Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Never sell your land

As Chief Joseph's father lay dying he said,

"My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country.

You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few more years and the white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."

[Quoted from Vine Deloria, Jr's God is Red: A Native View of Religion, pp. 172-173.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Waziyatawin’s Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives

Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives provides an inspirational and illuminating example of how to conduct research in a good way. And while I am still learning the jargon of university research methodology, Waz' book provides excellent examples of research where she is clearly situated in an Indigenous community, unambiguous about her intentions, understanding of her unique role as researcher, listener and learner, and accountable through kinship ties. All of these are vitally important when conducting research, or perhaps more appropriately, learning and living Indigenous ways of being. I like how Waz states in the Introduction, “When other colonized peoples give voice to experiences we have struggled to articulate, we rejoice. When we see ourselves in words of their creation, we are affirmed. When we hear stories of resistance, we are inspired.” This summarizes the effect the book had on me. Of particular interest to my work is how Waz maintains a focus on the importance of decolonization. Too often I feel, leaders and scholars, in attempts not to appear “negative” or “unproductive” ignore the realities of colonization, and instead take up the Colonizers rhetoric of moving beyond history and assert the primacy of progress. I believe that we cannot truly move forward in a good way unless we have an honest assessment of where we are and how we got here.

Regarding how colonization is the deprivation of experience, Waz points out how, “not only…personal experiences affect a person’s life, but also how missed experiences equally affect them.” This is clearly illustrated by the fact that Unkanna is unable to participate in the inipi or wiwanyak wacipi ceremonies (my apologies, my computer does not have the correct phonetic symbols to type these properly). This raises a very interesting point about the oral tradition in Indigenous societies. While we value the stories of direct personal experience, we also value the stories and teachings that have been passed on and embodied for generations. I believe this is what Waz is getting at in describing the oral tradition as something that is living and ongoing as an individual and communal responsibility.

Two other elements that I appreciated are the scope of stories from indefinite (but not problematic) historical times to more contemporary times and the fact that Waz did not shy away engaging in potentially controversial themes – such as Eurocentric views on Indigenous gender relations. Both of these elements confront colonial assumptions about indigeneity that are pervasive and harmful. By sharing stories that are contemporary, we remind our kin that Indigenous ways of knowing and being are entirely relevant to our lives today and we dispel the colonial myths that true Indigenousness is a relic of the past. And in bringing greater complexity to the issue of gender relations, we are able to move beyond both Eurocentric patriarchy and liberal feminism that are both problematic for Indigenous peoples. Finally, I also liked the inclusion of spiritual and “supernatural” stories that support a deeper appreciation of Indigenous realities.

As all of this relates to research in general and the community research I intend to engage in specifically, Waz provides some helpful lessons on how I can go about it. The narratives that she recorded and analysis she provides hits home in a much more profound way than any of the academic renditions of research methodologies have been able to provide. In a Nuu-chah-nulth context, many of these lessons resonate with me. The coastal communities of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation have been rather uniquely situated vis-à-vis colonization. While their relative seclusion has enabled them to retain many of their traditions – including vibrant oral traditions and ceremonial life, they have also experienced what seems like an accelerated or intensified form of neocolonialism. This is not meant to ask, “Who had is worse?” but to recognize the similar and unique elements of the colonial experience amongst varied Indigenous peoples. For the Nuu-chah-nulth, this experience can see the loss of languages and histories within a very short time frame, thus compelling community members to work assertively to ensure that our languages and histories are not only preserved, but also perpetuated. As I seek to learn about Nuu-chah-nulth ways of living in the course of my research, as a Nuu-chah-nulth person, it is my responsibility to live a Nuu-chah-nulth life. Along with the responsibility for keeping our ways of life alive, colonization has also added the necessity that we critically engage our traditions for the purpose of adapting them to our contemporary contexts. This is a daunting task indeed, and at times, I am admittedly discouraged. I thank Waz for sharing her words and those of her grandfather. I hope that over the course of my work, I can reciprocate with some of the lessons and experiences of my communities that I hope will be equally inspirational.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

moving the centre

In Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Ngũgĩ, a Kenyan intellectual and writer, offers several important insights into the revitalization of Indigenous societies in the wake of colonialism and the current turbulence of neocolonialism. Like Nkrumah before him, Ngũgĩ offers a powerful critique of the ongoing exploitative reality of neocolonialism and the political, economic and cultural underpinnings of this persistent imperial enterprise. While not excluding the importance of the political and economic realms, Ngũgĩ draws our attention to the often-ignored cultural elements of the neocolonial relationship including Eurocentrism, the persistence colonial legacies, and racism. Ngugi’s insistence on the revival of indigenous languages has been exemplified by his own writings in his native Gikuyu language. Ngũgĩ’s criticisms are not merely rooted in intellectual and scholastic endeavours, however. Members of his family were directly involved in the struggle for independence led by the Mau Mau in the 1950s and 1960s, and Ngũgĩ himself has been jailed numerous times for his anti-neocolonial writing, causing him to live a life of exile for the past thirty years. Despite these enormous contributions rooted in community and praxis, Ngũgĩ’s writings, at least as they are expressed in Moving the Centre, suffer from two significant shortcomings.

First, he completely ignores the struggle for freedom by Indigenous peoples, specifically in North America. His only references to North America speak of solidarity with African-Americans, white workers, women, peace and environmental activists. Even his repeated mention of the potential for alliances of people of the Tricontinental seem ignore the existence of a continued struggle for liberation by the Indigenous peoples of those lands, particularly in Asia and South America. Certainly, his focus on the shift from colonialism to neocolonialism can include these discussions, and not merely limit their scope to a critique of Western Imperialism. Second, Ngũgĩ’s sense of liberation is somewhat rooted in Socialism, which also complicates matters vis-à-vis Indigenous worldviews and values. Granted, “African socialism” as extolled by C.L.R James, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and others adapted socialism models to their unique situations, socialist values, despite their anti-imperial rhetoric are often at odds with Indigenous values, not the least of which is the insistence on the state and its apparatus. This state-centric issue leads me to my final concern, that Ngũgĩ, among others has underestimated the flexibility and resilience of neocolonialism as it has shifted into the current incarnation of neoliberalism. Not only elites, or "comprador collaborators" as Ngũgĩ points out that fall prey to the dominant ideology, but the common person is also increasingly afflicted with the values of neoliberalism.

With these criticisms in mind, I would like refocus on a few of Ngũgĩ’s most important contributions to libratory literature and practice. Ngũgĩ writes in the Preface, “Eurocentrism is most dangerous to the self-confidence of Third World peoples when it becomes internalized in their intellectual conception of the universe.” Ngũgĩ goes into great detail describing how the colonial and neocolonial environments repress Indigenous cultures and psyches through literature, theatre, and education in addition to political and economic influence. As a response to this, Ngũgĩ stresses the importance of reviving an Indigenous intellectual tradition rooted in Indigenous languages. He writes further, “knowing oneself and one’s environment was the correct basis of absorbing the world.” In the African context, Ngũgĩ also stresses the importance of rooting a revival in oral traditions, not just the written word. As for Intellectuals Ngugi writes, "A consistent anti-imperialist position – that is, a position that struggles against or that exposes the continued neo-colonial control of African economics and cultures by the Western bourgeoisie – is the minimum necessary for a committed, responsible scholarship in Africa, or anywhere in the Third World."

The road is tough for Indigenous writers in a neocolonial context, as Ngũgĩ’s own life can attest. He comments, “Write and risk damnation. Avoid Damnation and cease to be a writer.” Ngũgĩ’s writes, “Workers in the west are the natural allies to the working people of the ‘Third World.’” Again, this is reminiscent of socialist rhetoric in the vein of Marx’s “Workers of the world unite!” Unfortunately, Marx was dreadfully wrong in his predictions about a proletarian revolution – where socialist revolutions were successful they were led largely by peasants (Russia, China), or they were not openly socialist in the beginning (Cuba). In an Indigenous context in the Americas, I believe Ngũgĩ’s most poignant contributions lie in his analyses of culture and language. As it relates to research and Indigenous communities, Ngũgĩ’s emphasis on Indigenous languages are as critical as his commentaries on the struggles with neocolonial cultural, economic, and political domination and persistent racism. Despite my belief that Ngũgĩ underestimates the persistence of capitalism (not an uncommon socialist ideological flaw), I believe he speaks the truth when he writes, “Peace is impossible in a world dominated by imperialism. Peace is impossible in a world guided by the ideology and practice of racism. Hence, the struggle for peace in the world must be a concerted struggle against racism and imperialism.”

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Decolonizing Methodologies

Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us of a critical point about history and research in the colonial context in the first chapter of her book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People:

"We assume that when ‘the truth comes out’ it will prove that what happened was wrong or illegal and that therefore the system (tribunals, the courts, the government) will set things right. We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact it is mostly about power."

Smith challenges several assumptions about academic research and Indigenous-Settler relations. She reminds us that, “…a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the ‘fact’ that indigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice.” We must never forget that Indigenous-Settler relations are first and foremost, characterized by an imbalance in power in favour of the colonizers. The reality of the Indigenous experience is that we are occupied and surrounded, physically, culturally, spiritually, and intellectually – including our experiences in academic institutions. It is a mistake to think that the issues of power and imperialism are exclusive to the political and economic realms. Additionally, Smith writes, "Imperialism still hurts, still destroys and is reforming itself constantly." For Indigenous peoples, imperialism is not a thing of the past - it is ongoing, whether it is called neocolonialism or neoliberalism, or progress and economic development. It still perpetuates the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and territories.

Smith argues that these elements of domination and Eurocentric bias are inherent in the Settler intellectual and academic traditions. These traditions are rooted in liberal thinking that emerged during The Enlightenment period and are manifest in “positivism and notions of objectivity and neutrality.” The experiences and knowledge of Indigenous people have been discounted in imperial institutions in favour of these liberal philosophies and methodologies, yet Smith believes that there is still a vital place for Indigenous academics and research. Despite the fact that the academic experience can be "alienating and destructive," Indigenous people are in a position to not only survive their experiences, but also reorient research agendas to serve Indigenous aims and aspirations. Smith quotes Kathie Irwin who states, "We don't need anyone else developing the tools which will help us to come to terms with who we are. We can and will do this work. Real power lies with those who design the tools - it always has. This power is ours."

In utilizing 'Indigenized' research, Smith offers a hopeful and dignified approach for Indigenous intellectuals who seek to revitalize their communities. In addition to highlighting ten ways in which Indigenous people continue to be subject to imperialist research from outsiders (and arguably, from a minority of insiders as well), she summarizes twenty-five important research projects about, by, and for Indigenous peoples. While I believe that they are all important, I wish to focus on three that particularly resonated with me. The first is "Negotiating," of which she writes,
"When one reads of the decisions made by various indigenous leaders to accept the terms and conditions of colonization, what emerges from those stories is the concern shown by leaders for the long-term survival chances of the collective, of their own people. That was the basis of their courage and, despite the outrage younger generations of indigenous people might feel about the deal which some leaders accepted, the broader picture across several indigenous contexts is one of dignity and acceptance of a specific reality. Their negotiations were undertaken quite literally with guns at their heads, with their people starving and with death around them."

In-depth Indigenous research conducted with this understanding may allow for the younger generations to greater appreciate the dire conditions experienced by our ancestors. This understanding is not only vital in terms of accuracy, but also in terms of how present generations deal with the shame and guilt that comes with being a colonized people. Further understanding of this kind can only enhance how we move forward into the future. Secondly, I wish to comment on the project of "Connecting." Smith writes that, "Connecting is related to issues of identity and place, to spiritual relationships and community wellbeing." Smith also states that connecting is about being "whole" and "establishing good relations." I'm reminded of a statement from the introduction of Ella Cara Deloria's novel, Waterlily: "To be a good Dakota is to be a good relative." Research in an Indigenous context is about re-establishing the healthy connections that were severed by the colonial experience, with each other and to the land. Finally, I want to focus on the importance of "Creating." Smith writes, "The project of creating is about transcending the basic survival mode...to dream new visions." I believe that while the current experience of colonialism is still devastating to Indigenous peoples - in very physical, mental, and spiritual ways - there are no longer as many guns to our heads. The work of prior generations has created some space for our communities to begin healing and begin creating again. I believe that Indigenous research can play a vital role in community revitalization. In discussing her own experiences with Indigenous research Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes of the people she worked with, "I saw their continuing belief in themselves, their positive outlook and optimism and their hope that maybe, one day, life would get better." Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies is a rich and powerful (in the Indigenous senses of the words) contribution to the revitalization of Indigenous communities, ways of life, and worldviews. As it pertains to us, here at the University of Victoria, Smith offers an insightful, critical and ultimately inspirational guide as we move forward as Indigenous "academics" that care about the health and wealth of our communities.

Monday, December 01, 2008

long time eh?

Some of you know that I am still in school, hence my MIA status the last little while (ok, the last long while). Well, I only have one more paper to write this term, so with a little breathing room, I thought I would post some of my smaller assignments, starting with my response papers to various books I read this term. First up: A lil Colonizer/Colonized action by good ol' Memmi. I had been looking forward to this one for several years. Enjoy.

In the Introduction to Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, Jean-Paul Sarte succinctly points out an important but often obscured reality of colonization, “that there are neither good nor bad colonists: there are colonialists.” This perspective has particular relevance in the Indigenous territories that have never experienced decolonization, formal or otherwise - mainly the countries now known as Canada, USA, New Zealand, and Australia. All of these countries have developed broadly accepted national mythologies that invoke varying degrees of legitimacy and patriotism among Settler populations. And while Memmi was writing primarily about his experiences on the African continent, specifically as a Jewish immigrant in Tunisia, many of his insights into the portraits of the colonizer and the colonized are relevant to an analysis of Indigenous-Settler relations here in Canada. In offering a critique of Memmi's anti-colonial classic, I point out some differences as experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, especially on the question of assimilation in our current era of neoliberalism. Finally, I comment on what might be Memmi's most obvious shortfall, that of his failing to meaningfully acknowledge the experience of Indigenous women in the process of colonization.

Memmi writes that, "All Europeans in the colonies are privileged," and that whether the colonizer is rich or a poor "dupe and victim, he also gets his share." As years turn into decades and generations of Settlers are born in the colonies, one often hears the argument from Settlers that they are innocent of the crimes of colonization. In fact, not only are they innocent the argument goes, but they no longer benefit from a place of privilege relative to Indigenous people. Memmi points out that this is just not the case, and that all colonials benefit at the expense of Indigenous people. And while it is important that their unique place of privilege is acknowledged, it is also important to understand that they also suffer from the dehumanizing effects from colonization. Speaking of the experience of left-leaning colonials, Memmi writes, "He lives his life under the sign of a contradiction which looms at every step, depriving him of all coherence and tranquility" and "it is certainly admitted today that one can be, while awaiting the revolution, both a revolutionary and an exploiter." And while Memmi writes that, "it is more convenient to accept colonization" for some, "to possess victory completely he needs to absolve himself of it and the conditions under which it was attained." This persistent need for legitimacy and absolution can be seen in the current BC Treaty Process and various Comprehensive Claims negotiations throughout Canada, despite the de facto legitimacy and sovereignty that the state already enjoys.

Memmi's chapter on the "Mythical portrait of the colonized" illustrates many of the ways in which the colonizer seeks to legitimate his role as usurper in the name of "progress" and "industry." The colonizer in painted as a man of action and virtue, while the colonized is cast as lazy and indolent. The dehumanization and objectification of the colonized have had profound effects, not the least of which is a little matter of genocide. Memmi also writes, "The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility." He writes further, "The colonized seems condemned to lose his memory." These disconnections that have occurred as a result of colonization continue to plague Indigenous people, not merely as an historical trauma, but as an ongoing experience. Indigenous children are still being removed from families, Indigenous people are faced with economic dilemmas that force many to leave their homelands to seek education and work in Settler communities, and the Indigenous experience continues to be characterized as one of inferiority in the face of overwhelming Settler values and worldviews.

In his Conclusion, Memmi writes, "Contemporary colonization carried an inherent contradiction which, sooner or later, would cause it to die." What Memmi did not foresee, however, would be what Kwame Nkrumah called, "neocolonialism" and an ongoing relationship of the exploiter and the exploited. Indigenous people continue to live this experience in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. As it relates to Canada, Memmi would also be wrong in writing, "the colonialist never planned to transform the colony into the image of his homeland, nor remake the colonized in his own image!" He writes further that, "Within the colonial framework, assimilation has turned out to be impossible." In the 1950s and 1960s it might have been more accurate to make this assumption, with segregationist policies in North America and formal decolonization occurring in Africa, but in today's neoliberal era, assimilation and homogenization have become hallmarks in the ongoing imperial project.

Symptomatic of much of the writing of his time, Memmi also completely ignores the experience of colonized women and even goes so far as to suggest that colonial women are "less concerned about humanity in an abstract sense..." In the Afterward, Susan Gilson Miller points out this shortfall in Memmi's writing as well, noting that aside from the obvious, women have always been profoundly influential in African liberation movements. While The Colonizer and the Colonized provides us with many important insights into the respective minds of both Settlers and Indigenous people, the omission of the roles and experiences of women in the process of colonization is fatal to any prospect for successful decolonization.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Atoning for the sins of the parents: Thoughts on living with colonial legacies

[This article was originally published in the June/July 2008 issue of Briarpatch magazine]

You’ve surely heard some variation of the saying: the children should not be punished for the sins of the parents. This maxim often surfaces when discussing Canada's colonial legacy or whenever people raise the issue of outstanding indigenous land claims or disputes over rights. What are we to make of this statement? It has two implications. First, that current settlers are innocent of the sins of the past, and second, that they cannot be held responsible, be required to pay too much, or otherwise be inconvenienced by the resolution of indigenous claims or disputes. Native people, rather, have a responsibility to “get over it” and “move on.”

But is the current generation of non-indigenous Canadians innocent of the crimes committed in the colonization of this land? Viewed through the rubric of liberalism, this view certainly seems fair. Citizens, the argument goes, are individually responsible for our own actions, nothing more. But despite the hegemony of liberal ideals, which enshrine private property, the free market and individual liberty, the sins of the mothers and fathers—or more correctly, of the Canadian state—have left us with an inescapable colonial legacy that all inhabitants of this land – indigenous and non-indigenous - bear a moral responsibility to rectify.

Approaching the question in terms of individual guilt or innocence is problematic, but it strikes me that the legal principle that’s generally applied to those who benefit from the “avails of crime” is relevant: when criminals are brought to justice, neither they nor their families are permitted to continue benefiting from the profits of their criminal enterprises. Yes, I am suggesting that what happened in Canada was—and remains—a crime. And settlers, for the most part, have benefited and continue to benefit from this crime.

Canadian history books don’t tell it that bluntly. They speak of brave explorers red coat-wearing do-gooders bringing law, order and opportunity to sparsely populated lands and primitive indigenous peoples. Motivations such as colonial greed are sidelined in these narratives. When such motivations are acknowledged, Canadian often dismiss these injustices as mistakes that have been overcome with time and reason. This is accepted as “progress,” a cornerstone of Western political thought. We are better than we used to be, the thinking goes. Bad things may have been done in the past, but we no longer do those things. Today, everyone can join the multicultural Canadian dream; never mind the fact that many Western democracies were built on the backs of dispossessed indigenous peoples and slaves, and that these states continue to benefit from ongoing neo-colonial relationships.

So what are the responsibilities of Canadian settler society, and of individual settlers? I recently heard a refreshing perspective on this. A university professor shared his reflections upon working with an indigenous community to negotiate various land claims, self-government agreements, and economic development projects. He saw that what was really being presented to the community was a choice between bad and worse. What Canadians are saying through their government and their own complicity, he realized, is this: be like us or perish. Surrender or die. Indigenous populations have been decimated by disease, our ways of life marginalized or destroyed, our beliefs ridiculed, and today we are invited to assimilate in order to enjoy the privilege of joining the modern world.

Gee thanks. Vine Deloria, Jr. expressed it best in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins when he stated that what indigenous people really need from settler society is a “leave us alone” law.

Indigenous people often speak of “decolonization.” For us, this concept involves the shedding of colonial ways of thinking and acting, and a revitalization of indigenous languages and ways. But what does decolonization mean for Canadian settlers? The professor laid it out like this: settlers, despite popular mythology, are visitors here, not yet justly rooted. Canadian society is built upon a foundation of theft and genocide, and the past continues to shape present realities. In order for genuine reconciliation to occur, Canadians must humble themselves and ask permission to stay and be prepared to deal with the consequences should indigenous people say, “No.”

Now, you and I know that this may never happen, but at some point the dialogue must consider such possibilities if truth and justice are to prevail over the pragmatic forces of liberalism and capitalism.

For non-indigenous people to root themselves in this country legitimately and justly, they must be prepared to move beyond Canadian mythology and the multicultural politics of recognition and deal with their debt to indigenous people honourably. This means moving beyond the arguments that “might makes right” and majority rules. Colonial stains do not wash out easily. New relationships must be built upon trust and respect. Anything else is just a more form of neocolonialism - and a lie.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I am on a hiatus.