VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Staring out across a sea of people jammed into the Washington Mall, a hereditary chief from a tiny village thousands of miles away, nods and smiles.
Perched on a stone deck atop the National Museum of the American Indian, Shawn Atleo listened intently as President Barack Obama spoke of unity and hope in his inaugural address.
“I was honored to be invited by the National Congress of the American Indian and the Cherokee Nation to witness the swearing in of a man who stands as a symbol of change and hope for so many,” said Atleo, a hereditary chief of British Columbia’s Ahousaht First Nation.
“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. This also highlights the need for us as indigenous people to unite across the borders to further strengthen ourselves and build a bright future for our 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 peoples’ movement that created the tremendous vision and confidence in change.”
Obama’s message of unity and hope was reiterated by Atleo when he returned home to launch his own campaign.
Wrapped in a ceremonial shawl of finely woven cedar bark, the hereditary chief of the small West Coast island village announced his intention to become national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Surrounded by dozens of family members, Hawilth A-in-chut (Chief Shawn Atleo) officially declared his run for the top job.
“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,” said Atleo, pointing to his 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 AFN is the national representative organization of the 630 First Nations communities in Canada, and actively lobbies the federal government on aboriginal issues.
For the past six years, Atleo has served as the Assembly of First Nations regional chief in the province of British Columbia.
His work with the provincial and federal governments has led to countless policy changes and vast improvements in how governments work with First Nations.
Atleo’s working relationship with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell has led to proposed legislation that would finally recognize aboriginal rights and land title throughout the province.
“As Obama 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.”
Atleo (Nuu-chah-nulth, British Columbia) is up against John Beaucage (Anishnabek, Ontario) and Perry Bellegarde (Cree, Saskatchewan) in the race for AFN national chief. Incumbent National Chief Phil Fontaine (Ojibway, Manitoba) hasn’t announced if he’ll seek an unprecedented fourth term. The election takes place July 22 at the AFN Annual General Assembly in Calgary, Alberta.