Rise of the Indigenous Protest Movement: #IdleNoMore and Native Liberty

Right now in Canada, thousands of indigenous people and their supporters are rising in protest against a long train of government abuses. The latest insult is a new federal law that many see as being designed to help crony capitalists rob the indigenous people of their remaining land.

The protest movement is called Idle No More, and it reflects longstanding aboriginal traditions of limiting centralized authority, and relying instead on voluntaryism and polycentrism as organizing principles.

Thousands of protestors are holding drum circles and round dances in the streets, a few have blockaded rail lines and highways, and one is now in her seventh week of fasting and holding political meetings.[1]

Establishment outlets like the National Post have frequently decried the protestors’ unwillingness to come up with a unified leadership who can control all this rabble and issue some unified demands to the federal government.

But the mainstream expectation that the protestors ought to coalesce into a single body with one authority making decisions for all totally misses the point. The protestors’ key demand is the right to make one’s own decisions.

Idle No More and the Refusal to Centralize

Aboriginal people are the most regulated, the most impoverished, and the most frequently imprisoned group of humans in Canada. You can see all the economic and social horrors of welfare totalitarianism playing out in aboriginal communities across the country, complete with oil companies gaming the system for fun and profit.

A great deal of the urgency and passion of Idle No More comes from these ongoing economic and social crises, and a great deal of the desultory mass-media chatter about it concerns proposals for various schemes of redistribution. But the refusal of protestors to unite around a single banner, tactic, or leader points to a much more fundamental challenge and a much more radical goal.

There are at least three important sources of Idle No More’s refusal to submit to any single vision.

The first is an important background fact that many non-aboriginal observers simply fail to comprehend: the sheer diversity of indigenous communities in Canada. There are 50-some languages[2], more than 600 legally defined aboriginal “bands,” and three quasi-racial government categories of indigenous persons (“Indians,” “Inuit,” and “Metis”), each subjected to a slightly different flavor of genocidal oppression and paternalistic welfare. Furthermore, many thousands of aboriginal persons live outside the government definitions.

It’s impossible to describe this enormous variety of cultures, regulations, and aspirations in any quick way, let alone create some simple, unified list of demands or grievances shared by all peoples.

Idle No More is not an orchestrated demonstration by a formal organization somehow representing everyone at once. It is a spontaneous uprising of many different peoples with many different visions and tactics, who nonetheless sense a shared opportunity to challenge the colonial statist quo.

Second is the influential tradition of nonviolent, distributed leadership in many indigenous communities.

Most radically, many hunter-gatherer people like the Dene and the Ojibwa simply had no tradition of coercive authority before Europeans imposed it on them. There were, of course, respected leaders and elders, but they didn’t have the power to force anyone to obey them.

Every day, each individual was free to listen to whatever person seemed to know most about that day’s challenges. And if you thought you had a better idea, nobody could stop you from setting out on your own and trying it.

These traditions of nonviolent authority extended even to child-raising. Children in such cultures learned discipline from example, hard work, and philosophical study, not from the back of a father’s hand. Of course, that all changed with the rise of compulsory Indian schools.

Now, precontact North America was not a libertarian utopia. The native peoples occasionally killed, robbed, and enslaved each other just as humans always have.

But the solutions they found to the universal challenge of how to organize society were usually a lot closer to the ideas of Western voluntaryists than they were to those of Western statists. Indeed, north of the militaristic Aztec empire, there were no states in the Americas before Columbus first planted his cross and declared the land for Spain.[3]

A few months after Idle No More began, the federal government made a great show of meeting with democratically elected native chiefs in order to find out what “the aboriginals” want. But the government fails to understand that the modern institution of the elected chief with coercive powers over his people is merely a European fantasy written into colonial law.

Indeed, my old Cree teacher once explained to me that, in her dialect, the word for an important leader is “okimaw,” and the word for a chief is “okimakan,” with that “kan” suffix meaning roughly “a thing made in imitation of.”

Politicians, in that sense, are imitations of leaders.

Now, sometimes modern chiefs have the support of their constituents, and sometimes they don’t. But as aboriginal activists call on their various traditions for inspiration, they don’t see much reason to obey any singular, permanent leadership issuing demands and negotiating with the feds on their behalf. If the chiefs go in a direction the activists don’t want to go in, the activists will feel perfectly within their rights to go on without them.

Third, regardless of what form of organization they prefer for themselves, most people in aboriginal communities believe they retain the right of self-determination vis-à-vis the colonial state. That is, they don’t think the central government has the right to decide where or if their kids go to school, how the laws will be enforced, and what people can do with their own land.

The treaties that past aboriginal leaders signed with the British crown are important to any legal discussion of their present relationship with the Canadian state. But most aboriginal persons regard these treaties as agreements between sovereign nations — not as declarations of total surrender and eternal submission to the wisdom of the colonial state.

In that sense, modern aboriginal organizations might properly wield powers analogous to the rights of nullification and secession that Tom Woods advocates for states within the USA. The smaller-level organizations aren’t perfect, but they may provide some refuge from federal tyranny.

Self-Determination and Federal Law

Among its many provisions, the new federal law, Bill C-45, makes it slightly easier for reserve politicians to lease reserve land to outside companies.[4] As laws governing indigenous people in Canada go, it’s not an especially evil one. Maybe it will make it easier for the crony capitalists to rob them, or maybe it will make it easier for indigenous people to develop real free markets for themselves. The possible economic outcomes are not the fundamental point.

The point, from the perspective of many protestors, is that the federal government wants to impose this law on all 600+ bands “for their own good.” The point is that indigenous people, in Canada and the world at large, are sick and tired of having things done to them or done for them.

Among all the other demands in Idle No More — for the repeal of Bill C-45, for the enactment of some other law, for the return of stolen territory, or for the paying of reparations — you can hear this steady undertone: They are seeking a path back to autonomy and self-determination. They are fostering a resurgence of the principle that no authority has the right to force all people to conform to one vision of justice, economy, or culture.

This post originally appeared as a feature article on the website of the Center for a Stateless Society.


[1] There is of course no central information storehouse for this decentralized movement. You can find regular news and commentary on the leftist site Rabble.ca, but much of the discussion and organization by protestors themselves is happening on national and local Idle No More Facebook pages, and on Twitter, hashtag#IdleNoMore. Indeed, the movement name comes from the hashtag used by the original founders.

[2] Depending on where you draw the line between a language and a dialect.

[3] There may have been some states in the southern United States in the long millennia before European colonization, but those civilizations had passed away well before 1492.

[4] Bill C-45 makes it so that instead of needing a majority of all band members to lease the land, you just need a majority of all members who show up to vote.

1 Comment

Filed under News and Commentary, Nonaggression Anthropology

One response to “Rise of the Indigenous Protest Movement: #IdleNoMore and Native Liberty

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