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Pathways to an ethic of struggle.

My discovery of what colonization really is took a long time in coming. It took a long time because you can't understand the impact of these powerful forces of disconnection upon our people until you work within this system and try to make change. That's the reason why this understanding is the sum of my own political experience, my lived experience. But it took a really intense effort over the past ten or twelve years to come to an intellectual understanding of it, and really to find a way to articulate it.

Lack of Self-Government?

In my first book, I wrote that the problem was a lack of self-government. Back then, that's the way the problem of colonization was defined. It's still the dominant discourse in Native communities.

But from the personal perspective of a person from Kahnawake--and a person who has traveled and talked to a lot of Native people who still have a commitment to our ancestors' objectives and to the values and principles of living like an indigenous person in a modern era--what I found was this: Self-government isn't enough. In fact, it is a kind of Trojan horse for capitalism, consumerism, individualism.

So, in my own path, I shifted political affiliations. I had managed to work my way up from a measly researcher/coffee go-getter for guys like Billy Two Rivers and Joe Norton, guys who I still really respect and learned a lot from. I worked my way up to senior advisor on land and governance, and I had started taking on a lot more responsibility. But when you come to the realization that it's taking you in a direction not consistent with the direction that your ancestors would have you go--you have a choice to make and it's this: Do I embark on a different pathway? Or do I remain on this pathway, but compromise my idea of what it is to be a Mohawk?


Now, anybody who knows the language, the ceremonies, the teachings--anybody who has heard traditional elders talk about what it is to be a Native person--they are all very, very clear about your responsibilities, your roles, your relationship to the land, your relationship to one another. Those lessons are so, so profound and so clear when you hear them, and they are taught to us over and over and over again. So, when you are on this pathway, you find yourself coming to the point where you have to give up what you've accomplished--your position, your salary, your consulting fees.

And you have to re-imagine what the elders would have wanted you to do.

Heeding the Voices of the Ancestors

So, I titled my next book, Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors. This was because I found myself reinterpreting the voices of my ancestors rather than heeding the voices of the ancestors. I figured it's time to get out of that business.

Luckily for me, I had a day job, teaching in a university. I realized that teaching affords a person a lot of insulation in terms of freedom of movement and thought. You have a job and you have a means to sustain yourself that's not dependent upon the political structure that you're working with at any one time. So, taking advantage of that shifted directions a little bit.

The book was an exploration of what it would be to be a traditional leader today. I really took my task seriously, saying to myself: "If I listen to all the teachings, if I listen for hours and hours and if I read as much as I can, and if I put as much intellectual energy as I have and try and understand what it is to be, in our language, a chief--which literally translates as 'a good man'--how would I do that today?"

And what I found it involves is a traditional ceremony from the Mohawk, from the Iroquois culture actually, Haudenosaunee culture. It's the condolence ceremony when a chief passes away or a clan mother passes away. A new one is raised up and there's a whole cycle of ceremonies where different elements of leadership are brought to this person. This is all done through songs, teaching and speeches.

A Revival of Traditional Forms of Government

Of course, that led me to a second level: It isn't enough just to have space; you need to fill it up with something indigenous. The answer I came to is, that what we need to do is this: We need to revive our traditional forms of government. We need to raise up the long house again, so to speak; we need to raise up those chiefs, those clan mothers; we need to rebuild the long house. We need to restore our traditional forms of government. It's a dominant theme in Native communities that traditional government is the antidote to the corruption, to the abuse of power, to the disempowerment of our communities.

But there's a fundamental problem there, too. The fundamental problem is that our people are not the same as they were a hundred or two hundred years ago, when these traditional governments were functioning in their full power and their full capacity. In saying this, I am not pointing fingers. I'm more looking in the mirror and looking at my family, my friends and everybody I know. I don't think anybody would disagree that our people collectively today have been weakened by colonization. Our language, our culture, our understanding of history, our sense of trust, our wholeness, our relationships, the power that we possess as individuals and as family, the ability to work together, the unity that we had that is the foundation of everything for our people--our understanding of our relationship to nature, our communication with the spirit world.

In all these ways we really have lost a lot.

Yet the systems of government that we're trying to bring forward and raise up again as traditional forms of government are crucially dependent on the very things we lack today. So, it's not enough to call for traditional government. It started to dawn on me that the problem really is the way we have been de-cultured as a people. We've been disconnected from who we are as a people, from the sources of our strength and our very survival: land, culture, community. Those things have been broken, or nearly so, by colonization.

In my view, that's really the root of the problem. Colonization is a process of disconnecting us from our responsibilities to each other and our respect for one another, our responsibilities and our respect for the land, and our responsibilities and respect for the culture. It's that simple--and that profound. It took me fifteen years to work it through. I went through the educational system and the political system. Some people might say, you should have just opened your ears and listened when the elders told you that to begin with. But I was 24, and I didn't really listen that well. I had to learn from experience and go down those other pathways to figure out what the problem was.

Modernity and Aboriginal Identity

The eventual solution--the one with integrity for our people--is one that allows us to remain indigenous and still engaged with modern society. That's the hope.

All the other pathways laid out before us offer liberation--but with a fundamental flaw. The fundamental flaw in each one, whether it's the logic of the economics of individual property rights or legal rights or physical destruction of the white man--is that, when you embark on a struggle, there is a connection between the means you use in the struggle and the ends that you achieve when the struggle is over.

For example, suppose we decide that we're going to liberate ourselves from colonization by developing economically: We don't have the kind of incomes and bank accounts and jobs and houses that everybody else in society has. We don't have as much access to medical care. If we conceptualize that as the problem and then develop a political strategy and organizations on that basis, the inherent logic, here, is that we will develop inside the economic and political system that we're struggling against.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have houses and medicine and jobs and all that goes with that. But if we conceptualize the struggle in this way, it means a struggle framed within the political and economic system of capitalism. That's the system we operate in, so if we are successful in generating income and revenue and wealth, we will have set up capitalist structures to do it. We will have become capitalists. Now, that's good or bad, depending on what end of the political spectrum you're sitting on. But what I can say with certainty is this: It's not consistent with the vision of the ancestors. Our ancestors did not live and die and fight and bleed to have us become capitalists.

The same can be said for legal reform. The concept of Aboriginal rights and title, I would argue, is just as flawed as the global capitalist economic development model. If we conceptualize the struggle as one of accessing gaming rights and entitlement within the constitutional structure of Canada, or if we conceptualize the struggle more broadly as a deficit of rights and we therefore structure our program, our political movement and our whole attitude and understanding of the world as gaining access to rights, gaining recognition--the most that can happen is recognition within that legal system.

This is something we will never achieve anyway, having been denied again and again the fundamental recognitions of our nationhood and our rights as people. But even if it did happen, what is the gain of being validated for our status as first persons within the country of Canada? Some people would say, "How can you be against this? You live in Canada. The best thing that you could hope for is to be a citizen plus have other entitlements." Well, recall what the vast majority of elders from all nations said in 1957 when citizenship for Native people was brought in: They said, "We're not Canadian citizens, we're in a relationship with Canada, we're allies, we're friends, we're partners, we're all kinds of things, but we are first and foremost Mohawk, Cree, Dene. We're members of our own nations."

That's the trap of the legalism path. It does away with the notion of indigenous nationhood, which our very existence is founded on.

The Necessity of Self-Defense

I can spend less time on the analysis of armed struggle, since here in North America it's a nonexistent feature. All the struggles we have had have been defensive: from the seventies through Oka to today, with Caledonia and West Coast Warriors. I don't think anybody can point to an example where a Native group has used violent force as an offensive tactic. The benchmark is Oka, and--yes--we had weapons. We were defending our own lives and our homes. There were military forces and paramilitary forces on our reserve with the full range of weapons they have in Middle East conflicts today. That's when the people stood up and defended themselves.



Having said that, in my view there's just as much justification here as anywhere in the world for raging violence. The crimes against us are just as huge. If we were undisciplined, if we were so de-cultured as to not have any connection to the values of our ancestors, and if we didn't have the spirit that keeps us grounded in who we are, we might have waged a violent campaign to seek our liberation. But our people haven't done that.

In other parts of the world, they have. And it's an option up here for those not into wearing a suit and starting a casino, or not into wearing a suit and entering law school, or not into being a professor or a writer. There's a segment in every society that is drawn to the more action-oriented approach. But here, again, there's the question of means and ends. Using violence as a means of struggling against violence means you've constructed a personality, a political culture, a society that's dominated by the use of coercion and violence at the cultural level and at the state level. This is as inconsistent with the teachings and values of our ancestors as the other pathways are.

Nonetheless, I believe struggle is a necessity, in whatever way each of us chooses to struggle against the forces that keep us from experiencing the freedom that is our right, in our own homelands.

Original Peoples and Newcomers

"When it comes to confronting our imperial realities 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 that would submit to it. I am with the warriors who want to beat the beast into bloody submission and teach it to behave."

That's a quote from my book, Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. For me, then, a true warrior is a person, male or female, Native or non-Native, from any time in history, any segment of society, who has managed to find that place inside themselves that has integrity, that has managed to generate power and confidence, and then to emanate that power and that confidence and to dedicate themselves to the betterment of their people and to the advancement of the fundamental values of unity, and freedom and justice and all of these things that all of our cultures share as end objectives.

How do we carry that forward? It does not matter if one is a warrior standing on a barricade, a language instructor, a person involved in an Aboriginal organization, trying to bring health and healing to their people, a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a writer, a magazine publisher: How do we take that warrior ethic and to put it into practice?

We're living in a country that is defined in a colonial relationship between the newcomer peoples and the peoples who are the original peoples of this land. And we can't get to a solution that means anything in the long term without addressing that in a fundamental way. White people stole their land and haven't given it back yet. White society has yet to acknowledge the initial crimes that were committed against our people. There is a fundamental injustice in the relationship between Native and non-Native people in this country.

It sounds like a direct challenge to non-Native people. It sounds like a challenge to say, "You are all responsible for the problems because you are the colonizer. You are the colonizer, you stole our land."

Well, yes, that's the fundamental premise. But it's also a challenge. It's a challenge for our people, as well, to think of themselves as being in a colonial relationship, to think of themselves as having a responsibility to confront that primary injustice rather than the symptoms. It's a challenge: to move beyond constructing a politics, and a set of organizations that deal with one or another of the surface levels of the problem, and instead to get at the fundamentals.

And so, it's a challenge all the way around. It's a challenge for non-Native people to accept the relationship for what it is, and it's a challenge for Native people to accept the responsibility and the onus of action to actually address the fundamentals, as well.

This is not about pointing fingers. It's about looking at colonization as being inside of us instead of outside of us. We must recognize that colonization is there all around us; our world is structured by history. In our thinking and acting each one of us is making a choice based on whether or not we are committed to undermining history, undermining colonialism, whether we are cooperating with it in a sort of complicit-but-not-active way, or whether we've taken an active role in perpetuating it and further entrenching it.

It is time for our people to live again and to make 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. This is a path of struggle that has been laid out by our elders and our ancestors. It's our turn, now.

This article is a transcription of an address given by Taiaiake Alfred at the Vancouver Public Library on December 7, 2005. It was recorded by the Necessary Voices Society and is available for download at
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Title Annotation:Personal Dimension
Author:Alfred, Taiaiake
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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