Today, the rumour that the “Idle No More Four” (which used to be five women, back in December) were planning on copyrighting and/or trademarking the phrase “Idle No More” was confirmed. It’s done now, thus marking a definitive moment in indigenous resistance that all the real grassroots saw coming months ahead of time: indigenous people being manipulated by existing colonial structures and played as pawns against each other in the ongoing struggle for their collective rights.
We’ve seen this before, even within this very recent resurgence of a previously existing indigenous resistance movement that has been ongoing since European contact. The name of this phenomenon is internalized colonialism, and it has manifested several times already in just the past four months. For example, when news media corporations began exploiting and manipulating the apparent naivety and inexperience of the “Idle No More Four” in order to pit indigenous people against each other on the evening news — by fishing for personal opinions and broadcasting them on a national platform, multiple times, instead of airing a sincere attempt to engage the multitude of issues the movement is revolting against. And we saw it again, in spades, when I published this open letter to address the most prominent two of those four women, about how they are mishandling their time in media and how they could be better exploiting the attention for the enormous clusterfuck of issues effecting indigenous peoples’ daily lives all across this country. And again, when one of the two women I had addressed publicly responded to my open letter with a display of passive aggression, further polarizing everyone on all sides of the issue. People were polarized regardless of their ethnicity, and regardless of their motivations for engaging the issue at all. Some saw it as an opportunity for the explicit purpose of venting even more polemic hatred towards indigenous peoples, while others saw it as just the right moment to launch an attack of lateral violence against people of their own racial/ethnic group in order to demonstrate what a proud ally against colonialism they are. And we are seeing it again, now that those four women have just fired a cannon through their own “movement” when they were swiping their credit cards through the Interac machine to process the payments on their copyright and trademark.
So well done, ladies. You’ve so effectively chosen to publicly convey the depth of your internalized colonialism to the light of day, that I can now write about it openly. You’ve also committed a serious act of lateral violence against people of your own race, which in Eurocentric culture is generally referred to as “throwing them under the bus”. Among some people of your own race, your actions may be interpreted to such extremes as a form of treason. And rightfully so. You’ve done the work to deserve it.
Why Trademark Or Copyright Anything Ever?
People can apply for trademarks and copyrights when they want to protect something they consider their intellectual property. Maybe it is their intellectual property. If I wrote a book about why I think all cats are arrogant, self-centred assholes, I would want to a copyright so that my words, arranged in the particular order they are for the entire length of a book that’s obviously not even worth the paper it’s printed on, are protected against plagiarism. If someone else published a book, for instance, about why they think all cats are arrogant, self-centred assholes, and they used entire sentences or even chapters of my book, I could sue them into the eternally unforgiving heat of the Sun. If I posed for photographs (as I did for the ten years during which I was a semi-professional glamour and erotica model, as well as a sex worker), I can (and often did) sign an agreement that surrenders my copyright of those images as payment for the photographer’s professional services. That also means that if the photographer decided to mass-print his own form of currency with a handlebar moustache superimposed on my face from a particularly tasteless frame, I only have the right to ask him not to do that, but cannot sue him over my preference that it be a Salvador Dali moustache instead.
But sometimes people try to copyright things that are not their intellectual property. For instance, Paris Hilton is known for attempting to try to trademark and copyright the phrase “That’s hot.” I have actually no idea if she was successful in this venture, simply because I wouldn’t even notice if she was shot out of a cannon into empty space. In case you’re wondering what’s with all the cannons, I like what they’re doing, and I’m a Euro-mutt, so my ancestors were Big Fans® of cannons. If I wanted to trademark and copyright the word “banhammer” or the phrase “banhammered into space”, both of which are frequent flyers on the world-wide web and which preceded my awareness of them by a virtually immeasurable period of time, I would have some trouble proving my entitlement over this intellectual property. I might also be banhammered (or perhaps shot out of a cannon) into space from ever writing on the Internet again. So I’m just going to go ahead and not do that.
People also apply for trademarks and copyrights when they want to profit from something they consider their intellectual property. In the world of photography, this is an especially cogent point. Photography is an expensive art form, and the expenses involved rise exponentially at every step of one’s personal and professional development. People can also make a lot of money doing good quality professional photography work, as well they should. I’d like to say it’s a hard day’s work to shoot a wedding, but even I know that it’s at least a minimum of a week’s investment of staying up into the wee hours of the night, staring into a computer screen, and scrutinizing and adjusting every detail of one of the most monumental celebrations of a person’s life. This process is both expedited and exacerbated by a heavy dependence upon caffeine and terrible posture. People can also lose a lot of money doing good quality professional photography work that other people then steal and promote as their own work without acknowledging or even knowing of the identity of the original artist. A copyright helps protect the integrity of a photographer’s precious hours upon hours of work for that one perfect shot.
And profit is the only possible motivation behind the decision to trademark and copyright the phrase “Idle No More”. Very recently in a relatively ill-reputed suburb about an hour’s public transit ride away from my current home, a young woman was walking about wearing a shirt that had the phrase emblazoned upon it, when she was brutally attacked and horrifically sexually assaulted by ten assailants. This isn’t even the first woman who has been targeted for a brutal attack of sexual violence since the beginning of “Idle No More” flashmobs, as a result of either Walking While Indigenous, of wearing some sort of clothing with the phrase emblazoned across it, or both. I wonder if the so-called “founders” of Idle No More™ (© 2013 Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson, & Sheelah McLean) intend to sue that young woman very close to my current home, or the merchant (who I’m sure is even closer to me) from whom she purchased that shirt, for royalties on their now-trademarked and copyrighted phrase. I sure hope not, but then is that now the only defence we have against being sued for using the phrase? Again, I sure hope not.
Boycott Idle No More?
A while back, when T-shirts and hoodies first began emerging with the phrase “Idle No More” printed across them, people were snatching them up at $20 a shirt, and a lot of people were getting a major case of T-shirt envy (and probably fewer people were experiencing its lesser known cousin, “hoodie envy”). But the novelty wore off quickly among the real grassroots, who saw this as an attempt to exploit and capitalize upon their movement. Before long, the T-shirts and hoodies started showing up at pow wows and Coastal First Nations celebrations such as Hobiyee and potlatch. Whether or not the vendors’ motivations were to exploit indigenous peoples, or the money actually returned to the community to further the indigenous nationhood movement, the elders were not happy. I’m siding with the elders on this one, not in an effort to slam the enterprising vendors, but simply to acknowledge that the elders have a wholly accurate insight into what’s going on there. It’s great that people who very lovingly hand-sew all sorts of regalia are able to display their wares and organize orders for new commissions or repairs from the dancers in attendance, and they might even sell a gift here or there. It’s another thing entirely when T-shirts and hoodies manufactured under conditions of wage-slavery and shipped from overseas are printed on by machines for a neatly packaged commodity version of activism, for just the right price that may or may not return in spades upon the community members who are putting their money out for a piece of it—especially when those T-shirts and hoodies are showing up just outside the bounds of spiritual ceremonies and traditions of renewal and healing. I personally made the decision to not buy a piece of the Official Unofficial Idle No More Movement when the first elder spoke about their dissatisfaction with the relatively sudden appearance of these articles of clothing at the back of flash mobs, protests, pow wows, and potlatches.
And now that “Idle No More” is a copyrighted and trademarked phrase, I’m making the personal decision to boycott it entirely as of the end of this post. The decision to apply for either copyright or trademark on it — let alone both at the same time — tells me that these four women have so deeply internalized a colonial mindset that they have either forgotten their traditional world views (assuming they learned them to begin with) or have been so cruelly manipulated that they can no longer trust them. It tells me that these women don’t believe that their traditional way of life once taught them a code of honour, which everyone else in their community would have also been taught to carry within them as well. It tells me that they don’t believe that their fellow indigenous human beings (and those who are not indigenous but nonetheless heavily influenced by an indigenous world view) are trustworthy or honourable people who adhere to an internalized code of honour and ethics to the benefit of all their relations. It tells me that perhaps, these women don’t even believe in the spirit of the phrase “all my relations”, and as such, are the least suitable electorates in the entire movement (if it can even be referred to as if it were a singularity) to dictate how the movement ought to be branded and carried out.
It’s no wonder then, that they copyrighted and trademarked the phrase “Idle No More”, rather than “Never Idle”.