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An Idle No More rally on the Blood 148 Indian reserve in southern Alberta. Photo: Blaire Russell.

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Native American Activism: Environmental issues take priority

by Ben Whitford

A dynamic environmental activism movement pioneered by highly engaged youth from native communities is spreading across North America. Ben Whitford reports......

Last winter, 18-year-old Rose Bear Don't Walk made herself a drum.

At her family home on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the grasslands of western Montana, in a tiny community nestled between a bison range and the Rocky mountains, the 18-year-old Salish tribal member carefully stretched a deerskin over a round wooden frame. A few days later, she said goodbye to her family and hauled the drum east, catching a plane to New Haven in time for the start of her second semester at Yale University.

The drum wasn't just for making music: it was a tool for social activism. In January, Bear Don't Walk - clad in moccasins and a brightly patterned Pendleton coat - and about 15 of her native American classmates converged on a snowy campus courtyard for a "flash mob" protest. While their bemused classmates rushed between classes, Bear Don't Walk and her friends beat out rhythms, sang, and danced a traditional round dance. "It was kind of a spectacle," Bear Don't Walk laughs. "We got a couple of weird looks."

The attention-grabbing stunt worked: many students paused to watch and to take flyers, and that night 60 or so of Bear Don't Walk's classmates gathered for a teach-in organised in collaboration with Canadian indigenous movement Idle No More. Many more tuned in from Columbia University in New York via a Google video-chat the organisers publicised on Facebook, and subsequently distributed via YouTube.

This, some experts say, is the new face of indigenous activism: propelled by young, highly educated and Web-savvy aboriginal people who organise online, and who stage their protests not on remote reservations but on elite college campuses and in other urban areas. "It's been a huge shift both in the number of aboriginal people engaging in these kinds of concerns and in the way they engage," says Ken Coates, the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.

Whether they're protesting against the Keystone pipeline, the erosion of clean-water protections, or the use of reclaimed sewage to create artificial snow at ski resorts, indigenous youths bring a personal connection and a sense of urgency that's often missing in non-native environmental activism, Coates says. "They're aware of the situations happening in their families and their communities, and they're determined to do something about it," he adds.

Idle No More, founded in late 2012 by four women in Saskatoon, is the most visible manifestation of that trend. What began as a simple Facebook page protesting the environmental excesses of Stephen Harper's conservative administration has grown into a global phenomenon, with thousands of people around the world participating in peaceful teach-ins, prayer circles and flash-mob dance sessions.

Idle No More isn't exclusively a young persons' movement, says co-founder Sylvia McAdam - herself a grandmother, but it was the energy and social-media savvy of young supporters that turned Idle No More into a national and then international success. "I'm glad that young people have taken that on," she says. "It's empowering and amazing to see them join in the way they have."

Another factor contributing to Idle No More's success was the fact that, unlike some previous indigenous campaigns, it put environmental issues front and centre. Issues such as conservation and clean-water protections serve as gateways, McAdam explains, helping to raise awareness of broader indigenous concerns. That's important because while few non-natives appreciate the need to protect aboriginal treaty rights, everyone can relate to environmental issues. "You don't have to be indigenous to drink water," McAdam notes.

Environmental activism also taps into the cultural heritage of young native people, says Kaylena Bray, a 26 year old member of the Seneca nation, who grew up splitting her time between her family home near New York City and an upstate reservation. "Growing up, there was a certain mindset - about how we think about the plants and animals around us, and about respect and reciprocity in how we look at the environment," she says.

A graduate of Brown University, Bray has attended Idle No More protests and participated in a multinational indigenous protest march at last year's Rio+20 summit; she also works at the Cultural Conservancy, a San Francisco non-profit dedicated to harnessing traditional native knowledge to protect the environment. She says she's well aware that not all young native people get the opportunities she's had; still, her academic and professional successes don't make her a rarity. "Each year there are more people that are doing well, graduating. We're going to keep seeing native youth continue to grow and do great work," she says.

That kind of optimism is infectious, says Russ Diabo. A Kahnawake Mohawk and veteran First Nations activist, Diabo says he fell into despondency after losing too many battles and seeing federal officials break too many promises. But the rise of Idle No More, and of a new generation of peaceful but highly engaged activists, changed that. "That gave me hope," he says. "There's a younger generation that's got the energy, and that's going to put the pressure on and get some historical injustices corrected."

Young activists will face challenges along the way: the political system is rigged against native peoples, Diabo says, and the young activists' campaigns against extractive-industry projects are making them plenty of powerful and deep-pocketed enemies. It will be a long, long march to victory, and there will be many more defeats along the way, Diabo warns.

That may be true. For now, though, Rose Bear Don't Walk still has her drum, and - like many of her generation - she's determined to make some noise.

Ben Whitford is the Ecologist’s US correspondent. He can be reached at mail@benwhitford.com. Follow him @ben_whitford

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