult to distinguish their racial differences from non-Native peoples. The lack of visual and oral markers of the broadcasters thus made it easier for listeners to be tolerant and psychologically empathic toward the radio hosts of the besieged community. Thus, the racial/cultural anonymity afforded by the medium of radio was probably key to opening up psychological projections and possibilities for identification with those on opposite sides of the oral and territorial barriers.

I am not quite sure how we should ultimately interpret the Lasalle request for Radio Kahnawake's support, but I do suspect that this blurring of the visual, along with the speech intimacy which the aural/oral characteristic of home-town style CKRK provided to its listeners had a lot to do with the Lasalle individuals feeling close enough to the voices of the Mohawks to ask for their comfort and support in rescuing their land from becoming a golf course too.

As noted by Jocks, the Mohawks quickly refused to collaborate with the Lasalle listeners. They cancelled the program instead and tried even more strongly to normalize their service.

Could the Lasalle-type of intervention have been avoided? Was it offensive to the Mohawks or did it attest to their success at providing a service that excellently fulfilled their secondary objective of cross-cultural communications? In other words, who went too far? Were the Mohawks not setting themselves up for something like this to occur when they chose to install a high-powered antenna of 50 watts with spillover into neighbouring communities? Was it the Mohawk community or the Lasalle residents who stepped over the cultural boundary line--screening out racial/cultural differences because they are not visible through radio microphones or telephones or fax machines?

In a more general sense, the whole issue raises questions about constituency-group control, ownership, and cross-cultural sharing of First Nations community radio frequencies and cultural content. What should be the relationship between Native community radio broadcasters and their non-Native listeners? How can First Nations broadcasters use radio to inform their community publics while simultaneously maintaining and /or recruiting arms-length support of non-Native listeners, where they exist?

There are no definitive responses to these questions at this time, but they might well be worthy of thorough investigation by First Nations broadcasters in the near future if they wish to sustain proprietary control over the scarce resource of their community radio airwaves.


I would like to thank Conway Jocks for sharing his ideas and perceptions on Mohawk radio both during and since the summer of 1990. Parts of this essay will appear in French in a forthcoming volume on radio phone-in programming (Dr. Florian Sauvageau, editor) to be published by the Institut Québécois de Recherche sur la Culture (1993).
An autobiographical note: As I write this short essay, I vividly recall the tension and anticipation with which I listened to CKRK every night that I was in Montreal during the summer of 1990. I paid close attention to Radio Kahnawake (CKRK) as I had been involved in its early organization and development (1978-81) and still knew several of the key players who ran the station. Furthermore, I had just finished running a training course for the community radio station volunteers in Kanehsatake (CKHQ) and was familiar with the political issues that had led to the summer's tension. Because I was well beyond their 10-watt coverage perimeter, I had no access to Radio Kanehsatake broadcasts and was, therefore, riveted to CKRK.
As the reader will note, I hesitate to use the word "crisis" to describe the Mohawk /governments' confrontation over the summer, due to the ongoing nature of the political conflicts. Furthermore, it is important that the reader understand why I use the term "governments" in the plural. I am here referring to the conflict between the Mohawks and three levels of government: the municipal government of Oka, the government of the Province of Quebec, and the Government of Canada.
What turned into an armed conflict between Mohawk Warriors in Kanehsatake and Kahnawake and the Quebec Police Force (Surété Québec or SQ) originally began as a protest by a small group of traditional Mohawks about the extension of a nine-hole golf course into a housing development project on their sacred land (a ceremonial burial ground and a commons). Kanehsatake is located near Oka, Quebec, approximately 40 km west of Montreal.

On July 11, 1990, when the Quebec Police Force moved in to break up their road blockade at the golf course, one of the SQ officers was shot and died later that day. The conflict intensified. In support of the Kanehsatake struggle over land claims, Kahnawake, a reserve on the south shore of Montreal, blocked off the Mercier bridge on July 11 and kept it closed until September 5. The Canadian military was called in to support the SQ on August 14 and stayed until September 26. Over the hot summer, local residents on the south shore of Montreal became very hostile against the Mohawks of Kahnawake for causing the inconvenience of a three-hour detour to and from their place of employment. The population was no less patient with those at the Treatment Centre. On September 26, the Mohawk Warriors in Kanehsatake agreed to leave the Treatment Centre where they had been staying since the invasion of the police and military. To many Canadians, the conflict identified the incommensurable values and belief systems between indigenous and non-Native peoples in this country.

The protest gained wide international media coverage and has had a powerful impact in transforming the terms of Native/non-Native relationships in Canada since its termination.

These are original first names. At their request, their last names are not used in order to protect their identities.
According to Jocks, CKRK "...could not afford or care to belong to the BBM (Bureau of Broadcast Measurement) to find out what our ratings are. But our mole at one of Montreal's major radio stations told us that we were pulling in almost half a million listeners during our phone-in segment. If true, that is the biggest story of all--and the best kept secret" ( Jocks, p. 10).

Throughout the summer, different journalists quoted different figures, all of which were in the approximate range of the BBMs.

The 1976 Broadcasting Act was in effect during the summer of 1990. On June 4, 1991 a new Broadcasting Act for Canada was passed which enshrines both aboriginal and multicultural broadcasting.



Baxter, Sylvester. (1906, May 26). The telephone girl. The Outlook, p. 235.

Bennett, W. L. (1980). Public opinion in American politics. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Cardinal-Shubert, Joanne. (1989, Fall). In the red. Fuse Magazine, pp. 20-28.

Doxtator, Deborah. (1988, Fall). The home of Indian culture and other stories in the museum. Muse Magazine, pp. 26-28.

Gumpert, Gary, & Cathcart, Robert (Eds.). (1986). Radio voices. Intermedia: Interpersonal communications in a media world (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Higgins, C. S., & Moss, P. D. (1982). Interaction analyses of talk-back radio: Some cultural meanings. Sounds reel: Radio in everyday life. New York: University of Queensland Press.

Higgins, Michael. (1990, December). UP CLOSE: An inside look at how a small radio station handled the Oka crisis: CKRK scored high on all counts. Broadcaster, pp. 14-16.

Hill, Richard. (1992, Winter). One part per million: White appropriation and Native voices. Fuse Magazine, pp. 12-22.

Jocks, Conway. (1991, June). Capture of a Native community radio station. Unpublished paper presented at the Canadian Learned Societies Meetings, Kingston, Ontario.

Kern, Stephen. (1991). Wireless world. In David Crowley & Paul Heyer (Eds.), Communication in history: Technology, culture, society (pp. 186-189). New York: Longman.

Mayes, Robert G. (1972). Mass communication and Eskimo adaptation in the Canadian Arctic. MA Thesis, Department of Geography, McGill University, Montreal.

Roth, Lorna. (1983). The role of communication projects and Inuit participation in the formation of a communication policy for the North. MA Thesis, Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University, Montreal.

Roth, Lorna. (1992). Media and the commodification of crisis. In Marc Raboy & Bernard Dagenais (Eds.), Media and crisis: Mass communication and the disruption of social order. London: Sage Publications.

Van Dijk, Teun A. (1985). Discourse and communication: New approaches to the analyses of mass media discourse and communication. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Van Dijk, Teun A. (1991). Racism and the press. New York: Routledge.

Radio Programs

The Party Line. (1990, July 14). Host: Nathalie Foote. CKRK--Mohawk Broadcasting System. Kahnawake, Quebec.

The Party Line. (1990, July 30). Host: Nathalie Foote. CKRK--Mohawk Broadcasting System. Kahnawake, Quebec.

The Party Line. (1990, August 16). Host: Nathalie Foote. CKRK--Mohawk Broadcasting System. Kahnawake, Quebec.

Personal and Telephone Interviews

Audet, Lucie (CRTC Quebec Regional Manager). (1992, April 10).

Jocks, Conway (CKRK Former Station Manager). (1990, July to October; 1991, May 27, October 18; 1992, July 12). Personal and telephone interviews throughout the crisis period.

"Eric" and "Daniel" (two young men involved in pirate radio in NDG, Montreal in 1987). (1992, March 22).

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