From the Red Power Movement to Idle No More

Native American protest, 1971

Native American protest, 1971

A former member of the American Indian Movement looked back at the days of Red Power and said, “I didn’t think of it as ‘a string of successes’ at the time, but I guess that’s what it was.  It was a time when you questioned things, when what you hadn’t really thought about became pretty obvious. It was a time when you could make a difference.

Red Power stands for mass, united, militant action. Red Power, like Black Power, set off a wave of action and a level of consciousness in both the indigenous and non-indigenous communities, which has never really ended. Before we get to the parallels between the Red Power movement and Idle No More, let’s look at the international context in which it took place, some of the key events of the older movement, some of the debates that arose during this period, as well as the legacy left behind by this movement.

Most scholars date the movement as roughly between 1969 and 1978, covering events that took place in North America. The end of the 1960s marked the end of the post-war economic boom, and the beginning of a series of recessions. When the economy is in crisis, the corporations and the governments that serve them need to obtain their profits in increasingly aggressive ways. In Canada, the search for new sources of oil, gas and electricity, led to a head-on collision with indigenous communities.

At the same time, there was inspiration from anti-war and liberation movements. As one historian of the movement described the Alcatraz occupation: “The occupation and the Red Power Indian activist movement that followed in its wake took their places alongside the civil rights movement, the black power movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the many other movements dramatizing the grievances of and demanding rights for women, Latinos, Asians, gays, the poor, and the disabled.”

Members of the Black Panther party in Oakland, California protested a new ban on firearms in front of the California capitol building. Over 30 members were arrested and co-founder Bobby Seale was taken into custody.

Members of the Black Panther party in Oakland, California protested a new ban on firearms in front of the California capitol building. Over 30 members were arrested and co-founder Bobby Seale was taken into custody.

American Indian Movement

As early as June 1961, representatives from more than 60 tribes met in Chicago and issued a “Declaration of Indian Purpose”, and growing out of this was the National Indian Youth Council” (NIYC) of young, mainly urban native activists. It was one of the first native activist organizations formed during the civil rights era. Indigenous people adapted the civil rights’ sit-in’s to “fish-ins”: fishing “illegally” in waters traditionally used by native people, and the precipitating events were court restrictions on native fishing. The fish-ins resulted in legal victories, but equally important organizational lessons including alliances between local tribal groups and national organizations, and attracting media attention to influence popular opinion and the courts.

In 1968, The American Indian Movement, best known as AIM, was formed in Minneapolis Minnesota.  It was inspired by the Black Panthers and was set up to address similar problems: police harassment, racism and poverty. It had its strongest bases in urban settings, but quickly became known on large reserves across the US and Canada. The best known AIM leaders were Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier.

The 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Franciso, was a turning point: led not by local tribes but by a “national” or supra-tribal organization (in this case the “Indians of All Tribes”), and activists began targeting urban centres and/or national monuments or property as “surplus” government land that belonged to the indigenous people.

The occupation began with just over 80 indigenous people on November 20, 1969. Due to the high level of political consciousness that had developed by 1969, there was tremendous solidarity with the occupation—because of the success of battles fought by other minorities, e.g. blacks, and the Vietnamese abroad, and the awareness of the hypocrisy of government policy. The native activists also drew in celebrities like Dick Gregory, Marlon Brando (who refused his Oscar because of the federal government’s treatment of native people), Johnny Cash and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The Alcatraz occupation lasted 19 months. The impact was electric and widespread. As one person said, “Every once in a while something happens that can alter the whole shape of a people’s history. This only happens once in a generation or lifetime. The big one was Alcatraz.”

Another important event was the “Trail of Broken Treaties”, a caravan of hundreds of indigenous activists from across the country to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington in November, 1972, immediately prior to the presidential election.

There was also a shift to longer-term occupations in the early 1970s.  The most famous of these was at Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota (the place of the US massacre of the Lakota Sioux in 1890). The conflict in Wounded Knee was related to the internal divisions in the tribe (Oglala Lakota Sioux) over its chair, Richard Wilson, who some saw as corrupt and totally co-opted by the BIA. Wilson’s opponents, supported by 250 AIM members from outside Wounded Knee, led a siege for 71 days.

An American Indian Movement (AIM) guard posted at a roadblock outside Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973.

An American Indian Movement (AIM) guard posted at a roadblock outside Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973.

Subsequent tribal-based occupations occurred in 1974 and 1975, and were of varying duration, in locations everywhere from New York state, to Wisconsin, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington.

In the early 1970s, there was a shift from “supra-tribal” events to issues more rooted in specific communities, and AIM re-focussed from the city to the reservations. By 1975, AIM began to make a priority of establishing or strengthening connections with indigenous peoples internationally, leading to an AIM offshoot called the International Indian Treaty Council.

Red Power movement

The precipitating event for the Red Power movement in Canada was the federal government’s release of its “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy” or a “White Paper” for discussion, in June, 1969—the same year as the Alcatraz occupation. This document sought to extinguish all distinct status for First Nations people, the very status guaranteed under existing laws. The White Paper would have been the death knell of distinct First Nations cultures and rights, as paltry as these rights were under the Indian Act (enacted in 1876). The assimilation goal that underpinned the White Paper represented a continuation of longstanding colonial policy of the Canadian state.

As the First Nations writer James Burke noted: “Given all this , one would think that the Indian’s special status is more of a millstone than a crutch. Not from the Indian’s standpoint, though, for poor housing is better than no housing, inadequate education is better than no education, and inferior medical care is better than no medical care…But there’s more to it than that. There’s the land – the land upon which thousands of Indian people reside and believe to be theirs, as well as other vast tracts which they claim belong to them due to treaty or aboriginal rights. Without land, Indians would be unable to sustain the idea of native nationhood. As they would put it: where there’s land, there’s hope. Hope for independence both cultural and economic.”

But Red power was already evident in Canada before the release of the White Paper. In March, 1969 at a conference of the Manitoba Indian and Metis Conference, Jeannette Corbiere from Toronto stated: “the only way to gain equality is not to ask for it, but rather to lay claim on it… We will not only rock the boat, we will sink it if need be.”

Key events

What is striking about the Red Power era, and what distinguished it from other periods of native resistance, is the frequency of actions taken, and the direct action focus they took—as opposed to the lobbying efforts which were the main tactic used previously.

In January 1970, 200 Indians and Metis occupied the Alberta “New Start” Centre in Lac La Biche because the government cancelled its research programs. The summer of 1973 saw the occupation of the office of the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa, and the occupation of the Minister of Indian Affairs office in Kenora. The summer of 1973 also saw the Cache Creek, BC highway blockade to protest poor housing conditions on reserve. On October 16, 1973, hundreds of Mohawks fought police and smashed windows of band council offices on the Caughnawaga reserve in Quebec.

The 1974 armed occupation of Anicinabe Park, near Kenora, Ontario.

The 1974 armed occupation of Anicinabe Park, near Kenora, Ontario.

The year 1974 was seen by some as the turning point in the Red Power movement in Canada. One of the key events was the occupation of Anicinabe (municipal) Park in Kenora, Ontario, in July 1974. Louis Cameron from the nearby White Dog reserve organized a conference in the park, but participants decided they needed to do more to assert their rights and make their demands heard. An Ojibway group said the park had been wrongfully taken from them by the city of Kenora in 1959, to whom it had been sold by the federal government without Ojibway permission.

But the July conference created an atmosphere to articulate other demands e.g. an end to police harassment in Kenora, better medical and dental services, removal of a particular judge (S.J. Nottingham), creation of a police college for First Nations peoples and cultural training for white police, creation of a local human rights committee, and appointment of First Nations justices of the peace.

This occupation was the first time in this period that First Nations people used arms to increase pressure to ensure their rights.  The occupation lasted 39 days, involving a stand-off between 100 First Nations participants (including support from members of AIM) and police. There were dozens of arrests but subsequent acquittals, and the leaders of the main national First Nations political bodies spoke out against the action as condoning violence.

The next main event that year occurred on Parliament Hill in September 1974 immediately after Anicinabe. The event was planned as a demonstration to raise awareness of the plight of indigenous people.  To build support, Louis Cameron, a leader with the Ojibway Warriors Society and of the Anicinabe occupation, went around Canada and launched the Native People’s Caravan to get people to Ottawa by Sept. 30. He succeeded in attracting 900 people.

On Parliament Hill, there were three lines of police. Indigenous people were unarmed, but police had bayonets and tear gas, and charged on the native people.

1974 Occupation of Anicinabe Park. 2/2

1974 Occupation of Anicinabe Park. 2/2

As Cameron observed, “I think that the event of the riot police attacking the people of the demonstration was a retaliation of the federal justice department of Canada and also particularly the Province of Ontario to retaliate on the native people for their armed insurrection at Anicinabe Park…We took up guns and freed ourselves from that (government dictatorship) but in return, the police and the government came running down with guns and clubs.”

There were numerous events in BC as well. For example, in 1975, there were five different protests. In March, 250 people from the Nazko and Luskus bands near Quesnel declared themselves sole occupants of hundreds of square miles of land in central BC. In April, Quatsino band members threatened to shut down the copper mine at Port Hardy, Vancouver Island, unless the company agreed to make $600,000 payments twice a year to compensate for the destruction of marine life in Quatsino Sound.

In April, 60 native people demonstrated on Highway #3 in the southern interior of BC near Hedley, over cut-off land claims discussions. Those from the Kitsegukla band set up a blockade on the road leading to the Kitsegukla Valley logging operation over land claims. A hundred members of the Seton Lake band blocked the BC Rail in near Lillooet, halting a Vancouver-based passenger train. The April conference of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs saw 188 chiefs renounce all federal aid, and give a statement that their members would no longer apply for government permits to hunt and fish.

There was also opposition to government energy plans. The James Bay Energy Corporation was diverting major rivers to create hydro power, but there was resistance by the James Bay Cree and Inuit communities. There was also the fight of the Dene people against the MacKenzie Valley pipeline in the Northwest Territories. The Dene resistance arose in response to the process, and to the fact that they had a land claim of some 400,000 square miles in the area.  The NWT Indian and Metis Federation stated it would use “any means necessary” (à la Malcolm X) to defend the claim.

In 1975 the Dene people called for independence and self-determination within the country of Canada.  This struggle evinced considerable support from the Canadian population. As described in one sympathetic newspaper – “Native activists have also sought support from organized workers and northern whites who are concerned about the land and the environment.  In a most significant development, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and the United Auto Workers have taken a stand in favour of a just land settlement BEFORE the pipeline is built. “

Debates within the Red Power movement

One debate was about tactics. One objection to AIM was that it was not sufficiently rooted in local communities to have credibility e.g. its members wouldn’t know local habits or culture. Disagreement about tactics was somewhat related to generational differences, and somewhat related to lack of real inclusion.

In Canada, another debate emerged between some First Nations men and women. First Nations women were discriminated against under Sec. 12 (1) (b) of the Indian Act whereby First Nations women who married non-First Nations lost their status as registered Indians (vs. First Nations men who married non-First Nations women did not).  Jeanette Lavell took the case of discrimination up legally. In 1974 she went to the Supreme Court of Canada and she lost the case, which led her to form Indian Rights for Indian Women-which led to debate within native communities. This particular struggle was later won through Bill C-31 passed in 1985.

Other debates took place between Red Power and government-funded Indian organizations. Government relied on the organizations they funded to minimize the effects of the Red Power movement, to dampen militancy.

For example, at a March 1969 Manitoba conference, Dave Courchene from the Indian Native Brotherhood denounced Red Power as “swelled heads”, and media depicted INB as the “reasonable” ones. These government-funded leaders were referred to as “uncle tomahawks”–though people like Courchene himself would denounce the government five years later when its “partnership” initiatives did not live up to their name e.g. only token native involvement in education programs.

Other debates were created by conservative thinkers within the native community. The best example comes from a lawyer, William Wuttunee, from Alberta. He wroteRuffled Feathers: Indians in Canadian Society, and agreed with those on the right that the best way forward for native people was to assimilate into Canadian economic and political life.  He supported the 1969 White Paper and, not surprisingly, was called upon frequently by the federal government to act as a native spokesman.

Relationship with other progressive forces in Canada

Many native people understood the links between their oppression and corporate greed. There were explicit anti-capitalists in the movement, just as there are today with groups like Idle No More.

Idle No More National Day of Action

Idle No More National Day of Action

Some Red Power activists were heavily influenced by nationalist struggles for self-determination happening in Africa and Vietnam, and in their ideological explorations found that Marxist explanations of the causes of oppression and imperialism made the most sense.

Maoist thought and maoist groups in Canada, like In Struggle and the CPC-ML, attracted some native activists like Vern Harper, who offered the following analysis of events in 1974:  “One of the key factors that made ’74 a turning point was that native activists, for the first time in their generation, realized that there was non-native support for their cause.

The isolation of the natives, used by the state, is no longer effective…We see trade unions, progressive left groups, church groups such as the Quakers, even liberal elements give support, such as funds, telegrams, participating in demonstrations, letters to Members of Parliament denouncing the tactics of the state, to help us. There’s a more militant and revolutionary theme emerging, which is beginning to get support from all elements of the native movement…Native and non-native people are seeing that capitalism doesn’t serve the masses.  It only protects the capitalists’ interests…”

Another native Marxist was Howard Adams from Saskatchewan. In 1975, he wrote: “If Native organizations are not politically active on a regular basis they cannot come together with non-Native people – it institutionalizes special status and gives a message to non-Natives that says ‘our problems are different form yours and our solutions are different.’ However, in fact, the problems are the same in the end; a small number of rich people get all the benefits of the capitalist society, and the vast majority, Native and non-Native, face constant insecurity and poverty.”

Native people and non-native people had lots of hope whenever the NDP was elected. In 1972, the NDP was elected in BC. Premier Dave Barrett appointed a First Nations leader Frank Calder to his Cabinet, but as a “minister without portfolio” – so Calder had no effective mandate. This same duplicity was shown by the NDP in Manitoba. During the Berger inquiry into the MacKenzie Valley pipeline meeting in Winnipeg, the NDP declined to make a submission. They knew that if they supported the pipeline, they would be unpopular with ordinary people. But if they spoke out too loudly against the pipeline, they would be hypocritical, as such opposition would fly in the face of their own behaviour towards native people, e.g. through support of hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba (flooding of South Indian Lake) and forced relocations.

Challenges, successes, and decline

Historically, and to this day, federal and provincial governments divide indigenous people by alternating their point of contact between national leaders and Band leaders, whatever will help the government get through its agenda the easiest. Outside the movement, both the NDP and labour leadership failed to consistently support indigenous struggles in a vocal, visible way, even though individual members of NDP and labour were counted as allies by activists. Internally, there was a lack of structure (e.g .AIM to this day prides itself on its loose structure), illusions about international law and the UN, and a belief that self-determination on its own would solve the problems of poverty and inequality.

But the challenges faced by the Red Power movement were far outweighed by the tremendous legacy left by the actions in the 1970s. There was a high level of activity coinciding with self-determination movements in Africa and Asia and liberation movements in North America, greater regional and national coordination, greater independence from government funding, and recognition of native bureaucracy as part of the bigger problem.

Among the victories were: forcing the government to withdraw its 1969 White Paper (in 1973), cultural renewal (which also affected non-indigenous people), funding for social programs, increased access to education and increased content (e.g. native studies programs), increased confidence to resist with greater frequency and militancy of actions.

The end of the movement in the late 1970s and into the 1980s coincided with a downturn in struggle internationally, and across various movements that had been ignited after 1968. The decline of Red Power was also due to government co-optation, by including indigenous “leaders” in policy consultation, and police repression (similar to what happened to the Black Panthers). The US arrested AIM leaders Leonard Peltier and Anna Mae Aquash, and infiltrated the organization, and Canada repressed warrior groups with surveillance, police break-ins and arbitrary arrests.

Comparison with Idle No More

The thread between the Red Power movement and Idle No More is with the 1990s confrontations in Oka and Gustafsen Lake, plus the native youth movement and warrior societies of the early 2000s. Indigenous activists look to the histories of both their own peoples, as well as struggles elsewhere. Red Power activists were inspired by the Black Power and Vietnam struggles.

The Warrior Societies were inspired by the Zapatistas, the Palestinian Intifada, and by the analysis of capitalist globalization and the need for alliances among indigenous peoples, students, workers and all oppressed people. Idle No More comes on the heels of the Arab Spring, Occupy movement, and the “printemps érable” in Quebec.

Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

Mohawk Warriors in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

There are also a number of differences. First, Red Power was led more within the US while INM began within Canada.  Second, like the civil rights, Black Power and anti-war movements, the public face of Red Power was male-dominated—whereas the public face of INM is much more female, alongside other movement leaders like Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, Maude Barlow, etc.

Third, whereas Jeanette Lavall was opposed by many Chiefs and Councils for fighting discrimination against First Nations women, there is more unity today between men and women—with women leading the movement, challenging the oppression of indigenous women (like the missing and murdered aboriginal women), with support from INM men. Fourth, while both movements had a level of support from non-indigenous people, INM has explicitly called for, and achieved greater support—including internationally. Fifth, the root causes of the issues people are facing are increasingly being identified with capitalism, to a greater degree than took place in the movements of the 1960s and 70s. Finally, there is a greater connection between militants in one movement and another, e.g. in the climate justice movement.

All of these factors mean that the potential for non-indigenous activists to link arms with their indigenous sisters and brothers is higher than when Red Power first made its mark. As Quebec students wrote in solidarity with Idle No More: “Indigenous peoples have been the greatest victims of this elite’s agenda to plunder resources in Quebec and Canada. But in the territories of the Algonquins, the Innu, the Mohawk, the Atikamekw, and elsewhere, they have also been this agenda’s fiercest opponents.

Because of their aboriginal rights, Indigenous peoples have the best chance to stop the destruction of our shared lands and waters and to manage them sustainably. We should support these struggles, in the name of mutual respect. We want to think and act for the generations to come. Now is the time for overcoming old divides by building new alliances. For too long native and non-native peoples have been pitted against another, precisely because this elite feared nothing more than the discovery of our mutual interests.”

Photos included: By Black Powder / Red Power Media

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6 thoughts on “From the Red Power Movement to Idle No More

  1. In September 2004, a meeting Mamuwinowag, was held at the residence of the late Grand Chief William Commanda, Algonquin Spiritual and political elder. This meeting brought together over 150 people from various Algonkian First Nations across Turtle Island. Elders such as the late Judge LaVerdure from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota as well as representaives from Oklahoma Shawnee, Delaware as well as Munsee/Delawre from Wisconsin joined their relatives from Innu, Attikameq, Algonquin, Ojibway ,Mik’mak, Abenaki, Wampanoag, Montauk and Shinnecock Nations. All Algonkian nations were invited but some elected for various reasons not to attend.
    This meeting was held at the request of our Elder and Chief William Commanda , at that time keeper of the 7 Fires wampum Belt, the jay Treaty Belt of 1797 and the Friendship Treaty Belt of 1701. It was at that meeting that I received my Chief’s Bonnet which Grandfather Commanda had received in 1957 from the Cheyenne nation when he was elected Supreme Chief of the North American Indian Nation succeeding the late Wendot leader Jules Sioui who was elected in 1947.
    Chief Commanda gave me one instruction at that time, one and only one. He told me to”Defend the Earth!”
    How does one person defend our Mother Earth? It starts with the heart, it statrts with love.
    Chief Commanda who passed on to the spirit world 3 years ago at the ripe old age of 98 always streesed that Forgiveness is the 1st Step to everything.
    That does not mean that we Red People must allow the destruction of our rivers, lands,air and lives to be ripped up , spit out and trampled underfoot,no! But it does mean that we cannot be blinded by our vision if it is clouded by hate and revenge.
    To be a true warrior of the People , I believe that we must be guided by a desire to see all life in balance and harmony..all life because we are all related as one.
    LOVE of this Earth, where for hundreds of thousands of years the moccassins of our ancestors tred upon this beautiful lands.
    We are all Indigenous, African,European,Asian,Polynesian,Hindu for we come from this earth our Mother. It is time for us the Red People to stand up once again to assume our sacred role as Caretakers of this Planet, Our Mother.

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