Sovereignty, ecology, and decolonizing the female body
Ahead of International Women’s Day this Saturday, Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward spoke with Alex Wilson, a leading organizer for Idle No More and a member Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, Canada. In a wide ranging conversation, Wilson discusses the historical and continuing relationship between the colonization of people and land and the colonization of women’s bodies. She first begins, however, by outlining the impact tar sands oil extraction has on indigenous communities in Canada and the threat tar sands expansion projects like the Keystone XL pipeline pose to all of us.
By Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward March 7, 2014
To start with, the U.S. State Department recently released a report whitewashing the environmental impact of the Keystone XL project, which moves the tar sands pipeline closer to being approved by Barack Obama. Can you talk about how the KXL project has highlighted the need to unite across borders and build solidarity — between environmental justice activists and First Nations?
I think that the report wasn’t shocking, but at the same time, it reminded people of the urgency of the situation. I think people are finally starting to see that we’re entering a state of crisis. People always talk about the tipping point, and I think we’re there. All of these oil pipelines that have been leaking and exploding, and all of the rail cars carrying oil that have been derailing are just symptoms of this bigger sickness.
It seems like there’s an increased level of awareness — but at the same time, there is increased ignorance from the Canadian and U.S. governments. This is an indication of just how powerful the energy industry lobbyists are. Solidarity is more important now than ever.
Can you talk about the project to extract more tar sands crude oil from Alberta? What has that meant for people in Canada and First Nations?
It’s accelerating everything — the emissions, the impact on the earth, the impact on the wildlife and so on. We’re seeing studies that consistently report how extraction negatively impacts people’s and worker’s health in the local region. People are seeing the effects of environmental racism, and how this connects to the exploitation of women and children, increased violence and the drug trade in surrounding areas where pipelines are built.
The Climate Action Network did an important analysis about how the Canadian government is pushing this idea that the Canadian economy is dependent on tar sands oil — that’s what kids are being taught in schools and that’s what the media is telling us. The narrative is that tar sands is so important to our gross domestic product — but in reality, tar sands only accounts for 3.5 percent of our GDP. It’s not what they’re making it out to be.
The government is releasing the First Nations Education Act along with other legislation that will negatively impact First Nations people. So all of these things are happening at the same time. I think that it’s no coincidence that they’re timed like this. It’s done to overwhelm people and make it harder for us to fight back.
Then there’s the voter ID component of the Fair Elections Act. This would prohibit vouching for another person and/or using a Voter Identification card as valid if they didn’t have other identification. The people most impacted by this are people who are most marginalized by the mainstream electoral process — including urban aboriginal people, First Nations on reserves, people who don’t have a fixed address, people who are lower socio-economic status.
So what’s this going to do? The law will cut out all the people who would vote more progressive or be in opposition to right-wing policies.
Idle No More has been doing a lot of work around the First Nations Education Act. Could you say what it is and how it plays into the larger termination policy of the Canadian government under Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper?
In a nutshell, the First Nations Education Act takes away federal responsibility for First Nations education and puts responsibility onto provincial governments. At first, this wouldn’t seem like a big deal, but the act will take away power from First Nations education authorities, and make them more dependent on federal or provincial authorities. There was little to no consultation on an issue that could potentially see First Nations losing sovereignty over their own education.
It seems like this is part of the bigger struggle that Idle No More is fighting. How has Idle No More helped or influenced other struggles that have been happening for years and maybe weren’t well known?
That question is really relevant, because sometimes, we think, “Well, we were unable to stop a bill,” and people say, “Idle No More isn’t working, it’s just holding teach-ins.” But I think all the incremental changes do add up, in the way of a groundswell.
I think a really great example is the mascot issue. There has been resistance to the Washington football team’s name for decades. But now — and I think Idle No More plays a big part in this — there’s more awareness, and it’s gone beyond the Native community and typical allies into the mainstream. To some, the mascot issue is relatively unimportant in the scheme of things. But in reality, it’s a symptom of larger systemic problems of racism in our educational settings and society in general.
We have an issue in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with Bedford Road Collegiate, a high school that has a racist mascot [they are known as the "Redmen"]. There has been resistance to that for decades, and it’s in a city with an aboriginal population of 14 percent. But now we’ve started to see some movement, and I think it’s due to Idle No More, and the growing network and support it’s gaining from all over.
The other day, someone said, “I’m no Idle No More supporter, but I think this mascot in Saskatoon should change.” I said to myself, we never mentioned Idle No More at these school board meetings or anything, but it’s in people’s heads that social movements and social change is connected to Idle No More. I think that’s great. You don’t have to be apologetic about it — you can join the movement. Hopefully, that school board will make a decision soon, and others in the province and elsewhere will follow suit.
I think if we can use our network, with hundreds of thousands of people now, we can have a greater impact. People are really profoundly impacted when they begin to understand and see that this is truly a nonviolent movement and a different kind of social movement.
On the question of nonviolence, it seems like the Canadian media have tried to vilify certain people as violent — in particular, during the struggle of Mi’kmaq people of the Elsipogtog nation and their supporters against seismic testing for natural gas fracking, where they carried out regular blockades of Highway 11 through New Brunswick. How have people in Canada dealt with the smear campaign that Idle No More is a violent movement?
I think that would be a great case study for any kind of university class or community group doing analysis of the mainstream media. That one image of the police car on fire in Elsipogtog got more coverage than anything else.
It’s interesting — I don’t think Idle No More had to do that much to counter this narrative. It’s just emerged naturally. Again, I would say that’s an indication of a shift in the general public’s awareness about Indigenous issues and environmental concerns, brought on by social media, teach-ins and informal forms of education.
The media is really frustrated with Idle No More because they want one or two spokespersons. That doesn’t happen. They want to see hierarchy, and that doesn’t happen. Everything that they want, Idle No More isn’t doing — and so they then say the movement is unorganized, with no leadership. But that’s the beauty of why it’s working.
The media want that one good photo or that one person to say the right sound bite so they can attack it and undo it. If they don’t have the one spokesperson to attack, then what are they going to do — attack every person? They can try, but you have 8 year olds popping up and saying something, you have elders, you have educators.
The Round Dance Revolution is significant, too, because it’s welcoming and bringing everybody in. For me, that’s a spiritual connection. I think that there is some underlying energetic movement that connects us and keeps us moving forward.
In general, there’s a hopefulness. Idle No More is really significant in that it as predominantly been women who have kept the movement on track, even though it has been difficult at times. We have come under some criticism, but we still keep going.
Currently, there’s a focus on creating accessible education for transformation. There’s a website being developed that will have educational materials on anti-racism, anti-oppression, sustainability, environmental rights and activism, treaties and more. So basically, it’s bringing everything together so people can share information.
Author and activist Andrea Smith has documented how Native women in the U.S. experience some of the highest rates of sexual violence of any group — a consequence, according to Smith, of the deep connection between colonialism, land theft, sexual violence and environmental racism. How has Idle No More highlighted the demands for women’s rights and body sovereignty?
There are so many interconnecting issues that Idle No More addresses. One critical issue to focus on and to set up goals around is the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. We know that it’s an important and overlooked issue in the U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America as well.
As a strategy, to pick this one thing and push for an inquiry in Canada is one step. People have suggested that the inquiry be designed, developed and implemented by Indigenous people, including the family and community members who have been impacted personally. That way, the federal government will not dictate the methods, the findings and the recommendations, and the process itself has the potential to contribute to healing.
We know any governmental report will generally paint missing women as being victims of the sex trade and will blame them for what has happened. So the report isn’t going to be satisfactory to the families of the victims, to us, or to anybody else. If we can get everybody’s efforts behind a community-driven inquiry, we could see some change.
The body sovereignty piece is important. If you don’t have rights over your own body, you don’t have rights over anything. Native women’s bodies have been so regulated by legislation, procedures and practices that stripped away that notion of sovereignty. Obviously, residential schools, forced sterilization, the Indian Act, the narrow definition of marriage and property rights have all contributed to that.
Our own communities have internalized the damaging message of colonialism — that you can own property, and that women are property. A big part of breaking this is just stating that we have the right to sovereignty over our own bodies. For some people, that’s really empowering, even to say this, because they never thought of it before. Body sovereignty means we have sovereignty over our own bodies and actions, and that extends to our communities and to the land as well.
Gender self-determination is important, too. In many of our languages, there has always been a continuum of gender, or an understanding that people can express their gender in whichever way their body sovereign entity desires or wants.
Even our sexuality has been so scripted and regulated — the notion that people are free to be happy sexual beings is very foreign for many aboriginal people. The issue of missing and murdered women is not just about addressing some 800 missing and murdered women. It’s also about taking on the whole system that perpetuates women as less than human.
This dehumanization that you’re talking about seems to affect Native and aboriginal people at a very young age — look at the high rates of suicide or attempted suicide for youth, especially on reservations in the U.S.
Exactly. Just to use queer youth as an example, we’re seeing 10 times the suicide rates in LGBT aboriginal communities in Canada. In a new study that came out on transgender aboriginal youth, almost half of them have attempted suicide.
When you talk about oppression, it’s not a competition, of course. But you can see where all these interconnecting factors come together, with transgender aboriginal youth as the intersection point. What would make it so that half of aboriginal trans youth don’t want to be in the world anymore? We see them dropping out of school as young as they start identifying as transgender — as early as third grade. It’s appalling.
This highlights the necessity for systematic change, because it’s not just individuals creating oppression. Oppression isn’t nature. It’s not innate. It’s not biological. It’s something we’ve done ourselves. There’s a spark of hope there, because that means we can undo it. It’s always hopeful that all these socially constructed forms of oppression can be undone.
That’s the spirit of Idle No More that endures and energizes people. We can stand up to something — and if we’re together and united, we can change it.
Has being involved in Idle No More and these longer-term struggles been empowering for activists? Have you seen a rebirth or blossoming of Native pride through the movement?
Most definately. The point of Idle No More is about shifting our understanding and our actions so that we aren’t defined by colonization. We’re ourselves. We have the right to be ourselves. It seems like something simple, but it’s a big concept. For so long, we have been defined and regulated. Now, we’re finally able to present ourselves as who we are. It’s so energizing and exciting.
I can’t imagine myself in grade 12, years ago, doing what youth today are doing. Like Andre, a youth activist in Saskatchewan who is part of the resistance to the Bedford Road logo, standing up and speaking out in school board meetings against racist mascots. The amount of pride in him is unbelievable. He’s openly gay and Cree, so he’s got all the “risk factors.” There are youth like him everywhere, and I think it’s encouraging to see him stand up.
Idle No More is just over a year old. How has it changed? What debates and discussions are happening?
I think each local community has become focused on their local needs, for one. Groups in certain regions have become more galvanized and have taken on a life of their own. The group in Winnipeg has created its own look and feel that’s unique to its community and the needs of its community — similarly in Hawaii, the Bay Area, Minneapolis and so many other communities.
There’s no Idle No More central. This is a misperception that some people have. But there are ways that people unite and stay together, or connect as a vast network — for example, through the website, the database and many Facebook pages.
I think the partnership with Defenders of the Land has been really good, and some people don’t know about that. Defenders of the Land is a grassroots movement that’s networking with Idle No More.
I think the network is getting bigger. We see the Climate Action Network, the ISO, other activists — not just around environmental issues, but human rights as well — as all becoming part of the Idle No More network. There’s a lot of overlap, I think.
Also in Canada, Native people are questioning the formalized structures that are in place, like the Assembly of First Nations. So I think that’s something we will have to figure out how to move forward with. Because the last thing we want is oppressed groups fighting each other. That’s been a bit of a challenge, because the media portrays it that way. They always spin it as two indigenous groups against each other.
We have a federal election coming up next year in Canada. I hope a lot of people vote in the election, even though I know a lot of Native people don’t vote and for obvious reasons.
We all know that the U.S. and Canada have broken every treaty they made with Native people. How important is the role of treaties, and how has the idea of sovereignty been highlighted in Idle No More’s work?
Treaty alliances are being formed, especially in the Prairie Provinces. There’s a better understanding of treaties today than there was even two years ago. Part of this is because in some places, education about treaties is mandated. But there’s also a general interest in knowing more about treaties. That goes hand in hand with sovereignty and self-determination.
Some people don’t agree with treaties because they are agreements with the Crown, so they don’t acknowledge them or honor them. But others do.
There’s another important issue of un-ceded territory — territory that was never ceded to the Crown. These are the gray areas that aren’t covered by treaties. Technically, there’s quite a bit of land still under the reign of First Nations that is categorized as unceded territory.
How are those battles being fought out? We’ve heard of British Columbia going through the courts about this issue. Are people trying to go through these unceded lands? Have there been standoffs between First Nations and corporations?
There’s a bit of confusion because if a company has permission from the province to harvest whatever, in the eyes of the courts, that’s legal. From the other point of view, it’s illegal, because the province didn’t have the right to give up the land in the first place. We have our own natural laws that dictate. I think that has caused tension, and it will continue until there’s a way to resolve it.
In some First Nations communities, leaders are making agreements for resource extraction. That’s another thing that has been very controversial, because the reality is that many First Nations see resource extraction as the only viable economic solution. Part of Idle No More is to highlight that there are sustainable economic solutions. The webinars are very successful in terms of the number of people who have been engaged with them – there was one with Winona LaDuke on that topic.
Native peoples still work in tar sands. We have community members who work in mines. The movement isn’t about vilifying people. The movement is about undoing and addressing the systems and the inequities in wealth distribution, and finding ways to be sustainable as humans that won’t destroy the planet by the turn of the next century.
There are different opinions about extraction mining, even among tribes and nations in the U.S. For example, the Crow Agency, the administrative headquarters of the Crow or Apsaalooke Nation, has moved forward with a project to continue massive coal mining extraction. On the other end of this project, though, there’s resistance from the Lummi Nation and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which are against having coal shipped through their Northwest territory by rail. This is why the work of Idle No More is so important — not just to say we shouldn’t have extreme extraction, but for us to understand why tribes and nations are forced to do this. It’s the legacy of hundreds of years of economic inequality.
YES, AND it’s a quick solution. People always talk about these seven generations that we should be looking toward. I don’t think too many nations actually do this. But I think we’re at the point now, based on what science — Indigenous science and Western science — is saying and what we’re experiencing in terms of climate change, where we can’t even look forward to seven generations. One generation or two is the rate we’re going, and that will be it.
There are so many issues. It’s truly social justice and ecological justice. I think that’s another thing that the movement has helped me and others understand — the interdependence and the relationality of how everything and everyone is connected.
An earlier version of this article first appeared at SocialistWorker.org.