Billy Two Rivers’s prowess on the wrestling mat took him to rings from Cuba to Japan. He displayed the same combative spirit in his political beliefs, which were deeply rooted in his small, assertive Mohawk community of Kahnawake, south of Montreal.
Mr. Two Rivers, a former professional wrestler and high-profile member of the Kahnawake council, died Sunday at Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre, where he had been a long-term care resident. He was 87.
He was a council member for two decades, during a pivotal period that saw divisions among the people of Kahnawake, a prolonged standoff in 1990 against Quebec police and Canadian soldiers, and emerging autonomy and self-government in his community.
In a statement released Monday, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake lauded Mr. Two Rivers, saying “he was hugely influential,” acting as a right-hand man to Grand Chief Joseph Norton during the 1990 crisis.
“He was both colorful and outspoken, never afraid to challenge government officials or correct Kahnawà:ke’s opponents on their misinterpretations of the community’s position or its place in history,” the statement said.
Behind Mr. Two Rivers’s swagger and flair for truculent sound bites, which ruffled commentators in francophone Quebec, there was a life-long faithfulness to the traditions and the people of his community, making clear that Mohawks weren’t beholden to anyone.
Before a legislative committee in 1983, he told Quebec politicians that “you were guests then, you are still guests today. I don’t know at what point in time you got the idea that you, all of a sudden, had jurisdiction, that you had control. It’s our house.”
He was also dismissive of the Assembly of First Nations. ‘’We are Indians, but not of the AFN religion,’’ he said during a gathering of chiefs in 1983.
In a 1994 article, the late political columnist Benoît Aubin remembered an incident in Winnipeg. It was in 1990, a time of tension surrounding the Meech Lake constitutional accord. As Mr. Aubin talked with Jack London, legal counsel for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, about Quebec’s place in Canada, Mr. Two Rivers jumped in and started hectoring the journalist.
“He had a dramatic way of lunging at you, with fiery eyes and thundering voice, punctuating his points with a stiff index to your pectorals, to see if you’d blink, back away or attempt to change topic,” Mr. Aubin wrote in the magazine L’actualité.
The man who was so vehement about his Indigenous identity grew up in a Kahnawake family that spoke Mohawk and was steeped in lore passed on by elders.
He was born on May 5, 1935, one of the two sons of Annie Leclaire and Tom Two Rivers. His father, one of the Mohawk ironworkers who plied their trade in the United States, was also a lacrosse player and coach.
In 1950, Carl Donald Bell, a Kahnawake wrestler performing in the U.S. under the ring name Chief Don Eagle, came home to recover from an injury. He volunteered to drive the local lacrosse teams and noticed that one player, the 16-year-old Mr. Two Rivers, already had the body heft of a grappler. “Don saw I was maybe worth something,” Mr. Two Rivers recalled in the Mohawk newspaper The Eastern Door.
He moved to Ohio to train with Mr. Bell and made his debut in 1953 before a crowd in Detroit that included ironworkers from Kahnawake. Wearing a feathered headdress, he took a tumble as he vaulted into the ring. “There I was, on the mat in a pile of feathers … I never lived that down,” he told APTN News.
In the book Heroes & Icons, Mr. Two Rivers said he took note how Mr. Bell made sure announcers never introduced him as “Don Eagle from Montreal or Don Eagle from Quebec, Canada” but as a contender from Kahnawake.
By 1959, Mr. Two Rivers had to choose between two job opportunities: working with the promoter Stu Hart in Calgary or performing in Europe.
He made his decision by flipping a coin and spent six years in Britain, where he became a household name thanks to his appearances on the popular ITV Saturday wrestling broadcasts. A 1960 news agency dispatch from London reported that one 13-year-old English boy got in trouble at school after getting a Mohawk haircut “to look like his barrel-chested hero.”
In the summer, Mr. Two Rivers would fly home, coaching lacrosse teams and running a laundromat. By the early 1970s, he performed mostly in Canada, appearing in the Grand Prix Wrestling promotions with the likes of Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon and Wladek (Killer) Kowalski.
After retiring from wrestling in 1977, Mr. Two Rivers was elected the following year to the Kahnawake council, along with Mr. Norton, who would become grand chief and Mr. Rivers’s ally.
It was a time when concerns about identity, sovereignty and cultural revival were at the forefront of a community angered by its dealings with outside police and resentful of the land expropriations to build the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The council had a mandate “to transform itself into a form of government that reflected our traditional values and principles,” political consultant Taiaiake Alfred, who worked with Mr. Two Rivers and Mr. Norton, said in an interview.
Mr. Alfred said that the change came from a collaboration between three council members: Mr. Norton, Arnold Goodleaf, who had experience with federal bureaucrats, and Mr. Two Rivers, who brought insight into Mohawk traditions. “Billy was a fluent [Mohawk] speaker, knowledgeable of the community and held a cultural knowledge of Kahnawake.”
At ease before the cameras, Mr. Two Rivers often acted as a spokesman, defending contentious policies such as the eviction of non-Indigenous residents and of people who didn’t have enough Mohawk ancestry in their lineage.
The residency rules that Mr. Two Rivers was advocating pitted him against his own kin, illustrating the tight, polarized nature of Kahnawake politics. His sister-in-law, Rosemary Two Rivers, is the daughter of Mary Two-Axe Earley, the activist who fought the loss of her Indian status for marrying a white man. On one occasion, journalists saw Mr. Two Rivers confront Ms. Two-Axe Earley after she testified in support of a law that restored native status to women like her. “Oh, that Billy,” she simply said when a reporter asked what happened.
In July, 1990, a crisis erupted 30 kilometres west of Kahnawake, when a provincial police officer was shot dead during a raid against Mohawks who opposed the expansion of the Oka golf course.
In a show of support, Kahnawake Mohawks blocked the Mercier Bridge, one of the major entryways into Montreal. It was the start of a two-month standoff during which Mr. Two Rivers worked alongside Mr. Norton to hold together various factions in their besieged community, while negotiating with Ottawa, Quebec and the Canadian military.
He also helped bring supplies into the community despite police checkpoints and clashes with non-Indigenous protesters. In one instance, Quebec Native Affairs Minister John Ciaccia let Mohawks use a wharf on a riverside property he owned to ferry food to Kahnawake. A hostile crowd tried to block the operation. Mr. Two Rivers and other Mohawks had to scuffle with them to get on their boat.
After protracted negotiations, the Kahnawake barricades were dismantled at the end of August. Coming out of the talks, Mr. Two Rivers was approached by a suburban resident complaining that the crisis had hurt his property’s value. “A home is made to shelter you and protect your family. Not to build and sell at a greater price later,” Mr. Two Rivers replied. “That’s the white man’s thinking.”
In the months after the crisis, Mr. Two Rivers had an acting part in Black Robe, a 1991 movie about 17th-century Indigenous people and missionaries.
But he didn’t stay far from politics. He was critical of the Yes side in the 1995 Quebec referendum and later gave his support to anglophone-rights activist Howard Galganov.
After 10 consecutive terms on council, Mr. Two Rivers retired in 1998 but continued to serve as an elder adviser.
In 2007, he learned that the singer Van Morrison had used without permission a photo from his wrestling days as cover art for a new album. He filed a statement of claim in New York court and rapidly obtained a settlement.
Mr. Two Rivers leaves his wife, Pauline Lahache, three daughters and nine grandchildren.