A movement called #Idle No More is sweeping across Canada and into the United States. First Nations from Haida Gwaii to Stephenville, Newfoundland, from Iqaluit to Windsor, Ontario – and Native Americans in New York, New Mexico, California, and many other states – have organized flash mobs in shopping malls and public squares to sing, drum, and perform traditional round dances. Some First Nations have blockaded highways and railways. Where did this movement come from, and where is it going?
More immediately, the #Idle No More movement is a response to Canada’s Bill C-45, which makes drastic changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act and so threatens First Nations sovereignty, and in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who has been on a hunger strike since December 11 to pressure Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet with her to discuss First Nations rights.
The conditions of extreme poverty and hunger in Attawapiskat made international news after a Huffington Post article by Charlie Angus, “What If They Declared an Emergency and No One Came?” The Canadian government’s response, and its insinuation that the federal funding allotted to Attawapiskat had been misspent by corrupt band leaders, has been the target of intense criticism.
First Nations scholars and activists Glen Coulthard, Leanne Simpson, âpihtawikosisân, Pam Palmater, and others have done excellent work situating #Idle No More in relation to the past and future of First Nations resistance. Read their work. Listen to them. Learn from them.
This is not “just” a First Nations thing, and it is not “just” a spin-off of #OWS and the Arab Spring. One of the messages of #Idle No More is that we are all treaty people in North America, and in other sites of settler colonialism such as Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.
We are all treaty people.
What does it mean to be a treaty person who is also a settler colonial? What forms of thought and action does this inheritance demand? There are many ways to inherit this legacy badly, but how could we learn to inherit it well?
The first step must be to recognize ourselves as treaty people who are constituted as such by our relationship to the indigenous people of the land we currently occupy. This relationship is the material and historical condition of our lives. We would not be here without it. There is no way of honoring our treaty obligations as communities, and pressuring our governments to honor these obligations on a nation-to-nation basis, if we don’t even recognize the constitutive relationships that make possible our current cities, towns, farms, factories, highways, mines, schools, parks, and yes, shopping malls. These places are sites of a relationship that #Idle No More is making visible, one round dance at a time.
I live in Nashville, Tennessee. The Trail of Tears runs through Nashville. Before Nashville existed, there was Fort Nashborough, and before Fort Nashborough there was French Lick. For centuries before exploration and colonization by Eurpoeans, the Shawnee, the Yuchi, the Cherokee and the Chickasaw peoples lived, hunted, traded, fought, negotiated, gathered medicine, and raised children in what is now known as Tennessee. Tennessee is a Cherokee name, from Tanasi or ᏔᎾᏏ, which was the name of a settlement on the river that we call the Tennessee, but which the Cherokee called Callamaco.
Before the Shawnee, Yuchi, Cherokee and Chickasaw, the area we now call Tennessee was inhabited by Mississippian people who built mound cities of incredible proportions. The largest mound city built by the Mississippian people was Cahokia, which is now a state historic park in Illinois. In 1250 AD, Cahokia had a population of 15,000 people, which made it larger than London or Paris. There are indigenous mounds all across the US, many of which remain unprotected by law.
The indigenous people of what we now call Tennessee were forced off this land by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and by the Treaty of New Echota (1835), which was signed by the representative of a minority faction within the Cherokee Nation called the “Treaty Party.” Article One of the treaty begins: “The Cherokee nation hereby cede relinquish and convey to the United States all the lands owned claimed or possessed by them east of the Mississippi river, and hereby release all their claims upon the United States for spoliations of every kind for and in consideration of the sum of five millions of dollars to be expended paid and invested in the manner stipulated and agreed upon in the following articles.”
By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans – not just Cherokee, but also Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw peoples – were forcibly removed from their land in the southeast, opening up 25 million acres for colonial expansion. The official death toll is 400, but most scholars agree on a figure closer to 4,000.
What does it mean to live on the Trail of Tears? Can one live on the tears of others who – because of centuries of forced removal, assimilation, and extermination – are no longer here to remind the rest of us of our own status as settlers?
But they are here. They are here in relation to the people who claim Native American ancestry in Tennessee, even if the state does not recognize their claim. And they are here in relation to the settler colonial treaty people whose tenure on this land was established through the Treaty of New Echota. To make good on this particular treaty is impossible; the treaty itself was unjust, and it led to untold suffering for people who had no voice in the negotiations. Our obligation as settle colonial treaty people is not to return to this treaty, but rather to think, listen, and learn how we may renew our relationships to indigenous peoples in ways that neither ignore nor compound the tears, but establish a new basis for mutual respect and collaboration.
Our obligation is to become #Idle No More.