After seeing the film Avatar, the recent release by James Cameron dealing with allegorical Indigenous Peoples on an alien planet that humans seek to colonize, displace and finally eliminate in order to access the rich resources in their territories, a few reflections emerge. The first is a more than passing resemblance to the actual reality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and beyond, the bounty of whose land and resources have cost them great suffering at the hands of colonizers and would-be-saviours. The second interesting element is to reflect on the state of actual Indigenous-colonizer relations, and the state of Indigenous resistance to the colonizing project.
It is clear that the government is engaged in a head-on collision course to extinguish Aboriginal rights, to continue the work of assimilation, and expand the economic, environmental and cultural colonialism that Canada’s history is based upon. Vancouver this November saw the gathering of a number of the Indigenous communities and leaders across the country that have banded together to confront the rising tide of colonialism coming from government and aided by its corporate partners. These attacks on Indigenous rights and cultures across Canada have sparked the beginning of a new grassroots movement across Canada, with the goal of connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, under the banner of a group referred to as the “Defenders of the Land.”
In the past year, many projects have been developed or expanded, with direct impacts on Indigenous Peoples, their livelihoods and environments. Chief among these is the expansion of the tar sands megaproject, which threatens to irreversibly destroy the land and pollute the waters in the Athabascan watershed of northern Alberta. Other famous and not-so-famous examples are springing up across Turtle Island, including the land reclamation in Six Nations territory, the resistance to mining in Big Trout Lake (Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug), or recent protests against the Olympic legacy and devastation arising from many Indigenous communities. These are only the tip of the iceberg in what for many years has often been a loose and disjointed movement for Indigenous rights and freedoms.
Government and corporate interests have made it increasingly clear that the stakes are life or death, as Indigenous communities find themselves on the frontlines of global struggles to access increasingly scarce resources such as oil, metals, even trees. In response, Indigenous leaders, men and women, elders and youth alike gathered last year for the first Defenders of the Land gathering, held in Winnipeg at the Native Friendship Centre, to begin working together in a united way to respond to the recent attacks on their human rights. This gathering in November brought together many of the same people from last year, totaling over 80 representatives from communities in struggle, as well as a number of allied NGOs and solidarity groups from across the country. There were a mix of elders present, male and female community activists alike, as well as a strong representation of Indigenous youth who have taken up the struggle as their own.
This recent gathering heard testimony of how land-claims are failing, of many communities in legal disputes with different governments, of leaders being sent to jail for practicing their sovereignty, of barricades and blockades being the only methods left at some communities’ disposal. However, the real point from the gathering, after hearing many stories of desperation and depravation, was seeing how many communities had not given up, but were just starting the real work of educating their people, figuring out ways to work together, and planning grassroots strategies to protect their futures. Another sign of the times was the amount of grassroots support from solidarity groups and other civil society groups from across the country who were supportive of the project.
Over three days of feasting together, of group discussions, presentations, of tears and laughter, participants were charged with deciding on how best to collaborate in this movement. It was clearly seen that there was a need for something resembling a network to be formed, that could best represent the interests of the communities in question. Many felt that such a network needed to be structured to support those communities most in their times of crisis, such as when the blockades or bulldozers arrive, but also provide ongoing assistance to ensure that situations need not escalate to the point of crisis. This would be additional to the ongoing educational work, such as the “Indigenous Sovereignty Week” events held in dozens of communities across the country in October, and to be continued in the coming year.
A network is forming. A movement is being built. Indigenous and non-Indigenous are all coming together in an unprecedented manner to face unprecedented challenges. The circle is growing, as more and more begin to understand what is at stake, and how our struggles are related. The rising problems of violence, of education, of environmental degradation, of governance, of health, etc. all have common roots, and a common solution in the restoration of sovereignty to Indigenous Peoples, a long-term project which will require much hard work on the frontlines, in the classrooms, on the streets and in the home. The Defenders of the Land aim to be one part of this ambitious project, a crucial one bringing together the voice of the previously voiceless, the communities most at risk, those who have had their languages and lands taken.
In the final event of the film — you might want to skip this part if you haven’t seen it — there’s an all out, fight-to-the-death war between the humans and Indigenous aliens, as it becomes clear the humans will not stop their endless greed. The comparison is more than passing, as Indigenous groups around the world find themselves in the last places with resources of value, and must now act to protect themselves from the new waves of colonialism. In Peru this summer, I worked with a number of Amazonian Indigenous Peoples who lost loved ones trying to protect their environment, culture and sovereignty from foreign oil and mining companies. They live in a real life Utopia, threatened by the plundering of the bounty beneath their feet.
However, as opposed to the movie, this time it won’t be the friendly white man who emerges as saviour, it will be Indigenous Peoples united, with the support of allies from all communities, representing the last and best hope for our collective future. This struggle is only really just beginning, and playing itself out in many different theatres, but we have not the time to sit back and watch. It is time for the true Defenders of the Land to take centre stage, and for everyone else to take on supporting roles.
Ben Powless is Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario. He is currently studying Human Rights Indigenous and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. Read his blog on rabble.ca. For more photos of the Defenders of the Land gathering visit Ben’s Flickr album.