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As myopic pundits declare the end of Idle No More and questions abound about Idle No More's focus and vision, I sat down with three Indigenous land defenders -- Sam McKay, Freda Huson and Toghestiy -- to talk about Indigenous sovereignty, exercising inherent rights and responsibilities, and protection of the lands and waters.
As Mohawk author Taiaiake Alfred writes, "[T]he only way to keep this movement going is for us to see our actions in Idle No More as part of a larger and long-standing commitment to the restoration of Indigenous nationhood... In practical terms, we need to go beyond demonstrations and rallies in malls and legislatures and on public streets and start to reoccupy Indigenous sacred, ceremonial and cultural use sites to re-establish our presence on our land and in doing so to educate Canadians about our continuing connections to those places and how important they are to our continuing existence as Indigenous peoples."
Sam, Freda and Toghestiy are well-known and widely-respected land defenders. They, along with many other front line communities, have consistently articulated Indigenous sovereignty in accordance with their own laws and traditions, affirmed and maintained their connection and relationship to the land, and have courageously defended their sacred responsibility as stewards of their territories in the face of unbridled corporate development in their territories and state criminalization of their communities.
Sam McKay is a former councillor for the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation. In the past decade alone, his community has faced down mining drill teams, multi-billion dollar law suits, arrests and prison sentences, politicians and police and judges.
In 2008, he was arrested, along with five other KI leaders, and sentenced for six months for their interruption of Platinex, a junior exploration company with over 200 claims in KI territory. The Ontario government eventually bought out the company's claims in 2009. From 2010-2012, KI again successfully fended off mining exploration by DeBeers and Gods Lake Resources. Most recently, as a result of a the strong leadership taken by KI and a province-wide support campaign, the Ontario government again announced that it would buy out God's Lake Resources for $3.5 million dollars.
Over 23,000 square kilometers of KI territory is off-limits to mining, and KI continues to ensure that their moratorium on mining exploration, park creation and all other Ontario land dispositions is respected. KI has also spearheaded land-use plans; in 2011, KI issued a landmark Watershed Declaration to protect all their waters and watersheds.
Freda Huson, spokesperson of the Unist'ot'en clan of the Wet'suwet'en, and Likhts'amisyu hereditary chief Toghestiy have been at the forefront of land defense struggles in BC. They have built and are currently living in a log cabin that is in the direct pathway of approximately ten proposed pipeline projects, including Enbridge Northern Gateway and the Pacific Trails Pipeline.
In 2010, Enbridge representatives were given an eagle father, which under Wet'suwet'en law is a first and only notice of trespass. In November 2011, setting up a road blockade with "Road Closed to Pacific Trails Pipeline Drillers" signs, the Unist'ot'en and the Likhts'amisyu of the Wet'suwet'en escorted out drillers and their equipment.
Again in 2012, Toghestiy intercepted and issued an eagle feather to surveyors. The surveyors and all other people associated with Pacific Trails Pipeline were ordered to leave the territory and told that they are not ever allowed to return to Unist’ot’en land. The road has now been closed to all industry activities until further notice. Hosting annual action camps in their territory, the Unist’ot’en have built a growing base of support for their uncompromising stand.
On what compels these three to take action, Sam is unwavering: "The law of higher authority. This is a spiritual struggle. Dealing with the repercussions -- like funding cuts to our community and jail time -- is all secondary once you commit to maintaining your connection to the land.” Freda agrees, “I left my job in order to get out there onto the land. My father told me the strongest ammunition you have is to occupy your territories. The reserve is just a small piece of our territories. Our ancestors fought to protect the land. Land is life, water is life."
Toghestiy adds, "We really wanted to wake up our people and to remind them of their responsibilities. Our clan system is what protects and looks out for our territories. We need to build our nations from the grassroots, not from band offices. Free, prior and informed consent has to be exercised and lived out on our territories. We have to breathe life into our laws."
With the resurgence of Indigenous mobilization through Idle No More, there are renewed conversations and widespread dialogues about this exercise of Indigenous sovereignty.
Anishinaabe/Nehayo writer Tara Williamson has recently written: "For me, Idle No More is about nationhood. Not nation-state-hood, but nationhood -- the ability to take care of the land, our children, and our families in the way we best know how. While the Canadian government currently plays heavily into our ability to function as self-determining nations, we know that true self-governance has to come from ourselves. This could be one of the most tremendous gifts of Idle No More: we have in front of us the perfect opportunity to re-invigorate and re-invent our governance practices from the ground up. The best way to demand self-determination is to be self-determining."
Sam offers his thoughts to front line communities who are re-establishing their presence on the land and being self-determining: "It is important to create unity in the community. First we had to educate people -- from children to elders -- what we are fighting for. Our whole community said no to mining. Then, we came up with a plan. We had a three-pronged approach: negotiations with government and industry, legal battles and direct action. Sometimes we had differences and debates about strategies, but we kept it within the community. When we decided to go with direct action we had the support of the community. This meant that we were ostracized from provincial Indian organizations and we stood alone but it was okay because we knew we were standing up for what we believed in as a community."
Toghestiy adds, "In our case we actually went against the advice of some of our older people. In our community there is still a lot of silence and obedience as a result of the residential schools. As a younger generation we felt a lot more urgency and it was the women who stepped up and starting talking about how they were going to protect the land. In Wet'suwet'en, that has always been the way -- youth and women take the lead and the men take their direction."
"The true traditional decision-making is carried through the clans and through the women who carry the clans," Freda chimes in. "For us, it has been a dual struggle -- against government and industry and also against Indian Act chiefs. These male Indian Act chiefs are imposing top-down decisions. That is why we pulled out of the political negotiations and the treaty process. Now neither the Unist'ot'en nor other grassroots Wet'suwet'en are associated with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en. These Chiefs are so worried about funding. The resources being extracted from our territories are worth billions of dollars, and while the government is getting wealthy we are fighting over crumbs. So we are taking action through our hereditary clan system and building awareness and unity through our actions."
Sam agrees: "Decisions about our traditional territory have to be made collectively and not by single individuals. That to me is the true spirit of unity."
Freda and Sam are also encouraging people to break through the fear of criminalization and the psychology of disempowerment that colonialism and capitalism intentionally create.
According to Sam, "Some people think going to jail means we lost. We didn't. In our law, we were doing what is our sacred responsibility: going to any lengths to protect the land. When we saw that we wouldn't win in the courts, we decided to take care of it ourselves on the ground. We don't need their recognition; we know these lands are ours and were never surrendered. Breaking their laws is less important to me than not upholding our natural law, which is a greater law. When we were sentenced, I raised my fist in victory. I knew people would realize what a mistake the court had made and how unjust the laws and government actions are."
Freda similarly states, "We can't be passive anymore. Our community had been idle for about ten to fifteen years. Even if you have a few people, start something small. At first it was me and my sister and my cousin talking to each other. Then we started talking to our elders and clan members. That is when my clan designated me as the spokesperson."
Freda pauses for a moment, then adds, "The other thing is that peaceful is not our way. The residential schools have imposed a way of life on our people where they are more afraid, even afraid of speaking out of turn because there would be harsh punishment. We have to really know our history, really know what our ways are and have been. Our people are awakening into clarity. That’s the first step. Now we have to take the power back, because we do have the power to stop industry and government."
In the face of unrelenting corporate development, encroachment onto Indigenous territories, and threats of state criminalization, the fierce remote communities of KI and Unist'ot'en (and many others) have taken on the giant machinery of settler-colonialism and capitalism. Their courage and tenacity have served as an inspiration for many social movements struggling against austerity, market fundamentalism and ecological destruction.
These monumental victories demonstrate the power and necessity of fighting the system on our own terms. KI and Unist'ot'en are asserting, affirming and acting on their own laws and traditions. And this, ultimately, has the potential of freeing us all from an exploitative and hierarchical system that is placing profit before people and the planet and robbing us from our own collective humanity.
Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia) is a South Asian writer and activist based on Vancouver, unceded Musqueam, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil Waututh territories. She has been active in anti-racist, migrant justice, feminist, anti-capitalist, Indigenous solidarity, and anti-colonial movements for over a decade and has known and organized alongside Sam, Freda, and Toghestiy for the past five years.