This is the Way of the Ancestors: Idle No More and Indigenous Resistance

by Eric Ritskes

This is the way of the ancestors, of those who have gone before. Of treaties, of education, of culture, of relationship, of health. Of resistance and resurgence. This is also the way of the future. 

I write these words as a settler on unceded Anishinaabeg and Mississauga land, where centuries of Indigenous peoples have never been idle, never ceded, never stopped remembering where they came from and who they are. This is important to know from the beginning.

It’s important because it is settler colonialism that is at the heart of the problems that Idle No More has risen to address. Settler colonialism relies on occupation and home-making of settlers on Indigenous land and a perceived legitimacy of the settler to the land that is settled. For settler colonialism to legitimate itself, Indigenous peoples must be removed. This removal can be ideological, as seen in how colonial doctrine emptied the ‘New World’, deeming Indigenous peoples as sub-human and Indigenous land, subsequently, virgin, uninhabited, and available for the taking. The removal can be physically; estimates of Indigenous populations on Turtle Island (America) range as high as fifty million people which, in short time, was reduced to the hundreds of thousands. This removal can also be cultural; residential schooling in Canada and the United States was based on an ideology of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” an ideology that sought to decimate Indigenous cultures, languages, and ways of life, which were deemed barbaric and savage.

Settler colonialism demands Indigenous erasure for the purpose of claiming Indigenous land, it is the symbolic and real replacement of Indigenous peoples with settlers who attempt to claim belonging. Indigeneity cannot simply be about ‘who was here first’ - as if we are all Indigenous to some place – or about merely long-term occupancy. Indigeneity stands in marked opposition to the imperial agenda. Indigeneity is contentious, disruptive and insurgent. But it is also healing and loving, working to restore and resurge right relationships within communities, between communities, with the land, and with the self. This is the way of the ancestors.

What is Idle No More about?

As Idle No More erupted across Canada and North America, beginning in December, many in the media were quick to point out similarities to the recent Occupy movement, particularly similarities in how media and mainstream pundits were unclear about the ‘demands’ of the movement and what it is they hoped to accomplish. What is Idle No More about? While the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ was the Canadian government’s strong arm tactics in pushing through Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that threatened to decimate protection of both land and waterways that Indigenous communities depend on, as well as decimate some of the last collective rights Indigenous communities had enshrined in Canadian law, there are much more complex and inherent problems that undergird the Idle No More movement.

I can’t speak to all of diverse demands within Idle No More; I’m not sure any one person can. It’s about protesting the ongoing ecological destruction of land and waterways, particularly through the Canadian government’s ongoing insistence on building oil pipelines to transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands, deemed some of the world’s ‘dirtiest oil’. It’s about the failure of Canadians to honor and uphold the original treaties that were signed with the sovereign Indigenous nations within what are now their borders. It’s about the ongoing violence and destruction of Indigenous peoples, livelihoods, nations, languages and cultures - the violence that allows thousands of Indigenous women to be murdered and missing without so much as a ripple in the peaceful façade of Canadian multiculturalism. It’s about resisting against the ongoing settler colonialism, which seeks to erase Indigenous peoples in any way possible. It’s about a long history of oppression, a long history of violence, and a long history of marginalizing, making invisible, and physically erasing Indigenous peoples. It’s about all of these things and more.

Indigenous resurgence

It’s also about love. Tanya Kappo, one of the ‘founders’ of Idle No More, talks of how the original treaties that were signed by Indigenous nations are about love – the desire to protect and ensure a peaceful future for the next generations. It is this love – for communities, for the land, for self, and for those yet to come – that makes Idle No More more than a resistance movement; Idle No More is about Indigenous resurgence. Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred states: “Resurgence is acting beyond resistance. It is what resistance always hopes to become.”[1]

To begin to understand the complexities of Idle No More, we must begin with love for the land and culture, two things that in Indigenous epistemologies cannot be separated. Love is about relationships, which is the basis for Indigenous action. Colonialism has violently impacted Indigenous relationships at all levels; it has left a long historical trail of dispossession and disconnection from ancestral lands and teachings. There is the need to restore these right relationships.

This means the resurgence of Indigenous cultures, languages, governance structures, and nations. It means, through daily acts of resistance and resurgence, living out relationships of respect and love rather than relationships of violence. This is not an esoteric struggle; as WabKinew (Anishinaabe) states, “Our resistance is not abstract, this is about our ways of life, about the integrity of being Anishinaabe. If the land’s integrity is compromised, our integrity is compromised.” Indigenous resistance, such as Idle No More, is not merely a policy disagreement or a difference of opinion; when the land is threatened, Indigenous existence is threatened.

Into the future

Indigenous existence is always a threat, always threatening to unravel the foundation of legitimacy that settler states have built their existence on. The belief that nations such as Canada were built on the blood, sweat and tears of settlers who explored, settled, and tamed virgin land is as fictitious as it is harmful to Indigenous peoples. Because land is the heart of settler colonialism and its ability to generate wealth, Indigenous nations’ claim to land invokes terror. Recently, it came out that the Canadian government was investigating Indigenous environmental activists asdomestic terrorists; this is the pattern around the globe as Indigenous peoples who claim land rights and who stand up to resist the wholesale destruction of their ancestral lands have been labeled terrorists and internal threats, even as they occupy and live on their own lands.

The Indigenous response to ongoing colonialism will be the way of the ancestors - resurgence and resistance, just as it has been since the colonial powers first set foot on Turtle Island; with oppression comes the inevitable response of resistance. And as Alfred reminds us, “Struggle…is the signal of an oppressed people’s still beating heart in a colonial situation. Action is the life sign of peoples whose existence is officially denied.”[2]The actions taken are both resurgent and insurgent, rewriting a history of Indigenous resistance in the face of a colonial history that impoverished and decimated Indigenous nations, actions reclaiming Indigenous place and space from the colonial grasp. And as Indigenous peoples struggle to articulate their pride and Indigenous identities, they are increasingly seen as a threat.

It is this threat that binds Indigenous peoples from around the globe, the concerted effort of global colonialism to eradicate and homogenize difference. Where globalization has become the norm, the Indigenous stands in stark contrast, revealing globalization for what it is and has always been: colonial. The particularities and uniqueness of Indigenous cultures counter the infinite substitutability of the universalizing flows of globalization. Indigenous ways of life counter the global narrative driven by consumptive and destructive capital, offering real alternatives and real challenges.

So what is the answer? Many Indigenous activists and scholars have pointed to the original treaties that Indigenous nations signed with the British crown and others. The spirit of these treaties is often represented in Canada by the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) Two Row Wampum, which shows two purple lines running parallel down a white background. Without going into the rich detail it contains, the two purple lines illustrate two boats down the river of life, two peoples who peacefully co-exist in friendship, respecting each other’s autonomy and differences.

While the Two Row Wampum is particular to distinct contexts, the spirit and intent of it remains at the heart of Indigenous resurgence – the ability to co-exist in peace, to maintain and celebrate Indigenous cultures, and to maintain loving relationships to others and the land.

Despite the particularity of the Two Row Wampum, the spirit of solidarity through shared struggles, shared love for the land, and shared relationality, has bonded Indigenous peoples together. Support for Idle No More has poured in from Palestine, New Zealand, Mexico, and from around the globe. While situations and means of struggle are different, there is a recognition that to successfully challenge global colonialism, in all of its manifestations, there must be cooperation, learning, and sharing of strategies, creative talents, and spiritual support.

These struggles, in Canada and globally, depend not only on Indigenous peoples but also on people like myself, a non-Indigenous person, whose representatives signed on as partners in the original treaties and who have benefitted from them being disregarded. Respectful relationships demand that both parties honor the agreement. In the current state, StephanieIrlbacher-Fox lays out settler responsibility as “coexistence through co-resistance.” As Idle No More continues to grow and change, it is non-Indigenous peoples' responsibility to support the movement for Indigenous nationhood and cultural resurgence, recognizing that these two must go hand in hand. It is a non-Indigenous responsibility to uphold respectful relationships, but also to resist alongside our Indigenous brothers and sisters, to not be silent in the face of continued colonialism.

This message of Idle No More doesn’t fit into neat media narratives and, subsequently, is not the one that is told. Edward Said and others have reminded us that this desire for neat capsules is inherently a colonial desire – containment and compartmentalization for the purpose of definition and control. Idle No More and Indigenous resistance resist definition and control. The truth is much messier than the neat narratives, much more complex and even at times contradictory, as it usually tends to be. But one thing is clear: Indigenous peoples will continue to move forward in the way of the ancestors. Of treaties, of education, of culture, of relationship, of health. Of resistance and resurgence.

Eric Ritskes is the founder and editor of the Open Access, peer-reviewed journal, Decolonization: Indigeniety, Education & Society. He is a PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada where his work examines the intersections of Indigeneity, decolonization, and discourses of technology, particularly through Open Access publishing.


[1]Taiaiake Alfred, Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action & Freedom (University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 151.

[2]Taiaiake Alfred, Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action & Freedom (University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 203.

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First published: 25 February, 2013

Category: Activism, International, Racism, Vision/Strategy

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