These words can be read on one level as a scholarly essay on some of the key political issues facing Indigenous peoples today. But on another level, they are part of a traditionally-rooted philosophical reflection intended to give voice to long-silenced wisdom. This conjunction of ancient and contemporary realities is deliberate. The answers developed long ago by our ancestors to the universal questions of peace, power and justice hold as much power now as they did fifty generations ago. Our task, intellectually and spiritually, is to grasp the deep meaning of their teachings — to understand their complex logic as a contemporary political philosophy whose power to confront violence and injustice has remained undiminished by time, but weakened only by our own lack of faith in them.
The clear-minded ones will take to the road, walking to the place where they are in mourning, and there at the edge of the ashes, one will stand up saying words of sympathy to raise their spirits. At once they will begin to feel relieved, the mourners, and they will resume the path of the great peace.
-from the Kaienerekowa
Native American Political Traditions
Native American community life today is framed by two value systems that are fundamentally opposed. One, still rooted in traditional teachings, structures social and cultural relations; the other, imposed by the colonial state, structures politics. This disunity is the fundamental cause of factionalism in Native communities, and it contributes significantly to the alienation that plagues them. What those who seek to understand and remedy the problems that flow from it often don’t realize is that this separation was deliberate. Without a good understanding of history, it is difficult to grasp how intense the European effort to destroy indigenous nations has been, how strongly Native people have resisted, and how much we have recently recovered. Not to recognize that the ongoing crisis of our communities is fuelled by continuing efforts to prevent us from using the power of our traditional teachings is to be blind to the state’s persistent intent to maintain the colonial oppression of the first nations of this land.
Indigenous people have made significant strides towards reconstructing their identities as autonomous individual, collective, and social beings. Although much remains to be done, the threat of cultural assimilation to the North American mainstream is no longer overwhelming, because substantial pride has been restored in the idea of being Native. The positive effects of this restoration in terms of mental, physical, and emotional health cannot be overstated. But it is not enough. The social ills that persist are proof that cultural revitalization is not complete; nor is it in itself a solution. Politics matters: the imposition of Western governance structures and the denial of indigenous ones continue to have profoundly harmful effects on indigenous people. Land, culture, and government are inseparable in traditional philosophies; each depends on the others, and this means that denial of one aspect precludes recovery for the whole. Without a value system that takes traditional teachings as the basis for government and politics, the recovery will never be complete.
Indigenous people have successfully engaged Western society in the first stages of a movement to restore their autonomous power and cultural integrity in the area of governance. This movement — which goes by various names, including ‘Aboriginal self-government’, ‘indigenous self-determination’, and ‘Native sovereignty’ — is founded on an ideology of Native nationalism and a rejection of models of government rooted in European cultural values. It is an uneven process of re-establishing systems that promote the goals and reinforce the values of indigenous cultures against ongoing efforts by the Canadian and United States governments to maintain the systems of dominance imposed on Native communities in the last century.
Recent years have seen considerable progress towards ending the colonial relationship and realizing the ideals of indigenous political thought: respect, harmony, autonomy, and peaceful coexistence. Many communities have almost disentangled themselves from paternalistic state control in the administration of institutions within jurisdictions that are important to them. Many more are currently engaged in substantial negotiations over land and governance, which they believe will give them significantly greater control over their own lives. Perhaps because of this progress, people in the communities are beginning to look beyond the present to envision a post-colonial future. However, that future raises serious questions in the minds of those people who remain committed to systems of government that complement and sustain indigenous cultures.
To many of these traditionalists it seems that, so far, all the attention and energy has been directed at the process of decolonization — the mechanics of removing ourselves from direct state control and the legal and political struggle to gain recognition of an indigenous governing authority. Almost no attention has been paid to the end goals of the struggle. What will Native governance systems be like after self government is achieved? Few people imagine that they will be exact replicas of the systems that governed Native communities in the precolonial past. Most acknowledge that all Native structures will have to incorporate modern administrative techniques and technologies. But the core values on which the new government systems will be based remain a mystery.
The great hope is that those systems will embody the underlying cultural values of the communities. The great fear is that they will simply replicate non-indigenous systems — intensifying the oppression (because it is self-inflicted and localized) and perpetuating the value dichotomy at the root of our problems.
What follows will be considered a bold assertion in government and academic circles, though its truth is widely recognized in Native communities. The fact is that neither the state-sponsored modifications to the colonial-municipal model (imposed in Canada through the Indian Act and in the US through the Indian Reorganization Act) nor the corporate or public-government systems recently negotiated in the North constitute indigenous governments at all. Potentially representing the final solution to the white society’s Indian Problem, they use the cooperation of Native leaders in the design and implementation of such systems to legitimize the state’s long-standing assimilationist goals for indigenous nations and lands.
Non-indigenous people have always seen indigenous people in problematic terms: as obstacles to the progress of civilization, wards of the Crown, relics of savagery and dregs of modern society, criminals and terrorists. Over the centuries, indigenous people themselves have consistently defended their nationhood as best they could; and they have sheltered and nurtured their cultures, keeping the core alive despite all manner of hostility and degradation. It would be a tragedy if generations of Native people should have suffered and sacrificed to preserve what is most essential to their nations’ survival, only to see it given away in exchange for the status of a third-order government within a European/ American economic and political system.
Has anything changed in the way white society looks at Native people? It is still the objective of the Canadian and US governments to remove Indians or, failing that, to prevent them from benefiting from their ancestral territories. And by insisting on their ownership of traditional territories, cultural autonomy, and self-determination, the original people of this land remain a problem for the state. Particularly in Canada, where the legal title to large portions of the land is uncertain, the policy goal is to extinguish Aboriginal title and facilitate the exploitation of the natural resources on or under those lands. In the area of culture, folklore and the arts are promoted while traditional political values are denied validity in the process of negotiating new relationships, and the state defends its ‘right’ to create Native communities and determine their membership. In politics, indigenous nations continue to face denial of their international rights to autonomy, imposed wardship status, and intensive efforts to co-opt community leaders. In fact, nothing has changed. Why, then, are we now so accepting of what Canada and the United States have to offer?
Throughout the process of supposed decolonization, many Native politicians have steadily moved away from the principles embedded in traditional cultures, towards accommodation of Western cultural values and acceptance of integration into the larger political and economic system. It is as if they had stopped believing that their indigenousness is a holistic state of being. Rather, contemporary Native politicians seem to assume that indigenousness can be abstracted and realized in convenient (and profitable) ways, that being indigenous does not have an inherent political dimension, and is simply a matter of looking the part — possessing tribal blood, singing traditional songs, or displaying tribally correct behaviour. They ignore the basic traditional teaching that just as we must respect and honour our songs, ceremonies, and dances, so too we must honour the institutions that in the past governed social and political relations among our people, because they are equally part of the sacred core of our nations. As long as this is the case, the underlying value dichotomy will remain.
An indigenous existence cannot be realized without respecting all facets of tradition: culture, spirituality, and government. Those mystics who ignore politics and live their Indian identity only through ritual and the arts are just as lost as the often vilified yuppie Indians who don’t go to traditional ceremonies. This is not to say that people have to immerse themselves in all aspects of tradition in order to be indigenous — simply that the basic values and principles of traditional political philosophy must be respected to the same degree as cultural and spiritual traditions.
Should we as indigenous people consider ourselves as individuals, or as representatives of our cultures and members of our nations representing distinct and identifiable values and world-views? Many people recognize the obvious injustices and misuses of power, and the absence of traditional values, in the new structures, but they can only point to the problems. The lack of any coherent strategy to solve them around the struggle to recover those values. Yet among non-indigenous people there has been little movement towards understanding or even recognizing the indigenous tradition.
In fact, it is one of the strongest themes within Native American cultures that the modern colonial state could not only build a framework for coexistence but cure many of its own ills by understanding and respecting traditional Native teachings. The wisdom encoded in the indigenous cultures can provide answers to many questions; many seemingly intractable problems could be resolved by bringing traditional ideas and values back to life. Pre-contact indigenous societies developed regimes of conscience and justice that promoted the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature for hundreds of generations. As we move into a post-imperial age, the values central to those traditional cultures are the indigenous contribution to the reconstruction of a just and harmonious world.
Indigenous people have many different perspectives on what constitutes tradition, and what is good and bad about traditional ways. My own views have been shaped by life in Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) community of over 8000 people located on the south shore of the St Lawrence River outside Montreal. Our people have come a long way towards recovering their identity and power in recent years, but during my childhood, in the 1960s and early 1970s, we were fractured, dysfunctional, and violently self-destructive, colonized and controlled to a large degree by white men. Yet that period was also a revolutionary time. As my generation awakened politically in the late 1970s, we refused to participate in our own colonization and embarked on the path of tradition, rejecting the identities and power relations that characterized us as a dominated people. It has been an enormous, costly, and sometimes violent struggle, but today the Kahnawakero:non are part of a reemergent nation, self-confident, cohesive, and assertive in the promotion of their goals. We are not yet free, but we do not hesitate to contest our colonization. In one generation we have accomplished the rebirth of tradition in Kahnawake. The transformation of the community in terms of personal, familial, and collective peace, empowerment, and happiness has been truly amazing.
Yet the return to traditional values and identities is not uniform among Native peoples, either in its pace or in its intensity; it is not even universally accepted as an objective. To gain a better understanding of how different nations are dealing with the internal and external conflicts that are inherent in the process of decolonization, in the summer of 1997 I spoke with a 33-year-old Kwa’kwala’wakw woman living in Victoria, British Columbia, who has worked extensively in various Native political organizations and is active in the revival of traditional culture among her people. We talked about the effects of colonization and shared thoughts on the most serious problems undermining the health and security of indigenous people today. We also considered the lessons and strategies represented in this book, and explored the relevance of a message drawn from the Rotinohshonni tradition to the situations of other indigenous peoples. Our conversation pointed to the particularity of each community’s struggle, but also to the underlying similarities that make it possible to speak of a Native American perspective rooted in traditional values. The words we shared captured some of the complex intensity that seems to motivate all those committed to a traditionalist critique of the prevailing colonial structure and mindset.
Now that I’ve explained the traditional Condolence ritual, I’d like to know your thoughts about your own traditions and nation. Remember that in ‘Adding to the rafters’ there is a reminder that the longhouse as a metaphor for our teachings sometimes needs additions. As the present generation, that’s our responsibility: we have to add sections to the longhouse. That’s where we’re failing now, in my view, and in the book I will deal with that by projecting this traditional perspective onto some key contemporary issues: We have the rafters — the traditions that our grandmothers and grandfathers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers built. But there is an explicit instruction in the teachings that some day we will have to add to those rafters. Now it seems we’re so jealous and protective of our traditions that we aren’t thinking about that, in my nation anyway. From what I’ve seen in my travels, it’s much the same in other nations. We’re afraid to change, to update. As in the ritual, that’s where I want to leave off: by concluding that what we really need to do is embark on a creative rethinking of ourselves, rooted in tradition.
In relation to the first part — the rhetorical lament for the loss of traditional knowledge — what do you think we have lost as a society? I look around our communities and there’s something missing. What is it?
What I keep doing is looking at the causes of the losses. You know, when you look back on the smallpox and TB and all the different things that contact with white people brought, I don’t think the implications of those things over the generations are anywhere near being understood.
Even amongst our own people?
Amongst our own people, that’s true. Think about how contact and everything that came with it affected the transference of knowledge. We don’t have the skills that we would have learned if everything had stayed the same. People’s experience in residential schools is a good example. On one level the family gets broken up; on the next level the community gets broken up. That’s a big factor. But on the individual level it’s even worse. If you don’t have the benefits of the nurturing and the teachings in the first place, when you come out of the school you still don’t know how to learn, let alone how to teach. You end up going back home and it’s as if the community had blown up, as if a bomb had been dropped in the middle of the village and we were just salvaging the leftover pieces, just trying to stick them back together. But because nobody has the real internal, individual knowledge, nobody’s able to work together. So there are all kinds of fragments floating around. When you talk about what’s missing — it’s some very basic individual, healthy sense-of-self.
You notice this in a lot of communities because you do a lot of travelling, right?
Right. I’ve noticed it more this last time around because we were talking about education and traditions, and I became interested in knowing how different parts of the province, different tribal groups, had handled things. Everyone talked about learning from the elders, but on the other hand they recognized that not all elders are the same — some are respected, but there are others who have fallen victim to the system. These elders have been victims in a really bad way for their whole lives, and ended up sort of ‘faking it’. Now they’re trying to appear knowledgeable, to sound knowledgeable, but all you have to do is put a couple of their statements together and you realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about, because it doesn’t make sense. The way people were talking about all the things we’ve been trying to do — economic development, community development, self-government, the whole treaty process … I don’t think it’s going to work because people, at an individual level, don’t understand where they’re supposed to be going anyway. On a very personal level, people don’t know what you mean when you talk about ‘jurisdiction’, they don’t know what you’re talking about when you say ‘control’ — other than the negative idea of control that they have from their own direct experience of government in the communities. People don’t know what it means to really have self-respect. I’ve talked to lots of women out in the communities who tell me that our young people don’t know what it means to make a statement like, ‘I’m going to make a choice about getting involved in drugs or not, and my choice is based solely on the fact that I have enough self-respect that I wouldn’t do that to myself.’ There’s always another reason; it’s always because ‘My family says so.’ It’s always very external. The only thing that’s holding people together is that, peripherally, they’re seeing another way. They see something is there but they don’t know what it is, they are just seeing this shadow that kind of follows them around. People keep trying to look at what it is, but they don’t have enough … I don’t know what the words are …
What is it for you, that thing?
I think maybe it’s intuition. No. It’s not so much intuition itself, as the ability to recognize intuition. And to trust it — to be able to trust yourself and your own choices based on your intuition and your knowledge. It’s as if all those little things are sitting there waiting for you, but it’s hard getting the connecting factors and finding how they all work together inside. So that’s what we’re up against.
I’m thinking about our treaty process. I walk in there and I don’t know where to begin. You’d have to go through every individual and wipe out all of the superficial ideas that people have about what treaties are going to bring them, and get down to what they believe in, philosophically. When I was up in North Island [Vancouver Island] I asked people, ‘Philosophically, why are we doing this? Why do you want to negotiate a treaty?’ They’d answer, ‘Because it’s the only game in town, and other external reasons, or maybe mention some really cerebral kinds of ideas about what they want to do. You know, it was interesting when you mentioned ‘seven generations’. I asked people at home and in several communities, ‘What do you really mean by seven generations?’ I was sure that that sort of thinking, wherever it comes from, has a full story behind it. But I kept hearing everybody use the words, when it was clear that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about. Yeah, that sounds like a nice buzzword, ‘seven generations’ from now!
Penetrating that superficiality is one of the things I want to do, because what you just described is certainly a problem in our communities as well. Everybody seems to use that expression, because it comes directly from the ceremonies, but we don’t really think about it — it just sounds good. The principle of ‘seven generations’ involves children, it involves some foresight, and all of that. But as for living it as a person, either in a treaty or even in your own life — I get the sense that not a lot of people have thought about how it applies, what it actually means. That’s one of the things that I want to get at.
In the past, everyone knew who he or she was in relation to one another. I look at the medicine wheel and its message about the different races, and I think that somewhere our teachings probably talk about who we are as the red people in the medicine wheel, that there is a spiritual link. When you look at our ceremonies in the big house, the cedar bark, and things like the spiritual creature that comes from the north end of the world — all those things contain messages that we haven’t figured out how to interpret today; but I think it’s all there in our songs. The answer to who we are in relation to everybody else is sitting there, and has been sitting there for many generations now, but nobody has quite deciphered what it means because no one has thought to put a little energy into it. And that’s because people think, ‘We’re in the 1990s and we’ve got our potlatches, at least we still have our language, our culture’. They think they can just take in whatever else is going on around them and stay true to their traditions too. But if we don’t get a sense of who we really are from the old teachings, then all this tradition stuff is just going to become watered down in a couple of generations.
So you think that this might be the gap in the traditional movement that people are singing the songs without looking at what they really mean?
Yep. For a while it was just surface, then we got a little bit beneath the surface, but nobody’s gone any deeper than that. So the traditional movement has the appearance of something that’s going to carry on, that’s going to last. But the traditional culture is only going to last, I think, as if it were in a glass box. It’s all recording, videos — now we even have CD-ROM and Internet connections. All of that doesn’t mean anything. The culture is going to sit in a little glass box that we’ll all go to the museum and see one day, just the way we look at all our other stuff right now.
Well, that’s what I call folklore. It’s all just folklore unless you act on it. In fact, that’s a criticism that’s been directed at some ‘traditionalists’. They act as if they’re traditional and they sort of parrot what they’re supposed to be doing, but then they go and live their lives totally differently and ignore the inconvenient messages — the ones that don’t conform to their own choices in life. They ignore the important teachings that they don’t like, and then they try to give the impression that those sections are obsolete. I would argue that they aren’t obsolete at all. All the basic teachings are part of a unified whole that’s crucial to understanding the tradition and the wisdom; we have to understand the way they all interrelate. You can’t just ignore sections of it. If you haven’t ever got to the real meaning, then I agree with you — in two or three generations it’ll just be folklore.
Nobody understands the bottom-line, basic principles that form the framework for everything. All the other stuff — the fact that we use button blankets, the fact that we’re video-taping and audio-taping songs — those are just little tools that we’ve adapted along the way. ‘The basic principles’ — people keep saying those words but nobody’s living them. They’re not saying that the bottom line is doing what I do in my life with respect and humility and understanding and honour. If I’m doing these things in a serious way, then anything that blossoms out of it is going to be right. Everyone figures, you know, that if we go to enough ceremonies, and get seen enough and have a presence and visibility and appear to be involved in all this culture stuff, then we’re truly balancing both worlds. But you don’t have to balance both worlds. What you have to do is know your basic principles in the first place, and then blend the contemporary and traditional together — but you have to have the principles right. I grew up watching some people at ceremonies thinking they had all the knowledge, and then when I got into my mid-twenties I went back to ask them what it means. I said, ‘I watched you do that when I was a kid, I saw you do that in a potlatch.’ But they didn’t even know why! Now I’m finding out in the last five or six years that all along they were just following what they were told, or mimicking what they had seen themselves. They don’t know why they’re doing anything.
Do you fault them for that? No.
Or do you see it as an evolutionary thing?
Yeah, I think that there were a lot of factors in the 1950s and ’60s that affected that generation. Everyone in that era had a whole bunch of other things to deal with that we’re not dealing with now: the right to vote, all the civil-rights stuff happening south of the border, the American Indian Movement, and then the Indian Act here. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, actually getting band offices and our own councils in the first place, and having our own Native people sitting in Department of Indian Affairs offices serving as Indian Agents. And they believed at that time that we were going to become white. So if there was a potlatch and they were told by their elders, ‘Here’s how you do the dance, just go do it, they did what they were told because they had had enough of the old teachings to know that they had to. But they still weren’t getting the consistent, everyday exposure that they would’ve had in the past. When it came around to potlatch time they would get into it and go through the motions. But every other day of the rest of their lives, it was just — you know — go out, get a job, participate in the economy, make some money and have a big house.
Some of which might be contrary to the values and the objectives of the potlatch in the first place.
I think it brought about an interesting way of thinking — and I ended up being on the receiving end of it. In the potlatch system there are various ranks — in effect you’ve got noble people and commoners, and the whole range in between — but everybody has a role, and everybody is acknowledged in that role and you don’t actually look down on people, and you don’t treat them poorly. In the mentality of the 1960s and ’70s, if you potlatched in a really big way, you had the right to call anyone down because you were so great. You were so humble that you would never do it, you had too much respect to do it — but you knew that you could. Another reason I think it happened was that people were getting mixed messages about whether they were Indian or white. They would equate participation in the potlatch with material wealth, as being one and the same. And that meant that if you didn’t have a big house, plus a fishing boat, plus $100,000 per year coming in from your job, then you were poor. You were poor materially, and poor in the potlatch system.
I think that’s one of the differences between our cultures, even today. Yours is much more hierarchical and divided among families. I believe ours is much more egalitarian. When I was growing up, our identity was always ‘Mohawk’, and not really defined by clan or family. Whenever any of us did something good, people would say, ‘Way to go, Mohawk’ You know, it was ‘for the nation’. When someone did something good, I would always identify with it. At home it’s still that way. People get upset when someone claims to speak as a Mohawk but isn’t really part of the society, because for us, when someone says they’re speaking as a Mohawk, we expect the message and the perspective to be consistent with what the community thinks. In my basic identification, I don’t say I’m from the ‘Alfred’ family, or from Kahnawake, or this clan or that clan. I say I’m Kanien’kehaka, Mohawk. And that’s it, there’s only one group. Whereas out here, on the West Coast, it seems to me that identity is family- or clan-based. It’s very different.
Yes it is. And residential schools are a big part of life out here too. It’s not a just generational thing either; it’s not just the individuals who actually went to the schools, it’s their entire families. Their parents feel guilty for sending their kids in the first place, and finding out it wasn’t such a good place after all. So first there are the parents, and then the kids, and then all their children. This ‘recognizing pain and sorrow’ that you talk about, people don’t know how to do that. They don’t know how to name it, they don’t know what to call it, and they don’t know what the spin-off effect is when you deprive yourself of the opportunity to grieve. And all the grieving that never happened around the losses from disease … If you don’t go through the process of acknowledging what you’ve lost, you don’t have a way to come back and get it … get it back again.
Do you feel that some of the efforts that are under way now, with the social-work or social-services approach, are helping?
I think it’s all a pile of crap.
Why don’t you tell us how you really feel? Try not to hold back, okay? (laughter). Why is that so? I don’t like the dominant social-work approach either. I think they’re using a foreign set of assumptions, goals even, to address the problem. But why do you think it’s crappy? Maybe it comes from experience?
I’ll have to smoke on that one. But I’ll tell you the image I get in my mind when I think about social work, all the self-help groups, therapy, and all. I think of us trying to make a bike wheel: we’ve already got the outside rim, we know where the spokes need to go, and all of those spokes are possible, but people have to work together to make them a reality. And everyone has to have an understanding of that, right?
Is that our traditional culture, the wheel that you’re talking about?
Everyone describes it in a different way, or visualizes it in a different way. For me it’s as if everyone has to understand where the spokes need to go before we can get anywhere, but the information about where the spokes go is scattered right now. So if all the people who understand where just one spoke needs to go came together and put their one spoke on the wheel, we’d have something. But instead, what social work and all these self-help things try to do is create more spokes. And they keep putting them in the wrong place — they’re all on one side of the wheel. The social-work approach is taking what’s already fragmented and fragmenting it even more. They’ve got all these spokes on one side of the wheel, and they get frustrated with us because they can’t understand why, after they’ve given us all these spokes, we haven’t been able to make the wheel turn. Well, one, it doesn’t have any of our spokes, and two, they’re all on one side. White people are just starting to discover that yes, we do have a lot of answers, and we did have really elaborate, complex systems that spoke to every aspect of life.
‘Excuse the pun’, heh? What pun?
At the end of the day, any social workers who’ve been in our communities for twenty years or more have resigned themselves to the fact that the discipline of social work, or psychology, doesn’t have a clue.
I’d like to shift over and talk about the role of women in Native societies, both traditionally and today. In your life right now, you’re involved in politics, you’re involved with the culture. Is there respect for women?
To be really honest, no. I think that men who are in their forties, fifties and sixties say the words. But only a rare few really know what it means to show respect and to actually demonstrate it.
How would someone do that? You could give me a positive or a negative example. How would someone disrespect women — if you’re comfortable talking about it?
On the positive side, there’s one man at home in particular that comes to mind. He was brought up with the old people; he understands the language, understands the culture. His words are so carefully orchestrated, and I don’t think that’s because he’s trying to appear respectful; he is respectful, and it comes out in the way he speaks. Because he has such an understanding of Kwa’kwa’la language, when he translates to English he does it in a very eloquent way. As for guys who aren’t respectful, I always hear them talk about ‘our women’, ‘our women’, as if we were possessions still. They keep saying ‘We have respect for our women.’ The biggest insult, to me, is that they go through the motions in the big house, but then when we come out of the big house into our contemporary lives, they don’t show any of that respect.
What about the young guys?
I think among the young people that I’m spending the most time with, it’s about an 80 per cent to 20 per cent split. There’s 20 per cent or so that have had the benefit of the band school, hearing the language in the home, or learning the values and the principles in the home or through the potlatch. So they’re okay, they’re on the right path, even though they’re still being distracted by the contemporary influences. The other 80 per cent are doing what the previous generations have done, in that they’re using whatever works for them, whatever will serve their personal agenda. A couple of years ago, when a bunch of us women started getting together at night for dance practices and singing practices in the big house, some young guys — 16 or 17 years old — were saying things like ‘First of all, there should be no women sitting up at the log singing’; or ‘Women shouldn’t be learning the songs anyway’; or ‘When we have our potluck dinners or when we have feasts, we should be served first.’
‘We’ being the men?
They haven’t been taught that you will be shown respect when you give respect in the first place. So the women in the community here in Victoria started getting together and thinking about how we could address this. Because we realized that we hadn’t succeeded in teaching these boys everything they needed to know. We hadn’t carried out our responsibilities either. At first we just thought their families should have done more. Then we started realizing — holy cow, we’ve got residential schools, and alcoholism, and all kinds of issues around adoption and families getting back together. There were too many things happening at once for any of us to assume that anyone was doing anything outside of our own activities. So we started, just over the last couple of years, rebuilding the whole scheme. We focus first on the young kids, because we can’t afford to lose this time with them — they need to learn it the fastest now. A bunch of us are going to focus on that, and some of us are going to take a look at what we are learning in the way of contemporary skills — doing projects, workshops, healing kinds of things. There’s some of us who are proposal writers, ideas people. So we’ll sit and think about things. And then over time, whenever we feel like we need to, we’ll just get together and brainstorm, piece it together — make it happen.
Who’s the leader that you respect most and why? I’m asking you now what you would consider to be a leader. In spite of everything that you’ve talked about, there are obviously still people, men and women, that you would respect. What is it about them that makes them true leaders? Or maybe I’m making a big assumption. Maybe it’s not the case …
There are some, but they’re very few, and they are all elders. Agnes Cranmer, who just passed away recently, was a hell of a leader because she knew that her upbringing in the potlatch, her understanding of the potlatch, was right. That’s all there is to it. She never thought, ‘Maybe I’m wrong about this.’ She believed she was right. There was also, in the same time period, a woman we all called Granny. Those two women, along with lots of women in that generation, just believed that it was right to do what they were doing. Regardless of whether there was funding, regardless of whether there was a hall or a place to go and do things, they just kept doing them. They kept teaching their kids, they made sure their kids were brought up in the potlatch way, that they understood what basic principles are, no matter what happened. They lived through the potlatch ban.
It was Mrs Cranmer’s husband, Dan Cranmer, who threw the potlatch on Village Island where everybody got arrested and thrown in jail. They lived through all of that, and saw the worst of it, but they kept doing it anyway, because they believed it.
Did she embody all the traditional values … ?
She lived them. I think that’s what the neat thing was, considering the era she lived in. She made it through the potlatch ban, she lived through the 1960s, and ’70s and ’80s, and throughout all of that she was still carrying on the culture. She opened up her own corner store, and pool hall, she ran a business, and at the same time she was working with the community to teach children in the nursery school. She did all these incredible things, and none of them ever interfered with one another; they actually complemented one another. So even though she was very much participating in the local economic activity, she was still one of the foundations of our culture in everything that she did. There was another lady who was I don’t know how much older than Agnes. She never involved herself much in contemporary economic stuff, but she supported those who did. She gave them enough common-sense information to go out there and look at business as though it was a traditional activity: ‘As long as you follow these basic principles you’ll be fine.’ To me, that’s all of it right there. I never watched how the old men conducted themselves. To me it was simple — I just had to follow the path that those women led. I’m not going to be able to do what those men do, I’m not a speaker, I’m not a singer, I’m not any of those things, so I didn’t pay attention to any of that: just to what those ladies did.
But there are men that you would respect in that category, as well?
The man from home I spoke about earlier. What I think is neat about him is that when he’s wrong he comes right out and admits it. He doesn’t try to make excuses. He just says, ‘This is what happened, this is what I understood at the time to be true, this was my action as a result of my thinking. It turned out that it wasn’t correct, and now I stand corrected.’ Then he goes through the traditional way to correct it. I don’t know how many male ‘leaders’, or people who are sitting in political positions now, do that. I’ve not heard any of them admit they were wrong and really mean it. I’ve seen them do it for the sake of appearing to be humble. And I’ve seen them do it because if they didn’t admit it, the repercussions would be worse, and they stood to lose more in terms of material things. So I’ve seen them do it. But you know, you can tell when they’re just faking.
So how do these internal issues that we’ve been talking about affect our status relative to other peoples? How have they affected the strength of our nation, vis-a-vis others? Has our ‘sovereignty’ been undermined? Has our nation lost power in a real way because of these problems? Or is it more a matter of other people doing things to us? That’s another question I want to address in this book. What is the relationship between our problems and those that have been imposed on us? Maybe we haven’t responded well. If so, does that have ongoing implications? Can we rebuild our nations in the midst of these internal issues? Or do we have to resolve those issues first, and then confront the outside?
Well, I think one of the simplest things it comes down to is this: if you don’t respect yourself, no one else will. As for rebuilding internally and externally, I think they can be done simultaneously. In fact, they have to be done simultaneously, the healing and the rebuilding. If we stop nation-building now and do nothing but healing, then the whole treaty process — which is going down the tubes anyway — will be down the tubes even faster, because all the resources will get scooped up while we’re all busy trying to heal. There is a lot of healing to be done. But the flip side is that there’s so much strength; the fact that we’re still here is testimony to the fact that we’ve got some good coping skills. Why don’t we pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done well? It’s amazing that we’ve managed to survive this far. We should emphasize that instead of always saying, ‘I’m a victim of residential schools, I’m a victim of alcoholism.’ You can play that game for a few years, but you’re wasting time. In the meantime, you could be learning a little bit about how to run a home-based business and get self-sufficient. If you don’t understand what self-sufficiency is in your home, you can’t contribute that to the nation. Why would you think you can contribute something to the nation, when you have no concept of it in your own life? That’s why I think the rebuilding has to happen simultaneously, inside the community and outside.
In terms of nations, what would be the ideal relationship between your nation and the rest of Canada once things get back on track? If you compare the militancy of Mohawk politics with things here in BC, where do you stand?
Well, I like to look at all sides of the question. I do think there’s a need for us to get militant again, in a big bad way. I think we have to. But at the same time there are people who are nowhere near ready for that. They’re scared. And they’ll sabotage things for the militants because they’re afraid — afraid for a lot of reasons. I’m close to the militant extreme, because I really believe that we have to nail this down — just get on with it. But at the same time I know from the people I’ve talked to around the province that there are many people who couldn’t physically, emotionally, or intellectually bring themselves to that level. They’re not prepared to die. Whereas personally, I remember that when Oka flared up, I was thinking, ‘If this is how it has to be, I’m prepared to die.’ But lots of people I worked with were saying, ‘What the hell are the Mohawks doing? They’re gonna get us all in shit!’
Are you a Canadian?
No. Actually, I’ve tried to search for the moment in time when Canada decided legally — at least legally — that we were considered citizens. Which is kind of a joke, because as I’ve heard someone say, ‘Legally, yes, we are regarded as citizens. Yet the same legislation — the Indian Act — is always there to remind us that we’re not.’ To me, you can’t look at the Indian Act, and look at the precedents in the courts, and then draw the conclusion that we’re citizens.
Well, I think legally they gave Indians the vote in the 1960s. Formal citizenship came before that, but not much before. It wasn’t asked for: it was given because they realized that in order to tax and do the things they wanted to do for Indians — or to Indians — they needed them to be citizens. They resisted as long as they could, then they made Indians second-class citizens and imposed the Indian Act on them. I’m not a Canadian. I don’t believe in that. I think that if you’re strong in your nation, then that’s what you are. If you have a good relationship with Canada, fine, so much the better.
Some of my best friends are Canadians (laughter). No, I do not regard myself as a Canadian. You see all the things like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, all those things that people get excited about it. For what? These people are going to go off to — where is it, Bosnia? — and the government is going to give them $15 million. Somebody just died on one of our reserves this week — someone died on every reserve this week — of malnutrition or infection, because of poor conditions. Oh yeah, we’re citizens.
They gave $2 billion to China, to buy nuclear reactors, and they complain about $58 million for a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
I was surprised, the commentaries in the papers on the Royal Commission’s recommendations were not that bad. They were even a little bit supportive. Got to watch out for that though. Watch out for what is it again…?
‘Beware the magic.’
The magic, and the lurking dangers.
Is there a fundamental or inherent difference between indigenous and white society? This is a relevant question, given the tendency of the dominant Western tradition to draw racial distinctions. Indigenous traditions, by contrast, include all human beings as equal members in the regimes of conscience. Yet some Native people have been influenced by the divisive European approach. Representing this perspective in an academic context, Donald Fixico has claimed that white people can never come to terms with indigenous values because they ‘come from a different place on earth’. He writes:
Anglo-Americans and Natives are fundamentally different. These differences in world-view and in the values that go with them mean that there will always exist an Indian view and a White view of the earth.
I believe, on the contrary, that there is a real danger in believing that views are fixed (and that cultures don’t change). Fixico’s polarization of Indian and European values suggests he believes that white people are incapable of attaining the level of moral development that indigenous societies promote among their members with respect to, for example, the land. Not only does this dichotomization go against the traditional Native belief in a universal rationality, but it offers a convenient excuse for those who support the state in its colonization of indigenous nations and exploitation of the earth. If Fixico is right, they can’t help it: their worldview is preordained.
Challenging mainstream society to question its own structure, its acquisitive individualistic value system, and the false premises of colonialism is essential if we are to move beyond the problems plaguing all our societies, Native and white, and rebuild relations between our peoples. A deep reading of tradition points to a moral universe in which all of humanity is accountable to the same standard. Our goal should be to convince others of the wisdom of the indigenous perspective. Though it may be emotionally satisfying for indigenous people to ascribe a greedy, dominating nature to white people, as an intellectual and political position this is self-defeating. It is more hopeful to listen to the way traditional teachings speak of the various human families: they consider each one to be gifted and powerful in its own way, each with something different to contribute to the achievement of peace and harmony. Far from condemning different cultures, this position challenges each one to discover its gift in itself and realize it fully, to the benefit of humanity as a whole. It is just as important for Europeans as it is for Native people to cultivate the values that promote peace and harmony.
The value of the indigenous critique of the Western world-view lies not in the creation of false dichotomies but in the insight that the colonial attitudes and structures imposed on the world by Europeans are not manifestations of an inherent evil: they are merely reflections of white society’s understanding of its own power and relationship with nature. The brutal regime of European technological advancement, intent on domination, confronted its opposite in indigenous societies. The resulting near-extinction of indigenous peoples created a vacuum in which the European regime established its political, economic, and philosophical dominance.
The primitive philosophical premises underpinning that regime were not advanced or refined in the deployment of microbes and weapons. At their core, European states and their colonial offspring still embody the same destructive and disrespectful impulses that they did 500 years ago. For this reason, questions of justice — social, political, and environmental — are best considered outside the framework of classical European thought and legal traditions. The value of breaking away from old patterns of thought and developing innovative responses has been demonstrated with respect to environmental questions. But in fact many of these and other pressing questions have been answered before: indigenous traditions are the repository of vast experience and deep insight on achieving balance and harmony.
At the time of their first contact with Europeans, the vast majority of Native American societies had achieved true civilization: they did not abuse the earth, they promoted communal responsibility, they practised equality in gender relations, and they respected individual freedom. As the Wendat historian Georges Sioui put it in a lucid summary of the basic values of traditional indigenous political and social thought:
With their awareness of the sacred relations that they, as humans, must help maintain between all beings, New World men and women dictate a philosophy for themselves in which the existence and survival of other beings, especially animals and plants, must not be endangered. They recognize and observe the laws and do not reduce the freedom of other creatures. In this way they ensure the protection of their most precious possession, their own freedom.
The context of life has changed, and indigenous people today live in a materialistic world of consumerism and corporate globalization — a world diametrically opposed to the social and political culture that sustained our communities in the past. It may be difficult to recognize the viability of a philosophy that originated in an era unaffected by European ideas and attitudes. Nevertheless, revitalizing indigenous forms of government offers a real opportunity to inspire and educate mainstream society, and to create and empower a genuine alternative to the current system.
In my own community of Kahnawake, as part of an effort to determine the cultural appropriateness of various social services in the early 1990s, people were asked to consider a list of statements about traditional values, and to say whether they agreed that those concepts were still important today.
|VALUE||% STRONGLY AGREE|
|Responsibility to all creation||97|
|Importance of extended family||89|
|Respect for inner strength or wisdom||88|
|Importance of educating youth||88|
|Sacredness and autonomy of children||78|
|Importance of family unity||78|
|Wisdom of the past||71|
|Sharing and cooperation||71|
The survey points to the community’s recognition of traditional values, despite the imposition of European culture. Indigenous people who seek to realize the goal of harmonious coexistence within their communities find that this is impossible within the mainstream political system as it is currently structured. The Lakota philosopher Luther Standing Bear, writing in 1933, presaged this frustration with Western values:
True, the white man brought great change. But the varied fruits of his civilization, though highly colored and inviting, are sickening and deadening…. I am going to venture that the man who sat on the ground in his teepee meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures, and acknowledging unity with the universe of things was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. And when native man left off this form of development, his humanization was retarded in growth.
Having had their freedom stolen and their civilizations crushed by colonialism, Native people are well aware of the social and political crisis they face. But the crucial goal of restoring a general respect for traditional values, and reconnecting our social and political life with traditional teachings, remains elusive. Standing Bear’s thoughts on true civilization are echoed in conversations all over Indian Country. So why have we not yet rejected the European ways that hurt us and rejoined the indigenous path to peace, power, and righteousness?
The answer to this question is the reason why, of all the important issues we need to address, the most crucial is leadership. Understanding leadership means understanding indigenous political philosophy: conceptions of power, and the primary values that create legitimacy and allow governments to function appropriately and effectively. Good indigenous leadership ensures that government is rooted in tradition, is consistent with the cultural values of the community. This is a key element in restoring the necessary harmony between social and political cultures in Native societies. Non-indigenous political structures, values, and styles of leadership lead to coercive and compromised forms of government that contradict basic indigenous values and are the main reason our social and political crisis persists.
We have not fully recovered from colonialism because our leadership has been compromised, and we will remain subject to the intellectual, political, and economic dominance of Western society until the leaders of our communities realize the power of indigenous philosophies and act to restore respect for traditional wisdom. Leadership is essential if we are to disprove the rule that societies must hit rock bottom before they begin to realize meaningful change. Is it not possible to reach into the depths of tradition and begin to build the future now?
Returning to indigenous traditions of leadership will require an intensive effort to understand indigenous political life within the moral and ethical framework established by traditional values. Without obscuring the distinctiveness of individual societies, it is possible to see fundamental similarities in the concept of ‘Native leadership’ among indigenous cultures. Most agree that the institutions operating in Native communities today have little to do with indigenous belief systems, and that striking commonalities exist among the traditional philosophies that set the parameters for governance. The values that underpin these traditional philosophies constitute a core statement of what indigenous governance is as a style, a structure, and a set of norms.
In their most basic values, and even to a certain extent their style, traditional forms of government are not unique: similar characteristics can be found in other systems. The special nature of Native American government consists in the prioritization of those values, the rigorous consistency of its principles with those values, and the patterns and procedures of government, as well as the common set of goals (respect, balance, and harmony) that are recognizable across Native American societies. Adherence to those core values made the achievement of the goals possible; it was because of the symbiotic relationship between the traditional value system and the institutions that evolved within the culture that balance and harmony were its hallmarks. Indigenous governance demands respect for the totality of the belief system. It must be rooted in a traditional value system, operate according to principles derived from that system, and seek to achieve goals that can be justified within that system. This is the founding premise of pre-/decolonized Native politics — and we are in danger of losing it permanently if the practices and institutions currently in place become any further entrenched (and hence validated).
On the west coast of Vancouver Island, I spoke with a Nuu-chah-nulth elder who recognized the danger of continuing to think of governance in the terms of the value system and the institutional structures that have been imposed on Native communities by the state. Hereditary chief Moses Smith used to be a band councillor under the Canadian government’s Indian Act system, but now he recognizes the harm that system has done to his community. As a leader, he is now committed to teaching his people’s traditional philosophy so that an indigenous form of government can be restored. Lamenting the loss both of traditional values and of the structures that promoted good leadership, Moses said that ‘in the old days leaders were taught and values were ingrained in hereditary chiefs. The fundamental value was respect.’ In his view, contemporary band councils are not operating according to traditional values, and Native leadership premised on traditional power and knowledge will vanish forever unless ‘the traditional perspective is taken up by the new generation’.
In choosing between revitalizing indigenous forms of government and maintaining the European forms imposed on them, Native communities have a choice between two radically different kinds of social organization: one based on conscience and the authority of the good, the other on coercion and authoritarianism. The Native concept of governance is based on what a great student of indigenous societies, Russell Barsh, has called the ‘primacy of conscience’. There is no central or coercive authority, and decision-making is collective. Leaders rely on their persuasive abilities to achieve a consensus that respects the autonomy of individuals, each of whom is free to dissent from and remain unaffected by the collective decision. The clan or family is the basic unit of social organization, and larger forms of organization, from tribe through nation to confederacy, are all predicated on the political autonomy and economic independence of clan units through family-based control of lands and resources.
A crucial feature of the indigenous concept of governance is its respect for individual autonomy. This respect precludes the notion of ‘sovereignty’ — the idea that there can be a permanent transference of power or authority from the individual to an abstraction of the collective called ‘government’. The indigenous tradition sees government as the collective power of the individual members of the nation; there is no separation between society and state. Leadership is exercised by persuading individuals to pool their self-power in the interest of the collective good. By contrast, in the European tradition power is surrendered to the representatives of the majority, whose decisions on what they think is the collective good are then imposed on all citizens.
In the indigenous tradition, the idea of self-determination truly starts with the self; political identity — with its inherent freedoms, powers, and responsibilities — is not surrendered to any external entity. Individuals alone determine their interests and destinies. There is no coercion: only the compelling force of conscience based on those inherited and collectively refined principles that structure the society. With the collective inheritance of a cohesive spiritual universe and traditional culture, profound dissent is rare, and is resolved by exemption of the individual from the implementation and implications of the particular decision. When the difference between individual and collective becomes irreconcilable, the individual leaves the group.
Collective self-determination depends on the conscious coordination of individual powers of self-determination. The governance process consists in the structured interplay of three kinds of power: individual power, persuasive power, and the power of tradition. These power relations are channelled into forms of decision-making and dispute resolution grounded in the recognition that beyond the individual there exists a natural community of interest: the extended family. Thus in almost all indigenous cultures, the foundational order of government is the clan. And almost all indigenous systems are predicated on a collective decision-making process organized around the clan.
It is erosion of this traditional power relationship and the forced dependence on a central government for provision of sustenance that lie at the root of injustice in the indigenous mind. Barsh recognizes a truth that applies to institutions at both the broad and the local level: ‘The evil of modern states is their power to decide who eats. Along with armed force, they use dependency — which they have created — to induce people’s compliance with the will of an abstract authority structure serving the interests of an economic and political elite. It is an affront to justice that individuals are stripped of their power of self-determination and forced to comply with the decisions of a system based on the consciousness and interests of others.
The principles underlying European-style representative government through coercive force stand in fundamental opposition to the values from which indigenous leadership and power derive. In indigenous cultures the core values of equality and respect are reflected in the practices of consensus decision-making and dispute resolution through balanced consideration of all interests and views. In indigenous societies governance results from the interaction of leadership and the autonomous power of the individuals who make up the society. Governance in an indigenist sense can be practised only in a decentralized, small-scale environment among people who share a culture. It centres on the achievement of consensus and the creation of collective power, bounded by six principles:
- it depends on the active participation of individuals;
- it balances many layers of equal power;
- it is dispersed;
- it is situational;
- it is non-coercive; and
- it respects diversity.
Contemporary politics in Native communities is shaped by the interplay of people who, socially and culturally, are still basically oriented towards this understanding of government, with a set of structures and political relationships that reflect a very different, almost oppositional, understanding.
The imposition of colonial political structures is the source of most factionalism within Native communities. Such institutions operate on principles that can never be truly acceptable to people whose orientations and attitudes are derived from a traditional value system. But they are tolerated by cynical community members as a fact of their colonized political lives. As a result, those structures have solidified into major obstacles to the achievement of peace and harmony in Native communities, spawning a non-traditional or anti-traditionalist political subculture among those individuals who draw their status and income from them.
The effort needed to bring contemporary political institutions, and the people who inhabit them, into harmony with traditional values is very different from the superficial and purely symbolic efforts at reform that have taken place in many communities. Symbols are crucially important, but they must not be confused with substance: when terminology, costume, and protocol are all that change, while unjust power relationships and colonized attitudes remain untouched, such ‘reform’ becomes nothing more than a politically correct smokescreen obscuring the fact that no real progress is being made towards realizing traditionalist goals. Cloaking oneself in the mantle of tradition is no substitute for altering one’s behaviour, especially where power is concerned. In too many Native communities, adherence to tradition is a shallow facade masking a greed for power and success as defined by mainstream society. Recognizable by its lack of community values, this selfish hunger for power holds many Native leaders in its grip and keeps them from working to overturn the colonial system.
The indigenous tradition is profoundly egalitarian; it does not put any substantial distance between leaders and other people, let alone allow for the exercise of coercive authority. Yet these are fundamental features of the political systems imposed on Native people. The hard truth is that many of those who hold positions of authority in Native communities have come to depend on the colonial framework for their power, employment, and status. How many of them would still hold their positions if the criteria for leadership reflected indigenous values instead of an ability to serve the interests of mainstream society? Very few contemporary Native politicians can honestly claim to possess the qualities and skills needed to lead in a non-coercive, participatory, transparent, consensus-based system. The hunger for power, money, and status prevents many people from seeing what is best for the community in the long run. But even when the people who seek that power do so with the best intentions, for the good of the people, the fact remains that holding non-consensual power over others is contrary to tradition. Whatever the purpose behind the use of arbitrary authority, the power relationship itself is wrong.
Proponents of indigenist government aim to overturn that unjust power relationship along with the government systems that have been imposed on our communities since colonization. Those systems cannot be defended on grounds of history (they are foreign), morality (they are intended to destabilize), or even practice (they do not work). Yet many people who are entrenched politically or bureaucratically within them resist any attempt to recover the traditional basis for governmental organization. Their defence of the status quo reflects a need to preserve the power relationships of contemporary Native politics. This is both a political and philosophical problem, a corruption that must be addressed if the values embedded in the European/American political system are not to form the general criteria for status, prestige, and leadership in our communities.
Efforts to recover the integrity of indigenous societies are not new. The first post-European Native cultural revival, at the start of the nineteenth century, was aimed largely at expunging cultural influences that were seen to be destructive. Various social and religious movements, including the Ghost Dance, Peyoteism, and the Code of Handsome Lake, sought to overcome the loss of spiritual rootedness and refocus attention on Native value systems. Experience since then has shown that cultural revival is not a matter of rejecting all Western influences, but of separating the good from the bad and of fashioning a coherent set of ideas out of the traditional culture to guide whatever forms of political and social development — including the good elements of Western forms — are appropriate to the contemporary reality. It is this rootedness in traditional values that defines an indigenous people; a culture that does not reflect the basic principles of the traditional philosophy of government cannot be considered to be indigenous in any real sense.
In lamenting the loss of a traditional frame of reference, we must be careful not to romanticize the past. Tradition is the spring from which we draw our healing water; but any decisions must take into account contemporary economic, social, and political concerns. We seek the answer to one of the basic questions any society must answer: what is the right way to govern? For generations, foreigners have provided the answer to this question. Our deference to other people’s solutions has taken a terrible toll on indigenous peoples. A focused re-commitment to traditional teachings is the only way to preserve what remains of indigenous cultures and to recover the strength and integrity of indigenous nations. At this time in history, indigenous people need to acknowledge the losses suffered and confront the seriousness of their plight. There is no time left to wallow in our pain. Instead, we should use it as a measure of how urgent the challenge is. The power of our most important traditional teachings will become evident as they begin to ease our suffering and restore peace.
Reorienting leaders and institutions towards an indigenous framework means confronting tough questions about the present state of affairs. It would be unrealistic to imagine that all Native communities are willing and able to jettison the structures in place today for the romantic hope of a return to a pre-European life. But it would also be too pessimistic to suggest that there is no room at all for traditional values. Mediating between these extremes, one could argue that most communities would simply be better served by governments founded on those principles drawn from their own cultures that are relevant to the contemporary reality. In a practical sense, this is what is meant by a return to traditional government.
The persistence of political apathy, ignorance, and greed does not mean that traditional forms of government are not viable. These problems simply demonstrate that imported forms of government do not work in Native communities. In those places that have embarked on a traditionalist path and still find themselves plagued by these problems, they indicate that there is still too much distance between the idea of traditional government and the reality of the issues that need to be addressed. In both cases, traditional knowledge has to be brought forward and translated into a form that can be seen as a viable alternative to the imposed structures — as the culturally appropriate solution to fundamental political problems.
Some may be tempted to ask why it is so important to return to a traditional perspective. Aren’t there are other paths to peace, paths that would take us forward rather than back? Some may even see the problems besetting Native communities as the product not of colonialism, but of the people’s own failure to adapt to a modern reality shaped by forces that traditional values cannot comprehend, let alone deal with. Tradition, in their view, is a dream no more grounded in reality than clouds that disappear on the first wind — a beautiful dream, unsuited to the harsh realities of the world.
Such people are mistaken. Rediscovering the power of the traditional teachings and applying them to contemporary problems is crucially important to the survival of indigenous people. There is more than one Indian in this world who dreams in the language of his ancestors and wakes mute to them, who dreams of peace and wakes to a deep and heavy anger. If a traditionally grounded nation is a dream, it is one worth pursuing. It has been said before, and it bears repeating: sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.
Native Political Elites
in the midst of the current crisis, there are still people who embody the traditional virtues of indigenous cultures. There are generous men and women who hold fast to the traditional way, and who know its power to bring people together. These are the true leaders — the ones to whom communities should be looking to take them beyond the division and greed of contemporary politics. But it is rare for such people to obtain positions of authority or influence within the current colonial structure. Often the qualities that make them leaders in the traditional sense are not sufficiently appreciated. As well, many of them make a conscious decision to withdraw from a foreign political system. Either way, the public sphere comes to be dominated by people who conform to the criteria for leadership imposed on Native communities, while those who meet the indigenous criteria for leadership remain secluded in the private realm of traditional life in the communities. There is a division between those who serve the system and those who serve the people. In a colonial system designed to undermine, divide, and assimilate indigenous people, those who achieve power run the risk of becoming instruments of those objectives.
Most of those who possess authority delegated by the Canadian or United States government are less leaders (with apologies to the rare and admirable exceptions) than tools of the state. This does not necessarily mean they are evil. Some are simply blind to the reality of their co-optation; others, however are complicit in the political subjugation of legitimate leaders.
Near the end of his tenure, the former Canadian Assembly of First Nations head Ovide Mercredi made a bitter admission: ‘I’m not going to run interference for the white government. I’ve done that already. And the white politicians have done nothing to help in return.’ Apparently, the style of politics practised by the present indigenous political elite includes the cynical manipulation common to non-indigenous systems. In the mid-1990s, seeking to block revision of the Canadian government’s Indian Act legislation — one of the Indian Affairs minister’s major initiatives — Mercredi sought approval for a new, more militant posture from his organization at its annual meeting. The meeting was attended by only about 150 of the 633 band-council chiefs in Canada, and fewer than 80 were even present for the vote on the new stance. So with the support of perhaps one in every ten band-council chiefs — whose own legitimacy is questionable, given the very low rates of political participation in the community — Mercredi claimed that he had gained the ‘consensus’ of Native people in Canada!
Those who challenge the status and style of the entrenched elite may do so on a moral basis, as the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NwAc) did during the 1992 negotiations to revise Canada’s Constitution, when they were excluded by Mercredi’s AFN. But they lack an indigenous philosophical base. And without a solid grounding in traditional values, such criticism is incapable of asserting indigenous rights; it becomes just a lever for those who want to replace the entrenched leaders and wield power themselves, still within a non-indigenous framework. The efforts of NwAc and other politically marginalized people to resist Mercredi’s exercise of his claimed authority as the Native representative exemplified this futile ‘mainstreaming’ of dissent.
There is a difference between indigenous and Western forms of leadership. Simply to gain control of an institution is not enough. It is the quality and character of that institution that are of primary concern to indigenous people. Noel Dyck has described how indigenous youth in the 1970s were quick to recognize the distinction between true indigenous organizations and ones fronted by ‘brown bureaucrats’. As Dyck observed, ‘Brown and bureaucrat, or put another way, Indian and government, represent two different and opposing categories of social organization…. In the culture and experience of the [association] the two categories are not compatible.’
The idea that ‘indigenous’ and ‘bureaucratic’ are mutually exclusive categories has been rethought since the 1970s. But even with the focus now on values and intentions as the criteria for determining whether or not an organization is good for the community, structure still matters. Working for the system in a political arm of the Canadian or US government almost always means working against your own people. There are a few rare cases where communities have decolonized their local governments and people have set up their own systems of representation. But the sad reality is that it’s still difficult to justify working directly for the state. So why do people do it? Jack Forbes has described a spectrum of identities, from a very firmly rooted Native nationalism to an opportunistic minority-race identification. Forbes’s spectrum points to the lines of cleavage that the state manipulates in its efforts to legitimize its own institutions among Native people. In the war against indigenous nations, the state first alienates individuals from their communities and cultures and then capitalizes on their alienation by turning them into agents who will work to further the state’s interests within those communities.
Adapting Forbes’s analysis to the present situation, we can mark four major points along the spectrum of identity: (1) the Traditional Nationalist represents the values, principles, and approaches of an indigenous cultural perspective that accepts no compromise with the colonial structure; (2) the Secular Nationalist represents an incomplete or unfulfilled indigenous perspective, stripped of its spiritual element and oriented almost solely towards confronting colonial structures; (3) the Tribal Pragmatist represents an interest-based calculation, a perspective that merges indigenous and mainstream values towards the integration of Native communities within colonial structures; and (4) the Racial Minority (‘of Indian descent’) represents Western values — a perspective completely separate from indigenous cultures and supportive of the colonial structures that are the sole source of Native identification.
It goes almost without saying that state agencies recruit their Native people among the latter two groups. For people with a traditionalist perspective and a little cultural confidence, co-optation by the state is difficult. Undeniably, many Native people who work in state institutions, or in state-sponsored governments within communities, see themselves as working in the interests of their people. There is a strong, though fundamentally naive, belief among them that it is possible to ‘promote change from within’. In retrospect, those who have tried that approach and failed see that belief as more of a justification than a reason. There are many political identities across Native America, and even within single communities the dynamics of personality and psychology produce varying responses to the colonial situation. The people who choose to work for or with the colonial institutions have constructed a political identity for themselves that justifies their participation. This is no excuse for being wrong — and they are — but it indicates the dire need for a stronger sense of traditional values among all Native people. In the absence of a political culture firmly rooted in tradition and a common set of principles based on traditional values, it is not surprising that individuals will tend to stray towards mainstream beliefs and attitudes.
The co-optive intent of the current system is clear to anyone who has worked within it, as is the moral necessity of rejecting the divisive institutions and leaders who emerge from a bureaucratic culture. It is one thing to seek out the heart of whiteness in order to prepare yourself for future battles — ‘know thine enemy is still good advice. But it is quite another thing to have your own heart chilled by the experience. Whether in a bureaucratic context or an indigenous one, individual conduct and values are crucial in determining who the real leaders are.
To plant a tree of peace, power, and righteousness, the ground must be prepared.
‘Rejoicing in our survival’
The strength and quality of indigenous peoples’ greatest accomplishment is almost buried under the weight of the problems they confront. That accomplishment consists in their survival. Indigenous peoples have every right to celebrate their continued existence, and to draw strength from the fact that their nations live on despite the terrible losses of the past 500 years. Today’s challenge must be shouldered proudly because it is no less than the sacred heritage passed on by generations of ancestors who sacrificed and died to preserve the notion of their being. For all the chaos and pain brought by colonization, and all the self-inflicted wounds, the first step in getting beyond the present crisis must be to celebrate the inherent strength that has allowed indigenous people to resist extinction. That strength must then be turned to a different purpose, because beyond mere survival lies a demanding future that will depend on indigenous peoples’ confidence, pride, and skill in making their right of self-determination real. The lesson of the past is that indigenous people have less to fear by moving away from colonialism than by remaining bound by it; in their resistance, they demonstrate an inner strength greater than that of the nations that would dominate them.
Recognizing our pain and sorrow’
With confidence in the integrity and power of their traditions, and faith in their ability to overcome the worst, indigenous people must face the reality that much of their pain and sorrow today is self-inflicted. What is the legacy of colonialism? Dispossession, disempowerment, and disease inflicted by the white man, to be sure. The ongoing struggle consists mainly in an effort to redress such injustice. Yet a parallel truth — and in most cases it is almost unspeakable — is that the injustice and sickness are perpetuated and compounded from within.
The only way to erase this pain and sorrow is to confront it directly. Most Native life is a vortex of pain in need of an anchor of hope. The pain is the result of colonialism. Yet the real tragedy is that many Native people are left to sink for want of the hope that a healthy, supportive, and cohesive community could provide. Cultural dislocation has led to despair, but the real deprivation is the loss of the ethic of personal and communal responsibility. The violence and hate directed at our own people and ourselves that is so prevalent in Native communities is what the Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle has called ‘a cover for systemic rage’ common among colonized peoples. Her poem Hatred exposes this often ignored reality: ‘Blinded by niceties and polite liberality, we can’t see our enemy, so we’ll just have to kill each other.’ Yet the enemy is in plain view: residential schools, racism, expropriation, extinguishment, wardship, welfare. In fact, the problem is not so much blindness as it is aversion to the truth that, although ‘they’ began our oppression, ‘we’ have to a large degree perpetuated it.
Long-term subjugation has a series of effects on both the mind and the soul. We must recognize and take seriously the effects of colonial oppression on both individual and collective levels. In many people’s view, political and economic problems are less urgent than the damage to our psychological health. As the psychologist Eduardo Duran has characterized the problem:
Once a group of people have been assaulted in a genocidal fashion, there are psychological ramifications. With the victim’s complete loss of power comes despair, and the psyche reacts by internalizing what appears to be genuine power — the power of the oppressor. The internalizing process begins when Native American people internalize the oppressor, which is merely a caricature of the power actually taken from Native American people. At this point, the self-worth of the individual and/or group has sunk to a level of despair tantamount to self-hatred. This self-hatred can be either internalized or externalized.
Could there be a clearer statement of the essential problems besetting Native communities? Denied, medicated, rationalized, ignored, or hated, this is a reality that affects all indigenous people to one degree or another. Men bear a special guilt. Many have added to Native women’s oppression by inflicting pain on their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. Once we fully understand the idea of oppression, it doesn’t take much further insight to see that men’s inability to confront the real source of their disempowerment and weakness leads to compound oppression for women. This is a deep and universal problem that continues to exist despite the positive economic and political developments that have taken place in indigenous communities during the last two generations. Internalized oppression manifests itself in various ways. Women as well as men express it in many kinds of self-destructive behaviour. In many indigenous men, however, rage is externalized, and some cowards take out their frustration on women and children rather than risk confronting the real (and still dangerous) oppressor. The 1995 film Once Were Warriors, about spousal abuse among the Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), captures the essence of this problem for all indigenous people. Gendered violence is endemic in most societies, but the fact that our cultures were founded on gender equality and respect makes it a special betrayal in Native communities. That the violence perpetrated by Native men on Native women constitutes a further subjugation compounds the gravity of the crime.
We are entitled to lay blame, but not to make excuses. Colonialization created the conditions of material and social deprivation, but the failure to confront them is our own. Why have we directed our anger at ourselves and our families rather than its source? There are three prerequisites for recovery: awareness of the pain’s source, conscious withdrawal from an isolated, unfocused state of rage, and development of a supportive community and the courage to begin attacking the causes of discontent and deprivation.
‘A responsibility to our ancestors’
I pray that I can take care of myself until the day I go, because I see so many elders being badly abused by their families. This is a loss of culture, a loss of identity, and a loss of tradition. One of the things I find is that people will fall back on how they were raised and what happened to them, saying, Well, my father was a cruel man, and I have low self-esteem, and I can’t comprehend what you are teaching me about love and kindness and giving. And I say, Do not fall back on that kind of garbage. The Creator gave you a sound mind and an incredible spirit and a way of being so that you can do anything right now! You can change that attitude same as you wake up in the morning and it’s a new day. Your mind and everything else can be new. I’ve lived through hardships and horror, and I’m a loving, caring, giving person because I choose to be that way. I choose to listen to the other side to guide me. We all have the ability with our spirit to change things right now. — Osoka Bousko, Woodland Cree (Johnson, ed., The Book of Elders, 60)
It is incumbent on this generation of Native people to heal the colonial sickness through the re-creation of sound communities, individual empowerment, and the re-establishment of relationships based on traditional values. This is the burden placed on young shoulders by the elders and ancestors who carried the torch through many years of darkness. It is not enough to survive and heal; there is also a responsibility to rebuild the foundations of nationhood by recovering a holistic traditional philosophy, reconnecting with our spirituality and culture, and infusing our politics and relationships with traditional values. The gradual transformation of Native communities from threatened to confident, from sick to healthy, from weak to strong, will be a collective effort. But the collective will require the shining lights of leadership provided by individual guides and mentors. This kind of leadership will be the most crucial element in our recovery from colonial oppression.
Native people can’t cry their way to nationhood. Fulfilling the responsibility to reconstruct the nation means moving beyond the politics of pity. A sensitive pragmatism is needed to reinfuse our societies with the positive energy required to confront the continuing injustice, protect what remains, and build our own future. Mainstream self-help and ‘New Age’ esteem work is not enough. Without a foundation in the traditional teachings and a connection to community development, such efforts represent nothing more than self-centred escapism and denial of the fundamental problem. It is not enough to think of individual healing. As the Cree educator Roslyn Ing told me, if we are to ‘honour what our ancestors went through and died for’, we have ‘a responsibility … to want to exist as Cree people and to carry on’.
The time for blaming the white man, the far away and long ago, is over. People should recognize that the real enemy is close enough to touch. As a chief of the Ehattesaht tribe on North Vancouver Island told me:
People don’t appreciate traditional values, and don’t live according to them. They have more immediate concerns and have neglected the important things. The biggest problem is that people have developed a victim mentality and blame everyone else for their oppression rather than doing the work to raise themselves out of it. The culture of dependency and the feeling of defeat are our biggest problems.
As long as the state works to keep Native people politically and economically dependent, leadership will consist in resisting its efforts to undermine the integrity of the culture and prevent the reclamation of the traditional ways that are the keys to empowerment.
But what does it mean to reclaim traditional ways? One kind of ‘retraditionalized’ leadership has been defined with reference to indigenous women who have extended ‘traditional care-taking and cultural transmission roles to include activities vital to the continuity of Indian communities within a predominantly non-Indian society’:
American Indian women have achieved success by exhibiting independence, leadership, confidence, competitiveness, and emotional control. Without ignoring their cultural heritage, losing acceptance among their people, or forfeiting the ability to behave appropriately within Indian cultures, Indian women leaders have increased respect and status for Indian people and gained professional recognition for themselves.
These people are to be respected for their abilities and their success in challenging racism within the professions. However, there is a substantial difference between this type of activity and the perspective on leadership that I am advocating. While gaining the respect of mainstream society is perhaps a necessary element in the decolonization process, it is essentially individualist. What the authors of the passage above would term a Native ‘leader’ is actually a person who has become successful in Euro-American society by mastering the skills, knowledge, and behaviours required for white success. To become a role model and contribute to the mainstream society while still maintaining a respected position in one’s nation is very fine; but it is not leadership in the truest sense.
This notion of retraditionalized Native leadership lacks one essential component: participation in and support for the nation’s collective struggle. It is the duty of Native leaders to satisfy not mainstream but indigenous cultural criteria. To be sure, making a positive contribution is an important aspect of leadership, but individual success is not enough. To become a true leader, one must go far beyond.
Is it possible to be prominent and esteemed in one world without being marginal in the other? Is it possible to compromise, to meet the demands of both worlds? Ultimately, I think the real question is: can Native people afford to lose even one potential leader to the pursuit of success as defined by the mainstream society?
Brothers and Sisters:
These words are a prayer of hope for a new
Anguished hearts, minds, and bodies
This is our ordeal.
There are those who remember
Why do we not hear them?
Wipe the tears from your eyes
This is a discourse of condolence.
for full text references please see the print version of Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigienous Manifesto. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999.
* This is an excerpt from Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto that has been published with the permission of Oxford University Press.
Copyright – Oxford University Press, 1999.