“When you see people getting maced, and shot with rubber bullets, and getting sprayed at with water canyons in freezing temperatures… It’s one thing to know it, but it’s another thing to experience it.” This, says Sarain Fox, is what indigenous activists have to endure every day—and now their fight is getting broadcast far and wide with the debut of docu-series Rise on Viceland today.
Rise takes its audiences onto the frontlines of some of the most prominent indigenous rights protests across the Americas, while Fox, a First Nations artist and activist, spits hard-hitting questions that expose the current struggle for indigenous rights and freedoms.
FLARE caught up with Sarain Fox to hear about her experiences bearing witness to those brave enough to speak truth to power.
One aspect of RISE that really stands out is that there are more women on the frontlines than men. Why do you think that is?
That is just part of indigenous society—indigenous society has always been led by women. It’s always been the women and elders who made the decisions for the people. As we are actively de-colonizing and people are beginning to rise up again, this is just the way that we’ve always gone about things. For so long our women have been targeted with violence, so part of the way we’re going to be able to reclaim our culture is by allowing our women to speak and to be on the frontlines.
What unique impact do you think that has, having women on the frontlines?
When we’re talking about issues like water and earth, it’s very important that women are leading. Women have this ability to take care of life and we really see that as part of our work. Without water, a woman can’t carry new life, so it’s very important for the women to be standing up for all of these life-giving elements. Women are symbolic of protecting life and carrying life on.
You were recently at the Sundance Film Festival and you took part in the Women’s March there. How was that?
That’s a pretty difficult question for me right now because the Women’s March brought a lot of very mixed feelings for me. On one hand, it was so inspiring and empowering to stand with so many women, and as a woman to see the uprising across all of North America. On the other hand, so many of my indigenous sisters felt targeted at these marches. There were so many visibly white women standing and speaking for equality and talking about the effects that the administration would have on women’s rights, yet there were women of colour and minority women marching with them who were completely left out of the dialogue. That is really problematic because we know that it is minority women and women of colour who will be targeted first. And when you’re talking about things like Planned Parenthood, that is a direct attack—not only on black lives but on indigenous lives and minority lives and people of colour.
What needs to be done to start that dialogue?
If people start to recognize the land that they’re on and the history of the continent they’re living on, then they would have to inherently put indigenous people first. In Canada, we’re really starting to move towards that direction of land acknowledgement; universities, for example, are now acknowledging indigenous people in everything they do. Just acknowledging indigenous land inherently makes you recognize that there are indigenous people who need to be heard and who need to be included. In the States, that conversation is just starting, and it is years behind. It’s just about changing the way we think and making it more about the land informing us how to talk about these issues.
In your time spent filming for Rise, did you notice any specific differences between the States and Canada in the way they deal with indigenous issues?
In a lot of ways, we’re dealing with the same kinds of silencing, but in Canada, indigenous women are very, very loud, and very, very good at advocating for each other. In the States, we’re seeing a lot more censorship. In Canada, we’ve always been a little bit more progressive, in terms of how we approach the media. I’ve never had to question that indigenous people were in Canada, whereas in the States, there are people who think indigenous people don’t even still exist, that they’ve already been wiped out. We just don’t have that in Canada and that’s a privilege.
Something that stands out in RISE is that there are so many powerful young people involved. How old were you when you first realized you needed to speak out on these issues? Can you pinpoint a specific moment?
I remember being in the eighth grade and we had a project where we had to pick one place in the world where a group of people had done something against the government, and I remember looking up Oka [a 1990s Canadian land dispute between a group of Mohawk people, and the town of Oka, Quebec]. I remember looking at the imagery and looking at the CBC news reports and I remember seeing that the Oka crisis ended, seeing all of the police. They promised them they wouldn’t attack them and they would be safe, but what we actually saw was the people were brought out and viciously attacked and the locals were allowed to attack them. Seeing that imagery as a young person ingrained this anger and my desire to fight for justice. It’s hard not to feel angry. I remember feeling like I needed to do something, and I felt angry and hurt. It took me almost a decade to understand how to not be angry and how to be powerful and move forward. With the young people now, we see them understanding that from the very beginning. We’re seeing young people not have to learn how to be an activist; they’re stepping into it in the first place, which I think is amazing and something that wasn’t available to a lot of us when we were younger.
Social media has also played a large role in the way that young people protest. How has it helped?
Social media is powerful! For so long, indigenous people have been silenced and when you put a tool in their hands that allows them to amplify their voice without having any conditions put on them, without having to reach out to get that amplification, that’s their power. Forty to 50 years ago we couldn’t walk through these situations without being armed because it was just too dangerous. And now, we’re unarmed and the weapons we hold are our phones, our voices. They are our shields and our swords and that’s really, really beautiful.
Trump just confirmed the advancement of DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline). What happens now? What needs to be done?
For most indigenous people, the orders from Trump don’t come as a surprise. Although the Trump administration is basically a threat to indigenous people, it’s no different than any other threat we have. These are the same kinds of issues that indigenous people have been fighting with for a very long time now. What we’re going to see is just the consistent uprising, and I know that people are preparing for the long haul. Our reality is that indigenous people have been fighting with these issues for years, and will continue to fight because the world needs indigenous people to fight for our resources, otherwise we have no future.
As an indigenous woman from Canada, you have been exposed to these issues from a very young age, but what new things did you learn while filming Rise?
I always knew that the strength and resilience of my community was so huge, but when you see people getting maced, and shot with rubber bullets, and getting sprayed at with water canyons in freezing temperatures, and then you see them on the frontlines at a place like Sundance, continuously doing that work, no matter where they are—the biggest thing I took away was that we, as indigenous people, are so resilient and so powerful, and have that bravery and strength to fight for land, and to not back down. It’s one thing to know it but it’s another thing to experience it. Once you’ve seen it, you can never ever undo that. You can never think that anything is impossible because what the protectors are doing is facing up against unimaginable circumstances and continuing to step up to it day in and day out. That’s the biggest thing I’m going to take away from Rise: it makes it impossible to sit back and do nothing. I will never be able to be complacent. I will always feel as though this work is part of my life’s work.
If people are moved after seeing RISE and want to get involved, how can they do that?
I would answer that by quoting [Standing Rock activist and Rise star] Bobbi Jean Three Legs: “Make your own Standing Rock in your home town. It doesn’t matter how small it is. Gather yourself, talk to your community and create a frontline where you are. If you can’t go to Standing Rock, then you can create your own. And it doesn’t even have to be about Standing Rock: figure out what the people need near you and choose a fight and stand for it. Every morning when you wake up, the very first thing you have to do is stand. And that’s the very first thing you need to do to be a protector, is to wake up and choose to stand, every single day.” A really great thing to do is to sign petitions, like signing the petition against the three new pipelines that Trudeau just approved, and signing the petition to impeach Trump. Be politically active. Get involved. And don’t let the moment pass you by. Always invest yourself in continuing to rise up as a people.
You can catch Rise every Friday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Viceland. A special screening will also be held Feb. 1 at 1pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, followed by a live Q&A with director Michelle Latimer.
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