Why Theresa Spence Is Still on a Hunger Strike, 7 Weeks Later

The Attawapiskat First Nation chief and Idle No More movement have put Natives under the spotlight in Canada--begging larger questions for the U.S., too.

By Aura Bogado Jan 23, 2013

Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence has entered her seventh week of a hunger strike. She’s already lost 30 pounds in a little more than 40 days, surviving only on water, therapeutic tea and fish broth. And there are no concrete signs that she will end that strike anytime soon. As a result, Spence has been put under a microscope. But as part of a vibrant movement called Idle No More, she’s also put Natives in Canada and the United States in the spotlight in novel ways, and has helped non-Natives consider what solidarity might mean.

Idle No More was formed in response to Canada’s omnibus Bill C-45. The massive economic bill makes extraordinary changes to environmental law, including the way the environment and waterways are–or are not–protected. The bill’s backers say that streamlining environmental assessment and suspending water protections are necessary for efficient resource development, but many of the bodies of water in question are in First Nations’ traditional territories. Further, the bill makes changes to Canada’s Indian Act by altering the way First Nation land is leased. Idle No More’s strident objection has been that First Nations were never consulted about these fundamental changes–much less given an opportunity to debate in their own interests.

Chief Spence has demanded a joint meeting with all Assembly of First Nations chiefs, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston, and vows to continue her hunger strike until that happens. That demand for nation-to-nation talks recognizes that First Nations hold sovereignty, and should be respected as such. It rejects the idea that Canadian government can make unilateral changes to the Indian Act, or to the way land and water are used, without direct consultation with and agreement from Native people. And although Johnston’s role as governor general is essentially a ceremonial one, as the symbolic representative of the queen of England, the request to have him in attendance stresses the history of First Nation treaties with the British monarch.

As she holds tight to her demand, and puts her health in danger to do so, Spence has come under attack. A contentious Attawapiskat audit was recently made public and has been used to discredit Spence as a corrupt leader. The audit covers a time dating back to 2005, although Spence wasn’t chief until August 2010.

To further derail her demand, some point out that Harper already agreed to meet as a working group earlier this month–never mind that that was a far cry from the talks for which Spence has called. Others have been quick to point out that the change to the Indian Act is minimal and somehow not important. These assessments about the Harper meeting and the changes to the Indian Act illustrate a limited understanding of what First Nation sovereignty means in Canada, and emphasize the notion that non-Natives can independently decide what’s best for Natives.

Meanwhile, Idle No More activists continue to hold flash mob round dances in Canada and the U.S. More than 100 flash mobs took place alone on Jan. 11, and new ones are planned daily. The round dance–sometimes inaccurately called a drum circle by well-meaning activists and journalists–is rooted in Powwow Intertribal, where all Natives are invited to join. Idle No More has generously opened up that space for non-Natives to join as well, holding flash mobs on the streets and in malls in order to claim a public presence. Curious people walking by are invited to join in, and some reluctantly do, sometimes learning about tribal sovereignty for the first time.

Although holding spontaneous round dances in towns and cities across North America may be new, the movement for self-determination is not. It’s much better understood as a continuation of centuries of resistance to colonialism and its legacies.

And, it’s not Occupy.

Despite the seemingly constant comparisons, Gyasi Ross points out at Indian Country that Idle No More needs to be acknowledged in its own context. He writes that the anxiety over the economic uncertainty that originated with New York activists in 2011 pales in comparison to reality on Native nations, where unemployment rates sometimes reach more than 70 percent. In fact, Occupy alienated many Native Americans who felt that choosing that name for a movement without recognizing the deep irony of holding protests on occupied land was unacceptable.

Idle No More, meanwhile, has invited everyone to participate, and has made clear that whatever changes Bill C-45 has made do not only affect Natives or Canadians. That’s because the resource industries that stand to gain easy profits as a result of Bill C-45 will do so in a shared environment. A particular river may flow on traditional Native land–but the pipeline that may run through it could put everyone’s health at risk. Similarly, cutting back on environmental assessments doesn’t only put Native communities at risk, but would potentially affect the air that everyone breathes.

The part that’s particular to Canada’s First Nations, meanwhile, rests on a clear understanding of and support for First Nation sovereignty.

Which brings us to the U.S., where a similar concept is referred to as tribal sovereignty. Unfamiliarity with the term is a predictable result of an education system that often limits what we learn about Native people to the First Thanksgiving. In order to minimally understand tribal sovereignty, we need to consider that prior to colonization, the people who lived in what’s now called the United States of America not only had their own customs, but also their own organized ways of governing themselves–hence, Native nations.

Post independence, the U.S. followed the European practice of negotiating treaties with these nations. Despite repeated attempts at annihilation and nearly unbelievable Supreme Court decisions, these resilient nations survived, and continued to govern themselves. Fast forward to today, when the federal government recognizes 566 tribes and nations–all with tribal sovereignty that, at different points in time, came to agreements about the federal obligations that are owed in exchange for massive amounts of land.

If nothing else, Idle No More’s round dances are powerful because they publically counter both the old black and white images of Natives from the past and the colorful racism of contemporary sports teams, reminding us all that Natives are still alive. Non-Natives fit in to the round dance by recognizing that the federal government is bound to certain requirements when it comes to Native people. Canada has shown a disdain for these treaties, and Chief Spence has already put her health in jeopardy to bring awareness to that.

Native nations in the U.S., meanwhile, have fared better under the Obama administration when compared to previous ones. But that doesn’t mean that all members of Congress even have an understanding of tribal sovereignty, or that legislation that could impact that sovereignty won’t be soon introduced. In the meantime, Natives in the U.S. face the highest infant mortality rates and the lowest lifespans. Short lifetimes marked by dismal experiences when it comes to housing, education, health, and violence–not to mention exceptionally low income and wealth. If Spence, Idle No More and round dances have captured our attention, these statistics should, too.