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Activist Communique: Idle No More is helping bring the ceremonies back

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One thing that I have noticed within the reinsurance of the Idle No More movement and the campaign to support Chief Theresa Spence is the truthful, courageous use of ceremony in the struggle; fulfilling all four portions of a balanced medicine wheel of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual understandings.

Historically within Canada, there was a dark time under the Indian Act that made it illegal for First Nations, Metis and Inuit living within Canadian borders – as with the United States – to publically perform ceremonies.

Now, ceremonies are serving as the strong, backbone of Indigenous resistance across Canada; from solidarity fasts to sweat lodges conducted in support of Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement.

But it is important to historically locate the struggle of First Nation communities not only for Nation-to-Nation relationship with the Crown but with the colonial repression and genocide that is embedded in the history of North America. This isn’t some hipster headdress fetish or yuppy Sweat Lodge a la James Arthur Ray; but an honest reassurance of the traditions.

For example, the Potlatch Ban occurred in 1885, when the government of the “Dominion of Canada” passed legislation outlawing the Native Canadian potlatch ceremony.

Despite the importance of the potlatch ceremony in British Columbia, “John A Macdonald did not see this tradition as valuable or appropriate and, under the guise of unifying the Dominion of Canada, encouraged the government to lay “an iron hand on the shoulders of the [native] people” by restricting some of their non-essential, inappropriate rituals and leading them towards what he perceived as a ‘healthier’ European mindset.”

In the third section of the Indian Act, signed on April 19, 1884, it was declared that: "Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlatch” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any goal or other place of confinement; and every Indian or persons who encourages… an Indian to get up such a festival… shall be liable to the same punishment."

Ceremonies only became legal again – from the Potlatch to the Sundance – with changes to the Indian Act in 1951. That’s not too long ago.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has been on a fast ceremony since December 11, 2012.

I want to point out here that a spiritual fast is different than a hunger strike as a fast is spiritually and culturally located with specific Indigenous traditions and protocols.

Chief Spence – who will finally be meeting with Prime Minster Stephen Harper on Friday January 11, 2013 (a global day of action for Idle No More) has said she is willing to fast until death and “meet her ancestors” if that is what it takes to defend her people and Mother Earth.

Two other elders are also on fasts for their people. Saskatchewan activist Emil Bell (74) has been on his fast since December 12, 2012. Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson has also gone without food since December 11, 2012.

Regarding Idle No More, there have been several call out for fasts in support of Chief Spence, including a Canadian wide call out for a twenty-four hour fast from food on January 11, 2013.

Idle No More has also encouraged First Nations communities to return to their land to perform ceremony. Call outs have been made to coincide with the full moon and the New Year.

The next call out for ceremony is Saturday January 26, 2012.

The Call Out reads: “January 26 is the next full moon. In my community, Anishinaabeg women are out on the land that night participating in Full Moon ceremonies. We will be doing this on the evening of January 26.

We are asking that all Indigenous Peoples reclaim their sacred sites on that day by visiting these sites - conducting ceremonies, singing, dancing, educating or doing whatever makes sense for your community and according to the traditions of your nation. Many are already in ceremony this time of year.”

And I know the public round dances in support of Chief Theresa Spence are not technically considered ceremony, but with the drummers singing the Sacred songs and the beat of the living drum, there are moments when I loose myself when I’m drumming and watch the dancers circle around me.

Reclaiming the traditions lost through colonization is key to the empowerment of First Nations communities across North America – Turtle Island – as Indigenous communities come together across the world in support of Idle No More. Ours is a strong fire.

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