When Mishkomekinaak Ikwe learned about the Idle No More movement exploding across Canada, and Attawapiskat First Nation chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike – now on its 21st day – she decided to do what she could on the U.S. side of the border to help.
Packing her five children into her pow wow van, the resident of Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa decided to take Spence's message more than 1,400 miles, all the way to President Barack Obama in Washington D.C.
As Spence's call for a substantial meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a representative of the Queen continues to go unanswered, igniting warnings of “war drums” and upheaval, Ikwe hopes that Obama might put some pressure on him to concede.
Indian Country Today Media Network reached her on December 28th as she entered Virginia, Minnesota, on her way to International Falls to exchange traditional staffs with other Indigenous activists.
“We're taking donations, prayers, tobacco – everything given to us – and we're taking our message to Washington,” she told ICTMN. “We're going to urge Obama to put the squeeze on Harper. It's not just the First Nations people, but it's a worldwide issue.”
Spence, the chief of a remote First Nation in Ontario, first hit world headlines last winter when she declared a state of emergency over dismal housing and health conditions on her reserve. The federal government responded by seizing control over the band's finances, imposing an external manager on its activities. Spence took the matter to court – and won.
So when she announced her hunger strike on Ottawa's Parliament Hill on December 11 – the day after national Idle No More Indigenous rights protests took place in communities across the country – Spence vowed she was willing to die to right the broken relationship between Aboriginal people and Ottawa.
“She's a life-giver,” Ikwe told ICTMN. “And she's giving her life for the next seven generations. That's a big deal; when a woman refuses to eat, it's really sad. It hurts. She's not fighting just for us, but so our great, great, great grandkids will have clean water. We all need that water – it's not specific to race, it's everyone. What happens in your neighbor’s back yard will eventually come to your backyard.”
High among the Idle No More movement's concerns are a litany of legislation and policies that analysts say facilitates the surrender of reserve lands, alters the controversial Indian Act without consulting First Nations, and guts environmental protection of waterways. Many are drawing attention to such changes in Bill C-45, the federal omnibus budget bill, which passed into law last recently.
“What's going to happen to our waters?” Ikwe asks. “How come First Nations people weren't brought to the table to discuss those issues? How come we don't know what's going on in our own lands?”
Joining her and her children for the first leg of the journey was Melvin Buckholtz.
“We're just trying to help our brothers and sisters up north,” Buckholtz told ICTMN. “Theresa Spence's hunger strike is one of the biggest things – we want her to be noticed, so they can meet with her and try to solve their issues. We're trying to get Obama to meet with Harper, to kind of push him along to meet with this woman and help them out.”
Initially planning to walk the entire way from International Falls to Washington D.C., Ikwe changed her plans as the urgency of Spence's hunger strike escalated.
“It's a long way!” she said, laughing. “Google maps says it will take us 20 hours, but Indian Time says it's going to take us 25 or 30! (…). We need recognition, and to let our president know how we feel. When we get there, I'm hoping that we're going to have a round dance flashmob (…). But I'm hoping Obama's just going to call me beforehand, and be like, 'Hey girl, don't worry – I got this.' (laughs). We've got to go the whole way. We have Indian families the whole way who are opening their doors and opening their arms – saying, 'Come on! We want to do this too. We want this to happen.'”
The Ojibwe mother and activist hopes other Indigenous people – in both the U.S. and Canada – continue to support her journey, and even join her. Issues that harm Indigenous people in Canada, she explained, by definition transcend the boundaries between countries because the environment, traditional territories and cultures don't stop at the border.
“That's the White Man's border,” she said. “That's not our border.”