It was an important, sacred place of the type routinely identified in visions by sundancers
Long before the circus
came to 100 Mile House [a town in central British Columbia], when it was still possible to sort out the difference between what was real and what was invented, there were two elderly men. One was Percy Rosette. The other was Lyle James. They had a disagreement that got a little out of hand.
Lyle James was a rancher from Dog Creek. A white man, not a particularly worldly person, not exactly garrulous. Percy Rosette was a quiet, introverted Shuswap man who lived on the fringes of his community, the village of Alkali Lake.
It's not like Rosette and James were friends or anything, but before it all started, they always got along fine.
Years ago, Alkali Lake was a desolate place. Many of its children had suffered sexual abuse at the St. Joseph's residential school in Williams Lake, and they brought the sickness home with them. Death and suicide were endemic there through the 1970's. But Alkali Lake went on to become a shining example to Native communities throughout the country because of its success in breaking the cycle of despair that has befallen so many of them. The people relied on their own resources and their own spiritual traditions, and Alkali Lake became one of the first truly dry communities in the Chilcotin-Cariboo country.
Percy Rosette was one of the redeemed. By the mid-'80s, he had become enthralled with the sundance tradition, a spiritual discipline that emerged in the late 1800's among the messianic cults and apocalyptic movements that were occurring throughout the Plains and the western plateau. The sundance was revived in the 1970's, a time of "Indian militancy." It became associated with the self-discovery and self-improvement movements that have proved so successful as remedies to the chronic alcoholism, substance abuse, and violence many Native communities have struggled to defeat.
Over the years, Percy Rosette had become convinced that a place on James's ranch overlooking Gustafsen Lake, a popular fishing spot in the Cariboo region, was spiritually charged; that it was an important, sacred place of the type routinely identified in visions by sundance devotees. Rosette talked to James about it. Rosette said he wanted to use the site for sundance ceremonies during the summer. There was something important about the place, in a spiritual way.
It was the kind of thing James wasn't going to understand easily, but, as it is with all of us, there were a lot of things in the world that James didn't understand. James told Percy he could do what he wanted as long as the sundance people didn't impede access by hunters and anglers at the lake and as long as he didn't construct any permanent structures.
That was fine. It was a straightforward agreement between two elderly men.
That was in 1988.
Word about Gustafsen Lake spread throughout the scattered followers of the sundance tradition
100 Mile House Free Press editor Steven Frasher explains it, there was never any real trouble associated with the sundancers. Percy and the handful of sundance devotees kept mainly to themselves, camping at a site they were convinced was one of the most important places on the earth's spiritual landscape, with a "sacred arbour" and a "sacred burial ground" revealed to them in visions. Rosette had a small following among some local Shuswap families, from communities like Canim Lake and Alkali Lake. Many of them were disenchanted with the local band leadership and the Cariboo Tribal Council, and Gustafsen Lake became a place where people talked around the campfire about their "sell-out" leaders. But Percy and his group kept mainly to themselves, and most of the local Natives wanted nothing to do with Percy and his ceremonies anyway.
By 1990, word about Gustafsen Lake had spread throughout the scattered followers of the sundance tradition in Western Canada and the United States. It came to be regarded as one of those rare "power" sites that emerge on the landscape, suitable for important sundance ceremonies over a four-year cycle, after which the "power" is said to move on to another site. Rosette was earning a bit of a name for himself. He described himself as "keeper of the faith" at Gustafsen Lake. Other than that, he wasn't causing any trouble. From time to time, there were instances of "cultural wires getting crossed," Frasher says. Every year, as July approached, the sundancers' fervour grew more intense. Percy and his "traditional war chief," Ernie Archie, would approach anglers and campers and warn them of the physical danger they were courting by their proximity to the sacred site.
Archie can be a bit disconcerting in his manner. Hunters and anglers did not like these encounters. To the ranching community and the white community around 100 Mile House, Gustafsen Lake was becoming the focus for all the suspicions and concerns that so many non-Native British Columbians harbour about Native people and Native "land claims" generally. Rosette and his followers, in turn, were becoming paranoid about the outside world and increasingly mistrustful of the local Native leadership. But there was nothing that could conclusively confirm any white people's suspicions, and then in 1992 there were reports of shots fired at Gustafsen Lake. Close to the sundance camp, a tent occupied by non-Native campers was struck by several rounds.
Those were times when it was still possible to know what was really happening at Gustafsen Lake. There was no police perimeter. There was no crush of media crews. There was just the local newspaper in 100 Mile House, doing its best to report the plain facts about things that happened. To this day, the straightest, cleanest, most useful coverage of the debacle that Gustafsen Lake has become cannot be found in the Vancouver Sun, the Province, or the Globe and Mail, and it won't be seen on CBC or BCTV or CKVU. It can be found in a handful of articles written by Steven Frasher and his small crew of staffers at the Free Press. To this day, Frasher remains the only reporter who has wandered the site with Rosette and asked sundancers honest questions.
This 40-year-old newspaper is the only place where you might find some reliable answers to the most important question about the disgraceful spectacle that has now ended up there. It is the only question the big news organizations can never fully address, because they just cover the news conferences -- and besides, they weren't even there. The question is "Why?" Usually, the answers are pretty straightforward, as the facts behind the 1992 gunshots show. Frasher describes that incident at the sundance camp as "something like one of those house parties where a bunch of bikers show up." As for the gunshots, there are always gunshots. This is the Cariboo. As it turned out, Frasher says, these shots were fired by "just some goofs shooting at some gophers or something."
The right wing Reform Party spreads rumors that Natives were claiming "110 percent of the province"
gunshots heightened tensions in the area: local non-Natives were becoming increasingly concerned about the sundancers; the local Canim Lake band made it clear to anyone who asked that they wanted nothing to do with Rosette and his group; and the sundancers started to take on the kind of attitudes one would expect from a ragged band of outcasts.
Nevertheless, the 1993 ceremonies came and went without incident. While Gustafsen Lake became associated in Native communities with a kind of romantic militancy, the 1994 ceremonies also came and went without anything more than the usual episodes of Ernie Archie's bravado and the resulting nervousness among visiting anglers.
Lyle James had been assuming that 1994 was the end of the four-year sundance cycle at Gustafsen Lake, and given the reputation Rosette and his followers had established for themselves, he was happy to be rid of them. Rosette, meanwhile, had been travelling widely, visiting far-flung communities and meeting more sundancers and the movement's alienated, often violent hangers-on.
In his travels, Rosette had also become acquainted with Bruce Clark. Clark is a bombastic white lawyer who had developed a notorious reputation for himself among Native lawyers and the mainstream Native leadership that was equalled only by his cultlike following among certain groups of Native "dissidents" and white "radicals" across Canada. Clark decries "sell-out" Native leaders. He has been known to accuse judges of treason and genocide. He routinely engages in courtroom outbursts. He has also lost case after case, failing, time and again, to advance his aboriginal-rights theories, which involve peculiar assertions of Native sovereignty and Native immunity from law-enforcement. Clark's posturing found fertile ground among sundancers.
Meanwhile, among many non-Natives across British Columbia, a parallel form of extremism had been taking root. The long-overdue process of treaty negotiations in the province had just begun, and a widespread paranoia, fanned mainly by the B.C. Reform Party, was producing its own siege mentality. While Clark had his visions of "treasonous" and "genocidal" government policy, Reformers were having their own visions and promoting their own peculiar aboriginal-rights theories. Natives were claiming "110 percent of the province" and a politically correct NDP government was forwarding a secret agenda of "rights based on race" and kowtowing to Native leaders instead of insisting that there should be "one law for all Canadians."
While the treaty process was sputtering and stumbling its way across the landscape, the NDP government was working overtime, to no great effect, trying to convince a panicked public that it was being appropriately tough in its dealings with Native people. The only set of talks approaching conclusion were negotiations with the Nisga'a of northwestern B.C., which were being sabotaged by Reform Party so-called leaks of tentative treaty deals and dire warnings about "social unrest" and "violence" among angry rural white people. Throughout the Cariboo, there was a widespread fear among ranchers about what treaty negotiations might mean to their grazing leases. Despite the Cariboo Tribal Council's repeated denials, the rumour persisted that private ranch land, like Lyle James's place, was going to end up on the treaty table. It was in this kind of overcharged climate that Lyle James, in the spring of 1995, found that Rosette had not left the ranch after all, and in fact had been living in a remote supply cabin on ranch property all winter. And by early summer, Rosette and a handful of followers were back at their sundance site.
Until June 13, 1995, there was little that might have been said of the "sacred ground" of Gustafsen Lake except that it was a place where a handful of slightly paranoid Native eccentrics had overstayed their welcome on a privately owned ranch. There was some talk about the ranch itself being within an old reserve that had been somehow expropriated and converted to private ranch land, but nobody had produced any evidence to support any legitimate claim or grievance. The sundance people were at odds with the Native communities of the area and had alienated local ranchers, anglers, and hunters, many of whom had become a bit paranoid themselves about Native people, what with Native roadblocks going up and down elsewhere in the province and all the wild rumours making the rounds about "secret" land claims talks.
But June 13 changed everything.
About a dozen of James's cowboys descended upon the sundancers at their camp
had rebuilt an old fence around the site, enclosing an area of about two square kilometres. It was a breach of the agreement James and Rosette had made in 1988, when Rosette said access would not be impeded and no permanent structures would be built. The sundancers said the fence was necessary to keep cattle out of the sacred grounds. Whatever the case, James and Rosette weren't getting along anymore.
James decided to evict Rosette and his entourage, who, in turn, decided to trot out Bruce Clark's rhetoric about unceded hunting grounds and the treachery of judges.
It is by no means clear why James and his cowboys did not simply leave the matter of the unwanted and defiant tenants to the RCMP, but on June 13, about a dozen of James's cowboys descended upon the sundancers at their camp, kicked down a door, removed a cookstove they said had been stolen from a cattle camp, and allegedly defiled sundance regalia by impaling an eviction notice on a "sacred" staff. Later on, one of the them ("in a drunken stupor," according to a later sundancers' news release) rode back into the sundance camp snapping a bullwhip and warning the sundancers that the ranchers and the RCMP were mobilizing against them and that the camp was going to be burned out. "They're all coming to get you," he added. News of the cowboys' brave charge on the camp quickly spread through the countryside. It was all so very exciting.
Rather than run away in fright, the sundancers decided to hold firm and lay in wait for the presumed attack. Word went quickly from the camp to its far-flung supporters that an epic, Oka-style showdown was imminent. [In 1990, Native activists in Quebec won small but politically-important concessions from the government after a tense confrontation.]
The next day, forest-service worker George Ostoforoff and a colleague were driving a ministry vehicle along a dirt road in the vicinity of the camp. Ostoforoff said he saw a group of masked men along a fence line, then a plume of dust on the road ahead, and he reckoned one of the men had fired a bullet at the road from a high-calibre rifle.
Ostoforoff wasted no time telling everybody about the incident. He reported it to the RCMP, he talked to news reporters, and he wondered aloud about why Native people are treated differently and why there isn't one law for all Canadians. Within days, Ostoforoff's questions were being raised in the provincial legislature by the area's Reform MLA, Len Fox. Fox claimed that an unnamed Reform Party member "familiar with the incident" had revealed to him that the RCMP was refusing, for some unknown reason, to act on Ostoforoff's complaint. He said: "It's a sad day when a government employee is actually shot at, presumably by militant Natives, and the RCMP doesn't lift a finger." When then-Attorney General Colin Gabelmann and the local RCMP detachment refuted Fox's allegations, the Reformer's defence was that he was just trying to make the point that there should be "one law for all British Columbians."
The RCMP held a news conference and described the sundancers as "terrorists"
matter that the event, according to Steven Frasher's investigations, was simply a matter of some young idiot playing tough. It didn't matter that the Canoe Creek band and the Cariboo Tribal Council were publicly pleading with the white people to calm down and pleading with the sundancers to leave the Shuswap's traditional territory immediately, before things got out of hand. It didn't matter anymore that the RCMP, the Forests Ministry, and Lyle James were telling everyone who cared to listen that Natives and non-Natives in the area generally got along and that this thing at Gustafsen Lake had nothing to do with land claims or aboriginal rights or anything of the sort.
Fox's alarm spread the word about Gustafsen Lake even farther afield, exciting extremists on both sides of the ideological divide. Within days, Rosette and his "war chief," Ernie Archie, were enjoying the company of such characters as an Adams Lake Shuswap who went by name Wolverine and a Mohawk with a serious criminal record and the unlikely name of Splitting the Sky. There were others assembling with firearms at Gustafsen Lake. The people there were now calling themselves "The Defenders of the Shuswap Nation," although it was not clear just how many of the group by this time were even Shuswap people. The camp was swelling with non-Native supporters as well, mainly new-age white activists who volunteered to act as "communications" workers, witnesses to the events that would inevitably unfold, camp cooks, and the like. It was all so very exciting.
In early August, Ernie Archie was arrested for fishing during a closure on the Fraser River, near the Gang Ranch bridge. Although Archie was released, a man who was with him -- Samuel David Pena -- was not. Found in Pena's vehicle were semiautomatic weapons, a machine pistol, and garrote wire. The Ostoforoff business had already elevated Gustafsen Lake onto a higher, stranger plane, and everything was becoming very serious. Increasingly, local non-Natives were calling for swift, armed action against the sundancers. Radio hotline shows were buzzing with it. Everybody seemed to want swift, brutal retribution.
What finally caused the situation to degenerate into a hopelessly polarized armed standoff was a comedy of errors that unfolded on Friday, August 18. The people inside the camp (already given to apocalyptic visions at the best of times) began to imagine figures moving in the woods around them. There were noises coming through the trees. Surely this was the moment of the final battle. Panic set in. Rosette claimed that he called the RCMP by cellular telephone, demanding protection, because the woods were crawling with people who were coming against them and that he and his friends would be forced to defend themselves if the camp were attacked.
The RCMP staff member on the other end of the line knew what Rosette was talking about: the noises in the woods were RCMP members sneaking through the trees, conducting a surveillance operation. He couldn't tell Rosette, and when he dismissed Rosette's complaints, Rosette became even more paranoid. One of the group aimed a weapon at a man approaching through the trees and fired. He missed. It was a Mountie.
The following day, the RCMP set the stage for the siege they were preparing to establish around Gustafsen Lake. Their plans, and their posture, were explained at a news conference in Williams Lake, where RCMP Staff Sgt. Len Olfert described the sundancers as "terrorists."
The circus had come to town.
Armed men suffering from varying degrees of testosterone poisoning
It is about
this point that the real story ends, because media events are not stories that have beginnings, that have reasons, that have history. The tents go up and it becomes impossible to sort things out. It becomes impossible to calm things down.
There are armored personnel carriers roaring down dusty Cariboo backroads. The school buses carry children past scary-looking checkpoints. There are armed men, each suffering from varying degrees of testosterone poisoning. There are breathtaking skirmishes. There is panic and there are news conferences. There is Ovide Mercredi, whose very presence ensured that the affair would rocket from the realm of low-level blockheadedness, where it began, to the realm of national controversy, where it cannot be resolved. There is Bruce Clark, who descends from the sky like some lawyer from another planet. He is licensed to practise, perhaps, in some neighbouring galaxy. His strange refrain is "Take me to your leader: I must see the Queen." He instructs his gun-toting clients that they were acting within their rights to resist "genocidal police conduct."
There is the fat white man who rolls up to the police checkpoint in a white stretch limousine with a gift of dog food for the dogs that he'd heard were going without food behind the lines. There is the shocking report that sundancers had assaulted Lyle James's house, firing several rounds through his window (actually, it was a sundancers' house that got shot up, 50 miles away in Lac La Hache). There is the television reporter whose main investigative contribution is to determine whether or not the militants are on welfare, so he can rely on that always-necessary shred of truth to describe Gustafsen Lake as yet another case of taxpayers' dollars funding outrageous Native activity. There is the Salvation Army platoon, bringing food for the people and prayers for the forgiveness of sins and hope for the redemption of us all.
But it is a slim hope, because there are little, venial sins in this, and there are mortal sins, and there are sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, and now that it is all over, the cameras have gone somewhere else. The circus tents have been taken down. The RCMP musical ride has gone, and so have the Native desperados. The incredible bald man found himself in a local jail cell after getting a bit too carried away by the excitement, left behind by all the other sad little midway freaks who have made the 6:00 news so interesting in recent weeks.
So it is over, and it was brought to an end by the patient and difficult work of people who know little about politics or guns. They were psychologists and negotiators and Native medicine men, and the people of Alkali Lake and Canim Lake and Lac La Hache and 100 Mile House and Dog Creek must now consider some of the things they might have said about each other in the excitement of the moment, when there were television cameras around and things were not quite real. They will forgive one another, or they will not forgive one another.
The 100 Mile House Free Press will do its best to ask honest questions and report the answers. Such answers are usually straightforward.
And when it is all behind them, there will be an elderly man named Percy Rosette, of Alkali Lake, and an elderly man named Lyle James, of Dog Creek, who had a disagreement once that got a bit out of hand.
[On September 18th, the twelve men and women defending the sundance site surrendered peacefully. Four days later the Provincial court Judge released Rosette, who was charged with trespassing and mischief, on the condition he not possess firearms, that he enter the no-go zone around Gustafsen Lake only in the company of an RCMP officer, and that he have no contact with others charged in the standoff, except for his wife Mary Pena.
Others, including Wolverine, were also charged with trespassing and mischief and released under similar conditions, though only Rosette will be permitted to return to Gustafsen Lake. Wolverine was additionally charged with two counts of attempted murder of police officers and carrying a dangerous firearm.]
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