Red Power in the 1960s

Howard Adams

Inspired by the revolutionary anti-colonial movements of the Third World and the Black Power movement in the US, Métis* activist Howard Adams became a leader of the Red Power movement in Canada in the 1960s. His 1975 (1989 2nd ed.) book Prison of Grass: Canada From a Native Point of View, is a path breaking retelling of Canadian history. It brought together Marxism and Native nationalism to provide an analysis of race, class, the ossification and commidication of Native culture, and it is now an absolute must read for anyone who is interested in understanding the history of Indian struggles in the part of Anówarakowa Kawennote now called Canada.

In his twilight years who wrote another essential work, A Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization (1995, with a revised edition published in 1997). It contains Adams’ reflections on the original Red Power movement amongst other subjects. Because this book is so much harder to find (at least at a price affordable by most indigenous activists or non-indigenous allies) I have been attempting for sometime to get together a selection of excerpt from the book. Fortunately, other comrades have already done some of the heavy lifting. Thanks to the Canadian New Socialist Group we now have a place to start.

It is from them that this short piece comes.

All Native peoples across Canada, from Vancouver to New Brunswick, were restless. They were fed up with oppression, racism and injustice. They were fed up with being pushed around and they were ready to start pushing back. All across the land Indians and Métis were talking back to agents of Indian Affairs and Métis Council Administration. “Some Indians and Métis,” wrote Stewart of the Star Weekly, “the timid, the elderly, the responsible, call this new aggressiveness self-determination; others, bolder, younger andmore determined, call it Red Power.”

In the 1960s there was a parallel between Red Power in Canada and Black Power in the US. When a racial minority people are oppressed for a lengthy period, despised on racial grounds, they will inevitably decide to fight back. Self-righteous Canadians were looking across the border and saying to themselves that it can’t happen here. But what was happening in the US was also happening in Canada. Indians and Métis were turning militant and radical, and proclaiming that they had nothing to lose.

In spite of the wide spread protests andconfrontational demonstrators, the history of Indian, Métis and Inuit liberation movements during the 1960s and 70s remains hidden from the public. Although there has been an explosion of publications, written by both aboriginals and whites, on the Métis and Indians in the last 20 years, none includes a discussion of the Native peoples’ struggles during that important period. The ruling establishment has hidden this history in order to silence our people and deny us a sense of power and heritage.

When our battle for justice and liberation began in the early 1960s, Métis and Indian leaders were unsure what it would involve, what direction it would take, orhow it would eventually end. The only thing we knew with any certainty wasthat our people were no longer willing to tolerate exploitation and oppression in the colonies, ghettos, and reserves. We were demanding political rights and betterliving conditions.

We needed sufficient food, or as we put it, we wanted to put “bannock and lard” on our tables. Our cold, leaking shacks needed to be fixed. We demanded welfare cheques that didn’t leave us begging at the end of each month. But, more than that, we needed to be free from the colonizer’s imprisoning welfare system. As indigenous peoples of Canada,we were determined to rid ourselves of colonial oppression in every possible manner.

Since I was intimately involved with aboriginal organizations and liberation struggles in Saskatchewan, I have greater knowledge about them than those of other provinces. Consequently, I will focus on Saskatchewan organizations and political confrontations. However, Indian and Métis organizations throughout the nation were quite identical to those of Saskatchewan. The one exception in Saskatchewanis that the aboriginal liberation struggle was originally more militant and politically radical than those in other provinces, with the exception of the Mohawks.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indians represented status Indians, while the Métis Society, led by Joe Amyote, a mainstream Métis, served the province’s southern regions. Amyote sunk the organization into the mainstream psyche; he supported integration and government domination. In the north, Malcolm Norris and Jim Brady, devout socialists, led the Métis Association. These men had steered the organization for years, nourishing and politicizing aboriginal issues. Rod Bishop, a Métis from Green Lake, and I shared their views and joined them to turn Native dissension into a national democratic movement emphasizing the politics of self-determination.

As activists and radical leaders, we opposed traditional tribal chiefs and Métis collaborators who had betrayed the movement. Likewise, we opposed the growing class of Native elites allying withour enemies – government bureaucrats,white politicians, and other members of the corporate elite. Radical Native leaders advocated socialism. After all, capitalism was the system on which we were robbed of our lands, resources, and rights.

Activists like Brady and Norris educated our people about how the state prevented Natives from adopting or forming alternative ideologies, such as collectivism or socialism. The state smothered aboriginal peoples’ culture and traditional way sof thinking, and then forced us to adopt a false consciousness. Because colonized people have been socialized into a state of dependency, they tend to leave importantmatters to their leaders.

Although Métis and Indians had occasionally resorted to local demonstrations and confrontations in the past, they lacked systematic organization, and strong collaborator-free leadership. To combat this phenomenon, we held study sessions and organized community gatherings to discuss critical issues about decolonization in simple terms. We had to tap into our people’s most intense and personal emotions if we were going to encourage them to actively fight in decolonization struggles. Leaders spoke of our struggle in the context of imperialism in the Third World. It helped to feel that we were part of a global revolution against oppression.

If the ruling power gave us freedom, they could take it back whenever they wanted. To truly obtain freedom one has to own it, and our people could only own their freedom if they fought and seized it. Local people must be involved if they wanted local changes; they must become part of the solution. Local people should participate at all levels from strategy planning to mass demonstrations. Also, it is important to begin the battle where there is considerable home support.

By concentrating on local issues, we engaged in confrontations we felt we were sure to win. Neighbourhood activists acted as leaders and got a taste of victory. Regardless of the prize’s small size, success buoyed and motivated our people to continue. We embraced the conceptsof aboriginal nationalism and the necessity for confrontation.

*Métis is roughly the French equivalent of Mestizo, and was used in many French speaking places on the continent. However, in Canada it has a specific meaning. They are considered are a mixed-blood population and are legally an aboriginal group on par with Status Indians (Indians governed by the Indian Act) and the Inuit. Mothers were often Cree, Ojibwa, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Menominee, Mi’kmaq or Maliseet. Historically there was an important distinction between French Métis born of francophone voyageur fathers, and the Anglo Métis or Countryborn descended from Scottish fathers, but today these two cultures have essentially coalesced into one Métis tradition. There is much that can be said about the differences between the Métis and Status Indians, who themselves are largely mixed-blood in heritage, and how it is that the Canadian state has worked to divide them up into competing groups, but that is an essay for another time.


Posted on November 23, 2010, in Economics, Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles, Radical History, Socialism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Red Power in the 1960s.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: