Over the last few months First Nations have been drawing the attention of news makers. Recent local and national government actions in New York, Canada and South Dakota have once again galvanized First Nation communities, sparking public outrage and political activism.
In Canada, Harper’s conservative government passed legislative act C-45 October 2012, without much public review or the overall consent of the native communities which would be most affected by it. C-45 reduces the number of protected reserve lands and waterways and intends to open up vast tracts of territory to oil sands and natural gas development.
Outraged natives, who number about 3% of the total Canadian population, responded by organizing an ongoing series of protests and actions loosely coordinated through a network called Idle No More. Since October, Idle No More has organized and co-sponsored dozens of actions, including the 1600 km walk on Ottawa, hunger strikes by at least two chiefs and many instances of civil disobedience.
Idle No More has begun to spread into the states with chapters springing up in communities that border Canada, including Idle No More Minnesota and Idle No More NYC. This speaks to the international flavor of these concerns as pipelines carrying extremely toxic Tar Sands oil are due to be expanded into the U.S. Fracking and such pipelines are no longer simply the internal affairs of one nation.
Although there is dissension about these issues within the larger Canadian First Nation community, Idle No More has struck a chord with many people and it isn’t just “Indians” who are joining the movement or the actions.
In New York state, the Onondaga, Keepers of the Council Fire of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, have begun a year long commemoration and re-inscribing of the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum. This records the first treaty made between the Haudenosaunee and a European power, the Dutch, in 1613. The Onondaga have a long history of working to maintain a political and legal presence within New York state and have been largely successful in using the courts to force Albany to continue to recognize historic treaties made with the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, the Federal government and New York legislators.
The issues of fracking and ongoing dumping of toxic material in/near Onondaga territory plus the general tendency of recent New York governments to try to backtrack on treaty promises has brought new urgency to the anniversary of the Two Row Wampum treaty. With larger community assistance and sincere support by non-native allies, the Onondaga and other members of the Haudenosaunee have launched a series of educational and political events to remind New Yorkers of the historical tie between two sovereign peoples, native and non-native, and the responsibilities of each party to the well being of the other.
This summer native and non-native allies will physically re-enact the Two Row Wampum by boating down the Hudson river in two parallel convoys visually embodying the Two Row on the water from Albany to New York City.
Finally, on a much more desperate note, the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota, may be on the verge of losing control over one of their most revered sites, that of the memorial mass grave of the victims of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.
The Oglala live on the Rosebud Reservation, one of the most economically depressed in the United States. They were forced to settle there after successfully defying the U.S. government for several decades. The Wounded Knee site was owned by the Federal government for many years, but in the 20th century parcels of the land were sold into private ownership. The reservation holdings of the Oglala were also reduced.
Eventually, the Wounded Knee site was purchased by a private rancher in 1968 who agreed to maintain the memorial site, small museum and shop that goes along with it. But he wants to retire and needs to let go of the property. He claims he’s tried to sell it to the Oglala several times, but they are too poor to purchase it on their own.
Therefore, according to his plan, if the Oglala cannot come up with the money he will put the Wounded Knee massacre site up for public auction on May 1, at which point there is no guarantee that the site will be maintained at all. The Oglala have appealed to the public nationally; even the New York Times took up the call, for assistance in finding a way to purchase and maintain the site themselves. Some Oglala object to the very idea of having to purchase back the land on which their dead lie buried, but that’s the way the law stands. The stated price for the land is somewhere between 3.9-4.9 million dollars (sources vary).