Idle No More: Indigenous rights go global

Filmmakers Lane Stevens, left, Dave Wilson and Gyasi Ross are part of the Idle No More indigenous-protest movement. (Photo by Alan Berner/Seattle Times).

Lane Stevens lives up a steep, potholed alleyway in a house perched above the gray expanse of Tulalip Bay. It’s a far cry from the big-city music studios he once knew. But it’s where he feels at home — where he says he can breathe freely.

It might seem unlikely to travel to a rural corner of Washington to learn about a new international indigenous-rights movement. But it makes perfect sense: The Idle No More movement resonates around the world precisely because it represents a desire to protect environments at home.

The movement began a few months ago largely as a protest against the 2012 Canadian budget bill C-45. Activists say that parts of the bill, if implemented, would reduce protection of reservation lands — including many waterways — and could open those areas up for development.

But what might seem at first glance to be a wonky issue for our northern neighbors has come to represent a moment of awakening for indigenous people and environmentalists around the world, including here in the Pacific Northwest.

“Taking away the water rights of our people; it’s basically the relocation of Native Americans like they did in North America when they started the reservations,” says Stevens, who was raised in Centralia by white adoptive parents but registered as a member of the Tulalip Tribes as a teenager. He’s been living on the reservation for much of his adult life. “It’s basically a setup to take away everything that we stand for.”

Stevens spent much of his 20s and 30s in the hip-hop scene, rapping as “Redskin”, and involved with studios in New York City and Atlanta. But he says he’s found his new calling in Idle No More, specifically in documenting the growing movement through videos he’s producing with fellow activists. Their video of last month’s Idle No More protest in Westlake Mall now has over 50,000 views on YouTube.

Like Occupy or Kony 2012, Idle No More represents the online-media savvy of this generation of activists. It has a strong visual (a fist grasping a feather), a twitter hashtag (#IdleNoMore) and viral videos (like Stevens’). The Idle No More Facebook page has almost 90,000 followers.

I first learned of Idle No More when photos of people from Sweden to South Africa holding Idle No More signs started showing up regularly in my Facebook feed.

But it’s the larger message behind the movement, not just the hype, that’s getting people excited, says Gyasi Ross, a Seattle lawyer who serves as a spokesman for Idle No More. He’s a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe.

“The reason this has caught on globally is because people want to give their children something of value,” Ross said. “They want to give them clean air and water and food. This isn’t about color, this isn’t about nationality, this isn’t about native, this is about … people [who] are frustrated.”

And that sense of frustration — with everything from coal mining and fracking to oil pipelines and multinational corporations — was on display at an Idle No More teach-in Monday evening at the University of Washington.

The teach-in was part of an Idle No More Global Day of Action that saw events from Paris to Greenland, and the packed lecture hall smelled of old coffee and damp rain gear.

True to Ross’ words, the standing-room-only audience represented diverse backgrounds and interests.

“This is not an indigenous issue, this is a human issue, it’s a living-organism-on-Earth issue,” said one young woman panelist to approval and clapping from the audience.

The passion may be there, but Stevens and Ross say the movement needs focus if it’s going to survive. Both cite Occupy as a cautionary tale of how a movement, stretched to encompass too much, can lose momentum.

“We have to stay engaged now,” says Stevens, “’cause we woke the world up.”

Back outside of Stevens’ house, surrounded by tall evergreens, I watched as rain pelted into Tulalip Bay and I hoped he was right.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at