In the last decade, there has been a targeted and aggressive attack on First Nations by one of the most racist federal governments we have seen in recent years. The former Conservative government strategically used weak spots created by decades of devastating colonization. The funding cuts to basic human services like water and housing kept many of our people struggling to keep their families alive. The very public smear campaign against our leaders was relentless and helped to both divide our people and distract us from the continued theft of our lands and resources. What Canada didn’t expect was Idle No More — a historic grassroots social movement which used the strength of our collectives as the basis for our resistance and revitalization. Sadly, Idle No More struggled under the divisions caused by the external influences of federal and provincial governments, national Aboriginal organizations, large corporate interests and a few strategically-placed sell-out leaders.
But this isn’t the first time we have been under attack by the settler government, and it won’t be the last. The key difference between the war our ancestors faced and the war we currently face is us – the weakening of our collective ties to each other within our respective Nations, between our Nations and with our territories. This weakening of our collective strength is a direct result of colonial laws, policies and actions. The attack was two-pronged — (1) target the life-givers to reduce our populations and halt the transmission of our cultures and identities to new generations; and (2) target the warriors and leave our Nations and territories unprotected.
These attacks have been sustained through time, despite alleged changes to settler laws which claim to protect Aboriginal and treaty rights and human rights. Indigenous women have been targeted in many ways. In Mi’kmaw territory, Mi’kmaw women and children were included in the laws which offered bounties for their scalps. Indigenous women were encouraged to intermarry with settler men but lost their Indian status and their right to live in their home communities as a result. Tens of thousands of Indian women lost their status while as many non-Indigenous women gained status. This had the effect of ensuring that the children of intermarried Indigenous women had to grow up in settler culture and that the children of intermarried Indigenous men were raised by non-Indigenous women. Since assimilation was taking too long, many Indigenous women and little girls were forcibly sterilized without their knowledge or consent, thereby reducing the population of our Nations. At the same time, children were stolen from the arms of our women to be beaten, raped, tortured and murdered in residential schools. Today, more children are stolen from our Nations than ever before — for example, one baby is taken in Manitoba every day. The crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls is not a failure on Canada’s part. It was a conscious decision to let it happen.
Indigenous men were also targeted. Early on, Nations protected by powerful warriors, were broken up into many smaller communities and spread out from one another. Many communities were relocated from land on which they had always sustained themselves to far off places, disconnecting us from place and Nation. The Indian Act made it illegal for anyone to leave the reserve, thus preventing our men from hunting for our people or gathering our warriors to plan resistance. These laws also banned very powerful dances and ceremonies which helped to ground our warriors and keep our leaders and people connected in good ways. Scalping bounties were used to eliminate the most powerful warriors protecting the eastern part of Turtle Island. In other areas, our warriors were beaten, threatened and murdered with impunity. The RCMP was formed in part to subdue our warriors and today’s Starlight tours and deaths in police custody are evidence that our warriors are still targets. Those warriors, who manage to find the strength and conviction to protect our lands or defend our Nations despite the risks, are vilified as terrorists and threats to national security. As a result, our Indigenous men and boys fill Canada’s jails and graveyards at staggering rates, which continue to increase.
Thankfully, our Nations are in a period of awakening, revitalization and decolonization. We see that the many social ills and divisions within our Nations are not of our own doing. It was never part of any of our traditions to divide each other into on and off-reserve, registered and non-registered Indians, blue-eyed and brown-eyed, Chiefs and grassroots, or man and woman. Western ideas around race, social status, gender and capitalism have infected our minds and, in some cases, replaced the traditional values that sustained our ancestors. We are now learning how to heal and forgive each other for being colonized and most importantly, understand the many ways in which colonial thinking defeats our efforts on rebuilding our Nations.
While we have rightfully put a great deal of focus and effort towards protecting and empowering our Indigenous women and girls, we have a long way to go in ensuring their safety and supporting them in their many roles as life-givers and leaders. Indigenous women had powerful roles which varied from Nation to Nation. They served as elders, healers, and caregivers, as well as negotiators, advisors and leaders in their own right. Some served as interpreters and others stepped up as warriors when needed. Their roles were so powerful and so tied to the good of the collective that settler governments knew what Indigenous Nations had long known:
“A Nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”
It is absolutely critical to the rebuilding of our Nations that women take back their positions of power and that we support them in those efforts. But we cannot do this without our warriors. Warriors are critical to any hope of rebuilding and protecting our Nations. Warriors are not the terrorists Canada has portrayed them to be to the public. The vast majority of warrior actions taken to protect our lands, waters and people have been through ceremony and peaceful means. It is Canada’s retaliatory actions which have caused the violence and bloodshed: their illegal blockades and forceful means of keeping us from our lands. Warriors have proven themselves to be fiercely loyal to their Nations and, prioritizing their safety and well-being. Even when vilified by governments, arrested by police and abandoned by their leaders, our warriors persist. They are selfless and connected to our ancestors. It is time we reached out to our warriors lost in gangs, trapped in prisons and vilified by society, and brought them home. Imagine what we could do if we set aside the myths, stereotypes, differences and dysfunctions created by colonization and embraced the full power and strength of our collectives?
Despite everything that has been done to us by settler governments, we have survived because our ancestors, who were not blinded by decades of colonization, sacrificed their own lives and interests to ensure we would live another day. They exemplified what it meant to be selfless and righteous and loyal to our people. The restoration of our Nations and well-being won’t be found in a movement led only by Indigenous women activists, nor will it be led by Indigenous male warriors. The long road back to reclaiming our Nationhood can only be found in restoring the balance we have lost by embracing both our life-givers and warriors, and bringing them home. I see our warriors rising alongside our life-givers and this gives me hope for our future generations.
This article is dedicated to one of our fallen Cree warriors — Kris Oxman — murdered but not forgotten.