Idle No More: First Nations’ youth take a stand for the earth

Report and photos by STEPHANIE HILLER

In just two months, a new youth protest movement spurred by social media has swept across Canada and poured into the United States, with resounding support from such far flung places as Ukraine, London and Chile.

Drums and song set the tone for the Idle No More flashmob at the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe.
Drums and song set the tone for the Idle No More flash mob at the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe.

Idle No More reached the Santa Fe Roundhouse on January 15 with a “flash mob” on the West patio on the opening day of the New Mexico Legislature. Its message: Protect the earth and recognize the rights of indigenous people.

Some 100 people, mostly indigenous, came out to listen to the prayers and participate in the round dances on a cold day, despite the biting wind, many carrying signs. There were no speeches, just the steady beat of the drums.

Ethan “Idlenomore” Genauer brought his social media skills into play to spread the word about the demonstration that was initiated by Susan Eswonia of Albuquerque with other women. The Roundhouse appearance was the ninth INM demonstration in New Mexico.

Genauer, who is not indigenous, calls himself a “strong supporter of indigenous rights.”  He also works for food justice and nuclear disarmament. He maintains the Occupy New Mexico website.

Asked in a phone conversation about any similarities between Idle No More and the Occupy movement, he quoted Bill McKibben: “Idle No More is Occupy with deep roots.”

“Occupy has a role to play in solidarity with Idle No More,” he added. To remind us, he carried a sign at the event with the Occupy slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

Idle No More sprang into being in November after the passage of a new omnibus bill, C-45, that will allow use of Native lands for development in Canada. The budget bill dismantles a 130-year-old environmental law removing from federal oversight 99.7 percent of Canada’s 32,000 major lakes and more than 99 percent of Canada’s rivers.

Young activist hold signs at the Santa Fe Idle No More flashmob.
Young activist hold signs at the Santa Fe Idle No More flash mob.

The bill does allow the tribes to lease some of their lands for profit if they so choose, according to a blog post at Huffington Post by Mark Milke, Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute. But the protests demand the inclusion of First Nations in the decision-making process. In particular, tribes have opposed the development of the tar sands for oil. They have been strong allies with Bill McKibben’s global organization, on the impacts of tar sands development on climate change.

Since December, Idle No More has become associated with a hunger strike started by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the General Governor David Johnston, the representative the British crown in Canada, to begin to work together to solve problems of extreme poverty and environmental injustice affecting Canada’s aboriginal population, which numbers more than a million.

Since then, the simple and urgent message of this new movement has become complicated by reactions and allegations. Chief Spence and Idle No More are losing public support across Canada, according to an Ipson Reid survey released on Tuesday, January 16, showing that public support for the movement has declined below 50 percent largely because of charges that Spence’s tribe has failed to account for funds provided by the Canadian government to improve housing on the reserve. But although gaps exist in the accounting, no one has yet shown that the tribe actually misused funds. Living conditions on Reserves across Canada are severely impoverished, but many Canadians hasten to charge that conditions are the result of laziness and tribal mismanagement (for more on negative attitudes among Canadians toward Natives, see HuffPost Alberta blogger Marko Sijan’s observations).

Spence, who began her hunger fast on December 10, consuming only fish broth, herbal teas and water, said in an interview on youtube that the government has been trying to tell the tribes how to raise their children, and that interference in traditional ways combined with the pains of poverty are the reason for her strike.

She made it clear that she is willing to die for her people, unless her demand for a meeting with both key Canadian leaders is met.

Leaders of INM are struggling to respond to all the allegations flying through the Internet and maintain the integrity of their movement. On January 14, Sylvia McAdam, one of the movement’s originators, stated publicly [link] that INM came into being before the Chief’s hunger fast and is not really connected to her.

McAdam also decried the blockades tying up traffic across Canada as “aggressive” actions that suggest the movement is embracing violence. Idle No More has strived to identify itself as a peaceful movement inspired by Native elders and using traditional prayers to call for the protection of Mother Earth and a change in our human relationship with the environment.

Canadian environmentalist Maude Barlow, who has written widely on water issues, said in a recent statement explaining why she is returning the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, “The Harper government unilaterally gutted the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and many other laws, ushering in a free for all on our water heritage.” Her organization, Food and Water Watch, has met with Chief Spence and supports her.

Vivki Downey of Tesuque Pueblo.
Vickie Downey of Tesuque Pueblo.

Vickie Downey, a respected spokeswoman from the Tesuque Pueblo, told me in a phone interview that she heard about the movement from her daughter at Christmastime. She came to the round dance because “they are asking for prayers, through songs, asking for support and solidarity. We are showing our faces to say that we are still here and we’re still singing our songs and doing our prayers.”

Regarding Chief Spence, Downie said “This is one way to show support for her. Corporations are coming in and wanting to get the resources there. It’s happening all over, the destruction that’s going on, on the earth. It should be a concern for everybody, looking at our lifestyle and how we need to make changes in our life. But people are not aware of what’s going on.

“Our elders have been telling us all along what we need to do to take care of the land and take care of ourselves, and what is going to happen if you don’t do that.

“Our instructions were to maintain our ways, that we needed to share the information with other people, building alliances with those people that are awake, the like-minded people. That’s what it’s going to take, for people to stand together and ask for justice.”

Speaking of the Native prophecies, she said, “We have been told that the indigenous people will lead, and that it will be the women who will lead.

“This is a woman that is making a huge statement.”

Stephanie Hiller is a freelance writer and life coach in Santa Fe. She maintains a blog, “Particle Beams,” at WordPress.

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