Excerpt from: Taiaiake Alfred, Wasáse: indigenous pathways of action and freedom, Peterborough: Broadview Press, Forthcoming August 2005. www.broadviewpress.com.
This paper will serve as the basis for a two-week Graduate seminar on “Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom” to be given by Taiaiake Alfred at the Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture, University of Victoria, March 7-18, 2005. Live video streams of each day’s seminar will be broadcast at: www.pactac.net/stream.html. For more information on seminar participation please visit the IGOV website: http://web.uvic.ca/igov/
It is time for our people to live again. This book is a journey on the path made for us by those who have found a way to live as Onkwehonwe, original people. The journey is a living commitment to meaningful change in our lives and to transforming society by recreating our existences, regenerating our cultures, and surging against the forces that keep us bound to our colonial past. It is the path of struggle laid out by those who have come before us; now it is our turn, we who choose to turn away from the legacies of colonialism and take on the challenge of creating a new reality for ourselves and for our people.
The journey and this warrior’s path is a kind of Wasáse, a ceremony of unity, strength, and commitment to action. Wasáse is an ancient Rotinoshonni war ritual, the Thunder Dance. The new warrior’s path, the spirit of Wasáse, this Onkwehonwe attitude, this courageous way of being in the world — all come together to form a new politics in which many identities and strategies for making change are fused together in a movement to challenge white society’s control over Onkwehonwe and our lands. Wasáse, as I am speaking of it here, is symbolic of the social and cultural force alive among Onkwehonwe dedicated to altering the balance of political and economic power to recreate some social and physical space for freedom to re-emerge. Wasáse is an ethical and political vision, the real demonstration of our resolve to survive as Onkwehonwe and to do what we must to force the Settlers to acknowledge our existence and the integrity of our connection to the land.
There are many differences among the peoples that are indigenous to this land, yet the challenge facing all Onkwehonwe is the same: regaining freedom and becoming self-sufficient by confronting the disconnection and fear at the core of our existences under colonial dominion. We are separated from the sources of our goodness and power: from each other, our cultures, and our lands. These connections must be restored. Governmental power is founded on fear, which is used to control and manipulate us in many ways; so, the strategy must be to confront fear and display the courage to act against and defeat the state’s power.
The first question that arises when this idea is applied in a practical way to the situations facing Onkwehonwe in real life is this: How can we regenerate ourselves culturally and achieve freedom and political independence when the legacies of disconnection, dependency, and dispossession have such a strong hold on us? Undeniably, we face a difficult situation. The political and social institutions that govern us have been shaped and organized to serve white power and they conform to the interests of the states founded on that objective. These state and Settler-serving institutions are useless to the cause of our survival, and if we are to free ourselves from the grip of colonialism, we must reconfigure our politics and replace all of the strategies, institutions, and leaders in place today. The transformation will begin inside each one of us as personal change, but decolonization will become a reality only when we collectively both commit to a movement based on an ethical and political vision and consciously reject the colonial postures of weak submission, victimry, and raging violence. It is a political vision and solution that will be capable of altering power relations and rearranging the forces that shape our lives. Politics is the force that channels social, cultural, and economic powers and makes them imminent in our lives. Abstaining from politics is like turning your back on a beast when it is angry and intent on ripping your guts out.
It is the kind of politics we practice that makes the crucial distinction between the possibility of a regenerative struggle and what we are doing now. Conventional and acceptable approaches to making change are leading us nowhere. Submission and cooperation, which define politics as practiced by the current generation of Onkwehonwe politicians, are, I contend, morally, culturally, and politically indefensible and should be dismissed scornfully by any right-thinking person and certainly by any Onkwehonwe who still has dignity. There is little attention paid in this book to the conventional aspects of the politics of pity, such as self-government processes, land claims agreements, and aboriginal rights court cases, because building on what we have achieved up until now in our efforts to decolonize society is insufficient and truly unacceptable as the end-state of a challenge to colonialism. The job is far from finished. It is impossible to predict what constraints and opportunities will emerge, but it is clear that we have not pushed hard enough yet to be satisfied with the state’s enticements. Fundamentally different relationships between Onkwehonwe and Settlers will emerge not from negotiations in state-sponsored and government-regulated processes, but only after successful Onkwehonwe resurgences against white society’s entrenched privileges and the unreformed structure of the colonial state.
As Onkwehonwe committed to the reclamation of our dignity and strength, there are, theoretically, two viable approaches to engaging the colonial power that is thoroughly embedded in the state and in societal structures: armed resistance and nonviolent contention. Each has a heritage among our peoples and is a potential formula for making change, for engaging with the adversary without deference to emotional attachments to colonial symbols or to the compromised logic of colonial approaches. They are both philosophically defensible, but are they both equally valid approaches to making change, given the realities of our situations and our goals? We need a confident position on the question as to what is the right strategy. Both armed resistance and nonviolent contention are unique disciplines that require commitments that rule out overlapping allegiances between the two approaches. They are diverging and distinctive ways of making change, and the choice between the two paths is the most important decision the next generation of Onkwehonwe will collectively make.
This is the political formula of the strategy of armed resistance: facing a situation of untenable politics, Onkwehonwe could conceivably move toward practicing a punishing kind of aggression, a raging resistance invoking hostile and irredentist negative political visions seeking to engender and escalate the conflict so as to eventually demoralize the Settler society and defeat the colonial state. Contrast this with the strategic vision of nonviolent contention: Onkwehonwe face the untenable politics and unacceptable conditions in their communities and confront the situation with determined yet restrained action, coherent and creative contention supplemented with a positive political vision based on re-establishing respect for the original covenants and ancient treaties that reflect the founding principles of the Onkwehonwe-Settler relationship. This would be a movement sure to engender conflict, but it would be conflict for a positive purpose and with the hope of recreating the conditions of coexistence. Rather than enter the arena of armed resistance, we would choose to perform rites of resurgence.
These forms of resurgence have already begun. There are people in all communities who understand that a true decolonization movement can emerge only when we shift our politics from articulating grievances to pursuing an organized and political battle for the cause of our freedom. These new warriors understand the need to refuse any further disconnection from their heritage and the need to reconnect with the spiritual bases of their existences as Onkwehonwe. Following their example and building on the foundation of their struggles, we have the potential to initiate a more coordinated and widespread action, to reorganize communities to take advantage of gains and opportunities as they occur in political, economic, social, and cultural spheres and spaces created by the movement. There is a solid theory of change in this concept of an indigenous peoples’ movement. The theory of change is the lived experience of the people we will encounter in this book. Their lives are a dynamic of power generated by creative energy flowing from their heritage through their courageous and unwavering determination to recreate themselves and act together to meet the challenges of their day.
A common and immediate concern for anyone defending the truth of their heritage is the imperative to repel the thrust of the modern state’s assault against our peoples. The Settlers continue to erase our existences from the cultural, social, and political landscape of our homelands. Onkwehonwe are awakening to the need to move from the materialist orientation of our politics and social reality toward a restored spiritual foundation, channelling that spiritual strength and the unity it creates into a power that can affect political and economic relations. A true revolution is spiritual at its core; every single one of the world’s materialist revolutions has failed to produce conditions of life that are markedly different from those which it opposed. Whatever the specific means or rationale, violent, legalist, and economic revolutions have never been successful in producing peaceful coexistence between peoples; in fact, they always reproduce the exact set of power relations they seek to change, rearranging only the outward face of power.
One problem of indigenous politics is that there is no consistency of means and ends in the way we are struggling to empower ourselves. Approaches to making change that advocate reforming the colonial legal system or state policy or that that seek empowerment through the accumulation of financial resources may seem to hold promise, but they are opposed to basic and shared Onkwehonwe values in either the means they would use to advance the struggle or in the ends they would achieve. Legalist, economic, and, for that matter, violent insurgent approaches are all simply mimicking foreign logics, each in a different way. How you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over, and there is always means-ends consistency at the end of the game. For Onkwehonwe, the implication of a legalist approach is entrenchment in the state system as citizens with rights defined by the constitution of the colonial state, which is the defeat of the idea of an independent Onkwehonwe existence. The implication of the economic development approach is integration into the consumer culture of mainstream capitalist society, which is the defeat of the possibility of ways of life associated with Onkwehonwe cultures. And, of course, violence begets violence. The implication of an approach to making change using armed force to attack institutions and the structure of power is an ensuing culture of violence that is, in its very existence, the negation of the ideal of peaceful coexistence at the heart of Onkwehonwe philosophies.
Despite the visible and public victories in court cases and casino profits, neither of these strategies generates the transformative experience that recreates people like spiritual-cultural resurgences can do. The truly revolutionary goal is to transform disconnection and fear into connection and to transcend colonial culture and institutions. Onkwehonwe have been successful on personal and collective levels by rejecting extremism on both ends of the spectrum between the reformist urgings of tame legalists and the unfocused rage of armed insurgents.
Consider the futility of our present politics and the perversity of what I will call “aboriginalism,” the ideology and identity of assimilation, in which Onkwehonwe are manipulated by colonial myths into a submissive position and are told that by emulating white people they can gain acceptance and possibly even fulfillment within mainstream society. Many Onkwehonwe today embrace the label of “aboriginal,” but this identity is a legal and social construction of the state, and it is disciplined by racialized violence and economic oppression to serve an agenda of silent surrender. The acceptance of being aboriginal is as powerful an assault on Onkwehonwe existences as any force of arms brought upon us by the Settler society. The integrationist and unchallenging aboriginal vision is designed to lead us to oblivion, as individual successes in assimilating to the mainstream are celebrated, and our survival is redefined strictly in the terms of capitalist dogma and practical-minded individualist consumerism and complacency.
Within the frame of politics and social life, Onkwehonwe who accept the label and identity of an aboriginal are bound up in a logic that is becoming increasingly evident, even to them, as one of outright assimilation — the abandonment of any meaningful notion of being indigenous.
Outright assaults and insidious undermining have brought us to the situation we face today, when the destruction of our peoples is nearly complete. Yet resurgence and regeneration constitute a way to power-surge against the empire with integrity. The new warriors who are working to ensure the survival of their people are not distracted by the effort to pass off as “action” any analysis of the self-evident fact of the defeat of our nations. They don’t imagine that our cause needs further justification in law or in the public mind. They know that assertion and action are the urgencies; all the rest is a smokescreen clouding this clear vision.
The experience of resurgence and regeneration in Onkwehonwe communities thus far proves that change cannot be made from within the colonial structure. Institutions and ideas that are the creation of the colonial relationship are not capable of ensuring our survival; this has been amply proven as well by the absolute failure of institutional and legalist strategies to protect our lands and our rights, as well as in their failure to motivate younger generations of Onkwehonwe to action. In the face of the strong renewed push by the state for the legal and political assimilation of our peoples, as well as a rising tide of consumerist materialism making its way into our communities, the last remaining remnants of distinctive Onkwehonwe values and culture are being wiped out. The situation is urgent and calls for even more intensive and profound resurgences on even more levels, certainly not moderation. Many people are paralyzed by fear or idled by complacency and will sit passively and watch destruction consume our people. But the words in this book are for those of us who prefer a dangerous dignity to safe self-preservation.
People have always faced these challenges. None of what I am saying is new, either to people’s experience in the world or to political philosophy. What is emerging in our communities is a renewed respect for indigenous knowledge and Onkwehonwe ways of thinking. This book hopes to document and glorify this renewal, in which Onkwehonwe are linked in spirit and strategy with other indigenous peoples confronting empire throughout the world. When we look into the heart of our own communities, we can relate to the struggles of peoples in Africa or Asia and appreciate the North African scholar Albert Memmi’s thoughts on how, in the language of his day, colonized peoples respond to oppression: “One can be reconciled to every situation, and the colonized can wait a long time to live. But, regardless of how soon or how violently the colonized rejects his situation, he will one day begin to overthrow his unliveable existence with the whole force of his oppressed personality.” The question facing us is this one: For us today, here in this land, how will the overthrow of our unliveable existence come about?
Memmi was prescient in his observations on the reaction of people labouring under colonial oppression. Eventually, our people too will move to revolt against being defined by the Settlers as “aboriginal” and against the dispossession of our lands and heritage, and we will track our oppression to its source, which is the basic structure of the colonial state and society. Memmi also wrote, “revolt is the only way out of the colonial situation, and the colonized realizes it sooner or later. His condition is absolute and cries for an absolute solution; a break and not a compromise.” Settlers and tamed aboriginals in purportedly stable and peaceful countries like Canada, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand may reject those words, but only because the imperial evil is so well disguised and deeply denied in these countries; the burden of persistent colonialism has become mundane and internalized to Onkwehonwe life, and its effects subsumed within our cultures and psychologies. Especially in the smug placidity of middle- and upper-class North America, the implications of Memmi’s utterance are surely frightening. What and why do we have to break? Break up, break apart, break me…? It is all a question of one’s experience and mentality, of course. All of the world’s big problems are in reality very small and local problems. They are brought into force as realities only in the choices made every day and in many ways by people who are enticed by certain incentives and disciplined by their fears. So, confronting huge forces like colonialism is a personal and, in some ways, a mundane process. This is not to say it is easy, but looking at it this way does give proper focus to the effort of decolonizing.
The colonizers stand on guard for their ill-gotten privileges using highly advanced techniques, mainly co-optation, division, and, when required, physical repression. The weak people in the power equation help the colonizers too, with their self-doubts, laziness, and unfortunate insistence on their own disorganization!
Challenging all of this means even redefining the terminology of our existence. Take the word, “colonization,” which is actually a way of seeing and explaining what has happened to us. We cannot allow that word to be the story of our lives, because it is a narrative that in its use privileges the colonizer’s power and inherently limits our freedom, logically and mentally imposing a perpetual colonized victim way of life and view on the world. Onkwehonwe are faced not with the same adversary their ancestors confronted, but with a colonization that has recently morphed into a kind of post-modern imperialism that is more difficult to target than the previous and more obvious impositions of force and control over the structures of government within their communities. Memmi’s “break” must itself be redefined.
The challenge is to reframe revolt. Classically, the phases of revolt are thought of along a continuum moving from the self-assertion of an independent identity, to seeking moderate reforms of the system, to protesting and openly rejecting authority, and then to revolutionary action to destroy the state and replace it with another order of power. Thinking along these lines, it is ironic that our own politicians find themselves being unwitting conservatives. Twenty years ago they were positioned at the cutting edge of change — Red Power, political and cultural revivalism, court challenges for rights, land claims, etc. But now that those same people are in positions of leadership, they are resisting attempts to move the challenge to the next stage. Our politicians find themselves cooperating with their (former) enemies and adversaries to preserve the non-threatening, very limited resolutions they have worked with the colonial powers to create and define as end objectives. They have accommodated themselves to colonialism, not defeated it. And they have forgotten that the ancestral movement always sought total freedom from domination and a complete revolt against empire, not halfway compromises and weak surrenders to watered-down injustices.
I have heard it said, prophetically, in my own community that “the people will rise up again when the chiefs’ heads are rolling on the ground.” While it is clear that guerrilla and terrorist strategies are futile — certainly so from within the centre of industrial capitalist countries — the spirit of the ancestors who went to war against the invaders is compelling and honourable. I refuse to pass moral judgement against those oppressed people who act against imperial power using arms to advance their cause; their acts of resistance are only the moral equivalents to the heinous and legalized capitalist crimes that are destroying people’s lives and the land. And where people meet state violence with arms to defend themselves and their lands in necessary acts of self-preservation, they are of course justified in doing so. But, because I hold a strong commitment to struggles for freedom, I do not believe that armed struggle is the right path for our people to take. Violent revolt is simply not an intelligent and realistic approach to confronting the injustice we face, and it will not allow us to succeed in transforming the society from what it is to a state of peaceful coexistence. Anyway, I sense that even if my own strategic disagreement with, or some other people’s moral judgements against, armed action did not solidify against a group’s advocacy and use of violence, rejection and approbation by indigenous communities would surely come in the wake of armed revolt. Onkwehonwe would without a doubt be further abused and violated by repressive counter-violence that the state would use in retaliation.
Using violence to advance our objectives would lead to frustration and failure for political and military reasons, but it would also falter for deeper spiritual and cultural reasons. I find it very difficult to see any value in asking our future generations to form their identities on and live lives of aggression; would this not validate and maintain the enemy colonizer as an omnipresent and superior reality of our existence for generations to come? This is not the legacy we want to leave for our children. To remain true to a struggle conceived within Onkwehonwe values, the end goal of our Wasáse — our warrior’s dance — must be formulated as a spiritual revolution, a culturally rooted social movement that transforms the whole of society and a political action that seeks to remake the entire landscape of power and relationship to reflect truly a liberated post-imperial vision.
Wasáse is spiritual revolution and contention. It is not a path of violence. And yet, this commitment to nonviolence is not pacifism either. This is an important point to make clear: I believe there is a need for morally grounded defiance and nonviolent agitation combined with the development of a collective capacity for self-defence, so as to generate within the Settler society a reason and incentive to negotiate constructively in the interest of achieving a respectful coexistence. The rest of this book will try to explain this concept (an effort the more academically inclined reader may be permitted to read as my theorizing the liberation of indigenous peoples).
My goal is to discover a real and deep notion of peace in the hope of moving us away from valuing simplistic notions of peace such as certainty and stability, for these are conceptions that point only to the value of order. Some readers may find themselves confused by the seeming contradictions in my logic and question how “peace” can be the orienting goal of this warrior-spirited book, wondering if perhaps a concept like “justice” may be more to the point and truer to the spirit of a book that takes a war dance as its emblem. But justice as a liberatory concept and as a would-be goal is limited by its necessary gaze to the politics, economics, and social relations of the past. However noble and necessary justice is to our struggles, its gaze will always be backward. By itself, the concept of justice is not capable of encompassing the broader transformations needed to ensure coexistence. Justice is one element of a good relationship; it is concerned with fairness and right and calculating moral balances, but it cannot be the end goal of a struggle, which must be conceived as a movement from injustice and conflict through and beyond the achievement of justice to the completion of the relationship and the achievement of peace.
The old slogan, “No justice, no peace,” is a truism. We must move from injustice, through struggle, to a mutual respect founded on the achievement of justice and then onward towards peace. Step by step. Lacking struggle, omitting respect and justice, there can and will be no peace. Or happiness. Or freedom. These are the real goals of a truly human and fully realized philosophy of change.
Peace is hopeful, visionary, and forward-looking; it is not just the lack of violent conflict or rioting in the streets. That simple stability is what we call order, and order serves the powerful in an imperial situation. If peace continues to be strictly defined as the maintenance of order and the rule of law, we will be defeated in our struggle to survive as Onkwehonwe. Reconceptualized for our struggle, peace is being Onkwehonwe, breaking with the disfiguring and meaningless norms of our present reality, and recreating ourselves in a holistic sense. This conception of peace requires a rejection of the state’s multifaceted oppression of our peoples simultaneously with and through the assertion of regenerated Onkwehonwe identities. Personal and collective transformation is not instrumental to the surging against state power, it is the very means of our struggle.
Memmi, who was so powerful in his exposure of colonial mentalities at play during the Algerian resistance against French colonialism, spoke of the fundamental need to cure white people, through revolution, of the disease of the European they have collectively inherited from their colonial forefathers. I believe his prescription of spiritual transformation channelled into a political action and social movement is the right medicine.
Following an awakening among the people and cultural redefinition, after social agitation, after engaging in a politics of contention, after creative confrontation, we will be free to determine our own existences. Wasáse, struggle in all of its forms, truly defines an authentic existence. This is the clearest statement on what I seek to cause with the ideas I am putting forward in this book. This is why I speak of warriors. To be Onkwehonwe, to be fully human, is to be living the ethic of courage and to be involved in a struggle for personal transformation and freedom from the dominance of imperial ideas and powers — especially facing the challenges in our lives today. Any other path or posture is surrender or complicity. And though I am speaking nonviolently of a creative reinterpretation of what it is to be a warrior, I am doing so in full reverence and honour of the essence of the ancient warrior spirit, because a warrior makes a stand facing danger with courage and integrity. The warrior spirit is the strong medicine we need to cure the European disease. But, drawing on the old spirit, we need to create something new for ourselves and think through the reality of the present to design an appropriate strategy, use fresh tactics, and acquire new skills.
The new warriors make their own way in the world: they move forward heeding the teachings of the ancestors and carrying a creed that has been taken from the past and remade into a powerful way of being in their new world. In our actions, we show our respect for the heritage of our people by regenerating the spirit of our ancestors. We glorify the continuing existence of our peoples, and we act on the knowledge that our survival as Onkwehonwe depends on living the rites of resurgence. Fighting these battles in this kind of war, our nations will be recreated. The new warriors are committed in the first instance to self-transformation and self-defence against the insidious forms of control that the state and capitalism use to shape lives according to their needs — to fear, to obey, to consume.
When lies rule, warriors reveal new truths for the people to believe. Warriors battle against the political manipulation of their innate fears and repel the state’s attempts to embed complacency inside of them. They counter-attack with a lived ethic of courage and seek to cause the reawakening of a culture of freedom.
Survival is bending and swaying but not breaking, adapting and accommodating without compromising what is core to one’s being. Those who are emboldened by challenges and who sacrifice for the truth achieve freedom. Those who fail to find balance, who reject change, or who abandon their heritage altogether abandon themselves. They perish. The people who live on are those who have learned the lesson of survival: cherish your unique identity, protect your freedom, and defend your homeland.
Even from within a conservative viewpoint on politics, if self-government or self-determination are the goals, and if communities are seeking to restore a limited degree of autonomy for their people in relation to the state, it must be recognized that the cultural basis of our existence as Onkwehonwe has been nearly destroyed and that the cultural foundation of our nations must be restored or reimagined if there is going to be a successful assertion of political or economic rights. In other words, there certainly exists the moral right and the legal right for governance outside of assimilative or co-optive forms, but there is no capacity in our communities and there is no cultural basis on which to generate an effective movement against the further erosion of Onkwehonwe political authority. This has placed our continuing existence as peoples, or as nations and distinct cultures, in imminent danger of extinction.
I am not overstating the danger to make a point, or, as it may be suspected, for rhetorical purposes. Think of the pattern of societal decline described by Hannah Arendt: political authority falls after the loss of tradition and the weakening of religious beliefs. Spirituality breaks, there is a loss of traditional cultures and languages, and this is followed by political subjugation. This pattern reduces the story of the 500-year conquest of Anówarakowa Kawennote, Great Turtle Island, to its essence. Imperialism has not been a totalizing, unknowable, and irresistible force of destruction, but a fluid confluence of politics, economics, psychology, and culture. It remains so.
What is the path to meaningful change in our lives? The most common answers to that question come in the form of big political or economic solutions to problems conceived of as historical, or past, injustices: self-government, land claims, economic development, and the legal recognition of our rights as nations. I recognize, of course, that these are crucial goals. In the long term, it will be absolutely necessary to redefine and reconstruct the governmental and economic relationships between Onkwehonwe and Settlers. Yet to the extent that self-government, land claims, and economic development agreements have been successfully negotiated and implemented, there is no evidence that they have done anything to make but a very small minority of our people happier and healthier.
In most cases, these agreements create new bureaucracies and put in place new levels and forms of government based on the colonial model, or new capitalist relationships with non-indigenous business partners. These new arrangements benefit a few people, mainly elected officials, entrepreneurs, lawyers, consultants, and, to a much lesser extent, the people who staff the various structures. Self-government, land claims, and economic development are abundantly positive for this fortunate minority. This is not to begrudge the fact that some of us have gained the education and skills needed to secure jobs or create businesses — these are the rewards of honest people who have worked hard to create strength for themselves. But in the midst of all of the apparent progress, there is a nagging sense among many people that something is wrong even with these supposed solutions. There is a dawning awareness among those of us who think outside of ourselves, those who care about the not-so-fortunate and all-too-easily ignored 90 per cent of our people, those who get no benefit at all from the new political and economic orders being created by the collusion of interests that govern our communities today. It is the sinking feeling that political power and money, the things we’ve worked so hard to achieve, are still not going to be enough to liberate us from our present reality.
I am saying that the real reason most Onkwehonwe endure unhappy and unhealthy lives has nothing to do with governmental powers or money. The lack of these things only contributes to making a bad situation worse. The root of the problem is that we are living through a spiritual crisis, a time of darkness that descended on our people when we became disconnected from our lands and from our traditional ways of life. We are divided amongst ourselves and confused in our own minds about who we are and what kind of life we should be living. We depend on others to feed us and to teach us how to look, feel, live. We still turn to white men for the answers to our problems; worse yet, we have started to trust them. There are no more leaders and hardly a place left to go where we can just be native. We are the prophetic Seventh Generation: if we do not find a way out of the crises, we will be consumed by the darkness, and whether it is through self-destruction or assimilation, we will not survive.
Large-scale statist solutions like self-government and land claims are not so much lies as they are irrelevant to the root problem. For a long time now, we have been on a quest for governmental power and money; somewhere along the journey from the past to the future, we forgot that our goal was to reconnect with our lands and to preserve our harmonious cultures and respectful ways of life. It is these things that are the true guarantee of peace, health, strength, and happiness — of survival. Before we can start rebuilding ourselves and achieve meaningful change in the areas of law and government, of economies and development, we must start to remember one important thing: our communities are made up of people. Our concern about legal rights and empowering models of national self-government has led to the neglect of the fundamental building blocks of our peoples: the women and men, the youth and the elders.
Some people believe in the promise of what they call “traditional government” as the ultimate solution to our problems, as if just getting rid of the imposed corrupt band or tribal governments and resurrecting old laws and structures would solve everything. I used to believe that myself. But there is a problem with this way of thinking, too. The traditional governments and laws we hold out as the pure good alternatives to the imposed colonial systems were developed at a time when people were different than we are now; they were people who were confidently rooted in their culture, bodily and spiritually strong, and capable of surviving independently in their natural environments. We should ask ourselves if it makes any sense to try to bring back these forms of government and social organization without first regenerating our people so that we can support traditional government models. Regretfully, the levels of participation in social and political life, the physical fitness, and the cultural skills these models require are far beyond our weakened and dispirited people right now.
We will begin to make meaningful change in the lives of our communities when we start to focus on making real change in the lives of our people as individuals. It may sound clichéd, but it is still true that the first part of self-determination is the self. In our minds and in our souls, we need to reject the colonists’ control and authority, their definition of who we are and what our rights are, their definition of what is worthwhile and how one should live, their hypocritical and pacifying moralities. We need to rebel against what they want us to become, start remembering the qualities of our ancestors, and act on those remembrances. This is the kind of spiritual revolution that will ensure our survival.
What are the first steps in this revolution of the spirit?
For a start, let’s think about the most basic question: What does it mean to be Onkwehonwe? Many times, I have listened to Leroy Little Bear, one of the wisest people I know, speak on one of the real differences between Onkwehonwe and European languages. European languages, he explains, centre on nouns and are concerned with naming things, ascribing traits, and making judgements. Onkwehonwe languages are structured on verbs; they communicate through descriptions of movement and activity. Take my own name, for example. Taiaiake, in English, is a proper noun that labels me for identification. In Kanienkeha, it literally means, “he is crossing over from the other side.” Struggling against and negotiating with the descendants of Europeans occupying our homelands for all these years, we have become very skilled, in the European way, at judging and naming everything, even ourselves — beliefs, rights, authorities, jurisdictions, land use areas, categories of membership in our communities, and so on — as if it were enough to speak these things to make them into a reality. In fighting for our future, we have been mislead into thinking that “Indigenous,” or “First Nations,” “Carrier,” “Cree” or “Mohawk” (even if we use Kanien’kehaka, or Innu, or Wet’suwet’en), is something that is attached to us inherently and not a description of what we actually do with our lives.
The European way is to see the world organized in a system of names and titles that formalize their being. Onkwehonwe recall relationships and responsibilities through languages that symbolize doing. Apply this linguistic insight to our recent efforts to gain recognition and respect, and you start to get a sense of why we have fallen off the good path. We have mistaken the mere renaming of our situation for an actual reconnection with our lands and cultures. Living as Onkwehonwe means much more than applying a label to ourselves and saying that we are indigenous to the land. It means looking at the personal and political choices we make every day and applying an indigenous logic to those daily acts of creation. It means knowing and respecting Kanien’kehaka, Innu, and Wet’suwet’en teachings and thinking and behaving in a way that is consistent with the values passed down to us by our ancestors. My people speak of the coming generations as “faces who are yet to emerge from the Earth.” We have a sacred responsibility to rise up and fight so that our people may live again as Onkwehonwe.
What is the way to restore meaning and dignity to our lives? This is another way of framing the question that guides us as we trace the path of truth and struggle from where we stand today. Too many of our peoples are disoriented, dissatisfied, fearful, and disconnected from each other and from the natural world. Onkwehonwe deserve a different state of being where there are real opportunities for us to finally realize justice and peace in our lives and where there is hope of creating a society in which it is possible to live a life of integrity and happiness.
The thoughts and vision I am offering through these words are rooted in the cultural heritage of Anówarakowa. And proudly so! They are not compromises between indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives; nor are they attempts to negotiate a reconciliation of Onkwehonwe and European cultures and values. These words are an attempt to bring forward an indigenously rooted voice of contention, unconstrained and uncompromised by colonial mentalities. A total commitment to the challenge of regenerating our indigeneity, to rootedness in indigenous cultures, to a fundamental commitment to the centrality of our truths — this book is an effort to work through the philosophical, spiritual, and practical implications of holding such commitments.
These commitments require the reader to challenge critically all of his or her artificial and emotional attachments to the oppressive colonial myths and symbols that we have come to know as our culture. I know that this is asking people to wander into dangerous territory; disentangling from these attachments can also feel like being banished, in a way. But stepping into our fear is crucial, because leaving the comfort zone of accepted truth is vital to creating the emotional and mental state that allows one to really learn. It is a new approach to decolonization. Less intense, or less threatening, ideas about how to make change have proven ineffective from our perspective. I believe it is because they are bound up in and unable to break free from the limiting logic of the colonial myths that they claim to oppose. The myths’ symbols and embedded beliefs force aboriginal thinking to remain in colonial mental, political, and legal frameworks, rendering these forms of writing and thinking less radical and powerless against imperialism. The reflections, meditations, teachings, and dialogues that form the core of this book are indigenous and organic: they emerge from inside Onkwehonwe experiences and reflect the ideas, concepts, and languages that have developed over millennia in the spaces we live, among our peoples. I want to bring the heritage and truth of Anówarakowa to a new generation and to engage passionately with indigenous truths to generate powerful dynamics of thought and action and change. I did not write this book about change, I wrote it from within change. I wrote it with the plain intent of instigating further contention. My hope is that people who read these words will take from them a different way of defining the problem at the core of our present existence, one that brings a radically principled and challenging set of ideas to bear on how to remake the relationship between Onkwehonwe and Settler.
A big part of the social and political resurgence will be the regeneration of Onkwehonwe existences free from colonial attitudes and behaviours. Regeneration means we will reference ourselves differently, both from the ways we did traditionally and under colonial dominion. We will self-consciously recreate our cultural practices and reform our political identities by drawing on tradition in a thoughtful process of reconstruction and a committed reorganization of our lives in a personal and collective sense. This will result in a new conception of what it is to live as Onkwehonwe. This book is my contribution to the larger effort to catalyze and galvanize the movements that have already begun among so many of our people. Restoring these connections is the force that will confront and defeat the defiant evil of imperialism in this land. We need to work together to cleanse our minds, our hearts, and our bodies of the colonial stain and reconnect our lives to the sources of our strength as Onkwehonwe. We need to find new and creative ways to express that heritage. I wrote this book as an Onkwehonwe believing in the fundamental commonality of indigenous values; yet I wrote it from within my own experience. I aim to speak most directly to other Onkwehonwe who share my commitments and who are travelling the same pathway. These words are offered in the spirit of the ancient Wasáse, which was so eloquently captured by my friend Kahente when I asked her to tell me how she understood the meaning of the ritual:
There is a spiritual base that connects us all, and it is stimulated through ceremony. The songs and dances that we perform are like medicine, Ononkwa, invoking the power of the original instructions that lie within. In it, we dance, sing, and share our words of pain, joy, strength, and commitment. The essence of the ancestors’ message reveals itself not only in these songs, speeches, and dances but also in the faces and bodies of all who are assembled. This visual manifestation shows us that we are not alone and that our survival depends on being part of the larger group and in this group working together. We are reminded to stay on the path laid out before us. This way it strengthens our resolve to keep going and to help each other along the way. It is a time to show each other how to step along that winding route in unison and harmony with one another. To know who your friends and allies are in such struggle is what is most important and is what keeps you going.
If non-indigenous readers are capable of listening, they will learn from these shared words, and they will discover that while we are envisioning a new relationship between Onkwehonwe and the land, we are at the same time offering a decolonized alternative to the Settler society by inviting them to share our vision of respect and peaceful coexistence.
The non-indigenous will be shown a new path and offered the chance to join in a renewed relationship between the peoples and places of this land, which we occupy together. I want to provoke. To cause reflection. To motivate people to creatively confront the social and spiritual forces that are preventing us from overcoming the divisive and painful legacies of our shared history as imperial subjects. The guiding question I asked earlier can be stated in another way: What is the meaning of self-determination? We have just now started on the journey together to find the full meaning of the answer to this question, but even so, I believe we all know that achieving freedom means overcoming the delusions, greeds, and hatreds that lie at the centre of colonial culture. This book is an expression of that common yearning for freedom, drawing on the inarticulate and unsettled energy that still resides in each of us.
Onkwehonwe have always fought for survival against imperialism and its drive to annihilate our existence. Our fight is no different from previous generations; it is a struggle to defend the lands, the communities, and the languages that are our heritage and our future. But the new imperialism that we experience has a special character. The close danger of a technological empire and co-optation is the insidious effort of the Settler society to erase us from the cultural and political landscape of the countries they have invaded and now claim as their own. Survival demands that we act on the love we have for this land and our people. This is the counter-imperative to empire. Our power is a courageous love. Our fight is to recognize, to expose, and to ultimately overcome the corrupt, colonized identities and irrational fears that have been bred into us. It is worth repeating that survival will require not only political or cultural resurgence against state power, but positive movement to overcome the defining features of imperialism on a personal and collective level. These resurgences, multiplicities of thought and action, must be founded on Onkwehonwe philosophies and lead us to reconnect with respectful and natural ways of being in the world.
I understand that not everyone realizes or accepts that Onkwehonwe are on the verge of extinction. There are many people, the majority in fact in any community, who still refuse to acknowledge and accept the fact of our perilous condition. The aboriginal “self-termination” movement is much stronger than any coordinated Onkwehonwe movement against imperialism and white dominion today. Most of our people are assimilated into the racist propagandas designed to rob them of their dignity and their lands and have normalized the destruction of their nations. That conclusion may seem harsh, but it is truth. The edge of extinction does not afford the luxury of mincing words.
You may be wondering how it is that I fail to appreciate the efforts to reform and reconcile social relations that are currently underway in the more progressive colonial countries. I do appreciate the nature of these reforms and reconciliations with colonialism only too well. Fifteen years of working in Onkwehonwe communities and organizations has taught me that continued cooperation with state power structures is morally unacceptable. Everyone involved in the Indian Industry knows that we are negotiating with our oppressor from a position of weakness. Organizations purport to speak for people who turn around and vehemently deny the legitimacy and authority of those very organizations and their so-called leaders. And the communities are disintegrating socially and culturally at a terrifying speed as alienation, social ills, and disease outpace efforts to stabilize our societies. In this environment, negotiation is futile. It is counter-productive to our survival. It is senseless to advocate for an accord with imperialism while there is a steady and intense ongoing attack by the Settler society on everything meaningful to us: our cultures, our communities, and our deep attachments to land. The framework of current reformist or reconciling negotiations are about handing us the scraps of history: self-government and jurisdictional authorities for state-created Indian governments within the larger colonial system and subjection of Onkwehonwe to the blunt force of capitalism by integrating them as wage slaves into the mainstream resource-exploitation economy. These surface reforms are being offered because they are useless to our survival as Onkwehonwe. This is not a coincidence, nor is it a result of our goals being obsolete. Self-government and economic development are being offered precisely because they are useless to us in the struggle to survive as peoples and so are no threat to the Settlers and, specifically, the interests of the people who control the Settler state. This is assimilation’s end-game. Today, self-government and economic development signify the defeat of our peoples’ struggles just as surely as, to our grandparents, residential schools, land dispossession, and police beatings signified the supposed supremacy of white power and the subjugation and humiliation of the first and real peoples of this land.
What it comes down to in confronting our imperial reality is that some of us want to reform colonial law and policy, to dull that monster’s teeth so that we can’t be ripped apart so easily. Some of us believe in reconciliation, forgetting that the monster has a genocidal appetite, a taste for our blood, and would sooner tear us apart than lick our hands. I think that the only thing that has changed since our ancestors first declared war on the invaders is that some of us have lost heart. Against history and against those who would submit to it, I am with the warriors who want to beat the beast into bloody submission and teach it to behave.
The time to change direction is now. Signs of defeat have been showing on the faces of our people for too long. Young people, those who have not yet learned to accommodate to the fact that they are expected to accept their lesser status quietly, are especially hard hit by defeatism and alienation. Youth in our communities and in urban centres are suffering. Suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, cultural confusion, sexual violence, obesity: they suffer these scourges worse than anyone else. It is not because they lack money or jobs in the mainstream society (we shouldn’t forget that our people have always been “poor” as consumers in comparison to white people). It is because their identities, their cultures, and their rights are under attack by a racist government. The wounds suffered by young Onkwehonwe people in battle are given little succour by their own elders, and they find only scorn or condescension in the larger world. These young people are fighting raging battles for their own survival every day, and when they become convinced that to fight is futile and the battle likely to be lost, they retreat. Yet they have pride, and rather than submit to the enemy, they sacrifice themselves, sometimes using mercifully quick and sometimes painfully slow methods.
Some people may find it shocking or absurd for me to suggest that an Onkwehonwe community is a kind of war zone. But anyone who has actually lived on a reserve will agree with this tragic analogy on some level. Make no mistake about it, Brothers and Sisters: the war is on. There is no post-colonial situation; the invaders our ancestors fought against are still here, for they have not yet rooted themselves and been transformed into real people of this homeland. Onkwehonwe must find a way to triumph over notions of history that relegate our existence to the past by preserving ourselves in this hostile and disintegrating environment. To do so, we must regenerate ourselves through action because living the white man’s vision of an Indian or an aboriginal will just not do for us.
We are each facing modernity’s attempt to conquer our souls. The conquest is happening as weak, cowardly, stupid, petty, and greedy ways worm themselves into our lives and take the place of the beauty, sharing, and harmony that defined life in our communities for previous generations. Territorial losses and political disempowerment are secondary conquests compared to that first, spiritual cause of discontent. The challenge is to find a way to regenerate ourselves and take back our dignity. Then, meaningful change will be possible, and it will be a new existence, one of possibility, where Onkwehonwe will have the ability to make the kinds of choices we need to make concerning the quality of our lives and begin to recover a truly human way of life.
 Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, 120.
 Memmi, 127.
 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, New York: Penguin, 1963.