Indigenous Literary Journalism, Saturation Reporting, and the Aesthetics of Experience
On the power of two award-winning features by Mohawk journalist Dan David.
This essay discusses the real possibility of an Indigenous literary journalism by examining the work of Mohawk journalist Dan David, specifically two magazine features (and cover stories) he wrote. Taken chronologically, the first, “Anarchy at Kanehsatake,” was published in This in 1996. It won a Canadian National Magazine Award in the category of Reporting. The second, much lengthier story, “All My Relations,” was published the year following, also in This. It, too, won a Canadian National Magazine Award in the category of Public Issues: Social Affairs (it also received an honorable mention in the category of Personal Journalism).
This, the periodical for which David wrote, was launched by a group of Toronto school activists 30 years before, in 1966, as This Magazine Is About Schools. By the early 1970s the publication evolved into a left-wing general interest magazine with strong ties to unions and union culture. By the 1990s, while still supporting unions, its focus on them waned (although, ever loyal, unions still placed advertising in the magazine). Identity politics began to dominate the concerns of the left — especially the next generation of activists. Its most famous editor, Naomi Klein, took over the publication at age 23, in 1993. At this juncture her resume would have included editor-in-chief of the Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper, and a brief stint reporting for the Globe and Mail. She was not yet an international activist brand and author of a succession of influential books, including No Logo (1999), The Shock Doctrine (2007), and This Changes Everything (2014). Other luminaires of Canadian culture who have contributed to the magazine over the years include poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje, of In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992) fame, and the near incomparable Margaret Atwood, who lately has gained, or regained, international acclaim for the television adaptation of her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and whose name continues to sit among the editors at large on the This masthead. So, judging by history, David’s stories were published in a small but influential Canadian magazine that recently observed its half-century birthday.1
Perhaps we might see this essay as a case study of a particular kind of literary journalism, the pointedly political kind, and so here is the story of David’s two (and only two, actually, at least so far) major magazine features.
Growing Up Kanienke:haka
David was (and is) primarily a broadcast journalist. He is Kanienke:haka, or Mohawk, and was born in the United States, in Syracuse, New York. He moved with his family to what was then known as Oka Reserve (now Kanehsatake) when he was four years old, in 1956. His Mohawk mother, Thelma, was born on the Canadian side of the border in Kanehsatake, a Mohawk territory in southern Quebec, south of Montreal. (Kanehsatake is called a territory because it is not legally a reserve. It’s on the lac des Deux Montagnes.) His Mohawk father, Walter David Sr., was born on the Canadian side as well, in Akwesasne, which straddles both U.S. and Canadian territory. (Already we can glimpse a stark difference in the way Mohawks demarcate territory from the French in Quebec, the English in Ontario, and the U.S. in New York State.)2
The first article came about when David met This’ then-editor Clive Thompson — whose name some may recognize as a major technology feature writer based in New York — for coffee. David told Thompson about a story he had to get out of his system, a story about his home, Kanehsatake. Thompson listened and then said, “OK, send me a draft.” David never expected the draft to be a cover story.
Mohawk society is matriarchal, so what vexed David and a lot of people was that it was being run, or overrun, in a decidedly anti-democratic manner by Chief Jerry Peltier, a self-styled mayor for life, and his band of “critters,” the nickname for his goon squad, who were terrorizing the community, the women, the children, getting kids hooked on dope, filming teen girls having sex with critters and then selling the results, firing warning shots at any of the women who were trying to talk to the English police, the French police, the provincial government, the federal government — all to no avail. No one would help the women:
My sister has a friend named Wanda Gabriel. She is one of the women who has signed an affidavit against the council, and both she and her sister Cindy have also been targeted. Cindy lives down on “the avenues,” along the shores of the Ottawa River, near the school. The “critters” pulled up late one night and started shooting at her house. She called the SQ (Sûreté du Quebec, the Quebec provincial police) liaison officer who is responsible for crimes in the territory.
“The woman [who answered the call] could hear the gunfire over the telephone,” says Wanda, with a roll of her eyes. “The SQ told my sister the liaison officer wasn’t there: ‘Could my sister call back on Monday?’”
Imagine the university being run by a despot with gun-toting brown shirts driving around terrorizing everyone, firing shots through schoolroom windows — the school rooms of anyone brave enough to try to make the area inside the campus perimeter a sanctuary for freedom of speech and movement for everyone. Or the Hell’s Angels, say, setting up shop in the town hall and riding roughshod over the locals.
“Anarchy at Kanehsatake” is an angry, potent feature. David gets at the frustration inside this world by seeing it through his older sister Linda Cree’s eyes, by looking at her calendar on the wall, looking at the itemization of police intrusions, of critters’ warnings, of television helicopters hovering low over Mohawk land scaring children, a station from Montreal trying to capture footage of suspected marijuana fields on video for the six o’clock news:
[You] may remember Kanehsatake as a Mohawk community outside Montreal and the site of the 78-day armed stand-off known as the “Oka Crisis” of 1990…. [T]hen again, you may have heard about Kanehsatake in the headlines this summer, after the media exposed the existence of huge marijuana plantations on the territory.
My sister has seen all this and more, marking it down on the calendars hanging on her kitchen wall…. Hasty scribblings of her children’s hockey practices … are intermingled with death threats.
Names, dates, places…. Many of her notes spill over into the margins and run down the edges of the page. “You should see the other side,” Linda says, flipping to the previous month. “Look at that.”
September 22: 3:10 p.m. — Blue/white helicopter hovering over sweat lodges, gardens — talking to Pam at the time — left 3:23.
Life Changing Events at Kanehsatake
David wrote “Anarchy at Kanehsatake” to get the bile out of his system. Then Don Obe, a longtime magazine editor who at the time was a professor of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, talked to David about writing another piece. At the time David was in the second year of a three-year stint teaching a journalism course on diversity at the school. Obe, in addition to his duties at Ryerson, was also a senior editor at the literary journalism program at the Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, located inside Banff National Park. Obe told him, Dan, listen, why don’t you come to our writing program — you should be able to write a story on anything you want. Obe offered David the chance to go really long, 10,000 words long, affording him a precious month of not thinking about anything except working through what had happened behind the barricades several years previous, when David went home to Kanehsatake after an armed standoff between police and Mohawks began. David went behind the barricades as a journalist — he wanted to get the story from the inside, and he had the sort of access many others did not, that is, to feel the anger, confusion, and fear from both sides in the dispute — but still, to have such a personal stake in the matter, as these were his people, including family members, who were under attack.
Obe’s father George was also a Mohawk, from Oka, so Obe may have implicitly understood a bit of what David had gone through behind the barricades during the 78-day, armed standoff between the Canadian government and the Mohawk Nation in the summer of 1990. And the writing program at Banff, at the time and to this day, emphasizes the journalist’s personal stake in the story. In other words, it is possible that Obe was asking David to reach deeper inside his psyche than he had ever done before in order to expunge the true toxicity of the story.
Relations between the government and the Mohawk Nation have never been peachy, but there was a trigger to the standoff. The mayor of the town of Oka wanted to raze the forest above the town site, called “the Pines,” and bulldoze the graveyard, the Mohawk graveyard, to extend a whites-only golf course from a nine- to an 18-hole layout. If one were in a mood to empathize, one might venture to say that the Mohawks had a point when they put the barricades up. David drove for three hours from Maniwaki, a reserve north of Ottawa, where he was living at the time, to Kanehsatake to be with his family, his people. He writes:
Once in the Pines, I find people from all over the territory, all ages, all families, all factions, walking around in elation, confusion and fear. Most people are caught up in the euphoria of the moment; they’ve survived the police raid and driven the attackers off their land. Others just wander around, aimless and dazed. A few prepare themselves in personal ways to kill or to die….
There was a firefight between Mohawk Warriors and SQ. It lasted 30 seconds. One police officer died. The forces of government rolled in. The Mohawks put up their barricade, expecting something, maybe retaliation.
The second police attack never really materialized. The cops didn’t swarm into Mohawk territory but, as David reports, they disrupted any Mohawk wanting to leave:
The police pull a young couple from their car, force them to strip at gunpoint in the middle of the road in front of dozens of people. Little kids in the backseats of cars cry while cops hiding behind sandbags shout insults and aim assault rifles at their parents. The police tear groceries out of people’s arms and throw them into the ditch. I won’t pick up a gun. I become a food smuggler instead.
In terms of the Truth and Reconciliation Report (TRC) and its recommendations, which were published in 2015, David said what happened in 1990 cast a long shadow over reconciliation and the commission’s many worthy Calls to Action.3 The next generation, which suffered the trauma of witnessing the brutalizing of their parents from the back seats of cars, would grow up wanting to have nothing to do with white authorities, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with reconciliation. This makes reconciliation difficult, for instance, with something like Call to Action 43, which states, “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.”
As noted, David arrives at the standoff as a journalist, intending not to choose sides, but these were his people under attack. And so, once he crossed into Mohawk territory, perhaps in retrospect inevitably, there is a turn in the storytelling: David writes, “I become a food smuggler instead.” He admits he is not an objective journalist in this situation, and maybe cannot be one, but this revised approach sounds like one a literary journalist might take. Recall John Hartsock’s aesthetics of experience: David re-examines his experience and turns it into an aesthetic exercise.4 It may also be therapy for David to be in Banff, in one of the writing cabins, thinking about and reliving exactly how it goes down, this latest skirmish in the ongoing discord between two civilizations.
When David does make the turn, he leapfrogs over the hard-news, objective, just-the-facts kind of reporting onto new terrain, and it is exhilarating for him:
It may sound strange, but I feel I’ve found home for the first time in a long while. I left years before to get away from people grown used to silent resignation. I’ve returned to find people filled with pride, hope and even dignity. Inside the barricades, people who haven’t spoken to each other in decades over long-forgotten arguments, hold hands and stand together in one great circle under the Pines…. There is such peace behind those barricades. It’s easy sometimes to forget the stone-throwing mobs outside…. I listen under those trees while my soul dances to the sound of Mohawk, Mi’qmaaq or Kwakiutl voices weaving themselves into the beat of a drum…. My summer is like that: periods of tremendous peace and hope punctuated by flashes of anger, fear and deep despair.
This turn in David’s journalistic approach also recalls David Beers’s concept of the “personal reported essay.” David examines his family history. He examines the after-effects of being personally involved with people behind the barricades, and of dealing with sleep-deprived, bitter, armed people on both sides of the conflict. And he reports, reports, reports — after all, it is his boots that are on the ground doing the reporting, and his years of experience ensure that there is a no dereliction of duty in this regard.
Finally, David’s choice to go behind the barricades and be with not only his family members but also the Mohawk warriors recalls Tom Wolfe’s concept of saturation reporting from inside a subculture.5 David used his sister’s testimony as an entrée into the nightmare rule that had engulfed Kanehsatake to write his “Anarchy” story, and his reporting skills to ferret out the rest of information. For “All My Relations,” he himself became the agent inside the subculture, showing us a world we might not have otherwise ever known, at least in such personal terms. The eye-opening part of the story is the fact that, despite the perception from the outside that David must have been in the tank for the Mohawks — David couldn’t find work with CBC after he left Kanehsatake, even though he had the experience and the knowledge — inside the barricades he had to wrestle with the posturing and double dealing he knew only too well from past reporting experience:
I know there’s no turning back once I cross that imaginary line at the roadblock. I worry about what the Warriors will do when they see me behind the barricades. I know them from the civil war between Warriors and anti-Warriors at Akwesasne, near Cornwall, the summer before. They know me from the stories I write about the smuggling, the guns and the violence that seem to follow them. Some have threatened me….
David had already flushed the bile out of his system with “Anarchy at Kanehsatake,” so now, in Banff, Obe, Lynn Cunningham, and Barbara Moon were encouraging David and giving him advice on how to make it better, to be more reflective, take a longer look at history, at the history of his family in particular, looking backward, then looking forward. After all, his great-grandfather was one of the souls buried in the Pines. His great-grandfather had stood up to the Canadian government, time and again. His great-grandfather had sailed to England to get an audience with the King Edward VII, wanting action. The situation was urgent. The Seminary of St. Sulpice and the federal department of Indian Affairs were conspiring to take away more Mohawk land:
For the seminary to have clear title to the land, the Mohawks must go…. This suits the department just fine since it has embarked on an inflexible policy of assimilation. In the words of the poet, the bureaucrat, the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott, the aim is to remove “every vestige of Indianness” from the Indian until there are “no more Indians and no more Indian problem.”
David even echoes his great-grandfather’s visit to England when he must travel there to receive a Commonwealth Fellowship. Like his forebearer, he finds himself embroiled in another crisis over identity: Is he American, Canadian, Mohawk? David is not about to allow himself to be given the fellowship as an American, and the requisite brinksmanship ensues before he prevails. Indeed, David has a lot to mull over in his story.
Considering the force of these two stories, it is puzzling that David has not written more literary journalism-format features. He told me those were the two stories he had to get out of his system. Once they were published, life took over. He was in South Africa, on and off, 1993–1999, helping to evolve the South African Broadcast Corporation from government mouthpiece to independent public broadcaster. He said that was a lot more satisfying than living through the Oka crisis. Then, back in Canada, he was appointed the first director of news at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, 1999–2001. Then there was more broadcast journalism, journalism training, and teaching, along with research, writing, and consulting jobs at Indigenous organizations.
Strangely, this past winter, 20 years after “All My Relations,” David said he had been thinking of going back to writing at feature length. In a recent email he wrote: “I pulled out a dusty draft or dozen and brushed them off. Then I wondered why we, Indigenous artists and writers, have no (none I could find) shared literary spaces of our own. I’ve started asking others (Indigenous and non-) ‘Why not?’”
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Collaborate: Partnership Credit
A version of this story was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).
Meet: About the Author
Bill Reynolds is a professor of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. His teaching focus is narrative feature writing. He and John S. Bak co-edited Literary Journalism Across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
Additional historical information on the magazine, including ownership, philosophy, editorial focus and content, staff, and contributors, have been drawn from issues of the magazine, minutes of the board, and other documents in the author’s private collection.
Actually, Dan David, in an email, says that his father’s birthplace story is quite a bit more complicated: “Walter M. David Sr.’s family lived on Cornwall Island. A home birth, as most were back then, but registered by the Catholic Church in Hogansburg, New York, which is also on Akwesasne Territory. This has always caused confusion with [federal government] bureaucrats in Ottawa who think one-dimensionally. Akwesasne comprises these jurisdictions: 1) U.S.A., 2) Canada, 3) Ontario, 4) Quebec, 5) New York State, 6) St. Regis (American tribal council), 7) Akwesasne (Canada band council), and 8) Haudensosaunee (traditional government, aka the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy).”
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action, 10. Commonly known as The Truth and Reconciliation Report (TRC), the report issued 94 calls to action. Call to Action 86, which was directed specifically at journalism programs, was the prime motivation behind putting together a panel on Indigenous literary journalism for IALJS-12 in Halifax, Canada, on May 11–13, 2017. The thinking was: Why stop at Canada? Why not internationalize the call?
John Hartsock talks about how human beings like to impose idealized ambitions on themselves, idealizations that can “be reduced back from whence they came, the phenomenal world, the world of consequences, as a result of the negotiation between the testimony of our vital senses — the aesthetics of experience — and the murky ambitions of abstract consciousness.” Here, I am interpreting Dan David’s turn in the story as just that kind of negotiation.
In his introduction to The New Journalism With an Anthology, Tom Wolfe opines that many journalists are not cut out for the rigor of saturation reporting. “Assuming this side of it isn’t too overwhelming, Saturation Reporting, as I think of it, can be one of the most exhilarating trips, as they say, in the world. Often you feel as if you’ve put your whole central nervous system on red alert….” The reader feels this red alert in Dan David’s reporting when he says: “I hate these people and their guns. One Warrior kid — he must have been about 14 years old — stops my car on the way into the Pines. It’s near the end of summer. We all know the army’s going to sweep through the territory any day…. Some of the Warriors have been out there at checkpoints like this for days without rest. But I need to get my dad out of the Pines. The kid tells me to turn my car around and go back…. This is my land. And I’m going to pick up my dad. He raises his AR-15 and aims it at my gut…. I look into the kid’s eyes. They’re empty. He could blow me away without a pause, without a flicker of concern. The look in his eyes isn’t much different from the look I’ve seen all summer from the police and the army at their roadblocks. It’s the look of people too whacked out by military mindset, fatigue or dope to care anymore. For the first time inside the barricades, I’m scared.”