Film star and activist Gary Farmer wore an impish grin from time to time as he conducted an Idle No More (Idle) teach-in, but his core message defied humor: “We’re the cutting edge of the economic downturn,” he said of Indian people.
Given that resources are limited, we don’t have enough of them to sustain us at our present rate of usage, he said. On this matter, Indian people “have been trying to talk to the larger population for some time,” Farmer said. “Now it’s extremely critical for all of us.”
Farmer, who is Cayuga from Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, was doing just that in addressing students, faculty and others at an Idle No More teach-in he conducted on March 1 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, sponsored by several campus groups. He has been a prominent ally of Idle No More, a grassroots indigenous Canadian movement that has gone worldwide in its affirmation of indigenous rights, priorities and values. The prodigious actor used that as a jumping-off point, conducting a far-ranging discussion of the current economic and environmental situation.
The filmmaker, noted actor (Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals) and musician said he “saw urban decay at a very young age” while growing up in the Niagara Falls–Buffalo area of New York State, near the Canadian border. Natives in that area at the time were essentially “migrant workers of the Industrial Revolution,” he said.
Today, some smaller communities on Ontario’s 136 reserves are in areas where diamond mining, hydroelectric projects, the forest industry and other corporate giants and transnationals have created significant pollution, Farmer said. In other words, things have not changed much since his childhood days.
“There was not one community that didn’t have some kind of pollution issue,” he said of his youthful environs. He said it only takes a few generations to reshape thinking. In northern Ontario, where the church formerly molded people’s values, they “don’t really need the church anymore” to shape people’s habits when one can use TV to “ ‘consumerize’ them in three months,” Farmer said. Then it consumerism becomes self-perpetuating. “People then will fly to other communities to get McDonald’s or Nike sneakers.”
What he dubbed the “consumerizing” practice, particularly in northern communities, was ostensibly undertaken to preserve culture. But its actual goal was to get the minerals that lie under indigenous lands, Farmer said, noting that 90 percent of the world’s uranium, for instance, lies beneath Indian territory. Extraction of another resource, chromite, could be an issu in the lowlands of northern Ontario, where there is the potential for adverse effects from mine waste, including the carcinogen chromium-6. Chromite, a component of stainless steel, could set off international bidding for a resource that could fund the Canadian economy for a century, Farmer said.
Solutions are not easy. Capitalism is a harsh, no-holds-barred system, and ours is an economy based on conflict rather than peace, Farmer said. But neither are solutions impossible, he believes: “Bolivia turned it around—it’s more earth-centered.”
He closed the teach-in with a Round Dance, that he conducted along with Edna Brillon, Haida/Cree, whose hand-drum kept the stately pace of a northwest coastal song.
What with all Farmer’s bad news and dire predictions, one might wonder how he maintained that impish grin and flashes of sometimes-dark humor. Far from being a stretch, he said, it was right in keeping with Native tradition.
“Indian jokes are based on the toxic,” Farmer said, reminding his listeners of centuries of tragedy and survival, the latter often helped along by humor.