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The Terms of Engagement with Indigenous Nationhood

January 17, 2013

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 & SocietyYou can follow him on Twitter @eritskes.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2013 12:27 pm

    If I recall correctly, the woman you reference at the beginning of this piece was distraught by the words “squatter” and “colonist”, not “settler”. As a settler myself, I don’t have a problem with those words and it just makes me angrier that successive governments have conspired to keep us in that role. Go Idle No More!

    • January 17, 2013 2:15 pm


      Looking back at the video – you were right, she mentions colonist & squatter – thanks for correcting that!

  2. eva permalink
    January 17, 2013 1:00 pm

    Gunalcheesh! Thank YOU! This was a great read! Being from Alaska and supporting this movement I feel distanced from my brothers and sisters. Missing out on the protesting and singing with them and also these teach-ins! So, gunalcheesh friend for writing and sharing this with us because it gives me insight to what happened. Gunalcheesh!

    • January 17, 2013 5:27 pm

      Eva, there are actions and teachins happening in Haida Gwaii and Tsimshian territory, Prince Rupert in particular… depending where in Alaska you are, it may not be that “far” 🙂

  3. January 17, 2013 3:52 pm

    Nia:wen Eric! Succinct and powerful. Thanks for helping frame the discussion from the decolonist’s point of view.

  4. Claudia permalink
    January 17, 2013 7:30 pm

    Very nice

  5. Reagan K Reynolds permalink
    January 17, 2013 8:33 pm

    I was thinking about this article and was considering how commerce seems to be an incredible oppressive tool against Indigenous peoples. I am not very familiar with Alaska or Canada, but I consider the natives of places like Antigua and Barbuda, and how they have become almost completely reliant on the profits of the tourist industry created and funded by the colonial powers. Also the Indigenous peoples of Fiji, many who have been forced to migrate to New Zealand because they are no longer able to survive off the sugar commerce the colonial powers brought to the Fijian islands. My thought is that in order to create an environment that enables “recognition and repatriation of Indigenous land,” would new methods of commerce have to be considered? Perhaps “Going Local,” by finding new satiability in the land? I imagine this is already an active part of the effort because of the importance stressed in this article on the recognition of the land to Indigenous cultures. Methods of reclaiming commerce would possibly fall under “creative contention.”

    Commerce seems to be of those globalizing tools used by Western culture to smooth over “difference in its quest for universal domination.”

    Also, the question of how to inspire natives to reclaim commerce/sustainability over their land rather than fleeing or relenting to another colonial demand?

    • January 18, 2013 10:18 am

      Great question/comment and I hope more chime in on this.

      Two thoughts: for many Indigenous peoples here & elsewhere the sort of ‘new satiability’ you describe has been happening and, to an extent, never stopped happening. Undoubtedly, these Indigenous forms of commerce and sustainability have been undermined by colonial economies but it has been the land & culture (which inform economy) that has sustained. Trask mentions this in regards to Hawai’i – despite the rapacious nature of tourism that has dominated traditional economies and sustainability, traditional methods are being maintained and resurged – the task is expanding and growing these. There’s no need to ‘inspire’, in fact the resilience of these forms should inspire us!

      Secondly, I think there’s the need to recognize that often due to the predatory and persistent nature of colonial economies, people are ‘squeezed’ until they relent, until survival itself becomes resistance. The task, then, is building frameworks and capacity to create alternatives. Because these alternatives are threatening to the colonial state, it must have a framework and support or it will be ‘squeezed out’ by the violence force of colonialism.

      That said, I think there needs to be more discussion around economy and sustainability (because I think this is what Indigenous ‘economies’ are built around). The ways that we accumulate capital need to be interrogated and alternatives created/restored.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      • January 18, 2013 12:06 pm

        Reagan, Eric, Couldn’t agree more. A healthy economy is essential to a healthy nation – and the economy we’re stuck with right now, based on capitalism, is oppressive by design. One thing worth pointing out, though I’m sure you two already know it, is what we’re actually talking about when we say “economy”. Most of us automatically assume it’s about making money, buying products and services and so forth. I know that’s the thinking the Assembly of First Nations is trapped in. But that’s only one branch on the tree of possibilities here. An economy is a system of “production, distribution and consumption” – and it’s one that’s only limited by our imaginations. We can make any kind of economy we want. Personally, I would prefer one that exists outside of the colonial market economy (ie, one that has no connection whatsoever to Canada) that accommodates our needs and customs. For starters, we can grow our own food!! And I’m not just talking lettuce and tomatoes. We can grow organic coffee, mangoes, hemp, corn, soy, you name it. We could have climate-based regional economies, and utilize trade. We could devise a system (of reciprocity) to make sure no one ever goes without. We could make/re-introduce our own currency. We can provide for ourselves and offer the world something they don’t have.

        Most impressive to me, we could also develop our own “Ecovillages” which integrate various aspects of ecological design, permaculture, ecological building, green production, alternative energy and community building practices. Diversity is key to healthy economy. I recommend taking a look at this video for an intro to ecovillages. There’s over 1000 of these communities around the world, and they’re all doing their own thing.

  6. January 18, 2013 4:21 am

    Reblogged this on 2012 Spirit In Action and commented:
    This is an excellent thought provoking post. I recommend it especially if you are a supporter of #IdleNoMore and want to understand more fully.
    Tai Alfred has long been one of my heroes, thanks to my friend Estrella who introduced me to his work.
    It is perhaps only my personal bias, but I feel that if we intend to resist colonized ‘culture’ and the structures it uses to enforce top-down power-over based control systems on people and the planet, the very best thing we can do is look first to indigenous scholars, teachers and activists.

    These are the only people who have an understanding of what LIFE is outside of colonization, of how to really take apart the system and oppose it effectively because they have and live in other systems that are more real and functional.
    (excerpt of post below)
    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.”

  7. January 19, 2013 1:16 pm

    To chime in on the economy: I think it’s impossible to effectively decolonize without removing your community from the Industrial economy, and it’s nearly impossible to remove one community (be it reserve, ecovillage, Indigenous reoccupation) from any economy if your neighbors don’t follow suit. There is a bioregional movement in the “Pacific Northwest” (which we call Cascadia, rejecting PNW as a colonial orientation) which seeks to end the growth economy and practice restorative economics through a bioregional economy. ‘Bioregional economy’ being explicitly steady-stade and rooted in restoring the Indigenous ecology upon which Indigenous cultures, and all People here who would live sustainably, depend. This movement is made of Indigenous People and settlers practicing a “co-existance through co-resistance.” Our scale of resistance and restoration is the Salmon-bearing watersheds (all of them) that flow out through the temperate rain forests on the West coast from Tlingit Aani to The Mattole. There are strong historic ties between all the Indigenous Nations within the bioregion, and the existence of dams that kill salmon runs demonstrates the ecological interconnections of many different Indigenous Nations, all of who’s cultures are interdependent with the Salmon.

    The bioregion is occupied by two colonial settler-states, so the Nations split by the border have to deal with both The Crown (with whom treaties were never made, sans Douglas and Nisga’a) and the US. So the need for ecological restoration and economic decolonization involves many different Indigenous nations and communities, but can’t be solved by First Nation-to-State “rights” agreements. So our thought out here is to establish a restorative Bioregional Economy, which of course means fighting capitalism (and industrial socialism) head on, which the Crown and US would never let happen without a fight. We’re simply faced with the the impossibility of one Indigenous Nation becoming self-determined and sustainable without all the neighbors doing the same. And this will directly impact the lives of all the settlers here in a profound way (17 million People in the bioregion), so solidarity from the settler population, that “co-resistance”, could really make an impact, as it already has with our first few dam removals. You can’t speak of Indigeneity here without mentioning salmon, so this is BIG for us.

    It’s quite the anti-colonial petri dish out here, and we’re working to make “bioregional decolonization” a very serious and effective “creative contention”. And it’s clear that it all hinges on economics, wether we all like it or not. I think the ‘industrial economy’ is the elephant in the room of the Indigenous “rights” movement. Just look at the neo-colonial reality of the “decolonized” (according the the UN) “sovereign nations” of the ‘Third World’. Colonialism is an economic phenomenon. Cultural genocide is the means used to steal land and extract resources to feed the growth of an abstract global economy. Decolonization is no less than the direct reversal of this phenomenon.


  1. Terms of Engagement «
  2. The Terms of Engagement with Indigenous Nationhood | AHORA
  3. The Sustainability of Indigenous Resistance « Decolonization
  4. Terminology Is Uncomfortable. So Is Colonialism. « uncomfortably canadian
  5. Labels | Valley Road Rambler
  6. Tom Flanagan and Why His Comments Should Come As No Surprise | Wanderings
  7. Decolonization and Unsettling Settler Privilege | Decolonization
  8. Elsipogtog and Foundational Colonial Violence | Decolonization

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