Braving blowing snow and frigid temperatures on the final Saturday in December, people came to Downtown Indy from as far away as Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana and Canada to participate in Indiana's first Idle No More rally and Round Dance flash mob.
The effort to stand for environmental justice and against further erosion of native peoples' rights is in solidarity with an ongoing grassroots First Nations campaign in Canada. Dismay over Canada's omnibus budget bill C-45 sparked the movement. Opponents of the bill believe it will strip the First Nations people of treaty rights.
A week later, many of the same people traveled to Chicago to join nearly 400 others in a march under police escort from Daley Plaza to the Consulate General of Canada.
"We're making a stand," said Bruce "Many Faces" Pillow, executive producer of WBND International Radio from London, Ontario, a man of Ojibwe and Cherokee heritage who attended both rallies. "It's got to stop."
The movement is experiencing rapid growth in Canada and the U.S. It registered barely a blip on the local news radar but is garnering international attention.
The budget bill at issue includes unilateral changes to the Canadian Indian Act regarding reforms in land management and private ownership that will make it easier to develop and take away reserve lands from the First Nations people.
Proponents of the bill insist that it does not affect sales of reserve land and that it merely expedites the lease procedure, streamlining the designation process by simplifying the referenda required to grant an interest in reserve lands. A simple majority of meeting attendees is now the only requirement for leasing designated reserve lands. Previously, approval required the support of a majority of eligible voters.
In addition, the amended act would authorize Canada's Minister of Aboriginal Affairsto call a referendum to consider total forfeiture of a band's territory. The minister could also ignore a resolution from the band council in opposition to a decision at the meeting.
Opponents object to other provisions of the 400-page bill, as well, such as changes to the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act that would remove protection of 99.9 percent of Canada's waterways.
Renee Kincaid, co-organizer of the Indianapolis rally and a woman of Potawatomi, Miami and Cherokee descent, said the bill has already removed thousands of lakes and streams from the list of federally protected bodies of water in Canada. "On Dec. 4th, there were 2,500,000 protected lakes, rivers and streams," she said. "On Dec 5th, there were 82."
Pipeline and power-line projects would no longer need to prove they wouldn't adversely impact waterways not on the transportation minister's shortlist.
The government said its goal is to maintain environmental protection, strengthen enforcement and reduce overlap and regulatory uncertainty, which it maintains will permit safe resource development to proceed without unnecessary delay.
Reasons behind the rallies
Kincaid's goals in staging the protest that saw dozens of Native Americans march from the Eiteljorg Museum to Monument Circle for a peaceful rally include protecting land, water and mineral rights and getting the government to honor treaties.
"I want [the Canadian government] to stop breaking the law by keeping the Crown out of talks and I want the Prime Minister to meet with Chief Spence," she said.
Atiwapiskat First Nations Chief Theresa Spence became the face of Idle No More, a movement fostered by four Native American women outraged by the controversial government budget bill, when she began a hunger strike on Dec. 11.
Vowing to die for her beliefs unless Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Queen meet to discuss treaty rights and Canada's broken relationship with its indigenous peoples, she is currently living in a teepee on Victoria Island, Ottawa, just outside the Parliament buildings.
On Jan. 5, Harper announced he would meet with First Nation leaders in Ottawa on Jan. 11. Spence intends to be at the meeting. However, when pressed by protesters during the Chicago rally about meeting with Spence, a spokesperson for the prime minister replied, "No comment."
Citing caution due to historical precedent, Spence is determined to continue her hunger strike until the meeting takes place.
"I will continue my hunger strike and await the outcomes of the meeting," she said in a news release. "Our peoples have had a history of prior promises and commitments from the Canadian government with no true tangible results. We look forward to re-establishing and strengthening our treaty relationship with Canada and the ongoing discussions that lead to the recognition, implementation and advancement [of] our inherent treaty rights."
Tribes unite in historic protest
This battle is not Spence's first with the prime minister. In early 2012 she declared a state of emergency on her reserve over chronic underfunding of essential human services such as housing, water, sanitation and education. Following international media coverage and public outcry, Harper's government seized control of the band's finances. Spence filed suit and won in court.
Her current hunger strike, emblematic of indigenous oppression and resistance, is for all aboriginal communities, she said.
"I am here for my people, for our rights," Spence told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
Inspired by her strength, Native Americans have expanded the campaign of public protest into the U.S.
"We want Chief Spence to know America supports her," Pillow said during the Indy protest.
By standing beside her in solidarity, the intertribal movement is achieving unity among all nations and putting a stop to the bickering between tribes, said Chief Gordon Plain Bull, one of the Indianapolis organizers and an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes.
Plain Bull said he believes it's important to lend support to his Canadian neighbors. "What's happening there could happen here," he said.
A growing movement
Dubbed the Round Dance Revolution because thousands participate in traditional circle dances in public, the movement is gaining rapid momentum with international support and cooperation.
Recent rallies featured American protesters meeting Canadians at border crossings. Many of those border crossings had to be closed last week when large numbers of protesters showed up. Similarly, a blockade on the main rail line between Toronto and Montreal disrupted Via Rail passenger trains last weekend.
In response to the disruptive protests in Canada, Kincaid emphasized the peaceful, legal nature of their protests in Indiana. Pillow noted that other rallies are being planned in various Indiana cities, across North America and even in Japan, as well. Additional details about upcoming events in Indiana will be announced at a future date.
"If we don't stand up for them, we'll all fall," Kincaid said.
Just as it's grown geographically, the Idle No More movement has expanded into a movement for political transformation beyond its Canadian genesis. It's developed into a crusade for Indigenous sovereignty and rights, seeking respect for Mother Earth and this land's first peoples.
"We want Indian people to be recognized," Plain Bull said. "The struggle is just beginning."
Kincaid said she believes the struggle is even more expansive, encompassing non-Native peoples, as well.
"This isn't just about Indian rights," she said. "It affects everyone because it affects the environment and our natural resources."
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