Monthly Archives: September 2014

Thoughts on Indigeneity, Empire and Decolonization

In preparing for this week’s IGOV382 class on Indigenous Resurgence I wrote a few thoughts on the first chapters of Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasáse, Alfred and Corntassel’s “Being Indigenous”, and Tuck and Yang’s important piece “Decolonization is not a metaphor”.

For the sake of reflection and posterity, here they are for all who might be interested. I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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The readings this week seek to articulate broad themes about how we conceptualize and articulate resurgence within struggles for decolonization.

For Alfred, this involves identifying that the root cause of Indigenous suffering under colonialism is a “spiritual crisis” (31) in which we have become “disconnected from our lands and our traditional ways of life” and “divided amongst ourselves and confused in our own minds about who we are and what kind of life of we should be living” (31).

Seeking to move beyond state-centred institutional solutions and identities, like assimilationist “Aboriginalism”, Alfred sees the project of resurgence as deeply embedded in a struggle to re-strengthen (and ‘re-culture’) ourselves as Indigenous Peoples as we engage in acts of “creative contention” with the historical effects and present shape-shifting forms of contemporary colonialism.


In order to get “free from colonial attitudes and behaviours” – Alfred identifies this as the work of regeneration:

“Regeneration means we will reference ourselves differently, both from the ways we did traditionally and under colonial domination. We will self-consciously recreate our cultural practices and reform our political identities by drawing on tradition in a thoughtful process of reconstruction and a committed reorganization of our lives in a personal and collective sense” (34)

Regeneration is about “restoring connections” (34) to our homelands, languages, original teachings and natural laws, ceremonies, and cultures—but with the knowledge that this process will need to be creative, transformative, and liberating not only for ourselves, but for all our people.

Alfred and Corntassel, in their article “Being Indigenous”, propose a similar ethic and commitment to liberation through a process of reconnection to Indigenous ways of thinking and being in the world, but one that looks beyond the definitional frame of the colonial experience as either an end goal or objective. Instead, they suggest, that our “determined acts of survival” (597) against colonizing structures and states should be oriented toward restoring our autonomy as individuals, peoples, and nations. Decolonization is both a personal project of transformation and a commitment to building a movement that can transform collectivities and communities as it grows. They rightly observe that “there is a danger in allowing colonization to be the only story of Indigenous lives” (601).

So, knowing that this is case, that we collectively need to escape the colonial narrative “as the fundamental reference” (601) that limits Indigenous imaginings of freedom by prioritizing Settler power as a singular referent, the question becomes: how do we fight to overcome or transcend this normative conceptualization of the struggle to decolonize?


Here, Tuck and Yang’s piece is helpful in explaining some of they ways in which decolonization, when it is (mis)understood as a metaphor, provides a cover for Settler anxieties by masking accountability and responsibility for transforming colonial power relations; and that re-establishes Settler desires for a pre-emptive reconciliation that fails to address the underlying imbalance of the broader colonial project, which is the further encroachment onto Indigenous territories and the ongoing theft of land. Tuck and Yang describe this metaphorization of decolonization as part of a larger set of what they call “settler moves to innocence” that work to assuage settler guilt and complicity and restore a vision of a decolonized future that requires little of non-Indigenous peoples in the process of decolonizing. Decolonization, they argue, not only can be unsettling, it should be unsettling for all of us. It is about recognizing the specificity of lived historical and contemporary conditions of Indigenous erasure and dispossession that cannot be rectified through simply adopting decolonization as a discourse or as a limited practice of ‘decolonizing your mind’, or swapping/substituting the concept out for other (often unrelated) forms of oppression. Decolonization, they argue, has no synonym. It is a unique, place-based contention with colonialism that takes specific form and shape through struggles to reestablish and revitalize Indigenous presence on the land.

As they note on page 5: “Within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land/water/air subterranean earth. Land is what is most valuable, contested, required.” The colonial theft of land is a violent process that disrupts Indigenous relationships to land and is a multi-faceted form of violence—one that doesn’t end with the arrival of the settler but, instead, one that “is reasserted each day of occupation” (5). This is why, as Patrick Wolfe has succinctly argued, “settler colonialism is a structure not an event” (5).

Given that we are dealing with a structural violence of dispossession that is reproduced through ongoing occupation, decolonization demands nothing short of the return of Indigenous land: “Decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have…been differently understood and enacted” (7) by Indigenous Peoples. Taken to the logical conclusion of their argument, if all land on Turtle Island is Indian land and all of it has been colonized, then it follows, as they suggest, that “settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone” (7).

So, how then, should we fight?


In the readings from Wasáse (19-100) for this week, Alfred advocates for a “spiritual revolution” by Indigenous Peoples, that is, “a culturally rooted social movement that transforms the whole of society and a political action that seeks to remake the entire landscape of power and relationship to reflect truly a liberated post-imperial vision” (27).

This, he suggests, is to be accomplished through creative contention, resistance and resurgence: rebuilding our identities as Indigenous Peoples, challenging the colonial state, and protecting our freedom and our homelands. This demands not simply “unsettling” power relations in an easily reconciled way, but a profound and continuous set of commitments to action that transforms who we are and how we live: “Personal and collective transformation”, Alfred argues, “is not instrumental to the surging of state power, it is the very means of our struggle” (28).

What, then, does this transformation look like?

Alfred examines different forms of anti-colonial resistance struggles, and specifically analyzes the challenges of directly engaging the state through either violent and militant means or through non-violent strategies of direct action and resurgence, with the goal of building a movement that can achieve what Adolfo Pérez Esquival describes as: “an organized set of ruptures in the civil order so as to disturb the system responsible for the injustices we see around us” (64).

These ruptures must be carefully considered and coordinated in order to be effective. To analyze why such a movement has yet to emerge on a mass scale on Turtle Island, Alfred interviews several Indigenous land defenders and members of the West and East Coast Warrior Societies about their experiences attempting to mobilize, engage and build just such a movement. In this section he digs deeper into another key concept linked to the notion of creative contention with colonialism—and that is: warriorism.


Noting that the term warrior has very different connotations in English than it does in Indigenous languages, Alfred explores the concept as a way to understand what is required of us if we seek to pursue the path of resurgence and decolonization. To be a warrior, Alfred suggests, does not mean the blind pursuit of violence against the state or the reinscription of heteropatriarchal male aggression, even if anti-colonial in its focus. Rotsikenhrakete, the Kanien’kehaka word for warrior, connotes not militant fighters, but “sacred protectors” (79)—literally “those who carry the burden of peace”—whose duty it is to preserve territory, culture and the independence of the people. It is this spirit of warriorism that Alfred argues needs to be recuperated and re-strengthened among our people, of all genders, in order to be in a position to mount an effective challenge to colonial authority, legitimacy, influence and attitudes. We need, he claims, “a new concept of the warrior that is freed from colonial gender constructions and articulated instead with reference to what really counts in our struggles: the qualities and the actions of a person, man or woman, in battle” (84).

Alfred’s use of the language of battle, conflict, contention and warriorism is, in my view, not intended as a provocation toward, or an advocacy for, violent contestations with the colonial state or settler society but, instead, a language of defiance against the very violences of colonialism that, as we saw in Tuck and Yang’s piece, are reproduced daily through the ongoing occupation of, and continued encroachment into, Indigenous homelands by the state and its agents/agencies, resource developers, and other self-interested corporate entities. To this end, Alfred speaks of a “warrior creed” that is about the individual motivated into action “by an instinctual sense of responsibility to alleviate suffering and to recreate the conditions of peace and happiness” (86). The battle is as much about internal transformation as it is about confronting external threats and forces.

In order to be in a position to defend our lands and cultures, we need to be rooted and strong in who we are and where we stand: re-connected, awake, and willing to do the work.

To conclude, I want to return briefly to a couple of points that Alfred and Corntassel make in their piece, specifically around the form of organization and mobilization for action.


As they note on page 603, following Fanon, there is much debate and disagreement (especially among our own people) over how to fight and where to orient the struggle to decolonize:

 “the battles occurring amongst ourselves distract us from the bigger picture of decolonization and sap the crucial energy and solidarity that are essential to effective confrontation of imperial power in whatever form it presents itself. Large-scale Indigenous efforts to confront state power by mimicking state institutions…only deepen these divisions…Contemporary forms of postmodern imperialism attempt to confine the expression of Indigenous peoples’ right of self-determination to a set of domestic authorities operating within a constitutional framework of the state (as opposed to autonomously) and actively seek to sever Indigenous links to their ancestral homelands”.

The danger, here, is again that we—both Indigenous Peoples and Settlers—can adopt the language/discourse of decolonization in principle (or as metaphor) but misapply it in practice by mimicking the very colonial structures that we seek to challenge and transcend. Alfred and Corntassel remind us that we need to remain focused on where our real power lies, and that is not in the acquisition of governmental power and money, but “in our relationships with our land, relatives, language, and ceremonial life” (605).

If colonialism is all about breaking us from these relationships, then decolonization is not only about creating breaks and ruptures in colonial structures, but about the reasserting the power of restoring indigeneity in its own right—as a radical praxis of presence that both reconnects us to the spirit and ethic of “sacred protection” that our ancestors lived and calls on us to do the same.


The restoration of this strength and responsibility among our people is inseparable from our struggle to confront and overcome colonialism. We have to be strong enough to unsettle and to be unsettled by the reordering of colonial power relations, but we can’t end there. If colonialism is all about land, and if we follow Tuck and Yang’s argument to its conclusion—which I think both Alfred and Corntassel would agree with—“Decolonizing the Americas means all land is repatriated and all settlers become landless” (27).

This is a provocative claim, but one that is often considered unimaginable by settler society. It is unsettling and challenging to realize that the ways in which decolonization is understood and imagined by Indigenous Peoples and settlers are not necessarily (or perhaps even likely to be) commensurable.

If the objective of Indigenous resurgence is to overcome colonialism, that requires transforming not only the political relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples but also, at a deeper level, transforming all of our relationships to the land that sustains us. ‘Settlers becoming landless’, then, does not necessarily mean their expulsion from Indigenous territories but, a return of Indigenous presence to and throughout our homelands—and an unsettled and transformed relationship of settlers to the land which they have claimed and occupied as their new home.

Decolonization is a material, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual reording that, because it “sets out to change the order of the world, is”, as Fanon has suggested, “obviously, a program of complete disorder” (2)

Resurgence, by contrast, is a project of restoring a different order—one rooted in Indigenous languages, cultures, frames of thought, laws, and cultures. It is similarly rooted in both material and spiritual processes and seeks to regenerate our capacity to confront the “complete disorder” of decolonization with sufficient strength and rootedness to transform our people at an individual and collective scale and, in so doing, to build a movement capable of confronting and overcoming the colonial forces that continue to threaten our survival as distinct peoples and nations.