By David Wiwchar
Staring out across a sea of people jammed into Washington, D.C.’s historic National Mall, a hereditary chief from a tiny village thousands of miles away nodded and smiled.
Perched on a small stone deck atop the National Museum of the Ameri can Indian, Shawn Atleo listened intently as Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, focusing on messages of unity, hope, and change for the people of his nation. Obama’s message struck home with the Ahousaht hereditary chief.
“I was honoured to be invited by the National Congress of American Indians tribes and the Cherokee Nation to witness the swearing-in of a man who stands as a symbol of change and hope for so many,” Atleo said from the small, remote West Coast community of Ahousaht. “As First Nations, we recognize and understand the significance and magnitude of Obama being the first African-American to take the oath of office standing on the steps of a building built by slaves 150 years ago, as well as his strong recognition of tribal peoples in the U.S.”
He added that this also highlights the need for indigenous people to unite across borders to further strengthen themselves and build a bright future for his people. Obama’s campaign understood the need for hope and dreams, and that this could only be achieved through the active involvement and participation of people on the ground. It was this inclusive people’s movement that created the vision and confidence in change.
Obama’s message of unity and hope was reiterated by Atleo when he returned home to launch his own political campaign. Wrapped in a ceremonial shawl of finely woven cedar bark and surrounded by dozens of family members, Hawilth A-in-chut (Chief Shawn Atleo) announced his intention to become national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“It is our time to unite as First Nations across the land and build on the exciting resurgence of our culture being led by our youth and supported and guided by the elders,” Atleo said, pointing to his many gathered supporters. “I am running because it is time to strengthen our ties to one another and to heal the divisions that were not created by us, including the imposed boundaries and international borders that we face. I am running because it’s our time. The time is now.”
The Assembly of First Nations is the national representative organization of the 630 First Nations communities in Canada and actively lobbies the federal government on aboriginal issues.
The AFN national chief is often jokingly referred to as the Indian prime minister in First Nations circles. The position has most recently been held by Phil Fontaine, Matthew Coon Come, and Ovide Mercredi.
For the past six years, Atleo has served as the Assembly of First Nations B.C. regional chief. His work with the provincial and federal governments has led to policy changes and vast improvements in how governments work with First Nations.
Atleo’s friendly relationship with Premier Gordon Campbell has led to proposed legislation that would finally recognize aboriginal rights and land title throughout the province.
“As Obama pointedly said at his inauguration, the challenges we face are real, and it’s the same for First Nations, and through unity those challenges will be met because we have chosen hope,” Atleo said. “First Nations understand too well internal divisions that have held us back, most of which are not created by us but, rather, imposed on us externally. With over 50 percent of our First Nations population under the age of 25, we all must realize that the ground underneath us has shifted, and that with the youth in mind, as Obama said, everyone deserves a chance.”¦Self-confidence creates prosperity.”
After three-term national chief Phil Fontaine (Ojibway, Manitoba) announced his retirement, it left Atleo (Nuu-chah-nulth, B.C.), John Beaucage (Anishinabek, Ontario), Perry Bellegarde (Cree, Saskatchewan), Terrence Nelson (Anishinabe, Ontario), and Bill Wilson (Kwakwaka’wakw, B.C.) in the race for AFN national chief.
Many pundits picked Atleo to win but warned that Beaucage and Bellegarde were also in the running. The more radical Wilson and Nelson could have added a few swing votes if they had lasted more than one ballot. The national chief must receive a minimum of 60 percent of delegate votes. On Thursday (July 23), Atleo was declared the winner at the AFN general assembly in Calgary, when Bellegarde conceded to him after eight ballots.
David Wiwchar is an aboriginal journalist who lives on Vancouver Island.