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The Sustainability of Indigenous Resistance

January 22, 2013

by Eric Ritskes

“We resist not to overthrow a government or to take political power, but because it is natural to resist extermination, to survive. We don’t want power over white institutions; we want white institutions to disappear. That’s revolution.

– Russel Means –


A common dialogue has been running in opposition to the current #IdleNoMore protests and actions. A friend of mine recently said,

The Idle No More movement will go the way of the Occupy movement…it is not sustainable and most of the demands will never be met.

She went on to give reasons why: how Canadians were unwilling to part with their hard earned money and politicians aren’t looking out for what’s right but for their own political interest.

These are not uncommon thoughts: there seems to be an undercurrent that sees the hashtags, the flash mobs, and the blockades as unsustainable and unproductive in the long term. Undoubtedly, the Canadian government is betting on the same thing – that Idle No More will fizzle out and things will return to ‘business as usual’.

My friend, in her misplaced comparison of Idle No More and Occupy, highlights both the reason why people believe Idle No More is unsustainable, as well as the reason why Indigenous resistance is sustainable: history.

Many have mistakenly placed Idle No More in a historical trajectory of protest movements, the most recent example of which was Occupy. This is a historical lineage of mostly White protest, a lineage of ‘popular’ movements that failed to recognize the very foundations and conditions that there continued protest was enabled by: settler colonialism. These movements, despite their insistence on social justice, were undercut by their failure to recognize the injustice embedded in the land they protested on.

Why Indigenous resistance is sustainable is because it actually stems from a long history of Indigenous existence and resistance to colonialism, some of which Dene scholar Glen Coulthard laid out in his article. As many have noted, Indigenous people have never sat idly by in the face of colonialism, they have survived and persisted in the face of a persistent colonialism that sought to erase their presence in any way possible. Idle No More is not a self-contained unit of analysis but the newest phase of a long standing resistance to settler colonialism.

Line Graph

Imagine a graph. Perhaps Idle No More is a peak, or maybe it’s only on an upward trajectory. As with all long term movements, there will be ebbs and flows, seasons to speak loudly and seasons to quietly strategize – but the movement never stops. It never dies.

Why will resistance to colonialism never end? Because the very presence of Indigeneity is threatening to the colonial state, which makes existence an act of resistance. This is why thinking and acting as an Indigenous person is a subversive act – “everything you do is political“.

The very existence, voice, and thoughts of the people are what drive this resistance. It is not politicians who drive this resistance – so it cannot be stopped by their weakness in times of crisis. It is not dependant on Canadians’ good will – because Indigenous existence is not legislated nor ‘given’ by Canada but inherent in the sovereignty of each Indigenous nation.

This isn’t to say that there must be steps taken to build up capacity, to ensure that resistance is building (on) capacity and going further, the goals have not yet been fulfilled. Education is vital in capacity building, as is Indigenous languages. Sovereignty and resurgence movements depend on a increased reliance on culture and the land. Recognizing the long and sustained history of Indigenous resistance in Canada doesn’t demand rose-colored glasses, it’s simply a statement of reality.

Idle No More is part of a resistance that has sustained itself for hundreds of years. There may be uncertainty in what the next move is, a certain ‘unknown‘ in the method, but you can be certain that there will be a next move.


Eric Ritskes is a PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a Managing Editor of the Open Access, online journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & SocietyYou can follow him on Twitter @eritskes.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Dawn Heiden permalink
    January 22, 2013 5:33 pm

    Yes, I beleive that all prior movements of resistance often led by middleclass youth were never going to go anywhere as they have to much to lose and not much to gain by changing the system. Now however we live in a police state and true resistance has become more dangerous. As the environment cries out from the impact of greed and more people are poor and disenfranchised the powers that be are more threatened than ever. We truly outnumber them now and they are scared thus they resort to violence. I think you made a good point about thinking and acting as a first nations person. I am a white colonist but my first nation spirit has heard the call. As the grandchild of a settler, we lived in the country, hunting, fishing, trapping and I learned to love every living thing on the land where we lived I truly disliked all of the barbed wire fences as they seemed a real blight on the landscape. This was a very beautiful land and was well cared for and provided well for all of the people who inhabited it. Farming allowed for the possibility to feed more people. If we had been courteous guests we could likely have lived a wonderful life coexisting with first nations. This was not to be and now our greed is threatening the whole planet. Idle no more is our last hope we must not falter. The land, the sea, the air, and all living things are hanging by a thread. First nations are the stewards of the land, they have not faltered we must all stand together behind their leadership. This I beleive to be true. The great spirit loves all living things on this planet by these things spirit knows itself if we destroy this then spirit will burn less brightly. Dawn Heiden

  2. January 23, 2013 11:38 am

    I understand your comparing and contrasting INM with Occupy was for analytical purposes, but as I noted to Pam Palmater, who apparently introduced the idea of dismissing Occupy as a means of promoting Idle No More, that is an ungenerous proposition, and a strategically unwise tactic. Occupy may be less grounded than INM, but they share a common experience of being ignored, neglected, and deprived of a fulfilling life by the same powers denying a fulfilling life to First Nations.

    Perhaps more importantly, Occupy activists are natural allies of Idle No More, and as such should be treated with respect. I doubt that you meant to malign these socially conscious activists — who by the way are now organizing debt relief for those ripped off by Wall Street — but there is no need to buy into the mainstream media putdown of Occupy in order to promote Idle No More. Like INM, they are taking time to reflect and organize for the next stage of challenging the tyranny of the modern state; putting them down only deprives INM of potential allies at a time it needs all the friends it can get.

    The initial spectacle of marches, sit-ins and round dances is to draw attention to grievances and recruit participants from whom committed activists and leadership can emerge. This is true for both Occupy and INM. Where they go from there is up to them, but as they organize to redistribute power, having trustworthy allies is an asset that should not be squandered.

    • January 23, 2013 11:52 am


      I certainly wasn’t intending to malign Occupy so much as to point out that Idle No More derives from a very different political and cultural lineage. That said, I think my critique is a fair one: Occupy was widely criticized for not recognizing that the very premise of “Occupy” was based on a failure to recognize the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands by the 99%, including a failure to recognize that land IS wealth in a settler-colonial state.

      That said, I remember that Andrea Smith cautions us to take a closer look at who we might consider allies and try to work across more borders. I don’t doubt that many who participated in Occupy are valuable allies and friends – coalition and solidarity can be powerful and necessary work. Again, it wasn’t my point to address this. Rather, that while both movements may have a goal of redistributing power, the methods and redistributions are based on very different lineages and frameworks which guide them.

      In peace,

      • January 23, 2013 12:24 pm

        The premise of Occupy was that the modern state has become so corrupted that it is depriving humanity — indigenous and otherwise — of a fulfilling life. The fraud it challenged is the same fraud challenged by Idle No More. Occupy can certainly benefit from re-examining its habitual opinions, but perpetuating misperceptions promoted by mainstream media in order to divide potential alliances isn’t very inviting.

  3. January 23, 2013 12:39 pm


    No doubt – the common denominator here is the challenging and ultimate restructuring/replacement of the colonial state. But the method matters. Taiaiake Alfred in “Wasase” reminds us of this – “How you fight determines who you will be when the battle is over.”

    What Idle No More and Occupy are challenging might be the same, but the methods and goals of what replaces the modern state might be different. I can’t speak to everyone in these two very broad movements, but there certainly seems to be differences worth noting and delineating.

    Difference doesn’t need to be divisive and shouldn’t be feared as such.

    In peace,


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