The Occupy MN protest in downtown Minneapolis countered the national holiday of Columbus Day by celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day on October 10th with speakers from the American Indian Movement and dancing from Azteca and Mexica dancers. The event offered a much-needed and underrepresented point of view to the movement, and those in attendance were visibly moved and inspired by the eloquence and simplicity of the speakers’ messages. However, it has come to my attention that not all understand the relevance of the indigenous viewpoint. I would like to highlight here the importance and relevance of an indigenous, and by extension, environmental, presence in the Occupy movement. In light of a few comments on the OccupyMN facebook page regarding the rally, it has become clear to me that some may view the event as a deviation from the movement’s focus.
“Jesus H, you guys, what are you doing? “Love circles”, indigenous rights rallies, union pandering? This is becoming a convention only fit for democrats and hippies,” wrote one commenter.
The group Anonymous Minnesota expressed a similar concern, writing, “Indigenous Peoples Day? What about handicap day, or maybe a senior citizens day. Or maybe we can get Hallmark to get us OccupyMN greeting cards. Or maybe lunchboxes! That would be cool! We have been watching and listening to the group meetings and we actually have forgotten what we stand for. Does anyone remember? …Now its a mourning ceremony for the Indigenous?”
If I am not mistaken, isn’t the Occupy movement all about alternative viewpoints and the unity of all of the 99%? Indigenous ways of life in the U.S. and abroad have been repressed and threatened by our financial system for hundreds of years. They, perhaps more than anyone, have an extremely high stake in the movement to reform the system. In fact, indigenous peoples are some of the most hard hit by the current financial crisis, suffering above-average rates of poverty and unemployment. Clyde Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis spoke about the 82% unemployment rate at his home reservation, a staggering number for a formerly self-sufficient group that Bellecourt described as “one of the richest people in the world at one time.” Is this not exactly the crisis that Occupy MN and all other Occupy movements are responding to? Unemployment is an issue that has clearly been at the forefront of the movement, and as indigenous groups are disproportionately affected by unemployment, I cannot fathom how their inclusion is a sign that Occupy MN is becoming a movement “only fit for democrats and hippies.” Bellecourt and the other speakers stressed over and over the importance of unity and solidarity among the entire 99%. Even though there are clearly those who would silence the more marginalized voices in the movement, Bellecourt reassured the non-Indian members of the crowd, “We will never turn you away.”
Furthermore, the movement stands to gain a lot of insight and organizing experience from indigenous rights organizers. Indigenous groups have been fighting for cultural, occupational, and financial freedoms for centuries. “120 million Indian people have been erased from the face of the earth since Columbus landed here, so we know a little bit about what you’re doing,” Bellecourt said. Jerry Lopez echoed the sentiment, saying “We’ve been in resistance for a long time.” The speakers recognized that the process begun at Occupy Wall St. will take a long time. The kind of societal and systemic change that Occupy Wall St. and its offshoots are striving for will not be achieved easily. Consensus-based decision making, cooperating among diverse actors, and meaningful conversation take a long time, and I believe that in order for our societal consciousness to shift, and for lasting change to be achieved, they must take a long time. As has been clear to the indigenous peoples of the Americas for some time, we cannot solely rely on our government to create the kind of society and life that we want. We have to build it together, slowly, piece by piece.