By Rachel Sandalow-Ash
Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Jeremy Wood (Metis) works as a progressive organizer in Boston. Additionally, he is working to organize social media for Idle No More – Boston, a local group acting as part of an international protest movement striving to promote indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice.
Can you give readers a bit of background? How did Idle No More start?
Well it started about 500 years ago…
You mean at the start of colonization?
Well, yes. It’s important to dispel a misconception that’s been too common in the media that this came out of nowhere. Settlers like to believe that colonialism, sad as it was, has ended, and that Indians are, at best, part of the great tapestry of America. We’ve resisted from the start. This is the continuation of a long history.
But more immediately, First Nations people in Canada have watched an increasing number of legislative attempts be made and passed that would further infringe upon the sovereignty of indigenous people.
A couple of months ago, the Conservative government put forward Bill C35 that would remove federal protection and oversight of waterways and in doing so absolve the legal duty of developers to consult with First Nations. In the past, damming of rivers has literally drowned entire indigenous communities. Others are forced to watch poison pour out of the kitchen sink. Now the main worries are contamination from pipelines – including the Keystone pipeline – and oil tanker routes.
On December 4th a group of Chiefs, representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, went to the House of Commons to protest this bill, and they were barred from entry. In response, Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation began a hunger strike demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. At the same time, four indigenous women in Saskatchewan began holding a series of teach-in’s they called, on their facebook page, “Idle no More.” And everything else has exploded from there. There have been flash mobs and road blockades, a common and conceptualized form of direct action used to block access from a society that believes it has domination over indigenous communities. It’s important to remember that while some of these actions are new thanks to Idle No More, many of them are decades old. They’re an expression of indigenous people forcing recognition of their existence and their borders. And the federal parties now at least say they’re taking indigenous interests seriously.
Of course, the name of the movement is somewhat misleading. Indigenous communities were not idle before ‘Idle No More’. Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island [North America] have always stood up in their traditional territories, working to block the advances of colonialism and rapacious resource capitalism. I want to make special mention of the community of Unistoten back where I come from, in British Columbia, who have been camped out resisting the theft of their land for several years, despite threats from the Canadian police, legal system, and military. Idle no More didn’t come out of nowhere.
What are the short- and long-term goals of Idle No More?
In the short term we want bill C35 and the whole gamut of recent legislative attacks on sovereignty to be taken off the table. In the longer term, we want treaty rights – that is, rights guaranteed by treaties between the Canadian government and the First Nations – to be protected by the federal government, which claims to uphold the rule of law. Real rule of law would require the federal adoption of treaty constitutionalism, which is the recognition that Canadian sovereignty and jurisdiction only exist as a result of treaty making and that Canadian law is constitutionally dependent on treaty terms and obligations.
It’s important to remember as well that many indigenous communities never entered into treaty making processes, either because the settler state never came to the table with them or because they rejected the legitimacy of the endeavor. Many of the peoples back where I come from fall into this category. As such, Canadian law recognizes these peoples as possessing un-ceded title and rights that must be respected by the federal government.
On the other hand, while we can talk about wider change at the federal level, the most important goal for many communities is the protection of their water and land on a local level. Our territories feed us, spiritually and as settlers too often forget, physically. They must continue too. Our environmentalism isn’t some white people chief Seattle fantasy. We are fighting for the lives of our children.
How has Idle No More, as a protest movement, interacted with existing political structures and institutions?
It’s really too soon to say. Idle No More has inspired large outpourings of solidarity, but it has also illuminated a lot of the vitriolic racism that still permeates Canadian and American settler societies; it’s brought out the cowboys. It has shaken up dominant party politics. The official “left-wing” party in Canada – the New Democrats – have sided with the [conservative] government against Idle No More, which has shown that the left, just as much as the right, continues to prioritize the colonial project.
Idle No More has also shaken up politics within indigenous communities, as grassroots and traditional leaders have taken the helm rather than the elected tribal council leaders, many of whom have toed a more cautious line. It’s always been tough to say whether the tribal councils have truly represented the people. Both Canada and the U.S. – the latter through the Indian Reorganization Act – have established systems mandating that every indigenous group follow virtually the same political structure; in doing so they have erased hundreds of political traditions. These mandates have made it so that if indigenous people want to participate in governments, they must do so in accordance with a colonialist system. And this system allows the federal government to play a huge role in selecting the people who get elected to tribal council positions, and determining where money ends up in election campaigns. For instance, on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, the elected chief gained his support from a few communities that had been bolstered by American dollars against the wishes of most people.
What we’ve seen in Idle No More are thousands of indigenous people rising up and demanding that their chiefs, especially the national representation of the Assembly of First Nations, get up and start speaking out. We don’t just want our chiefs negotiating mining rights in Ottawa; we also want them fighting mining projects and the political cowardice that is allowing the ecocide of our territories. Some elected leaders, Chief Spence and others, have been fantastic, while some have been otherwise.
How have you become involved with Idle No More?
I’m originally from Vancouver, and I began to see amazing work being done by my friends and communities from home, and my aunt has been organizing solidarity actions in Montreal. But organizing an indigenous movement in Boston is generally hard because even though there are about 5,000 indigenous people in this city from all walks of life, indigenous presence is pretty invisible here. So I started a Facebook page for Idle No More – Boston, and within hours it had hundreds of likes, and people have just come out of the woodwork. We’ve had a round dance in Faneuil Hall, a flash mob at Copley, and a protest at the state house in coordination with people around the US and Canada.
How would you describe the role of ‘solidarity’ in a movement such as this one?
The international solidarity in Idle No Mode is newly manifest, not newly created – people have always had common struggles. But this solidarity is certainly exciting.
Solidarity coming from non-indigenous people is complicated, since there is always the danger of oppressed people’s struggles being co-opted. There’s a whole history, going back to the Boston Tea Party, of people using indigenous people to achieve their own goals; many elements of the contemporary environmental movement fall into this pattern. I might agree with some of the aims of that movement, but red face is still red face.
That being said, if settlers come with humility and listen to the voices of indigenous communities, and acknowledge that this is not everyone’s fight, equally, that could be really, really valuable. And not all actions of solidarity consist of explicit activism. A while ago, I heard a speech by a Wampanoag guy, who said “Kai, that means Hello. If you’re going to live here [the Boston area], you should learn the language.” I would encourage people to find relationships, where they can, with indigenous communities in this area. Don’t tokenize, but learn history, learn what laws are out there, and who is helping to reshape them. Especially in Boston, a place where indigenous presence is too often only felt in Thanksgiving pageants. An effort to learn about contemporary, local indigenous struggles, lives, and communities is a radical act. Where you take that knowledge is up to you.