The Terms of Engagement with Indigenous Nationhood
by Eric Ritskes
What are the terms of engagement for the resurgence of Indigenous nationhood?
Last night, Kahnawake Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, in an #IdleNoMore forum hosted by the Indigenous Governance (IGOV) program at the University of Victoria (hashtagged on Twitter as #J16Forum), responded to a commenter who was distraught by the term ‘settler’ with this comment:
As a visitor, you can’t demand to be respected on your own terms.
This, along with Taiaiake’s earlier-in-the-night assertion that #IdleNoMore needs to be in tandem with a movement towards Indigenous nationhood, made me think: for decolonization to happen (something I define as -in short - resurgent action towards Indigenous sovereignty), what are the terms of engagement?
For myself, a settler in a settler-colonial state such as Canada, I believe what Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox lays out clearly, that one of the decolonization tasks is “co-existence through co-resistance“. What are the terms of engagement, and what is it that I am resisting to create?
This is important in a micro context and in a larger, global context as well. As Taiaiake reminded the forum, even as a Mohawk entering into Lekwungen homelands – the terms of engagement might change or shift, depending on the relationship. For those of us on Indigenous territory – yours or others – do you know the land you’re on and the people’s terms of engagement with nationhood? What is it that you’re engaging with and for? Globally and locally, these particularities need to be clear; it is these articulations of Indigenous sovereignty that disrupt the universalizing and homogenizing flow of globalization and reveal it for it is, and always has been: colonial.
From the forum, and from many other sources, I think there are two basic principles of engagement that need to be examined and thought about. They are:
At the forum last night, Wab Kinew summed this connection up beautifully when he stated:
Our resistance is not abstract, this is about our ways of life, about the integrity of being Anishinaabe. If the land’s integrity is compromised, our integrity is compromised.
In Indigenous cultures around the world, land sustains the people, the culture, the spirituality, and their very existence. Haunani-Kay Trask, a Hawai’ian scholar and activist, argues in her book Notes from a Native Daughter:
As Indigenous peoples, our nationalism is born…of a genealogical connection to our place.
The land contains everything there is to know about Indigenous peoples. As Trask states powerfully:
To know my history, I had to put away my books and return to the land. I had to plant taro in the earth before I could understand the inseparable bond between people and ‘aina.
Focus on land as a site of engagement is important, not only because it is the centre of Indigenous nationhood and resurgence, but because as Tuck & Yang, as well as many others, remind us – land is the primary object of settler colonialism. Colonial wealth is based on land, colonial power is based on land and, even more pivotally, the very legitimacy of settlers is based on their erasure of Indigenous peoples to lay claim to ‘virgin’ land, terra nullius. There is no Indigenous sovereignty without recognition and repatriation of Indigenous land.
Culture is such a ‘loaded’ term and can be mobilized in so many detrimental ways, but Indigenous culture or consciousness is so intimately connected to land that you cannot desire repatriation and sovereignty over Indigenous land without centring and resurging Indigenous culture. It doesn’t happen. To be even clearer, you can’t resist without resurging and centring Indigenous thought and action. Thinking and acting as Indigenous peoples is highly political in colonial contexts where assimilation for the purpose of erasure is the colonial goal.
As mentioned at the beginning, there is no one Indigenous nation. Speakers at the forum reiterated numerous times that the strength of Indigenous movements is the diversity of nations, the diversity of cultures, the diversity of thought. On a global scale, this diversity is magnified. It is these diverse Indigenous cultures that represent resistance to the predatory consumption of Western culture that ‘smooths over’ difference in its quest for universal domination.
So, what are the terms of engagement? They depend on the Indigenous land and culture that you are co-existing and co-resisting with. This is not a benign, universalizing “We are all one” project that is devoid of power relations. There must be a conscious engagement with the domination of colonialism and the active resurgence of alternative, Indigenous ways of thinking and acting in the world. Resistance is lived out, through everyday acts of resurgence. We must actively apply the theories of decolonization to our daily acts of creation and resurgence. As Taiaiake Alfred calls it in his book Wasase, we must engage in “creative contention.”
What is presented here is obviously a simplified answer to what is a very complex way forward. Forums, such as the one last night, highlight the difficult challenge of forging a way forward and the many discussions and challenges it entails. One thing is certain though, this engagement and recognition of Indigenous nationhood is a necessary goal, one the demands resistance to colonialism and the creative resurgence of Indigenous sovereignties.
Eric Ritskes is a PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a Managing Editor of the Open Access, online journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. You can follow him on Twitter @eritskes.