Mexico to Canada, indigenous North Americans take brave first steps into a new era

Guest post by Liam Barrington-Bush

As the Mayan calendar came to a close on Friday, signifying the end of what the ancient empire had described as ‘the fifth era,’ Indigenous peoples of North America, from Canada to Mexico, made their voices perfectly clear: We will not allow this new era to continue as the last has ended.

Too many stories of modern-day indigenous struggles read like historical narrations from the colonial period, revamped and retold for 21st Century consumption. Battles over natural resources, massive inequality of income, lifespan and cultural freedom, and ongoing deadly conflicts with settler governments are still very much the norm for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. As one Canadian First Nations journalist described the situation recently, “We have been backed into a corner and we are literally fighting for our lives. We are literally dying, in so many preventable and unacceptable ways. I’m not being poetic or hyperbolic here and I don’t just mean culturally.We are dying.”

21 December: Idle no more protest in Ottawa, Canada. Photo courtesy of  Teresa Healy.
21 December: Idle no more protest in Ottawa, Canada. Photo courtesy of Teresa Healy.

Canada’s colonial present and past

She is right. An indigenous man in Canada lives fifteen-years less than the national average. Nearly 600 First Nations women have disappeared since 1980, without significant public investigation. Communities that find themselves in the middle of any natural resources deemed of economic value have found their drinking water poisoned and local food left inedible, as pollution from mineral and oil extraction are casually dispersed amongst the homes and traditional lands of Canada’s First Peoples.

Indigenous struggles in Mexico

And things are no better further south.

In the disproportionately indigenous south of Mexico, Oaxaca has become one of the most dangerous places in the country to be an indigenous activist, while the Zapatistas home state of Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest, with over three-quarters of the population living in poverty.

But Friday was not simply a retelling of the horrific injustices faced by the native peoples of the western hemisphere over several centuries. Instead, it was and is a show of growing power and resistance, boiling just below the surface for too long, and unleashed at the moment when their Mayan ancestors had determined the world would undergo a significant transition.

Across Canada, 21 December 2012 saw the largest yet day of action since the #IdleNoMore banner was unfurled earlier this month. Indigenous-led protests across the country, including a mass-demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence, who passed the tenth day of a hunger strike demanding a meeting with PM Stephen Harper, is being called the most unified show of native resistance in Canada for at least twenty years.

Members of Alberta’s Fort Chipewyan First Nation launched a road blockade against the tar sands oil industry in Fort McMurray, which has been linked to rises in rare cancers and respiratory illnesses in their community. At the same time, activists in Vancouver brought intersections to a standstill, carrying out traditional dances in the city’s cold winter streets, while over a thousand people joined a flashmob in Toronto’s Dundas Square, shutting down parts of the city’s commercial centre during the peak holiday shopping period.

21 December: Zapatistas march in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
21 December: Zapatistas march in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

Meanwhile, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, several thousand members of Zapatista indigenous communities took a different approach, marching silently on four of the state’s major cities, reasserting themselves as a major political force under the slogan, “To be heard, we march in silence.”

The Zapatistas have been living autonomously in six pueblos (towns) around Chiapas since they asserted their traditional rights of ‘autonomia,’ to coincide with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Since then, they have remained mostly quiet, with but a few notable public statements and action, modelling a different way of living and organising that has attracted the attention of activists, the world over.

But they have been under regular attack throughout this period, with yesterday’s action marking the fifteen year anniversary of the massacre of 45 community members in Acteal in 1997, in which 17 state officials were implicated, but none charged.

On Friday they reasserted their presence in the thousands, wearing the traditional balaclavas and bandanas, and quietly filling the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Ocosingo and Palenque.

Media misses the point

The reasons for both protests are manifold and unsurprisingly, mainstream news in both countries have struggled to convey what is going on. The issues, however, are also grimly similar across the continent, and understood all too well by the people experiencing them: food, land, water, culture. All of these remain under threat for first peoples across North America, even if they don’t package up into a neat single-issue sound-byte for the cameras and microphones, pleading the same kind of ignorance of ‘what it’s all about’ that many of the same pundits claimed with the birth of the Occupy movement.

Yes, these protests are about current unjust realities. Yes, they are also about historical injustices. Is that so hard to understand?

But we are also deep into a very different media landscape, than that on which the Zapatistas emerged in 1994.

Media has become deeply social as the end of the Mayan calendar has approached, meaning the reliance on a relative few institution’s coverage of yesterday’s events is increasingly unnecessary.

Just as the Occupy movement was able to undermine the coy attempts by the press to feign ignorance as to the protests’ aims, so too are the first peoples of Canada and Mexico getting their stories heard through alternative means.

Whether these protests will be sustained, only time will tell, but there is a growing sense that a new era is indeed upon us, and it cannot be reconciled with the ongoing injustices of colonialism that have marked the last five hundred years. As these – and other – struggles for social and environmental justice spread through our increasingly networked world, we can expect that only greater numbers of people who have long-endured the hardships of Western ‘progress’ and ‘development’ will indeed become ‘idle no more’.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist and journalist from Toronto, Canada, currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

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