Idle No More 101

By Guest Contributor Gyasi Ross

Illustration by Steven Paul Judd.

Lately, Native people have taken to the streets malls in demonstrations of Public Indian-ness (“PI”) that surpasses the sheer volume of activism of even Alcatraz and the Longest Walk. There’s a heapum big amount of PI going on right now! Many people, non-Native and Native alike, are wondering what the heck is going with their local Native population and how this so-called #IdleNoMore Movement managed to get the usually muffled Natives restless enough to be Indian in public. I mean, like Chris Rock said, he hasn’t ever even met two Indians at the same time. He’s seen “polar bears riding a tricycle” but he’s “never seen an Indian family just chillin’ out at Red Lobster.”

Now, people can’t seem to get away from us.

And that’s cool, but isn’t that what pow-wows and November is for? People (non-Native and Native alike) can only take so much PI, right? Is that what the Idle No More movement is? An extended Native American Heritage Month, where non-Natives have to act like they’re fascinated by Native culture?

In a word, no. It is much more. Please consider this a fairly exhaustive explanation of the Movement, what it is not and what it is. If for some reason you cannot read the next 1000 or so brilliant words, I can be summed up thusly: Idle No More is not new. Instead, it is the latest incarnation of the sustained Indigenous Resistance to the rape, pillage, and exploitation of this continent and its women that has existed since 1492. It is not the Occupy Movement, although there are some similarities. It is not only about Canada and it is not only about Native people. Finally, and probably most importantly, it (and we) are not going away anytime soon. So get used to it (and us).

The Movement: What It’s About

“The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors.”
Chief Plenty Coups, Apsaalooke

“ … You have come here; you are taking my land from me; you are killing off our game, so it is hard for us to live.”
Tasunke Witko (Crazy Horse), Oglala Lakota

As the above quotes show, the Indigenous Resistance to the raping and pillaging of the Earth is not new. Likewise, Indigenous peoples’ efforts to protect the mothers of our Nations—the women—are not new either. Idle No More is simply the latest chapter in that resistance.

I pay close attention to Canadian Aboriginal happenings as my tribe (Blackfeet) transcends the border. I also hosted one of the first collective pieces penned by founders of the INM movement in my column at Indian Country Today Media Network. Finally, I’ve spoken at various INM events in the Northwest and generally just partake in activism in the Northwest related to Indigenous peoples. So let me explain what it’s about.

It’s About: Protecting the Earth. First and foremost, the movement is about protecting the Earth for all people from the carnivorous and capitalistic spirit that wants to exploit and extract every last bit of resources from the land. Therefore, anybody that cares about this Earth should be interested in what’s being accomplished.

The engineers were Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon. It was a response to Canada’s Bill C-45, which overhauled the Navigable Waters Protection Act and removed protections for many waters that go through First Nations. Changing the act literally moves the emphasis of the protection—it morphs from protecting the waterways to protecting the navigation on those waterways. Now, instead of 30-some thousand lakes being protected under the old law, only 97 lakes will be protected. As MP Kirsty Duncan eloquently states, “The days when Canadians take an endless abundance of fresh water for granted are numbered.”

These mobilized Native people wanted to ensure that children two, three, and twelve generations from now would have clean water. The children that will benefit from the Native mobilization are not just Native children; it’s for all children. Lakes and rivers tend to be either clean or dirty for Native and non-Native children alike.

It’s not a Native thing or a white thing, it’s an Indigenous worldview thing. It’s a “protect the Earth” thing. For those transfixed on race, you’re missing the point. Idle No More simply wants kids of all colors and ethnicities to have clean drinking water. It’s also not a “Canada” or “United States” thing. Multinational corporations do not care about borders. Despite legislation to intended to prevent pollution, corporations pollute freely with almost complete impunity, and our children are the ones that suffer. We likewise should not care about borders—we are mobilizing on both sides because we understand that we do affects one another.

We will continue to aggressively organize and be Idle No More about the attempts to destroy our sacred lands, whether its Keystone XL Pipeline or Tar Sands Mining in Canada. We will be Idle No More on SSA Marine’s attempts to create a deep-water shipping terminal for water and air poisoning dirty coal in the Lummi waters near Pugent Sound, WA, or any disrespect to our lands.

We’re not going anywhere, we’re not going to be silent. We’re Idle No More!

It’s About: Protecting Women. Similar to the sustained, capitalistic effort to exploit and pillage the Earth, the carnivorous, capitalistic nature has also exploited and abused women since the founding of both America and Canada. As Linda E. Speth and Alison Duncan Hirsch explain in Women, Family, and Community in Colonial America: Two Perspectives, America’s first marriage and property laws, or ‘coverture,’ stipulated that married women did not have separate legal existences from their husbands.

Indeed, a married woman was a dependent and could not generally own her own property or control her own earnings: “Once she married she became a legal nonentity,” they wrote. “Her husband not only assumed her legal privileges and duties but certain rights to her property as well.”

And that was for white women living with relative privilege. Obviously, for Native women, Black women, and women of any other ethnicity that were unfortunate enough to live in the United States, it was much worse.

That pattern of condescension and indeed hatred for women has continued until the present. From the 1834 ruling in Bradley v. State of Mississippi which affirmed a man’s “right” to subject his wife to “moderate chastisement, in cases of great emergency, and to use salutary restraints in every case of misbehavior” to the Indian Health Service’s history of forced tubal ligations of Native women, the United States has shown a consistent trajectory of hatred and destruction for Native women.

Congress’ recent failure to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)–specifically because Republicans did not want tribal law enforcement to be able to prosecute non-Native sex offenders–is a continuation of that exploitation of our women. Similar to the “clean water” discussion above, the protections afforded by the Violence Against Women Act protected women of all colors, not just Native women. Conversely, Congress’ failure to act on VAWA hurts all women. Strong Native women leaders like Deborah Parker and others are advocating for VAWA to be renewed for all women, not just a few.

It’s not a Native thing.

It’s a “NO women, of ANY color, should have to worry about getting raped” thing.

It’s a “NO women, of ANY color, should get beaten and battered” thing.

Those who are transfixed by race, again, are missing the point.

And we will continue to organize and be #IdleNoMore about this attack on the women within our communities, as well as all communities. That is not new, and it’s also not just about Native people.

It’s NOT: Occupy Wall Street. Having attended many OWS events, I can tell you that it attracted an array of viewpoints, from conservatives to socialists to anarchists, each of them espousing their own causes alongside those of the movement as a whole.

Idle No More is not Occupy because we are surrounding our advocacy around the specific substantive areas that were discussed earlier–protecting the environment and protecting Native women via the Violence Against Women Act. Yes, like Occupy, this is grassroots; the people are fluid and definitely can change. Indeed, the specific subjects that we choose to organize around certainly could change in the future. But for now, fighting against gratuituous exploitation of our lands and fighting against violence against women are areas where good organization can make a difference. The differences manifest in many ways.

  1. Native economies are not getting any better. Many of our communities, the unemployment rate exceeds 70 percent, which is more than a simple “boom and bust” economic upturn can fix. There are structural problems that will prevent a quick fix and, therefore, most Indigenous activists will not have an economic incentive to stop their activism. 
  2. While some have criticized Occupy for retreating when the weather grew colder, my friends have literally texted me pictures of sisters and brothers in Alberta and Saskatchewan standing outside with #IdleNoMore signs in -35 degree weather; I have spoken at events where it is freezing and brothers and sisters are outside in t-shirts. If we’re mobilizing 2,000-2,500 people at an event in the freezing cold in January, just imagine how that number is going to multiply when it’s 65-70 degrees outside.
  3. Occupy began as snapshot response to a 3-year economic downturn. Idle No More is a continued response to more than 500 years of destroying the Earth and exploiting women. Our foundation literally has centuries on which our resistance is built.
  4. It’s not OWS because we are surrounding our advocacy around the specific substantive areas that were discussed earlier: protecting the environment and protecting Native women via the Violence Against Women Act.


This has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Native people did begin this movement, energized by Chief Theresa Spence’s sacrifice and sparked by the Four Founders’ initiative. Yet, this is anybody’s movement that wants to stand up for the Earth and women and also make a positive change in the community. That means that non-Natives are certainly welcome. We need non-Natives involved to save this Earth, to give our children and grandchildren the same quality of life that we have enjoyed. It’s about clean water. It’s about clean air. It’s about safety for all women. Critics seem to be so caught up on race, but I presume even racist want their children to have clean water just like non-racists, right? Well we want racists (and NON-racists, of course) to have kids with clean water, too. Oh, and that they not get raped or beaten, either.

Not too unreasonable, is it?

Here’s a little music and video to close this piece. It’s a project my production team, Rock Paper Jet Productions, did with rapper and producer Brother Ali. Coincidentally, it doesn’t mention race; it mentions wanting to make the world slightly better. And when it comes down to it, that all that Idle No More is about.

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and an activist, attorney and author. You can follow him on Twitter at @BigIndianGaysi

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  • Ben Atherton-Zeman

    Thank you so much for that explanation! I appreciate your taking the time to educate me, and so many others. Idle No More!


    Such a great movement, thanks for writing about it! About the Republicans not passing VAWA, it reminds me of how America demands immunity for its citizens abroad in any country where it sets up bases in. It’s like they don’t care about encroaching upon the sovereignty of another nation whenever it serves their interests. But if that nation wishes to mete out justice upon American wrongdoers on its own soil, then they can’t because they’re encroaching upon America’s sovereignty!

  • otros_corazones

    This was a beautiful and rousing essay. People need to be aware about what this movement is all about, because injustice diminishes all of us. Thank you Gyasi Ross!

  • jhkrischel

    1) We’re all natives of this earth. Nobody has ever claimed Martian or Venutian heritage legitimately.

    2) If you want women safe, let them carry concealed pistols. Rape stops when women can defend themselves.

    3) Clean water, clean air, and abundant cheap energy. Thou shalt find a balance, because all three are important.