War of the Words: chiefs issue ultimatums as grassroots dance in circles

by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, January 4, 2013

Flash mob in Edmonton mall, December 2012.

Flash mob in Edmonton mall, December 2012.

There are three entities currently struggling for control over the grassroots Native mobilization that has spread across the country: the Idle No More’s  (INM) middle-class founders, Indian Act chiefs, and chief Spence herself.  It is in our interests as grassroots people that all of them fail in their efforts and that the autonomous, decentralized self-organization of our movement become more widespread.

Despite their working relationship with many Indian Act chiefs, the founders of Idle No More (INM) publicly distanced themselves in a statement issued on Dec 31, 2012. This was in response to chief Theresa Spence’s demand that other Indian Act chiefs “take control” of the grassroots mobilizing that has occurred.

“The Founders and many of the organizers of Idle No More from Across Canada have been given word that the Leadership is calling for action in the name of Idle No More. They have also stated in a press release that they have met with Idle No More representatives that support this call. We would like to state that this is FALSE.

“The Chiefs have called for action and anyone who chooses can join with them, however this is not part of the Idle No More movement as the vision of this grassroots Idle No More protest graphicmovement does not coincide with the visions of the Leadership. While we appreciate the individual support we have received from Chiefs and councelors [sic], we have been given a clear mandate by the grassroots to work outside of the systems of government and that is what we will continue to do. We are not trying to have division amongst this movement! However Chief Nepinak stated, “we are behind the grassroots people”. Please let others know!!!!

“There have been talks of getting leaders to lead, however, we are the leaders!!! Remember that!!!!”

(“Face and Leaders of Idle No More is the Grassroots People,” Idle No More website, Dec 31, 2012)

Considering the historical role of band councils to control Native peoples, this is the only position the “official” INM could take without appearing as pawns of the chiefs. Nevertheless, most of the INM rallies have seen chiefs and councilors centre stage, delivering the speeches, and providing logistical support (a fact that INM recognizes in their statements).

Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, addresses the crowd at INM rally in Vancouver, Dec 23.

Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of BC Indian Act Chiefs, addresses the crowd at INM rally in Vancouver, Dec 23.

From the time that the chiefs carried out their symbolic attempt to enter the House of Commons on Dec 4, when Bill C-45 was being debated, INM has had to carefully tread its way through the potentially divisive issue of just how grassroots the mobilization has been. It appears to have been a symbiotic relationship: INM would not have gained the prominence it did on Dec 10 without the chief’s Dec 4 action & subsequent organizing. On the other hand, the chiefs by themselves could never have succeeded in mobilizing so many thousands of Natives into the streets (and shopping malls) on their own.

For these reasons, it was a foolish move on Spence’s part to focus attention on the chiefs and the prospect of them taking direct control over INM activities. Many grassroots people reacted with disdain at this proposal, hence the INM’s efforts to distance themselves from the chiefs. Despite this, there are still many who continue to claim that unity is more important right now, while some have begun to champion the chiefs as genuine leaders.

Indian Act chief Theresa Spence in media scrum during hunger strike.

Indian Act chief Theresa Spence in media scrum during hunger strike.

Even chief Spence, however, had to backtrack on her initial “call to arms” and admit that the chiefs had made “mistakes” in the past but that INM shouldn’t “shame” them by not following their orders. In another statement read out by one of her assistants, Spence stated:

“Let us come together in unity, because all of us, chiefs and grassroots, are one. If we are going to point fingers, let us point them squarely at this colonial government. The chiefs have made mistakes in the past, but don’t shame them for these. They are, after all, our people. The chiefs are ready now to humble themselves for the people.”

(“Attawapiskat Chief Spence urges Idle No More to unite with leadership,” APTN National News, Jan 2, 2013)

Band Councils Are Not Grassroots

It should come as no surprise that chief Spence wants us to “forgive and forget” the shameful practises of many Indian Act chiefs and councillors, being one herself. But is it true that the chiefs and grassroots “are one” and that therefore we must come together?

Band councils were imposed under the Indian Act not to unite our people, or to lead them in resistance, but to control them, to administer government policies, and to suppress any genuine grassroots resistance from emerging. This in itself was an act of division which created a special managerial class of Natives and led to the growth of an Aboriginal business elite whose interests are not in accord with those of real grassroots people.

Members of Westbank band council; are they our "leaders"?

Members of Westbank band council; are they our “leaders”?

In an effort to retain his legitimacy as a genuine “leader” and to promote “unity,” grand chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC, the AFN provincial arm in Manitoba) penned his own letter, stating:

“There is no need to fight for control over the energy that has spread like wildfire across the turtle’s back. It is incorrect for me or any other Chief to try to co-opt or control Idle No More as it would only frustrate the beautiful expressions of the energy of the spirit that is now empowering our people. It is equally incorrect for organizers of Idle No More to try to limit the participation of any of our people, Chiefs or otherwise.”

(“A note to Idle No More: Inclusion and respect will make the fire stronger,” by Derek Nepinak, Rabble.ca, Jan 1, 2013)

Nepinak, clearly more astute than Spence, denies any effort on the part of the chiefs to co-opt or control the grassroots, saying it would be incorrect to do so. At the same time, he counters that it would be incorrect for INM to try and limit the participation of the chiefs. Clearly, INM has never made any effort to limit the involvement of the chiefs, and in fact have welcomed it from the beginning.

"Grand Chief" Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Idle No More Rally in Winnipeg, Dec. 10, 2012.

“Grand Chief” Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Idle No More Rally in Winnipeg, Dec. 10, 2012.

Some Natives have been throwing around the term “unity” in an effort to stifle any debate or discussion about the role of the chiefs in INM. When chief Spence states that we should focus our sights on the colonial government, she’s correct. But she, and others attempting to squash any debate about the issue, are neglecting the fact that the band councils are themselves an integral part of the colonial system. They are in fact an arm of the state, which is why they were created and why they continue to be maintained, despite any radical rhetoric or posturing on the part of some chiefs, or internal power struggles they may have with their benefactors.

Nepinak’s AMC, it should be recalled, saw its own government funding slashed from some $2.6 million a year to just $500,000 , effectively crippling his corporation’s activities (cuts to mostly provincial and treaty organizations were announced on Sept 4, 2012).

According to a Dec 7 Canadian Press report, when Nepinak and other chiefs were helping to orchestrate the INM rallies of Dec 10, Nepinak stated that,

“they hope to send a message to members of OPEC, to China and others in the international community that they “did not cede, release or surrender our natural resources to a colonial government.”

“He says aboriginals are “waking up from a 100-year slumber” and will impose their own laws.

In reality, the treaties haven't stopped the Tar Sands, uranium mining, etc.

In reality, the treaties haven’t stopped the Tar Sands, uranium mining, etc.

This week, Nepinak and Ontario Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Stanley Beardy met with a senior official from the Canadian Chinese Consulate to discuss business possibilities with China.”

(“Manitoba chiefs support national land rights movement, plan rally,” by Canadian Press, Dec 7, 2012)

So while many Natives naively believed that the chiefs were backing their protests to protect Mother Earth, the chiefs were actually busy trying to establish their own business deals with corporations whose main interests are resource exploitation (including mining, oil, & gas).

If so many Natives are angered by Bill C-45, what will they do when they learn about all the self-government agreements currently being negotiated, including those under the BC treaty process?

Under these agreements, band councils gain greater municipal powers, reserve lands become fee simple property (which can be bought and sold, not only leased), the Indian Act ceases to apply, taxation is imposed (and collected by the new Native government), etc. These measures lead to greater legal, political, and economic assimilation of Indigenous peoples. In short, the very termination policy currently being protested as being part of Bill C-45 is one that many chiefs are actively participating in.

AFN grand thief Atleo with his benefactors, First Nations-Crown Summit, Jan 2012.

AFN grand thief Atleo with his benefactors, First Nations-Crown Summit, Jan 2012.

Some Natives acknowledge the overall corruption and oppression inherent in the band council system, but assert that they are family and community members, first and foremost. But if you have a group of liberation fighters that includes, say, your brother who is a police informant, do you then ignore this unpleasant reality and act as if he’s not collaborating with the enemy simply because he’s your brother? Of course not. Every anti-colonial liberation movement must contend with the collaborators in its ranks, and Indigenous resistance in North America is no exception (a fact that dates back to the initial period of European colonization, which even then relied on Native collaborators).

Chiefs Make Their Move

Undeterred by INM’s effort to put distance between itself and the chiefs, or scepticism about their role among grassroots Natives, the chiefs unveiled their own bold plans for further co-opting the movement. This includes a renewed campaign of civil disobedience to be launched on January 16 with “country-wide economic disruptions” threatened (see “First Nations chiefs contemplate “breach of treaty” declarations, indefinite economic disruptions,” b>y Jorge Barrera, APTN National News, Jan 1, 2012).

Shawn Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), followed up this threat with an invitation to the prime minister to once again meet with the Indian Act chiefs, this time on January 24, 2013. For some, there may be a sense of deja vu at this turn of events.

Last January, the Crown-First Nations Summit occurred as a result of the media coverage about housing conditions on the Attawapiskat reserve, where Spence is the band council chief. The summit itself was little more than a photo-op for the chiefs and prime minister.

PM Harper reminds Atleo who signs his cheques.

PM Harper reminds Atleo who signs his cheques.

Now, a year later, and after thousands of Natives have rallied and “flash-mobbed” for a month, the chiefs are attempting to set up another meeting that will most likely have the same results as the one held last year.

Chief Spence, however, almost immediately countered with a demand that a preliminary meeting between First Nations “leaders” and the PM must occur within 72 hours, not three weeks as suggested by the AFN (see “Spence wants action from Ottawa within 72 hours,” The Canadian Press, Jan. 3, 2013).

Through her aides, Spence also communicated that if her ultimatum wasn’t met, “mass demonstrations” would occur.

Spence’s reason? Her health and energy are declining as a result of her hunger strike, which has now been ongoing for 24 days. According to statements from her aides, she can’t wait until January 24, although she doesn’t oppose another Crown-First Nations summit occurring at that time.

Tyendinaga rail blockade, Dec 30, 2012.

Tyendinaga rail blockade, Dec 30, 2012, in solidarity with chief Spence’s hunger strike.

This, of course, is another in a series of poorly planned moves on Spence’s part, indicating a weakening of her resolve that the state will undoubtedly make note of. If she can’t wait until January 24, they certainly can. Subsisting on medicinal teas and fish broth, Spence will be further weakened by that point but would unlikely die (unless there are other health problems compounded by the hunger strike).

The ending of Spence’s hunger strike, either by herself or as the result of the meeting she demands, would certainly dampen INM mobilizing, much of which has been focused on backing her action (so much so that some media accounts mistakenly label her the “leader” of INM). There is no doubt the hunger strike has heightened people’s emotional investment in the situation, while investing it with liberal amounts of spiritual mysticism.

Any repeat of the Crown-FN summit, in fact, could itself undermine much of the grassroots mobilizing that has occurred under the INM banner. This is because many Natives who’ve jumped on the INM band wagon are actually following the chief’s lead under the illusion that it is an entirely grassroots movement which the chiefs are simply supporting. Their apparent ability to gain concessions from the state will serve to reaffirm their position as genuine “leaders.”

Six Nations 2006: grassroots Indigenous resistance in action.

Six Nations 2006: grassroots Indigenous resistance in action.

Nevertheless, the greatest contribution of Idle No More may have already been achieved: the mobilization of thousands of Natives. As time passes, more will learn and become aware of the duplicitous and opportunistic methods of most Indian Act chiefs. Even now grassroots people are discussing and debating what a grassroots movement looks like, what its methods and goals should be, etc. So, even if the chiefs temporarily triumph and serve their role as managers of anti-colonial revolt, the people are now more aware and aroused. In a time of declining socio-economic conditions and increasing austerity measures, the potential for greater Indigenous resistance is now greater than it has been in many years.


Posted on January 3, 2013, in Decolonization, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Lingit Latseen and commented:
    Zig Zag drops more knowledge as to the currents and counter currents that move, shape, and struggle for control over Idle No More. Remember: tribes are essentially federations of networked, autonomous bands, clans and kinship groups that group together and disband at will. This is what we are as indigenous people. There is no hierarchy except for those we chose to follow based on their ability to move us forward.

  2. “In a time of declining socio-economic conditions and increasing austerity measures, the potential for greater Indigenous resistance is now greater than it has been in many years.”

    The state and their “tribal” government accomplices will fail to bring home the bacon over the next few decades and our true clans, bands and tribes will step up. The Nation State as the world’s premier organizational model is clearly on the decline. Good riddance.

  3. Although I have enjoyed reading your publication and appreciate many of the astute comments that you make, I am disappointed by your simplistic suggestion that “There are three entities currently struggling for control over the grassroots Native mobilization that has spread across the country” and how you falsely describe the four spiritually gifted women who founded #Idle No More as “middle-class founders”, without knowing anything of their personal backgrounds.

    For example, I cannot understand why you would describe a single-parent Cree or Nakota woman who struggled to complete law school, out of a personal conviction that this is one way to fight against the laws that are oppressing her people, as part of the so-called “middle class”. Nor do I believe that the founders of #Idle No More are engaged in a struggle for power, although I do agree that they are challenged to know how best to work with the Indian Act Chiefs, because of the distrust that exists between some of them and many grassroots people.

    However, we all know that there are many “true leaders” who are spiritually guided and are asked by their people to run for Chief or Council, because of their sincere commitment to helping them, irregardless of whatever corruptions are inherent within the political arena that they are forced to work within and which many struggle to overcome.

    In the words of deceased FSIN Elder & Senator Allan Bird, “There were so many things that I wanted to do for my people when I first became a chief, but I soon found out how Indian Affairs does things.” The sad thing is that he was a chief of his First Nation many decades ago, and the same issues continue to exist today.

    Therefore, I disagree with your viewpoint that there is a struggle for power. Instead, I believe that we are all part of an ongoing spiritual struggle to figure out how to work together,in the face of oppression and abuse, given the current socio-political reality imposed by the colonial regime now known as “Harper’s Government”. After all, isn’t this what a spiritually-guided grassroots movement aiming for unity and solidarity is all about?

  4. I base my description on the founders of INM on their academic backgrounds in law and business; one being a university professor, two being employed in law, and the third a business manager. One’s class in the colonial capitalist system determines the level of resources at one’s disposal, and enables middle-class people to influence and control movements more than those who are poor. Generally, the middle-class functions as a managerial class under capitalism. Indian Act chiefs are also middle-class. I don’t believe every single chief and councilor is a corrupt tyrant, of course, but they are state institutions whose primary purpose is to control Native peoples. Abuse and corruption are tolerated because they form essential parts of that control. As far as being “spiritually gifted” that is an even vaguer assessment to make than one’s socio-economic position. I would say most Indigenous people, except perhaps for the most assimilated, are “spiritually gifted” to one extent or another.

  5. At the end of the DAY, Someone Else IS TRYING TO TAKE THE GLORY!!!!!
    Chief Theresa Spence Issue started ALL this noise/texting/FB/Tweeter not the other jump on the wagon ORGANIZATIONS!!!! I think…

    • That’s one interpretation, others might say it was a combination of factors, inc the four women founders of INM in Saskatchewan, the chiefs in Ottawa on Dec 4, and Spence’s fast. Nevertheless, you imply there is some kind of glory to be taken, which seems contrary to the spirit of resistance necessary.

  6. The Chiefs and counsellors of Aboriginal Bands are not grassroot . They are paid servants to serve the government, Indian Act Chiefs.There is a class act happening right now on the Tsuu Tina Nation where a mother of three children, Alberta Otter , is being kicked out of her house and off reserve lands by the Chief and Council. She is a band member who’s being acused of causing a disturbance and had her children apprehended by the band Child and Family services. This should serve as who is and who is not grassroots Indians. Grass roots Indians have come to Alberta Otter’s aid and telling the Chief and council that they should rectify what harm they have done but so far have failed to act.

  7. Idle No More protests marches won’t accomplish one thing. Flash mobs won’t accomplish one thing. Blockading trains won’t accomplish one thing. The time for hunger strikes was over two-hundred years ago.

    Idle No More Ride Hard. Nothing short of seizing government buildings is needed. Nothing short of reoccupying ancient lands is needed. Nothing short of provoking an armed conflict with the army is absolutely needed. Where is your victory at Little Big Horn Idle No More?

    Chris Roberts

  8. Chris Roberts when you grow up perhaps you will see the utter error of your words. I realize my native brothers and sisters at INM see you as unworthy of comment and I support their position. As a part native, part settler I challenge your antagonistic and uneducated views. This is a peaceful protest. A chance to approach a change in consciousness for all of humanity without the typical reactive destructive and counter productive violence and damage to personal property, and the environment. Perhaps you are just trying to incite a battle to jeprodize the clear voices and proactive movement toward better living via protection of the lands, the air, the animals and resources through the new governance initiated by a native movement? A great deal has been accomplished already by responding intelligently and thoughtfully. The Assembly of First nations, Council of Chiefs are learning to respect the grass roots movement for the people by the people as a voice of reason and visionary leadership. Join us and draft a vision in partnership with the goals and practices WE all need for a more wholistic and sustainable future as stewards of the land…… or we, our children, our mother earth will be consumed by the misguided powers of corporate croanie leaders represented by our very own Prime Minister. Tarper is an international disgrace …and I do not want to got down on the Titanic with him, so I am paddling with the canoes to a better shore. Megwitch, gilakasla, Hyska siem …… namaste, Leanne

    • I didn’t sense that Chris disagrees with the goals or sentiment, just with the methods being used. He’s questioning their effectiveness, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s clearly not a pacifist, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. There is no example of a social movement achieving any substantial victory that was purely pacifist. Movements are diverse by nature and employ a diversity of tactics.

      • Thank-you for the further insights into this evolving movement. I respect all input. War begets war … as history testifys. More will be revealed. All the best in your tactics.

  9. Determination and resolve. Know that in rightness you follow the spirit of the elders and as water will find its way back to the oceans on the endless journey, so to everything comes in its time. It is time, we are all Treaty nations. As the Condor and the Eagle share the skies, so too will the Griffin and the Eagle soar wing on wing. The page has been turned and some are just slow readers, they will all come to understand the words. PEACE and LOVE will heal the deep wounds of FEAR and WAR.

  1. Pingback: Limits & Capabilities of Idle No More as Open Source Protest | Lingit Latseen

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