Aboriginal evolution and yesterday’s social movement

Urbane 2

By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in November 2014

Recently, my community held its annual powwow. Lots of celebrating and dancing Indigenous people. One of the delightful rituals is attending the community breakfast where I, and many others, enjoyed a hearty buffet of scrambled eggs, a potato patty, hash browns, baked beans, sausages, bacon, pulled pork and prime rib. This merely proved the ancient Aboriginal adage stating there are no calories on the powwow trail. Only meat.

While I was enjoying my week’s worth of protein, I noticed a woman walking by wearing an Idle No More windbreaker.  Was it only a year or two ago when this movement was in all the media, drumming up interest and publicity in a number of Native causes?  Practically everybody in the Native community was joyfully participating in the flash mobs, including myself.

Protests, hunger strikes, marches, all in the spirit of trying to make the various levels of government, the federal government of Stephen Harper, in particular, pay attention to pressing and frequently ignored social issues. It seemed like anything was possible even though the government viewed us as just another special interest group. Oh, whence have you gone, Idle No More?

Could it be the feds have won? They’re still here, reminding the First Nations population where they stand in the social hierarchy of Canada, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a social protest with an Idle No More label attached. I still see the occasional button or sticker, but that’s about it. 

For a brief moment I was sad, despite the tasty bacon. It was like remembering a forgotten friend that made you feel alive. Then, as the dancers and drummers milled around, fighting for a place in the line for the bathroom, I realized the true answer to my quandary. The Idle No More movement hadn’t stopped. It wasn’t defeated.  It was alive, but evolved. Just like the powwow. 

There are a lot of theories as to the origins of the powwow. Some say it was a celebration after the harshness of winter. A time of feast and family, and of coming together and finding somebody to make a family with. Others say it was invented in the 1930s as a way of making money from tourists during the Depression. 

Regardless, all the traditional outfits, drums and cultural paraphernalia have evolved over the years. Traditionally, we didn’t have cotton. We didn’t have steel or iron. Or plastic. Or credit card machines. Or port-a-potties. We adapted those new elements and many others to our society to better fit our needs. A powwow today would look vastly dissimilar to a powwow pre-contact, or even a few hundred years post-contact. On top of everything else, there would probably be less sausages and eggs for breakfast or line up for the nearest bush.

Same with Idle No More. It wasn’t the big bang of Aboriginal social protest. It was one of the little bangs. Same with the occupations of Alcatraz, Oka and Ipperwash. Idle No More was the right protest at the right time, the first to really use social media to get its story across.

Today, possibly because of Idle No More, Native people are at the forefront of the fracking debate. They are calling for an inquest into the missing and murdered eleven hundred Aboriginal women. It’s sort of like Idle No More 2.0, or possibly Idle No More Some More. And when those issues are done and finished, something new and necessary will arise from it.

Native people have become well versed in the art of social evolution out of sheer necessity. It used to be illegal in the Indian Act for Native people to hire a lawyer. Now, there are more Native lawyers than there are chiefs.

It used to be that Native children were taken away by the authorities and sent to foreboding and oppressive institutions where they were removed from society and frequently mistreated to make them better people. Because of this today, a few of those who did the mistreating are themselves being sent away to a different type of oppressive institution where they too are removed from society and frequently mistreated in the hopes it will make them better people. Those places are called prisons.

Several years ago, a production of Tomson Highway’s “The Rez Sisters” opened in Peterborough, my neck of the Ontario woods. A local reviewer applauded the production, adding that –and I admittedly am paraphrasing – western dramatic theatre was not an art form known to Aboriginal people. 

As a fairly successful playwright, I responded in a follow-up article that the flush toilet is not an instrument formally known to Aboriginal people but we seemed to have mastered its intricacies.

In the end, I finished my rather large breakfast, and spent the rest of the day at the powwow. I saw that Idle No More jacket several times, weaving in and out of the crowds, just like the Idle No More movement itself. Evolution, especially social evolution, can be an amazing thing. 

Who knows, in a few years, that jacket might even be worth something on EBay.