As a young boy growing up on the reserve, we were poor. We had no running water, or fridge and stove, no electricity and cheaply built houses. In the winter time we couldn’t sleep close to the walls as frost came right through. Our house was typical of other houses back then. Many times I went without food for sometimes two or three days. I scoured the dump for edible food. Or tried to catch a perch and cook it on an open fire.
My uncle Frank was the Chief back then. At that time I thought of him as a big strong man who worked hard for his family. He commercial fished just like his brothers.
They would go out on the lake and set out nets. The next morning they would go check on the nets and arrive with boatloads of whitefish they would clean and take them to the fish buyer. Four boxes of whitefish would be enough for some groceries and gas for the motor to fish the next day.
As kids, my cousins and I would take the fish guts that were left over, clean and boil them in a big pot, and those filled our bellies for the whole day.
No one had cars in those days. Everyone traveled by boat. There was no road in the reserve, just trails.
I remember uncle Frank saying to my father one day he was going to Ottawa to ask for relief for the people. That previous winter a family had died of pneumonia or high fever. The people said the kids had died of starvation.
Uncle Frank took off the next day by boat to Kenora, which was a days journey. Then he was going to get a taxi to Redditt and wait for a train to take him to Ottawa. Uncle Frank had saved up some of his money from commercial fishing in order to pay for his trip. He was gone for over a week.
He came back and told everyone that no one in Ottawa could help him or would listen to him. He told the people it was going to be another tough winter.
There was no band office in those days. Our reserve consisted of a few houses and a day school, a preacher’s house and a church. Not even a telephone.
Times were tough and a lot of people went hungry. Including my family. If it had not been for my dad and his brothers and a net under the ice to catch fish, we would all have starved.
A few years later uncle Frank, through pleading with the Indian agent in Kenora finally got relief for the people. A gravel road was built. Uncle Frank had the first truck in the community and the first TV and a pay phone at his house. Many people went to his house to watch TV . He would charge 5 cents a person. One day in 1964 uncle Frank started to sell pop, chips and candy. And that is how “White’s Store” came to be. It is still operated by my cousin Anna.
This is just to show you how times were tough. Now in my community we have a Band Office, Heath, Arena, School, Fire Hall, Head Start, Economic Development and our own Child & family services which are the result of the endless hours of work and meetings by our former Chiefs and Council members. They had no choice but to work under the system imposed on them.
Do we live in poverty? Yes. Are our people struggling? Yes. Do we need change? Yes. But the people who become leaders and Chiefs in our communities are first and foremost HUMAN and they are one of us.
My personal view on Idle No More when I first started to get involved, and what got me excited about it, was everyone’s concern for land, for water, environment and the unborn.
But now I’m seeing that a few people are saying the Chiefs can’t speak for us and even hearing they are not being invited to some of the meetings because of it. And now I hear some Chiefs say they are backing away because they aren’t welcome. And when that happens it weakens the movement. Because Idle No More is a people’s movement. It is not one or two or three or four people. It is every single child, man, woman, Elder. We have come from the same struggle and we need to be united.
The minute I saw the pictures of the oil sands and the tar sands I knew there ain’t going to be much of this land left if we don’t stand up and do something. We all have a stake in this. Chiefs, community members, grassroots, and Canadians together.
Responsibility Rests With Us
This doesn’t mean that I’m letting the Chiefs off the hook. The fact is, they didn’t bring the information to the people as they should have. They were asleep at the wheel. And some Chiefs seem more interested in making deals than protecting the land. But we need to take responsibility for that because we are so busy in our lives, we have gotten used to being reactive as opposed to being proactive.
We need to hold Chiefs and council members accountable to protecting the land. We should be insisting on community meetings and questioning them on what they are doing on the files they hold. And we have to stop relying on favoritism to vote council members in. Put the candidates in a town hall and then select the Chief and Council member right then and there.
We, in the communities need to insist on electing people who are going to stand up for Mother Earth. Our spirituality and the environment should be the foundation for chiefs and council. Western education should be considered second or third down the ladder. We need to ask the Elders to speak up and teach the chiefs and council members about the spirituality of land, water, environment and the future. Ask the Grandmothers to go to the elected leadership and insist that the leaders adopt the principals of sacredness of Mother Earth as law, instead of allowing the White Man’s greed of destroying the land and extracting the resources and polluting waters for money. Because who is going to be inheriting this, is the future generations of our people.
We have to be very careful when we elect people because they may be fooled by short term money, believe it will help, and then sign away the rights or the protections for the land for future generations.
We need to take responsibility for Harper too. Its going to be hard to hear this, but our people messed up. We allowed Harper to win the majority because we didn’t vote. I know why we don’t vote. Its because its not our system. We are First Nations, we are not Canadian. I don’t feel I am Canadian. I am Anishinaabe. And so I agree, yes – this Canadian system is not our system, this is the white man’s system. But the truth is that they make the laws that keep us in poverty. If we don’t take advantage of all the options open to us – all the options – then we aren’t doing everything we can to change things for the future.
I write this as a tribute to my late uncle Frank White, former Chief of Naotkamegwanning First Nation Treaty 3, Lake of The Woods, 1950 – 1965. I wish I could now personally say “miigwetch” to my uncle Frank. because in our community, we had nothing to start with. Today we have much to be thankful for.
Follow on Twitter: @alowhite1
Alo White (Mide Kiwenzie/Bizhew Dodem /Nano Midewi) is respected for the knowledge he carries of Anishinaabe language culture, songs & spiritual ceremonies from his community of Naotkamegwanning First Nation (Treaty 3) in Northwestern Ontario. He is currently working on a series of recordings under his label Alo White Recording Studios, recording Elders from the Treaty 3 area under the project titled “Preserving Anishinaabe Music.”