Chiefs, Councils & Grassroots – The Struggle Within

Posted by on Jan 14, 2013 in Opinion


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.  LakeoftheWoods

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.”




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  1. Chiefs, Councils & Grassroots – The Struggle Within | Conservatives and Canada's 41st Parliament |
    January 14, 2013

    […] 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 wal…  […]

  2. Tammy Porter
    January 14, 2013

    Miigwetch for sharing this. It is only through this process of sharing these heartfelt stories that we can nurture and help guide our children, as well as ourselves.

  3. Shane Belcourt
    January 14, 2013

    Strong, strong piece. I say “yes” to these hopeful and empowering suggestions!

  4. Judith Pierce Martin
    January 14, 2013

    Your article is well thought out and the points you make are extremely valuable. Thank you for posting and sharing this.

    In my heart I truly understand what you mean when you say you “don’t feel you are Canadian, you are Anishinaabe” and that “We are First Nations, we are not Canadian”. And that these feelings lead to not voting in Canada’s election process.

    Sadly, it may be precisely this same attitude that we see in the government. They have relegated Native people to “the other” as if somehow all of them are outside the door looking in – as if all of things afforded to Canadians universally, do not apply to Native people. In my mind, you are Canadians (not in some assimilation nonsensical way) but in a way that guarantees you the same rights, the same liberties, the same entitlements, the same level of education, the same level of health care, the same level of housing, the same level of respect that mainstream Canadian’s enjoy.


  5. Tom Marcantonio
    January 14, 2013

    Respect to Uncle Frank
    Respect to Alo.

  6. Mike Ormsby
    January 14, 2013

    Great article….Miigwech….

    I have thought often of Art Solomon lately….especially with all that is going on….thought I’d share some of Art’s teachings and writings:

    “Woman is the centre of the wheel of life. She is the heartbeat of the people. She is not just in the home, but she is the community, she is the Nation.

    One of our Grandmothers.

    The woman is the foundation on which Nations are built. She is the heart of her Nation. If that heart is weak the people are weak. If her heart is strong and her mind is clear then the Nation is strong and knows its purpose. The woman is the centre of everything.” — Art Solomon (Ojibwe), “Kesheyanakwan” (Fast Moving Cloud), Anishinaabe Elder.

    “It is time for women to pick up their medicine and help heal a troubled world.” — Art Solomon (Ojibwe), “Kesheyanakwan” (Fast Moving Cloud), Anishinaabe Elder.

    “The traditional way of education was by example, experience, and storytelling. The first principle involved was total respect and acceptance of the one to be taught, and that learning was a continuous process from birth to death. It was total continuity without interruption. Its nature was like a fountain that gives many colours and flavours of water and that whoever chose could drink as much or as little as they wanted to whenever they wished. The teaching strictly adhered to the sacredness of life whether of humans, animals or plants.” – Art Solomon, Anishinaabe Elder

    “There comes a time when we must stop crying and wringing our hands and get on with the healing that we are so much in need of” – Art Solomon, Anishinaabe Elder

    Grandfather, Look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the sacred way. We know that we are the ones who are divided and we are the one who must come back together to walk in the sacred way. Grandfather, Sacred One, Teach us love, compassion and honor that we may heal the Earth and each other. – Art Solomon, Anishinaabe Elder

    In other words of Art Solomon, an Anishinaabe elder: “To heal a nation, we must first heal the individuals, the families and the communities.”

    The closing words of Elder Art Solomon at a conference at University of Sudbury in 1992 were:

    “We listened to three women yesterday. What they had to say tells me that spiritual rebirth is happening; spiritual rebirth is absolutely essential. The imperative for us now, as Native people, is to heal our communities, and heal our nations, because we are the final teachers in this sacred land. We have to teach how to live in harmony with each other and with the whole creation. People will have to put down their greed and arrogance before they can hear what we are saying. I am not sure how many will do that. So we are in the process of healing ourselves, healing our communities, and healing our nations.”

    Art also once explained:

    “I am a craftsman and I know that the craftsman puts something of himself into everything he makes. … The Hopis say that the Creator was the first worker. And since he is perfect, what he has made expresses his perfection. He is in it…”

    A passage from Art Solomon’s book, Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way (NC Press) describes Aboriginal society prior to the arrival of Europeans:

    “We were not perfect, but we had no jails, we had no taxes…no wine and no beer, no old peoples’ homes, no children’s aid society, we had no crisis centres. We had a philosophy of life based on the Creator. We had our humanity.”

    Art Solomon was the eldest of ten children born to a French Canadian mother and Ojibway father in the Killarney region of Georgian Bay, and attended Roman Catholic residential schools.

    Art shared some of his experience while teaching in the Native Studies Department at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario:

    “You were just a kid doing a man’s work. You know, we had to stand by that blacksmith fire well past what was reasonable or tolerable for children. We were kids, just like little Indian slaves. There was no one to comfort you or show you any care. For God’s sake, I couldn’t even see my sisters because they were all together, in another building. And, we, my sisters and brother were separated by the road between us. We could only go home once a year, maybe at Christmas, if we were lucky enough to have some one who was able to come. My Mother had nine of us and she sure as hell couldn’t leave her babies for us bigger ones. There was no money in those days. It was in the time of the First World War. My father couldn’t come because he was a lumberjack working in the bush. That was the season he had to do the cutting in. During the summer, he was a fishing guide, a deep sea fisher man and a sailor who would go by train to Minneapolis and Detroit to pick up the boats of the wealthy Americans who were coming to Killarney, on the Georgian Bay (of Lake Huron). There was lots of fish in the big waters (Lake Ontario and Lake Superior). It was a really hard time, those days. And that stuff stays with you. You learned it in your early childhood. It was really all you knew; the earlier stuff you forgot out of fear. Then we are left with trying how to figure it out on our own. It was very hard on my mother. We were a big help to her when we came home. But all that changed when they came back in August to take us away. That’s all I have to say about it”.

    Art wrote the following:

    A Song for the People

    Grandfather, Great Spirit I give you thanks That we can sit here In this circle of Life, We send Prayers And the very best thoughts

    Grandmother Great Spirit As we raise this sacred pipe To give thanks to you And to all of your Creation, We give thanks To the spirit helpers Who came and sat among us.

    Grandfather, Most sacred one, These are your prayers That we send to you As we sit here together and pray

    Grandmother your children are crying. Grandfather your children are dying. The hands of greed And the hands of lust for power Have been laid on them And all around is death and desolation The gifts you made, for all your children Stolen, And laid to waste In a monstrous desecration.

    Grandmother Great Spirit, As we sit and pray together We send you this prayer of affirmation- We your children whom you created in your likeness and image- We will reach out, And we will dry our tears And heal the hurts of each other. Our sisters and brothers are hurting bad, And our children, they see no future.

    We know Grandfather, that you gave us a sacred power, But it seems like we don’t know its purpose So now we’ve learned as we sat together, The name of that power is love, Invincible, irresistible, overwhelming power, This power you gave us we are going to use, We’ll dry the tears of those who cry And heal the hurts of them that are hurting.

    Yes Grandmother, We’ll give you our hands And in our hearts and minds and bodies We dedicate our lives to affirmation. We will not wait nor hesitate, As we walk on this sacred earth We will learn together to celebrate The ways of peace, and harmony, and tranquillity, That come, And in the world around us. Thank you Grandfather for this prayer.

    From Eating Bitterness: A Vision From Beyond The Prison Walls by Art Solomon (who worked so actively on behalf of Native peoples in the prisons):

    “When Christopher Columbus landed in North America not one Native person was in prison, because there were no prisons. We had laws and order because law was written in the hearts and minds and souls of the people and when justice had to be applied it was tempered with mercy. The laws came from the ceremonies which were given by the spirit people, the invisible ones. As a people we were less than perfect as all other people are, but we had no prisons because we didn’t need them. We knew how to live and we also knew how not to live.”

    One thing I remember most is travelling north from Toronto to go to the Solomons’ home….to get ‘teachings’ from Art. We’d arrive already to listen to Art’s wisdom….but Art would point out that there was work to be done first….wood to be chopped and brought in….maybe other outdoor chores, depending on the weather or time of year, such as working in the garden or fixing fences….but always there was work to be done to help Eva in the kitchen….and in many ways I learned as much from Eva as I did from Art….just listening to Eva talk about their life….their children….and more than anything the importance of working together….in fact I think that was the ‘biggest’ teaching of them all….by doing work together we found ourselves learning from each other….that we each had our place….and in Eva’s kitchen (and home & family), it was very clear that ‘the women are the center of everything’.

    • wes elliott
      January 15, 2013

      It’s a pleasure to share ur words. Many need to be aware of the hope in change. This is a very positive road to travel. It’s also a blueprint to bring all of us together. I’m Houdenosaunee and our struggles are basically the same. Here we have a band that needs to be replaced and we will do it. Our Confederacy will have our voice. That is their role. The people makeup the Confederacy. Now I understand what changes others need. Now we look for all of us to unite.We are living prophesy. All of us! The time is now.

  7. lynn
    January 16, 2013

    So beautifully articlated.
    Thank you.

  8. Peter Hudyman
    January 21, 2013

    well said Alo…miigwech…:-)

  9. Stacey Amos
    February 7, 2013

    Thank you Alo for sharing this story and words of wisdom with me. While I am not native, I appreciate and respect the needs and beliefs of our Native people. You have enlightened me.