Resistance or engagement? A pair of indigenous writers come to very different conclusions about dialogue with the white community.
This is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a Critical indigenous Philosophy Dale Turner University of Toronto Press 182 pages ISBN-13: 9780802080165, hardcover ISBN-10: 080208016, hardcover ISBN-13: 9780802037923, softcover ISBN-10: 0802037925, softcover
The specific significance we attach to the past influences how we conceptualize the present and imagine the future. One provocative approach to the task of determining historical significance emphasizes the idea that governments and citizens of contemporary nation-states exhibit characteristics and forward priorities reflective of the "creation story" of their nation-state. The beliefs that citizens hold regarding the genesis of their nation-state and the stories that they have been told about the birth of their country have a significant impact on the institutional, political and cultural character of the country and the preoccupations of the people.
Perhaps the nation-state that best exemplifies this theory is the United States. The creation story of America begins with English settlers, searching for freedom and independence, who cling to the eastern shores of a new land and persevere despite the constant threat and fear of Indian attack. If we follow the theory that such beginnings have thus influenced the development of the American nation, Americans can then be described as a people preoccupied with threats to their way of life and frequently motivated to act on their fear of perceived outsiders and enemies, be they Indians, British colonists, African slaves, slave owners, Spanish imperialists, communists or (in the current context) Muslim terrorists and terrorist states. The mythological historical narrative of their nation-state has taught American citizens to fear perceived outsiders and regard them as threats to their freedom, independence, and way of life.
What of Canada and Canadians then?
For many generations, Canadians have been told that their country began as a fur trading fort. In seeming tribute to this genesis, forts have been resurrected and maintained as national symbols and are today ubiquitous structures on the geographical landscape of Canada. You cannot travel very far in Canada without encountering either a community that began as a fur trading post or fort, a town or city that still uses the official title of "Fort" in its current name, or a historic site of a fort recreated as a museum. These celebrations of the history of the nation have fostered the development of a national logic--delineated by the fort walls--of insiders (settlers) and outsiders (Indians). The creation story of Canada continues to haunt contemporary Canadian society by defining the terms according to which indigenous people and Canadians speak to each other about history, memory and society.
Taiaiake Alfred, a Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk) from Kahnawa:ke and professor of indigenous governance at the University of Victoria, argues in his recent book Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom that this colonial condition of insiders and outsiders has been institutionally and culturally maintained by a convoluted bureaucratic and legalistic system designed to assimilate Indians to Canadian norms. Now, some readers may immediately dismiss this argument as just another complaint from yet another dissatisfied indigenous person looking to blame white people for all the problems of the world. Admittedly, the theorizing of indigenous victimization has lately devolved into an inorganic process of indigenous accusation and white guilt. I, too, wonder how the cult of victimization can provide direction for the future and ensure a good life for our children and grandchildren. What is different about Taiaiake's reasoning in this book is the vision of the future that he describes. His main contention is that the nation-state of Canada, because it is founded on a lengthy colonial relationship with the indigenous peoples of the land, is institutionally designed to serve the interests of settlers and facilitate the maintenance of political, social and economic control on their terms. This preservation is always at the expense of indigenous societies and their ways. Thus, the government and citizens of Canada cannot comprehend indigenous presence and participation; they can only imagine assimilation and reconciliation. Taiaiake calls for a complete rejection of the current state of the relationships between the Canadian government and the indigenous people in Canada. He does not want to negotiate, reconcile and compromise with federal agencies and bureaucrats anymore. He sees it as the road to assimilation and the eventual extinction of indigenous peoples in Canada. The author calls instead for a nonviolent revolutionary movement of Onkwehonwe (Mohawk for "original people") resurgence inspired by the warrior spirit and the ancient Rotinoshonni (Iroquois) war ritual ceremony of unity, strength and commitment called Wasase.
Before outlining the specifics of this vision, however, Taiaiake has some rather scathing condemnations of those people, mostly leaders, in indigenous communities who willingly play the assimilation game. He terms this malady "aboriginalism": "the ideology of the Onkwehonwe surrender to the social and mental pathologies that have come to define colonized indigenous existences and the inauthentic, disconnected lives too many of our people find themselves leading." To be "aboriginal" is to accept a subject-position constructed and defined by mainstream Canadian society that is really just an updated version of Indian. Aboriginalism is a neo-colonial bureaucratic invention that sets the terms according to which indigenous peoples can and will participate in Canadian society.
According to Taiaiake, these aboriginalists practise shallow forms of tradition and culture in order to gain favour with bureaucrats and funding agencies, and thereby gain elite status in Canadian settler society. They selfishly conform to the political, legal and social definition of aboriginal that has been received from the government of Canada in the hope of getting ahead. Aboriginalists are naturally more popular with mainstream Canadian society because they tend to be more cooperative and easier to understand than the more culturally authentic and principled Onkwehonwe. Thus, for Taiaiake, anyone who sells out in this way is aboriginal, tamed, compromised and reconciled to colonialism and the inevitable assimilation of their people. This indictment amounts to a broad condemnation of any and all indigenous people who have vied for any type of government-related sponsorship, recognition, funding or employment. It is worth noting that this would include representatives of most tribal and band councils, the Assembly of First Nations and any indigenous person working for a federal agency such as the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. For Taiaiake, they are nothing more than tamed Indians hanging around the gates of the fort waiting for handouts and a contrived feeling of legitimacy as official aboriginals. Curiously, the author seems to consider himself above the scourge of aboriginalism, despite his position and employment.
So what is an authentic Onkwehonwe to do? Taiaiake boldly writes that "the transcendence of colonialism, and the restoration of Onkwehonwe strength and freedom can only be achieved through the resurgence of an Onkwehonwe spirit and consciousness directed into contention with the very foundations of colonialism." This resurgence will be led by men and women in indigenous communities who live according to the ethical and spiritual principles of their people and are dedicated to the revitalization and strengthening of their communities. In describing the kind of person he has in mind for this task, Taiaiake rejects the Hollywood version of the blood-thirsty warrior and instead articulates the Kanien'kehaka concept of warrior as one who carries the burden of ensuring peace and happiness for the people. This warrior, a committed leader common to all Onkwehonwe societies, serves as a sacred protector of the ways of the people and embodies the discipline, integrity, courage, commitment and vision required to resist oppression. Taiaiake wants this traditional concept of the warrior to be resurrected in Onkwehonwe communities today. These are the types of leaders needed to escape the defeatist trap of colonialism. "The ethos and ethic of the new warrior is to be a free speaker, an independent and creative thinker, and to live radical and direct action." Here Taiaiake reveals his impatience with those aboriginals who simply talk the talk of indigeneity but do not have the courage to live and lead according to those principles. These new warriors will lead the people in a process of retraditionalization and inspire rediscovery of the authentic meaning of their existences as Onkwehonwe. They will learn to live again.
The focus of the fight for the new warriors is the existing colonial system, state laws and political structures that engender and sustain aboriginalism. Inspired by Gandhian principles of nonviolent and creative contention, as well as the words and struggles of indigenous peoples around the world, Taiaiake's vision of Wasase--the new warrior's path--"will be a struggle to get rid of our status and identity as this continent's colonized Indians and to make real the wisdom coming from the land and from the experiences of our peoples." Taiaiake calls this resurgent movement "anarcho-indigenism." The anarchic aspect of this concept is fairly simple in theory: Onkwehonwe must refuse to live according to the rules set by the colonial system and its institutions. They must withdraw their daily participation and cooperation with the state's political and legal institutions. Taiaiake believes that such creative contention is necessary to cause a crisis within the colonial infrastructure itself, which will in turn bring about change and renewed opportunities to alter the spirit and intent of interactions between the government and the Onkwehonwe. Of course, this anarchic movement will be informed and guided by indigenous ethical principles and concepts of freedom, democracy, spirituality, relationality and justice. Thus, anarcho-indigenism theorizes mental and spiritual decolonization for all, and the emergence of a new social and political reality in Canada in which the ways of indigenous peoples are asserted and respected. The fort, and its walls, will no longer determine the character and quality of interactions between Onkwehonwe and Canadian society.
With Wasase, a visionary manifesto intended to inspire unity and decolonizing action in indigenous communities across North America, Taiaiake theorizes an escape from the oppressive realities lived by indigenous people in Canada today. However, in making the transition from theory to action, Wasase has some notable contradictions. This, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. Indigenous wisdom traditions recognize the contradictory nature of existence and teach this through the so-called trickster stories. Building on the teachings of these stories, the old people speak of dualities such as, say, good and evil, in terms of movement between the two extremes and acting to create a (temporary) balance. These issues are relevant to this discussion because many people have dismissed Taiaiake's work as parochial, preoccupied with Mohawk nationalism and racist. It seems contradictory to promote a message of peace while also condemning the actions of white people. Some more sensitive readers may understandably assume that the vitriolic references to white people and settlers in Wasase are intended to denote adversary by skin colour. However, Taiaiake makes it clear that his use of "white" refers to those in our society who continue to cling to a colonial mentality. Aboriginalists, for example, would be considered "white" for their submission to colonial structures and logics. Remember, it is all about how one chooses to move within and between the extremes.
But, then again, contradiction also reflects the complexity of being indigenous in Canada today. The emphasis on legal and political definitions of Indianness coupled with the intense social and cultural ramifications of the Imaginary Indian has created a situation in which the people, still reeling from the devastating effects of colonization, yearn for an authentic understanding of who they are and what it might mean. However, in advocating for the resurgence of an Onkwehonwe path, Taiaiake suggests that we can somehow free ourselves of colonial realities just by acting in authentic ways. The truth is that most indigenous societies are so deeply marked by colonialism that the possibility of living day to day outside of those structures is illusionary. This does not discount the vital and ongoing work of ceremonial and spiritual leaders who have spurred the revitalization of language and culture in their communities. However, most of these same leaders realize that a commitment to live according to the ethical and spiritual principles of their people must be accompanied by a willingness to adjust those beliefs to the demands of living today. Rather than striving toward some form of unattainable authenticity, we should instead be concerning ourselves with the ways in which indigenous cultural and spiritual principles can provide guidance on how to engage and teach the dominant society about balance, justice, peace and living well on the land. After all, as one Blackfoot elder advised, our teepees are all held down by the same peg now.
So, while Taiaiake's critique of aboriginalism is necessary and relevant to his vision, it is also deeply dismissive of those of us who choose to work in other ways. In doing so, he effectively alienates most of his target audience. Taiaiake clearly does not care if he hurts our feelings--Wasase is intended to raise consciousness and spark a social and cultural revolution--but his call to action disregards the diverse experiences, interests and goals of indigenous peoples in Canada today, as well as the fact that most already recognize and honour their fundamental responsibility to work on behalf of their people. Thus, in this case, diversity does not mean disunity; rather, it means that we are all doing our best, in our own ways, to make the situation better for our people. And we should feel comfortable doing so without having to worry about passing as authentic.
Here we can draw on the wisdom of an Anishnabi scholar, Dale Turner, to understand better how a collectivity might embrace diversity. In This Is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a Critical Indigenous Philosophy, Turner contends that agreements between indigenous societies and liberal democratic governments are fundamentally flawed as partnerships of peace because liberal democratic societies are unable to accept indigenous societies and their traditions on their own terms. He shows that liberalism, a political philosophy developed at the height of the colonial project, is falsely universal and assimilatory in character. Like Taiaiake, Turner sees the perpetuation of colonial logics as a major point of contention. However, Turner's philosophical vision for working through this problem is much more pragmatic. He sees a role for word warriors--indigenous intellectuals well versed in European intellectual traditions who can act as mediators between the indigenous philosophers from their own communities and their non-indigenous colleagues. Their specific role is to engage and contest European intellectual traditions and advocate for their people at the institutional level. "It is these indigenous philosophers who will become our new Pipe Carriers."
In provocative contrast with the ideas of Taiaiake, Turner argues that a withdrawal from existing institutions and structures would actually play into the hands of those who wish to perpetuate the colonial system. He contends that word warriors, as the new pipe carriers, must address the existing asymmetrical relationship between indigenous philosophies and the political and legal traditions of the Canadian state. "The asymmetry arises because indigenous peoples must use the normative language of the dominant culture to ultimately defend world views that are embedded in completely different normative frameworks." Turner uses the example of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to substantiate this point. He notes that elders were consulted during the early stages of the commission process to provide testimony on cultural traditions and current struggles, but the final word regarding the implications of these testimonials for existing political and legal structures was reserved for government experts. The elders were permitted to tell their stories, but their role as recognized authorities was usurped when policy decisions needed to be made. Turner's point is that if indigenous peoples vacate the public domain and retreat to their communities, we run the risk of continuing to let others interpret meanings for us and set the terms of our existence. He envisions word warriors as individuals who work to end this asymmetry by asserting indigenous philosophies and world views within dominant legal, political and intellectual communities. Working together with indigenous cultural leaders and indigenous scholars well schooled in European intellectual traditions, they would foster a strategic movement dedicated to the recognition of our ways as legitimate and necessary to the creation of a just relationship between indigenous peoples and Canadian society.
On what terms can we speak? The work of leading indigenous scholars such as Taiaiake and Turner naturally focuses on addressing this question in their own terms. When This Is Not a Peace Pipe is read alongside Wasase, the complex task of reframing the spirit and intent of the relationships between indigenous peoples and Canadians becomes manifest. Some, like Turner, advise patience, mediation and dialogue. Others have decided that Canadian government officials are unable to recognize and respect the priorities and world views of the indigenous peoples they claim to serve. They see no viable future for their communities with current policies and structures. Honouring this mood, Taiaiake rejects talk of reconciliation in Wasase and instead envisions a much more combative and revolutionary warrior that leads the people on a new path of indigenous resurgence. Despite the contradictions that arise with this vision, Taiaiake Alfred should be lauded for imagining a time when the people will stand tall again. We know that many indigenous peoples and communities are still struggling to come to terms with the social and cultural trauma wrought by upheaval, disenfranchisement and economic dependency. Many generations have been affected. As always, it is the children who are suffering the most. Until this desperate situation becomes unacceptable to Canadians and a major focus of public policy discussions, we will see few changes. Wasase is a framework for change that cannot be disregarded as mere rhetoric. It captures the frustration and impatience felt by indigenous peoples across Canada and should be studied and respected as that. Even if we are uncomfortably implicated in the admonishments and contradictions that arise.
Dwayne Trevor Donald is a Papaschase Cree doctoral student at the University of Alberta who lives and works in Edmonton.
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|Title Annotation:||Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom; This is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a Critical Indigenous Philosophy|
|Author:||Donald, Dwayne Trevor|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2006|
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