By Imani Altemus-Williams for Waging Nonviolence
What began with four women organizing local teach-ins and rallies in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, last fall has grown into a global grassroots movement of indigenous and non-indigenous allies fighting for the sovereignty of indigenous people, the honoring of treaty rights, and the protection of land and water. Because these communities are determined to fight the exploitation of natural resources that is resulting in climate change and other environmental crises, their cause has the potential to impact the whole world.
In October, Sylvia McAdam, Jess Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah Mclean met to strategize about how to spread awareness of Bill C-45, then being debated in the Canadian parliament, and to prevent the proposed legislation from becoming law. Many First Nations tribes have held that bill C-45, along with 14 other pieces of related legislation, threaten First Nations sovereignty and violate their treaty rights by altering the Indian Act. These changes would result in granting the Canadian federal government increased control over the land, rivers and lakes on tribal reservations, in many cases for the sake of mining, fossil fuel harvesting and corporate profit. The Canadian government for the most part did not include indigenous representation in the decision-making process.
In response to these environmental and human rights violations, First Nations people initiated a direct-action response, which has become known as the Idle No More movement. On December 10, 2012, the four women called for a national day of action. On this day, indigenous people and allies mobilized in at least 13 locations across Canada, declaring their refusal to be ignored by the Canadian government any longer. In a Democracy Now! interview, Pamela Palmater, a scholar of indigenous governance at Ryerson University and spokesperson for the Idle No More movement, said, “We have been dialoguing for decades, and look at where it has got us. … Dialogue is not going to do it; it’s only going to be action.”
Idle No More has organized widespread demonstrations and flash mobs, and some individuals have participated in highway blockades and interruptions of the legislative process. Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence has been on a sustained hunger strike since December 11 in protest of the plight imposed on indigenous people. Chief Spence has said, “I am willing to die for my people because the pain is too much and it’s time for the government to realize what it’s doing to us.” The First Nations activists’ self-determination through direct action is inspiring what could become a movement of indigenous communities across the globe.
From Nicaragua, to New Zealand and Australia, to Palestine, to Hawaii, people have demonstrated their solidarity with the Idle No More movement. At solidarity actions across the United States, people are not just discussing the social and political repression experienced by indigenous people in Canada; they are voicing the pain that indigenous people in the United States endure because of similar treaty violations, because of the colonization many claim they still experience, and because of the destruction of land and water due to the policies of the U.S. government. Idle No More protests have been held in at least 36 locations in the United States, including Arizona, Florida, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, New York City, California, Seattle, and Minnesota — where over 1,000 people rallied at the Mall of America on December 30.
In New York City on December 28, there was an “Idle No More Solidarity Round Dance” in Washington Square Park. People of many backgrounds gathered, sang and performed a traditional round dance. Their signs had slogans like “Indigenous Sovereignty,” “Support Indigenous Treaty Rights” and “Unity for Mother Earth.” For Josephine WuTang Tarrant, a member of American Indian Community House Youth Council of New York City, the Idle No More movement is not only about Canada, but about the continued treaty violations in the United States as well. “Idle No More kind of came out of all the treaties in the U.S. and in Canada, all the treaties that we have signed that aren’t being met. So this whole Idle No More is telling us to not be idle any more. We are not just going to sit there and take it, now is the time to really say, ‘No!’”
At a rally outside the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles, speakers denounced treaty violations on Native American reservations in the United States, the racism indigenous people experience and the dismal living conditions on reservations — such as the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, which has the shortest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. Students spoke about their lack of access to their own history, language and culture, and the effect it has on their sense of identity and empowerment. Elders spoke of the need to recognize the history of indigenous resistance in the United States such as the American Indian Movement, the occupations of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and the “Longest Walk” in 1978, which brought attention to 11 proposed pieces of legislation that would have violated native treaties and eventually resulted in the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. In their song “Idle No More,” Native American hip-hop artists Crystle Lightning and Red Cloud rapped about this being the time for all indigenous tribes and peoples, from both north and south of the Canadian border, to unify as one force in an “indigenous revolution.”
In a video of an Idle No More flash mob in Seattle on December 29, Indian Country Today Media Network contributor Gyasi Ross said, “This is a continuation of the 500-year-long indigenous resistance. It’s much bigger than one piece of legislation. It’s much bigger than Prime Minister Harper. It’s much bigger than any one piece of anything. It’s about this continual resistance that we’ve got to a consumeristic, non-indigenous, non-sustainable way of life.”
Sara Gepp, co-producer of the 7th Generation Black Elks Vision online radio show, told me that this is not simply an “Indian” issue that only affects indigenous people. She said, “Whether you’re native or non-native it doesn’t matter. If those environmental protections are lifted, people don’t realize how important Canada’s natural resources are. It is the purest place in the Western Hemisphere, and if we destroy that in order to get oil from the ground, it’s going to hurt us all.”
The spirit of Idle No More is continuing to spread. In Hawaii, an “Idle No More: We the People” rally will be held at the state capital on January 16, demanding that the rights of native Hawaiians be honored and recognized, and that the land, oceans and food be protected and kept GMO free. Similarly, an Idle No More protest in Flagstaff, Ariz., on January 8 expressed solidarity with the First Nations movement in Canada, but was centered on local issues in their community as well — in particular, a nearby ski resort that uses harmful chemicals to make snow.
As this movement takes both a global and local approach to creating change, people are beginning to compare it to the Occupy movement. But the differences stand out as much as the similarities. Harsha Walia, a South Asian activist, writer and researcher based in Canada, recently posted a statement on Facebook that read, “Idle No More ain’t Occupy. It’s all those voices rising up that many in the Occupy movement resisted when they/we called on Occupy to decolonize, learn anti-oppression, and understand the systemic differences of inequality amongst the ‘99%.’”
Alex Wilson, an Idle No More organizer from Saskatchewan, illustrated how this movement is different when she told me that it “has shifted the thinking and feelings” of many indigenous people toward activism. “Rather than being defined by colonization, people are becoming empowered by it,” she explained. “It is revitalizing our own knowledge and ancient wisdom, and reclaiming our sovereignty.”
Organizers are calling on people of all backgrounds to join the struggle for indigenous rights and the protection of the planet. This has led to growing ties between the international environmental movement and indigenous activists. On January 2, organizers of the Tar Sands Blockade against the expansion of a piplelines intended to carry Canadian tar sands assembled two “dump platforms”in Texas, which two blockaders are sitting upon in solidarity with Idle No More.
Tomorrow, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to meet with First Nations leaders. Idle No More organizers have meanwhile called for aGlobal Day of Action, Solidarity and Resurgence tomorrow as well, asking everyone everywhere “to demonstrate your support for the rising global Indigenous Peoples Movement by taking action in your community.”
Onowa McIvor, professor of indigenous education at the University of Victoria, explains, “‘Idle No More’ means ‘enough is enough.’ This movement is about unity. People around the world that have a commonality with the struggle are in agreement that enough is enough. That is the power.”