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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

A little history

BY Will Nicholls Jul 3, 2022

National Indigenous Day is past us and Nation Indigenous Month is ending. We’ve all heard the cries for Indigenous history to be taught in classrooms. One wonders what will be taught and how it will be presented. Candy-coated with a few dark spots would be most likely. How Canada got its name, how the Injuns helped the settlers, a few wars we helped one side or the other, the fur trade, and, of course, an apologetic reference to residential schools.

It would be too much to expect references to Indigenous movements such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island in the United States by Indigenous protestors in 1969. They cited the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie saying they had a right to the island after the prison was closed. Around 90 protestors arrived on the island November 20. Among them were two Mistissini  residents – George and Glenna Matoush. 

When the protestors arrived on the island, a lone guard went on the radio and said, “Mayday! Mayday! The Indians have landed!” It was the start of a 19-month long occupation that was eventually forcibly ended by the US government.

But the 1960s also saw the start of the American Indian Moment (AIM). The organization was created to address problems experienced by Indigenous Peoples. It included treaties, social problems, murdered and missing women, and police brutality as well as supporting and fostering the cultural and spiritual revival of Indigenous Peoples. 

One of its most famous members was Leonard Peltier. He was jailed in 1977 for aiding and abetting the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. During that time the Tribal Chairman Richard Wilson created a private militia called Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON) that would attack political opponents of Wilson. AIM and the Lakota started what would be a 71-day siege to address what they saw as wrongful conduct.

Peltier was named as one of three people wanted by the FBI. He was arrested in Canada and returned to the US to face trial. Canada’s Solicitor General would say later that he was extradited on false information. The other two people charged were acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. Peltier was tried later and didn’t benefit from the previous court case.

There were many problems with the information given to the court. Initially the FBI said they were looking for a red pick-up truck, but during the trial they changed it to an orange-and-white van that Peltier used. 

Myrtle Poor Bear claimed she was Peltier’s girlfriend and that he had planned the killings, but later admitted she never knew him personally. Most of her testimony was used to convict Peltier. She was considered mentally unstable, and the FBI deemed her unfit to testify in court, but her written statements were still used in the trial. Bullets provided by the FBI firearms expert were used as evidence, but in later years it would be revealed that they could not have come from Peltier’s rifle.

To this day the 77-year-old Peltier still languishing in prison even though he became eligible for parole in 1993.

AIM has had its own difficulties with internal conflicts, mostly attributed to infiltration by FBI agents looking to discredit them. Later, the FBI and other federal agencies would label AIM as a subversive, communist and even terrorist organization.

According to an AIM member, this happened after a river flooded land and members showed up to assist non-Native farmers and residents with building dikes they needed. For the authorities, this act was seen as a way to win the hearts and minds of the American public when it came to AIM. Just goes to show you no good deed goes unpunished.

Just a little Indigenous history you will not likely read in the classroom curriculum.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.