OPINION | Native issues in the halls of government: Idle No More, and Sen. Daniel Inouye


Idle No More

I just got back from the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, where an Idle No More flash-mob round dance took place. What is Idle No More?

Well, it originated in Canada, and, in late December, it appears to be a grassroots movement spreading quickly and in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence, of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, who was entering the third week of a hunger strike in a teepee outside of the Canadian Parliament, in her quest for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and an indigenous activist, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen: “Idle No More is a coordinated, strategic movement, not led by any elected politician, national chief or paid executive director. It is a movement originally led by indigenous women and has been joined by grassroots First Nations leaders, Canadians, and now the world. It originally started as a way to oppose Bill C-45, the omnibus legislation impacting water rights and land rights under the Indian Act; it grew to include all the legislation and the corresponding funding cuts to First Nations political organizations meant to silence our advocacy voice.”

While the solidarity round dances springing up everywhere – from Minneapolis to British Columbia to New Zealand – have been brief, spirited nonviolent demonstrations, an Idle No More protest reportedly blocked the main railroad line between Toronto and Montreal.

Idle No More has quickly gained popularity with Indian activists through its spontaneous actions publicized by social media.

Sen. Daniel Inouye

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a field hearing on American Indian religious freedom, on March 8, 1993, at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Three members of the Senate committee attended the hearing: Minnesota’s Sen. Paul Wellstone; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of Colorado; and Sen. Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii, the committee chairman.

I recall that many younger Indian students attended the hearing, which featured testimony from tribal officials and spiritual leaders. Nearly 20 years on, I remember the talk by Pete Catches, a revered Lakota spiritual leader. Catches, who was celebrating his 82nd birthday that day, wore two eagle feathers in his hair. He discussed a bit of the Lakota lifeway, the status of the “sacred Black Hills,” and concluded: “May the Great Spirit love you all as I love every one of you.” He had a magnificent presence.

Following the hearing, I went up on the stage and shook hands with Sen. Inouye, and thanked him for his support of David Sohappy, the fishing rights activist who was imprisoned in the Salmonscam federal sting operation.

Photographer Dick Bancroft and I visited Sohappy at the Sandstone federal prison, in 1986, where he recounted his humiliating treatment, as the U.S. Marshals Service shuttled him on a round of prisons and county drunk tanks, with repeated strip searches, from Washington to Minnesota.

In 1988, Inouye visited with the then 63-year-old spiritual leader of the Wanapum band of the Yakima Nation, at the Geiger Correctional Center in Spokane, Washington. Sohappy had suffered a stroke the previous year while incarcerated.

“Every day you hear about a murderer or rapist who gets out after a year in prison,” Inouye told People magazine after his visit with Sohappy. “Here’s a person who, because of his religious beliefs, took some fish and got five years. I don’t see how the punishment fits the crime.”

Sen. Inouye and Sen. Dan Evans (R-Wash.) eventually gained enough support on Capitol Hill to gain Sohappy’s release from prison on May 18, 1988. On May 6, 1991, Sohappy, who was convalescing in a nursing home in Hood River, Oregon, passed into the spirit world

“The man I saw there was a very gentle person, but in his gentleness there was obviously strength of character,” Inouye told the Spokane Spokesman-Review, regarding his prison visit with Sohappy, following the spiritual leader’s death. “In many ways, the Indian people of the country were most fortunate to have David Sohappy standing up for them.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye, who was a champion for American Indians, Native Hawaiians, and other members of racial minority groups in the U.S., entered the hereafter life on Dec. 17. His final word was “Aloha,” according to a statement released by his office.

The World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, who lost an arm from a German hand grenade in Italy, was the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress. I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of Inouye’s long record in Congress; but he was an outspoken proponent of Indian sovereignty and was highly regarded in Indian country.