KANESATAKE, Quebec -- The crime-scene tape surrounding the charred ruins of Grand Chief James Gabriel's home snapped and shredded in the frigid wind whipping off Lake of Two Mountains.
The Jan. 12 arson attack caused the chief and his family to flee for their lives from this Mohawk enclave about 30 miles west of Montreal. And as the flames shot into the night sky, gangs of self-described "warriors" -- many with reputed ties to biker gangs that control drug trafficking and other smuggling in Canada -- blockaded local roads. Then, for 36 hours they besieged the tribal police chief and more than 50 Indian law officers inside their barracks.
Anywhere else in North America, the incident would have triggered a massive police response, with tactical squads quelling the disturbance and teams of investigators pouring in to determine how law and order could go so horribly awry.
But this is Indian territory, where Canadian elected leaders -- as well as federal and provincial police agencies -- dare not tread because of political sensitivities, according to police, analysts of Indian policy, and the few Indians willing to risk retaliation by speaking out against the increasing lawlessness on some reserves.
"If they can burn out a chief, they can burn out anyone," said a 46-year-old Mohawk woman in Kanesatake who, with her grown daughter, spoke briefly with a reporter after insisting on anonymity. "People who want a normal life are frightened. But there is nowhere for us to turn. The smugglers, and the pot growers, and the goons for the Hells do whatever they please."
The "Hells" are the Hells Angels, who with other motorcycle gangs have become deeply entrenched on dozens of Indian reserves from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Several Mohawk settlements in Quebec, including Kanesatake and the Akwesasne reserve, are considered the worst cases by law officials. Police and other specialists say these tribal realms have become critical "safe zones" for large-scale criminal activity, including marijuana production, cigarette bootlegging, and the smuggling of narcotics, guns, and illegal aliens to and from the United States.
"Because aboriginal issues are such a hot potato, no politician wants to push for normal policing [of reserves]," said Staff Sergeant Jean-Pierre Levesque of the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada.
"So organized crime, mainly biker gangs, has moved onto reserves where they can operate without interference. They have outdoor pot plantations and hydroponic labs" for growing marijuana indoors. "They do a big business in smuggling -- people, cigarettes, weapons, drugs. In some cases, the criminals are controlling reserves through intimidation."
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police intelligence study last year described the Akwesasne Mohawk territory straddling Quebec and Ontario along the upstate New York border as "a primary portal for illegal goods moving in and out of Canada, including narcotics, firearms, illegal migrants, alcohol, and tobacco."
Some analysts say Canada's "hands-off" policy toward Indians is largely to blame. While the government funnels about $4 billion a year to chiefs and tribal bureaucrats representing about 400,000 aboriginal people on hundreds of tiny reserves scattered across the country, there is nearly no oversight of tribal governments (Canada's population of Indians and Inuit is 811,000, but more than half live away from the crime- and poverty-racked reserves).
"Canada has a deliberate `blind eye' policy to all controversial matters on Indian reserves," said Gordon Gibson, senior fellow in Canadian studies at the Fraser Institute, a think tank in British Columbia. "There are progressive reserves where Indians are trying hard to break the grip of poverty. But there are too many Indian communities where the ordinary writ of law doesn't run, where democracy is subverted, and where power is concentrated in the hands of Indian elites answerable to no one."
Kanesatake abuts the Quebec town of Oka, scene in 1990 of a violent 78-day standoff between the Canadian military and Mohawk militants protesting plans to expand a golf course by bulldozing land that Indians said held an ancestral graveyard.
"Oka traumatized the government to the point where no one today really dares interfere on the reserves, even when there is [criminal] activity that would never be tolerated anywhere else," said Gibson, who writes regularly on government policy regarding Indians.
According to specialists on organized crime, the Hells Angels and subsidiary biker gangs that dominate drug trafficking and other Canadian crime sectors have muscled their way onto reserves in recent years, operating through disaffected members of "warrior societies," which were once organizations of political activists, but today often are little more than strong-arm outfits for tribal bosses. In western provinces, the traffickers operate through aboriginal youth gangs.
Kanesatake residents and federal police say marijuana is cultivated openly in clearings during summer months in year-round indoor hydroponic operations. Biker gangs smuggle much of the potent and hugely profitable hydroponic product to the United States.
Meanwhile, Indians working with outlaw bikers obtain tax-free cigarettes -- under the law, natives are exempt from paying taxes for "personal use" tobacco. The cigarettes are peddled to bargain-seeking Canadians at illegal shacks operating openly on reserves or under the counter at biker-controlled bars from Halifax to Vancouver, a trade worth tens of millions of dollars.
The criminal connection exploded into controversy earlier last month when Kanesatake's Chief Gabriel, a tough-talking advocate of law and order, fired the community's incumbent police chief for being "soft on crime," then enlisted dozens of tribal law officers from 18 other reserves in what was thought to be a prelude to raids on pot production labs and cigarette bootleggers.
The reaction from self-described tribal dissidents was swift.
Within hours, Gabriel's house was in flames; the chief and his family barely escaped. The mob, wielding baseball bats and axe handles, then surged on to the police station, affixing the banner of the Mohawk Warrior Society to the perimeter fence, hurling stones, and trapping the new police chief, Terry Isaacs, and more than 50 officers inside.
Rather than rush to the rescue, Quebec authorities cut a deal with the besiegers -- making no arrests, in exchange for the release of the tribal officers. Control of Kanesatake was turned over to Gabriel's opponents, who stripped the elected chief (Gabriel was serving his third term) of membership in the Mohawk band on the grounds that he had "abandoned the community."
Premier Jean Charest of Quebec boasted of defusing a crisis. The Montreal Gazette, usually a champion of Charest's government, denounced the province for ducking issues of crime and justice in favor of "a cowardly solution."
The chief's opponents, meanwhile, sought to portray the violence in Kanesatake as "political protest," saying Gabriel had become obssessed with crime. "It's wrong that his house was burned down, but he was too fixated on drugs," said Steven Bonspille, a member of the dissident faction. "We are no different than any other community when it comes to social problems."
Analysts say the unrest at Kanesatake was not about politics, but about protecting multimillion-dollar operations for growing marijuana and smuggling cigarettes. "It's about [keeping] a safe place for organized crime," said Guy Ouellete, a former Quebec provincial police investigator and leading specialist on North American biker gangs.
Gabriel, still in hiding late last month, was stunned by the turn of events.
"It's disgusting that the people who burned down my house are portrayed as victors and that the ministry of public security handed them that victory on a silver platter," he told the Canadian Press news agency.