Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and author who lives on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario.
This past weekend was my community's annual powwow. Lots of dancing and celebrating indigenous people. One of the delightful rituals is a community breakfast where many of us enjoyed a hearty buffet of scrambled eggs, potato patty, hash browns, baked beans, sausages, bacon, pulled pork and prime rib. This merely proved the ancient aboriginal adage that 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 just a year or two ago when this movement was all over the news, drumming up interest and publicity for a number of native causes? Practically everybody in the native community (myself included) was joyfully participating in flash mobs, protests, hunger strikes, marches – all in the spirit of trying to make various levels of government, the federal one in particular, pay attention to pressing and frequently ignored social issues. It seemed like anything was possible, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government viewed us as just another special interest group. Oh, where have you gone, Idle No More?
Could it be that the feds have won? After all, they're still here, reminding First Nations where they stand in Canada's social hierarchy, and I can't remember the last time I saw a social protest with an Idle No More label attached. The occasional button or sticker, perhaps, but that's about it.
I was sad for a moment, despite the tasty bacon on my plate. It was like remembering a forgotten friend who made you feel alive. Then, as the dancers and drummers milled around, jostling for places in the line for the bathroom, I realized the true answer to my quandary. Idle No More wasn't defeated – it evolved. Just like the powwow itself.
There are a lot of theories about the powwow's origins. Some say it was a celebration after the harshness of winter. A time of feast and family. Others say it was invented in the 1930s as a way to make money from tourists during the Depression. Regardless, the events 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 portable toilets. We adapted those new elements and many others to our society to better fit our needs. Today's powwow looks vastly dissimilar to what it would have looked like before contact, or even a few hundred years after contact. If nothing else, there would have been less sausage and eggs.
It's the same with Idle No More. It wasn't the big bang of aboriginal social protest, but one of the little bangs. Like the occupations at Alcatraz, Oka, Ipperwash and elsewhere, 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 it, native people are at the forefront of the fracking debate. They are calling for an inquest into missing and murdered aboriginal women. It's sort of like Idle 2.0, or maybe 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 under the Indian Act for native people to hire a lawyer. Now, there are more native lawyers then there are chiefs. It used to be that native children were taken away by 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. While applauding the production, a local reviewer noted that "Eurocentric" dramatic theatre was not a natural art form to aboriginal people. A playwright myself, I responded in a follow-up article that although the porcelain toilet was not a natural instrument to aboriginal people, we seemed to have mastered its intricacies.
Back at the powwow, I finished my rather large breakfast and spent the rest of the day at the event. I saw that Idle No More windbreaker several times, weaving in and out of view, just like the movement itself. Evolution, especially social evolution, can be an amazing thing.
And who knows? That jacket might even be worth something on eBay in a few years.