A true warrior

Indigenous people all over the globe are mourning Rodney Bobiwash

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with songs, drums and prayers, 700 relatives, friends and co-workers testified to the enormous spirit and courage of Rodney Bobiwash last week at the Native Canadian Centre. The scholar, anti-racist activist and advocate for indigenous peoples across the globe died of a heart attack a week and a half ago, leaving a void that may never be filled.It was no accident that Bobiwash touched so many lives. Besides his awesome roster of achievements — founder of Klanbusters, professor of aboriginal studies, executive director of the Native Canadian Centre, defender of Colombia’s Embera-Katio people, organizer of the Third Encounter For Humanity, director of the Forum for Global Exchange, and so much more — he was one of those rare personalities who coupled serious dedication with an immense sense of humour and penchant for mischief. No one who knew him could forget him.

Born to the Bear Clan of the Mississagi Nation (his Anishnabe name was Wacoquaakmik, Breath of the Land) and educated at Trent University and Oxford, he was able to span a tremendous range of constituencies. As his long-time friend Janice Dembo puts it, “He was one of those who could move easily between the native world and western culture and remain exactly the same person at all times. He could be extremely elegant in the tuxes and beautiful suits he loved — he even had an opera cape — or he could wear traditional native gear or just jeans and sneakers like any other protestor. He had an extraordinary presence.’

I don’t know if Rodney arrived in this world with a fully functional bullshit detector, but by the time I met him over a decade ago it was a finely tuned instrument. He didn’t like to waste time and didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Those who knew him were immediately drawn to this forthright attitude as much as to his political commitment. From a small, busy office on the second floor of the Native Canadian Centre, where I first met him, Rodney spearheaded efforts to stop the growth of racist organizations like the Heritage Front. For that he earned a series of death threats from the far right, harassment and dirty tricks from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — and the admiration of a generation of young activists.

All this neither fazed nor panicked him, nor did it inflate his ego. In a university classroom, I remember how he challenged students to be engaged with the world and to look skeptically at the empty declarations of academic rhetoric. He wanted to ignite action in the service of the indigenous communities he believed to be under siege across the Americas.

But his daring came at a cost, and his wife, Heather Howard, knew it first-hand. “Rodney never defaulted on his principles,’ she says. “Often he didn’t have work, and people would make it difficult for us to make a living, quite frankly. But he wouldn’t compromise in order to make a buck. He packed a lot into his short life.’

As productive as he was, Rodney suffered from acute diabetes and ill health. As Dembo puts it, “We nearly lost him a few times. But it didn’t matter how ill or stressed-out he was — if he made a commitment, he kept it, and he never complained.’

One obligation he held almost to the end was the Friday-evening vigil at the Colombian consulate for Kimmy Pernia Domico, the indigenous mega-project resistor who returned home from testifying at the Quebec People’s Summit last April and soon afterward disappeared. Last week, it was Rodney whom Colombian activists honoured at their consul protest.

Leaving aside all he generated and the many he inspired, many will miss Rodney as a friend. I always looked forward to hearing about his latest projects and ideas, but what I will miss most are his stories, which often left us with tears of laughter running down our faces. Those tears are now of a different sort. Kevin Thomas was an organizer of the successful Daishowa boycott in support of Lubicon Lake Indian Nation land rights and now works for the Lubicon Nation as a negotiator.

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