Mohawk Women Forge Solidarity in Visit to Chief Spence

Gale Courey Toensing,

January 09, 2013

Courtesy Mohawk Council of Kahnawa:ke.
Eleven women elected Mohawk chiefs visited Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in her hunger strike tipi in Ottawa on December 18 and delivered a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper supporting Idle No More and demanding that he meet with Spence and address the issue of an unprecedented series of laws that many feel are oppressive and insulting to First Nations.

A delegation of women chiefs from three Mohawk Nation communities visited Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during the second week of her hungry strike last month to offer her their support and respect and in doing so forged a new alliance among themselves.

Kahnawà:ke Chiefs Rhonda Kirby, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, Christine Zachary-Deom and Gina Deer, Kanesatake Chiefs Sonya Gagnier, Shannon Nicholas, Sheila Bonspiel, Akwesasne Chiefs Karen Loran, Louise Thompson, April Adams-Phillips and one other unnamed woman chief from Akwesasne traveled on December 18 to meet with Chief Spence in her tipi on Victoria Island in Ottawa where she had promised to fast on water and medicine tea until Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with her and other First Nation leaders to talk about the federal government living up to its promises and responsibilities toward Indigenous Peoples. That meeting is now scheduled for January 11.

Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement were sparked by the passage in the Canadian legislature of the Bill C-45 with inadequate consultation with the nations. The bill amends the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Labour Code in ways that erode Indian sovereignty and control over their lands and resources. First Nations reacted immediately and strongly to the passage with protests and demonstrations across the country that have now spread in Idle No More solidarity rallies in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand and even Japan.

Sky-Deer said the visit to Spence created an unprecedented bond of solidarity among the women Mohawk chiefs. “I think one of the most positive aspects of it was that it brought together the women leadership from our three Kanienkahaka (Mohawk people, the People of the Flint) communities, which otherwise may not have happened like that. It was a first meeting for all of us,” said Sky-Deer. Was the meeting the beginning of something new and great? “I hope so!” she said. “We’ve talked about continuing this in the New Year and maybe meeting again, because we face a lot of the same issues in our respective communities and it only helps us to strengthen and support each other in that we’re all Kanienkahaka women and have the best interest of our community and taking care of business. It was definitely a positive thing.”

Before traveling to Victoria Island, the women chiefs coordinated the gifts they would bring to Spence – tobacco, medicine bundles, eagle feathers and a big confederacy blanket that the Kahnawà:ke council donated, along with a confederacy flat that was hoisted on the palisades around the area where her tipi was located, Zachary-Deom said. “There was a big fire going near the tipi. She’s on very low lying ground, very moist and foggy and wet. I don’t know how healthy it is for her there. We were scheduled to see her at 2 p.m. but then we were told she had so many visitors and had just gone to bed,” Zachary-Deom said. So the women delivered letters from the Mohawk Council to Harper and Governor General David Johnson, the representative of the British Crown in Canada.

“The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke has grown increasingly concerned with the paternalistic legislative approach that Canada has taken regarding First Nations affairs, which is in conflict with not only our inherent self-determination, but is also a violation of the agreements between our People and the Crown,” the council wrote. “The recent passage of the Omnibus Budget Bill C-45 is an offensive action on Canada’s part that is causing an obvious and serious deterioration in First Nations/Canada relations. The unwillingness to take corrective measures and continue to consider legislation impacting First Nations only promotes further dissension. At this time, we feel obligated to caution Canada that continuation of this unilateral and paternalistic approach will only result in further deterioration and dissent amongst First Nations Peoples.”

After delivering the letters, the women chiefs returned to Victoria Island and after a long wait finally got to meet with Chief Spence. “We gave her our message of support and comforted her with the blanket we brought that we wrapped around her. We told her that whatever she needed she would just have to tell us and the Mohawks would support her,” Zachary-Deom said.

Each woman had the opportunity to speak individually to Spence, Sky-Deer said. “We each brought our own messages and words of support in how she inspired us, being a woman leader herself, and, you know, just the feeling in that tipi, to have 12 women there together and sharing the weight of what we carry for our communities and wanting to see the best things for our people and our future generations – it was a very positive, very uplifting, powerful experience,” Sky-Deer said.

The women said they hoped the meeting of the First Nations chiefs with the Harper government would result in some changes in the way the federal government conducts itself. “We hope to have a more direct relationship that’s not just them making decisions and passing legislation without consultation that directly affects people – our people and Canadians – across the country,” Sky-Deer said. “It’s very unilateral and it doesn’t take into account and consideration the long term effects that will happen. I’m hoping for the best. I’m hoping for maybe some repeal if the Harper government can understand what we’re looking at and what we want to protect.”