PORTLAND, Maine — The oppression of indigenous people is a grim reality throughout the world, but a conflict between the Canadian government and Indian tribes over land rights has sparked a multinational protest that on Saturday stretched to Maine.
The Idle No More protest movement was sparked by the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people of Canada and is spreading to numerous countries. Fueling the movement is an ongoing hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence of western Canada, who is resolved to fasting until Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to meet with her to discuss an omnibus spending bill passed recently by the Canadian Parliament. Members of the Idle No More movement say provisions within the legislation effectively strip indigenous people in Canada of their sovereign property rights.
But Idle No More has a much wider focus than that, according to George Neptune, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and educator for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, which focuses on Native American history.
“You may not understand why we are fighting for indigenous rights in another country,” said Neptune on Saturday, flanked by members of numerous tribes, as well as a strong contingent from a range of human rights organizations. “What you need to understand is that we as native people do not have countries. We are all connected, and what happens to some of us happens to all of us.”
David Slagger, who in January 2012 became Maine’s first Maliseet Indian legislator, said the Idle No More movement represents a worldwide shift in attitude by indigenous people who traditionally showed little interest in engaging in politics or government activities.
“Are we going to watch while others speak for us and sacrifice for us?” asked Slagger, who has given up his seat in the Legislature effective Tuesday. “No, we’re not. We’re going to come together as one people, one nation and one voice, and we say we are idle no more.”
The Idle No More movement has been compared by some to the Occupy movement because they say its goals and objectives are unclear, though participants in Saturday’s protest said the joining of forces from numerous indigenous peoples for peaceful protest is hardly a small accomplishment. Don Barnaby, a First Nations Indian whose people hail from Quebec province, said he’s seen oppression within his own family. His mother and father-in-law spent a combined 16 years in residential Christianization schools.
“The atrocities against First Nation people have been going on for many, many generations,” said Barnaby. “It’s not that we didn’t have a voice because of fear. I think we have a voice today because of fear. We’re worrying about what’s going to happen to our indigenous people. This isn’t just about the land and it’s not just about the water. That’s just a small part of it. It’s about all those frogskins, that mighty dollar and why they want to continue to destroy and rape Mother Earth for that almighty dollar. This land is not for sale. It’s not ours and it’s not theirs. We’re all just here to be caretakers.”
The camaraderie at Saturday’s event was obvious. For much of it, the participants chanted and danced, some looking skyward with tears in their eyes. If nothing else, it served as a tangible connection to the long, mostly unwritten history of indigenous people. Louis Sigel of Wayne, who is not of Indian lineage, said his involvement in Saturday’s event was about human rights and the environment.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about the environment and the planet,” he said.
Karen Demers of Brunswick said she is unsure of her exact Native American lineage, but felt at home on Saturday, which marked the first time she has ever been involved in a protest.
“I always felt different than most of the people around me,” said Demers. “Knowing [about her Native American ancestors] has answered a lot of questions for me.”