Saturday, July 14, 2007

Indigenizing Revolution: Restoring Balance

The idea of revolution and immediate change is appealing, especially considering the horrendous living conditions endured by a majority of indigenous people in this country. Yet despite the need for immediate action to better the lives of indigenous people, leaders of modern indigenous resistance movements find themselves – counter-intuitively perhaps – facing the reality that substantive change will take a considerable amount of time. Indigenous activists are refocusing their attention on local, fundamental issues, while attempting to remain true to their indigenous philosophical roots.

While classic socialist notions of revolution are appealing, like their liberal-democratic counterparts they are rooted in Eurocentric political, social and economic worldviews. Indigenous resurgence is more than just the elimination of poverty or the improvement of any number of the socioeconomic indicators. Yes, indigenous people want to be healthy and happy, but not at the expense of losing who they are as a people. Of course, ideas that conceptualize indigenous resurgence are diverse, but most indigenous people express a desire to preserve and perpetuate their unique languages, cultures and ways of living.

In his most recent book Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, Kanien’kehaka scholar and activist Taiaiake Alfred calls for indigenous people to move away from materialist and individualist state-centric engagements, and re-embrace their traditional values and principles. In dealing with the issue of violence Alfred writes, “How you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over.”

Identifying the core issue of ends-means consistency, Alfred calls for the employment of a variety of strategies, including what he calls non-violent creative contention. He further states, “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.” This critique can be seen not simply as abandoning all the ideals of revolution, but perhaps indigenizing them.

True indigenous resurgence is about restoring balance. Any Eurocentric solution, no matter how well-intentioned, is bound to fail. It is important to recognize certain unique indigenous worldviews and philosophical perspectives here. Bearing in mind that indigenous communities and cultures across the Americas are far from homogenous, there are some commonalities that are worth mentioning. A common principle amongst indigenous peoples is that of interconnection; indigenous worldviews see all creation as connected and interrelated. Recognition of this is manifested in indigenous ways of living in balance with the environment.


After a legacy of displacement, dispossession, devastating diseases, and state-led attempts at cultural erasure and assimilation, indigenous people have had to deal with an imposed form of governance – that of the Indian band council. These extensions of the federal government have ranged from ineffective liberal democratic regimes that lack popular legitimacy at the least, to unaccountable and corrupt authoritarian regimes at the worst. Even communities that manage to liberate themselves from the confines of the Indian Act and negotiate their own self-government agreements are forced to accept democratic constitutions that are not rooted in indigenous principles or values. Taiaiake Alfred identifies the mainstream strategies of political and legal engagement as “aboriginalism,” and sets out a compelling case not only of their futility, but of the very dangerous ways in which they promote assimilation.

Indigenous peoples must be able to choose how they govern themselves. For indigenous peoples it is a fundamental right, as well as a responsibility. This concept of responsibility that places indigenous people as stewards of the land has largely been lost in the debates and negotiations. Adopting the rhetoric of rights and engaging with the colonial political and legal institutions on their own terms are a significant departure from indigenous worldviews and philosophies. This is why narrowly focused, state-centric initiatives have proven largely unsuccessful.

Politically, some argue that progress has been made. While the $5 billion Kelowna Accord seems to have been abandoned by the current Conservative government, the provincial Liberals in British Columbia continue to move ahead with their $100 million New Relationship initiative. Premier Gordon Campbell surprised many with his about-face on “treaty” negotiations and unexpected efforts to accommodate First Nations in British Columbia with a series of social and economic policy shifts.

But co-optation will not come easily. The community rejection of the Lheidli Tenneh Final Agreement by a vote of 123-111 on March 30 is sending shockwaves throughout the BC treaty establishment. After 14 years of negotiations and hundreds of millions of dollars of accumulated debt, the BC Treaty Process has yet to produce a single ratified agreement – the Nisga’a negotiations predated the formal BC Treaty Process and their agreement was concluded outside its domain. Two other agreements will soon face community referenda: Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth. Both will face considerable community opposition, especially in the wake of the Lheidli Tenneh rejection and overall dissatisfaction with inflexible government mandates, ongoing resource extraction, and continued community poverty.

Endeavours to obtain justice in the Canadian courts have proven equally disheartening. Aboriginal law and the concepts of aboriginal title and rights began to take shape with the Calder decision in 1976. While the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Nation on a technicality, aboriginal law and rights rhetoric had found a venue – and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lawyers willing to take on cases. After the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian constitution and the inclusion of section 35.1, which recognized “existing Aboriginal and treaty rights,” aboriginal law and its practitioners gathered momentum that continues unabated.

In cases like Sparrow, Gladstone, Marshall, Haida, Taku, and Delgamuukw the courts have been notoriously vague in their rulings about the nature and scope of aboriginal title and rights. What they have not been vague about is the unassailability of Crown title and jurisdiction. Delgamuukw, often heralded as a victory for indigenous people, confirmed aboriginal title but only as a “burden” on Crown title. To top it off, Justice Lamer provided a veritable grocery list of reasons for “justifiable infringement” of aboriginal title that all but rendered the recognition of it useless. Both negotiations and the courts have proven time-consuming, expensive, and have produced dubious results at best.

A Community-Centred Approach

Political and legal efforts to achieve reconciliation are mostly disappointing and somewhat esoteric to average community members. So what are the alternatives? Many young indigenous activists struggle with how best to lead their communities, often responding to the dire need for change with elitist revolutionary ideas. In contrast, Nicole Cross, a 22-year old Nisga’a woman, believes that the consciousness and awareness of the common people is where we must focus our efforts. Consistent with Frantz Fanon’s belief that action occurs most often amongst those with nothing to lose, Cross advocates a broad community-centered approach to organizing. Seventeen-year old Dustin Rivers of Skwxwú7mesh also believes that community resurgence cannot merely be an elite-led process.

Jessica Wood, a young Gitxan mother, believes that our politics must be more inclusive, suggesting that indigenous communities have become increasingly divided – especially on the basis of gender. Possibly one of the most devastating and divisive strategies employed by colonial authorities was the implementation of the overtly sexist provisions of the Indian Act. Prior to an amendment in 1985 that allowed for a limited recovery, the legislation granted “Indian status” to non-indigenous women who married indigenous men, and stripped it from indigenous women who married non-indigenous men. In many cases non-status Indians were required to leave their home communities and fend for themselves in urban centres often under conditions of isolation and poverty. The legacy of this community fragmentation is no more evident than in the national disgrace that is the reality of Canada’s more than 500 missing and murdered indigenous women.

If the restoration of balance is intrinsic to community resurgence rooted in indigenous principles however, then restoring balance to indigenous gender relations must be a priority. After years of public and police apathy, community activists and concerned family members have worked hard to focus attention on the issue of violence against women, especially in places like the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver where countless indigenous women have been lost and forgotten by most.

A central theme of the Nuu-chah-nulth Stop the Violence Movement is the restoration of hope. In May 2006, a handful of young Nuu-chah-nulth people, with the support of respected elders, embarked on a 10-day journey that would take them to all 15 Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island. Their concern was domestic violence, and their message was simple: Indigenous people must stop the violence in their communities, a manifestation of anger turned inward. Men and women need to stand together, restoring balance and bringing dignity again to the people.

Organizers worked outside the state-sponsored band council system, choosing instead to recognize the traditional Nuu-chah-nulth Ha’wiih (hereditary leaders), and when possible observe all pertinent cultural protocols. Given the positive responses from the communities, organizers have decided to make the Stop The Violence Movement an annual event. This year participants plan to travel to all the major urban areas where more than 65% of Nuu-chah-nulth families reside to continue sharing the message of love, concern, and hope.


Community people young and old are saying, “no,” and “enough.” One of the most common criticisms levelled at indigenous dissidents is that it is not enough to merely say “no.” It is as if one is unable to articulate a comprehensive alternative, one is not deserving of a public opinion. Grassroots community members often feel intimidated by the legal and political jargon prevalent in current indigenous politics and negotiations. With the immense pressure to plug-in, buy-in, go shopping, go to school, go to work, pay the bills, and “just do it,” and assimilate into the Canadian state politically and economically, many believe that for the time being it is enough to just say no.

In this view, resistance precedes resurgence. Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano writes in his book, We Say No, “By saying no to the devastating empire of greed…we are saying yes to another possible America…In saying no to peace without dignity, we are saying yes to the sacred right of rebellion against injustice…By saying no to the freedom of money we are saying yes to the freedom of people: a mistreated and wounded freedom, a thousand times defeated…a thousand times arisen.” Indigenous activists in Canada, while focusing their efforts locally, are mindful of allies abroad, and like their Zapatista brothers and sisters in Mexico, also say “Ya Basta!”

What is the future of indigenous resistance, and why is resistance specifically, an important element to the overall project of indigenous resurgence? Perhaps Sub-Comandante Marcos, spokesperson for the indigenous Zapatista uprising in Mexico, states it most eloquently in Our Word is Our Weapon, “For everyone, everything, nothing for ourselves.”

In explaining why the Zapatistas use the weapon of resistance, Marcos further states, “From the beginning of our uprising, they have offered us everything to get us to sell ourselves, to surrender…But we chose not to sell ourselves, we chose not to surrender.” The Zapatista movement and its most recent incarnation, the Other Campaign, epitomize a non-state-centric, anti-neoliberal approach to indigenous community resistance and resurgence.

Are the Zapatista lessons relevant to Canada? For the Zapatistas, their poverty is integral to their strategy. It is a weapon. In Canada widespread indigenous poverty is a reality. But there is also a burgeoning indigenous elite that has grown to lead the mainstream political and legal engagements with the state. Such a vanguard-led approach, whether from the left or the right, will be problematic and susceptible to co-optation.

Seeds for Tomorrow

For the time being perhaps it is enough to say enough. Resistance may be the order of the day. But like all truly indigenous movements, the current movement must connect to the next movement, and the next, and the one after that. While addressing the most urgent needs of today, we must also begin planting the seeds for tomorrow. And here I am reminded of my nieces and nephews, and our future generations. It is more than just a cliché. Cycles of violence, depression, poverty, and cultural devastation are broken intergenerationally. As we overcome our trauma and grief through the generations, so must we rebuild our strength and dignity through the generations.

My nephew Kashus will be two-years old in August. He is the son of my sister, a strong, compassionate, wonderful woman and her husband, a man of immense character, respect and a true warrior at heart. When Kashus was a few months old, my sister sent me a photograph of him lying in his crib with his right hand balled into a little fist raised in the air defiantly. I have the picture in a frame on my bookshelf and every time I look at it I am reminded of my commitment to him and my family. Tsimshian/Cree activist and performer Skeena Reece is known to have coined the phrase, “We must raise the next generation on truth.” In itself, this is an act of resistance and resurgence.

[This article was originally published in the Summer '07 issue of the New Socialist. Many kleco's to Deb and Adam for their editing prowess.]


At 6:49 PM, Blogger Kwakwaka'wakw said...

You touched on all the things I know you care deeply about and study regularly. I was impressed at how well you tied these all together though. Very proud of you bro - great piece.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Great piece. Captures exactly the modality of working that I have observed brings the greatest results. A recent story from Nuxalk that illustrates the point:

See you out there...

At 11:52 AM, Blogger OldManRivers said...

yewan halh7 kupits. Very well done brother.

At 7:18 AM, Blogger Gannyaa said...

Dear National Chiefs,

Hello, my name is Todd DeVries Gannyaa, a Haida now living in Nelson, BC.

Let us not forget the lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his massive peace march demonstrations, his speech, "I have a dream".

Is there a First Nation individual that will stand up for indigenous people's rights, as Martin did for black people?

Can the Assembly of First Nations, and all indigenous people continue where Martin left off?

Many of the words Martin L. King spoke also apply to First Nations.

Do not first nation's, indigenous people live on the island of poverty and find themselves exiled in their own land?

One hundred years later, the Negro (and First Nation People) lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro (and Indigenous People are) is still languished in the corners of American (Canadian) society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

Here is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s whole speech. Watch the video on or visit my blog at

Todd DeVries Gannyaa

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“How you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over.”

For those who fight...


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