Native American Activists Talk Idle No More

When Robert Caldwell gently — and correctly — criticized our article “Introducing Idle No More” for slighting the question of First Nations sovereignty, it became obvious what the follow-up article should be.

We asked Robert and two other old friends from different parts of the country and deep backgrounds in various indigenous struggles to answer some questions for the benefit of non-native revolutionaries and progressives in this country. All three grabbed what time they could spare from the heat of struggle to talk with us.

Robert Caldwell serves on the tribal council of the Choctaw-Apache tribal community in Ebarb, Louisiana. He is a member of Solidarity.

Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong is Diné (Navajo & Apache) and her clans are Bitter Water born for Red Clay.  She is a co-founder of Native Resistance Network and a member of the Kasama Project.

Thomas Pearce is Co-Chair of the American Indian Movement of Indiana and Kentucky. He has been organizing solidarity rallies for Idle No More and mobilizing support for the movement.

Why did this movement erupt now and get so big so fast, and what are its main goals?

Thomas Pearce: It may seem this movement erupted from nowhere but it is the culmination of 30 years of organizing and resistance. I think it is very important for folks to recognize that there have been blockades in Canada that have been going on for over 10 years in Canada like the Grassy Narrows fight and others. This movement comes amid many militant organizing efforts that have been moving forward for decades. Efforts by the Mohawks, Lakota efforts in the Black Hills, and Anishinabe efforts across both the US and Canada are all part of the reason this movement is happening now.

The flash point at this time was the passage of Senate Bill C45 in Canada by the conservative Harper government that would abrogate treaty obligations in regard to protected lands and waters. Before the passage of C-45 there were millions of protected lakes, rivers, and streams across vast areas that indigenous people utilize for their subsistence that are key to the cultural survival of First Nations people. After the passage of C-45 there were 84 protected lakes and streams. This is unacceptable.

The main goals of this movement?

To assert the right of self-determination and sovereignty of all indigenous nations.
To demand a reverse of the policies in North America that keep indigenous people trapped in a cycle of poverty and to preserve the treaty rights of indigenous people that are the basis for their nationhood.
To win the reversal of C-45 and the restoration of budget items cut from indigenous communities.
To build a powerful movement that will live on to work for a day when indigenous people will have control over all affairs affecting their nations and individual lives.

I think many of the militant organizations that have been organizing for many years see the movement as a revolutionary step toward total self- determination and economic self-sufficiency.

Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong: This is the picture I use when I’m doing a teach-in about Idle No More:


It’s the difference one year made in the tar sands area of Albert. One year. People sometimes have to see the images, not just hear about it. This isn’t a science fiction book, this is happening right now.

When I was young, I watched bulldozers taking down trees, I saw my grandmother, and she was a strong woman, in tears. People say I have anger issues. Damn right I do. All native people do. And it’s been simmering, turned down. But if you leave anything on simmer long enough, it will boil over.

Robert Caldwell: I have to start by being crystal clear that I have a limited vantage point from over 1,200 miles away from the artificial border between the U.S. and Canada. The Idle No More movement started in November 2012 in response to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s legislative attack on First Nations. The collection of bills  represent a direct attack on sovereignty by undermining treaties, ignoring First Nations’ demands for nation-to-nation consultation, and commodifying lands held in common. Ecological protections for water, air, and land are also under assault. In response, organizers—mostly women leaders—created online infrastructure and held small rallies and teach-ins to prepare for the first National Day of Action on December 10. Those protests dovetailed with militant protests already happening in British Columbia over the Northern Gateway and Pacific Trails pipelines.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began her now-famous six-week hunger strike, and the Assembly of First Nations called for a meeting with Harper to discuss demands. However, by that time, Idle No More had already ballooned as a grassroots movement with its own leaders, independent of the Assembly of First Nations.

Different First Nations and different forces within the indigenous communities will inevitably have different takes on the situation. Is it too early to tell how this breaks down?

Firewolf: It may be too early for non-natives to tell, but we’ve been living with this forever. We know who’s going to step up.

Most tribal councils are essentially staffed by the BIA (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs). They are what we call apples—red on the outside, white on the inside. They are always going to say, “Calm down.”

Of course it was the elders and the young, kids in their 20s or younger who set it off. But now even folks in their 30s and 40s are starting to stir. An old friend of mine always had an “You won’t change anything. Why try?” attitude. She spent a lot of time watching soaps and chatting with friends on Indian Country.

In never thought she’d do anything but now she’s been at protests and she and her husband are planning a trip to Canada! Amazing!

As for which nations are moving, I’m proud that my people, the Diné have been very active, trying to show other Native Americans how badly capitalism is at the root of all this. Nothing will happen until the system is brought down. Other Southwest tribes like the Apache, the Navaho and the Kiowa are also moving.

In the Southeast, the impact doesn’t seem to be that great yet, but we are trying work with them. Any state with fracking, the people are on it: Pennsylvania, NJ, upstate New York.

I think the whole thing started boiling over with Occupy, actually. And with more protests, people saw what was happening. Awful changes in a year’s time, like the picture I use demonstrates. “That’s coming here? Oh, shit!” And we tell them, “That’s what we’ve been talking about.”

Robert: Indigenous communities are not the same across geographies, and individual communities are not monolithic. Tensions around INM actions within First Nations peoples exist but so does a tremendous desire for unity within diversity. Much of the differences have been around the question of strategy and tactics, especially since some activists have moved on from teach-ins and round dance flash mobs to blockades. Some argue that tactics like stopping trains and roads alienate potential allies, while others insist that escalating direct action is more likely to achieve lasting results than muting militant tactics to try to win public sympathy. There are class divisions and clear class-orientations within First Nations people, despite many tribes having strong traditions of sharing and redistribution. Sometimes sharp divisions play out between hereditary and elected leaders, while at other times the divisions are based on geography local political economy, or old animosity. While most leaders depend on continued support from their base, some leaders are beholden to corporate interests while others depend on a close-nit relationship with the Canadian state or non-governmental organizations.

The Assembly of First Nations is the mainstream institutional advocacy and lobbying organization of First Nations, somewhat akin to the National Congress of American Indians in the U.S. but lacking individual membership. Most of its leaders also lead tribal governments. Some argue thaat the AFN as a tool of Canadian colonialism, while others note that National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is supportive of the movement. Atleo benefits from Idle No More in that the grassroots protests open a political space that allows the AFN regional chiefs and executive leadership to accomplish their agenda. However, when he took a leave of absence due to exhaustion, Regional Chief Roger J. Augustine, who is tied to mining, mineral, and logging interests, sharply criticized both Chief Spence and Idle No More, calling on them to stop the protests and leave it to the Assembly of First Nations to do their job.

Conservative Party Senator Patrick Brazeau has more sharply and repeatedly attacked Chief Spence using misogynistic language. Brazeau previously served as Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, an organization that represents off-reserve First Nations and Métis in Canada. The CAP began endorsing the Conservative Party since 2006. However, it would be grossly incorrect to say that Métis, off reserve, and “non-status” Indians are more politically conservative on the whole. The current CAP leader, Betty Ann Lavallée, has broken sharply with Brazeau. Moreover, a recent landmark court decision is likely to push off-reserve leaders to act more in concert with reserve communities.

Some leaders have emphasized individual access and the capitalist dream and, equating treaty rights with a fair share of the wealth and hitching themselves to capitalist development, while others offer a more systemic critique. Activists drawn into the protests also share a range of perspectives. While many points of political difference exist within and between different communities, but Idle No More as a broad, grassroots social creates the basis for a dynamic unity that can result in monumental gains.

Thomas: I am not on the ground in Canada to make such observations substantively, but what I am hearing from our sisters and brothers there is that this is not a movement that the Chiefs, many of whom are seen as a large part of the problem, can make go away. This is a grassroots movement that has very specific demands that will have to be met.
AIM Winnipeg spoke out at a recent press conference on future tactics of AIM, like the railroad blockades:

“We round danced, but we didn’t get any results. We want results, that is what we want and there is a thousand more people like us willing to stand up,” said Blackwolf Hart-Bellecourt, whose father Vernon Bellecourt was one of the co-founders of AIM.

Are the young people stepping up and, if so, what are they bringing to the mix?

Firewolf: Hell, yeah! Passion, fury, energy—extreme energy.

I have a niece and nephew in Sacramento, high school kids. Raven is 15 and Hawkeye is 18. They are leading protests, leading them. There is no reservation around, so they’ve taken it up on their own. Hawkeye has always been painfully shy, but he recently spoke to a rally of 200 people, the first time he’s ever done anything like that.

And this is important, they are organizing their Mexican classmates into the protests and educating them: “Hey, you’re Indians, too!”

Thomas: This movement is being driven forward by many young people who have been waiting for some time to see a movement emerge that would give voice to their demands. They are bringing energy, intelligence, technical expertise, social networking, and an undying spirit to the table instilled by their elders.

Even with no reservations around, we had dozens of young people, from many Nations, show up at our INM flash mob at the Mid-City Mall here in Louisville in January. It’s like they were just waiting, looking for something like this to do.

Robert: Like the American Indian Movement (AIM), which readers are likely more familiar with, this is primarily a movement of young people and elders. The movement also stands on the shoulders of organizing throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

But Idle No More is not a simple repeat of earlier protests. It is organized through Facebook as well as face-to-face. And the movement is more known for its spirited flash mobs and round dances than militant rhetoric. Moreover, it is not just a native thing. The young folks bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Elders understand that this is a fight for their very survival, but younger folks really believe that a better world is possible, and they are unafraid to bridge old divides.

Have you run into in problems working with non-indigenous folks galvanized by Idle No More and what message do you have for those wishing to offer support?

Thomas: Only that it seems that people of color movements do not seem to get support from white led organizations unless they can figure out a way to co-opt or control them. It would be amazing to see this movement gain good allies in the white community who could learn to support the movement and not by their very presence control it.

I notice more and more “Occupy” Facebook pages posting live links to videos of the protest. It would be great if those live feeds had a title page stating that the links are coverage of Idle No More events. It looked like “Occupy” was trying to brand the event. I am glad the protests are gaining notice and I am glad they are posting about it. I just hope folks are very deliberate in branding them Idle No More.

Firewolf: For too many people, it’s very hard to see things from a different perspective than their own.

I can see through the eyes of a person from occupied Puerto Rico, even a Scot or somebody from Ireland, where they’ve been considered savages under the English thumb.

If people can’t see the struggle through our eyes, there is a danger they will tend to patronize and co-opt our struggle. “Oh, this is terrible. We have to do something about it.” And the actual Native people get invisiblized.

To get around this will take time and hard work, and it doesn’t have to be only native people doing that work. Here’s another picture, an image:


Native Indian people tend to be very visual. It’s in our traditions and many of us have not been educated to be comfortable with written words, but we know how to create and interpret symbols.

Let me start by saying the four fists don’t just symbolize so-called races. The four colors and four orientations also represent the four directions and the elements—earth, air, fire and water.

And, of course, they are human fists as well. The presence of different peoples shows that this is everyone’s fight, though they may be coming from different places. To me, this is a perfect symbol of true alliance—full support, respect, deep alliance.

How can you show support? Go to actions when you see them. Or don’t wait; go look for them. Idle No More is in the spotlight now, but there will definitely be Native protests under other banners as well.

And educate yourself. The group I’m in, the Native Resistance Network, is more than happy to send speakers to schools, political groups, churches, environmental and community groups. So are other Native organizations.

Robert: There are a number of blogs dealing with this question. One of the four women founders of the Idle No More movement, Sheelah McLean, is from a settler family but is a noted anti-racist activist and anti-colonial teacher. In most of this interview I have tried to include as much of a Canadian context as I think I can speak about. But I would like to address U.S.-based non-indigenous activists. Fighting the tar sands and protesting the Keystone XL pipeline are obvious cross-border issues you might engage in. But First Nations are fighting the Canadian state. You can participate in a number of solidarity actions aimed at Canadian consulates and embassies in the U.S. Non-indigenous folks in the U.S. can seek out INM events in their area and support local organizers’ endeavors to link INM energy to local organizing. All activists in the U.S. should also make time to learn about indigenous peoples and colonialism on this side of the border.

Anything you want to add?

Robert: Idle No More is NOT single-issue. It is a broad movement. For our relations on the northern side of the artificial dividing line ,”sovereignty” is as consistently a point of demand as clean water and air. Of course, these analytical categories certainly overlap, but the demand for nation-to-nation negotiations and treaty rights have been central. One clue that it is not a “single issue” but a broad movement is how various indigenous communities across North America (and beyond) have not only shown solidarity, but linked the fight against Harper and the Canadian settler state to their own local issues.

Thomas: Going forward into the Spring I think folks will see that this movement has no borders and will be spreading in the US. Wisconsin legislators are currently taking steps to by pass Indigenous nations there in granting permits for ferrous mining in areas that will greatly impact the environment of indigenous people. I think they will find stiff resistance. Plans to put the Keystone pipeline across indigenous lands in the US are also going to be met with formidable opposition that many have been planning for some time.
Indigenous nations see no Mexican/Canadian/US border, many nations have people on both sides of the borders. Folks see any actions that take away treaty rights or that harm the people to be an act of war against all Indian people. Also, the immigrant rights movement is rapidly being seen as an indigenous rights movement because the majority of indigenous people from the South are of indigenous heritage. We are all one family. That is the consciousness that is emerging.

Firewolf: I’ve been kind of knocking myself out working on Idle No More related stuff for the last months and people keep telling me to take it a little easier. I tell them, “Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting my whole life for something like this to happen!”

Download this piece as a PDF
This entry was posted in Ecological Crisis, International Solidarity, Intersecting Oppressions, Oppressed Nationalities. Bookmark the permalink.