Gaagegoo Dabakaanan miiniwaa Debenjigejig (No Borders, Indigenous Sovereignty)
by Dylan Miner
During the mid-1990s, I remember frequently crossing the Canada-USA border – as was common for youth living in the borderlands – to go to clubs and restaurants and, more importantly, for punk and hardcore shows. I was an art school student (and then art school dropout) living in Detroit, located on the US-side of the Detroit River, just across the Medicine Line from Windsor, Ontario.
Sometime in 1996, following the release of Propagandhi’s second album, Less Talk, More Rock, I decided to cross the Ambassador bridge and see the Winnipeg-based punk band play a show somewhere in southern Ontario (maybe London or Guelph or Hamilton, I don’t recall). Traveling with an Arab-American friend, we were stopped and questioned for potential gang involvement. This border stoppage delayed us enough so that we barely made the show – that was what seemed important to us at the time, as teenage punks. Although I am an Indigenous person, my white-privilege – a topic that light-skinned Indigenous and Latinas/os should talk more about – and class-privilege allow me to cross the border with less violence than brown-skinned Indigenous peoples, Latinas/os, Arabs, Black folks, and other people of colour. Although borders are inherently violent, settler-colonial nation-states enact border violence in ways that are not distributed equally.
Remembering my own border-crossing experiences, and thinking about my current work as an artist–activist–intellectual, brings to mind one particular eighty-eight second Propagandhi song, ‘Fuck the Border.’ As these Winnipeggers let us know in their searing song: ‘No fences, no borders. Free movement for all. Fuck the border.’ The anarchist-orientation of certain sub-genres of 1990s hardcore helped me, as a youth, understand the implications of global capitalism and the intersectionality of colonialism, capitalism, and hetero-patriarchy, among other structural oppressions. Bands like Propagandhi, Los Crudos, Limp Wrist, Chokehold, and Bikini Kill were particularly relevant to me, at one time or another. But what does punk have to do with Indigenous sovereignty, migration, and to the Canada-USA border?
While my own political commitments are quite similar to those articulated in Propagandhi’s ‘Fuck the Border’ song, as an adult with two teenage daughters I have struggled to find ways to think through and talk about radical political positions that may complicate the simplicity of North American sound bites. While academics love to complicate what are often, in reality, not overly-complicated issues, inversely, the news media frequently overly-simplifies what are rather complicated issues. My own activism has likewise emerged from a place of direct opposition, an epistemology that doesn’t always facilitate a way of being that understands my own hegemonic complicity. So the question becomes: how can we think about the intersectionality of our own lives – our various privileges and oppressions – without reducing the potential for everything to be linked in a network of ambiguities?
What is crucial to my thinking in this essay is how, as a teenager and young adult, I was unable to fully comprehend the manner that colonial and capitalist ways of being in the world restrained my own ability to think (and act) outside them. The border – as a manifestation of the settler-colonial and capitalist nation-state – constrained my own being and, in turn, constrained my capacity to think beyond the limits of its own borders. I ask this question frequently, but I truly wonder if we can truly ever think outside or beyond the limits of colonialism? In his articulation of the ‘coloniality of power’, Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano would tell us, in fact, that we cannot.
In the 1990s, I screamed ‘Fuck the Border’ because it had very real implications on the lives of my ancestors and those of my partner, Estrella Torrez. My paternal ancestors crisscrossed the Canada-USA border and literally fought against its creation, while Estrella is the child of migrant farmworkers and was herself a seasonal laborer and student (and then teacher) in schools for migrant children. Her family has been in what is now the United States since time immemorial, but as is commonly said: ‘they didn’t’ cross the border, the border crossed them.’
Saying ‘Fuck the Border’ was a cathartic and medicinal act that, although I did not name it such at the time, moved me towards decolonization. But, is it the same for others who can easily cross borders with little or no trouble (or. more likely, do not need/want to cross borders to leave the USA or Canada)? What about those that are violently affected by it? I cannot help but think about those Mexican and Central American migrants who die – are structurally murdered, really – while migrating north in response to the contemporary ramifications of centuries of colonialism and capitalist globalization.
By saying ‘Fuck the Border,’ or similar political provocations, are we actually moving towards a decolonized border and immigration practice? Are we seeking to create a world where Indigenous sovereignty exists beyond the limits of settler-colonial nation-state? While I would quickly say no, I do believe that in hearing this song (and the radical political ontologies associated with it) many middle-class and suburban settler-youth began to challenge their own privilege – even if they did not seek to fully dismantle a system that gave them this privilege in the first place.
As Sartre reminds us, ‘colonialism is a system’ and, as such, we are all implicated in its vicious systemization. Colonialism is violent to both colonizer and colonized, as Fanon and others have long noted. On Mikinaak-minis (Turtle Island), and I am not certain that Sartre and Fanon fully understood how colonialism functioned in this hemisphere, we are all implicated in settler colonialism as a structure. Recent work by Audra Simpson and Glen Coulthard, among other Indigenous scholars – often in the pages of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society – have brought earlier anti-colonial theorists into conversation with the uniquely North American variant of settler-colonialism.
Since we – Indigenous and settlers alike – are physically located on Indigenous lands and in settler colonial nation-states, we must fully understand what it means to say ‘Fuck the Border’ and the implications that this statement has on both Indigenous and settler communities. While, I may no longer walk around yelling ‘Fuck the Border’, the political ontology embedded in Propagandhi’s song nevertheless assists us in understanding how settler-colonial and capitalist structures seek to disaggregate various parts of an otherwise intersectional structure. Moreover, this song may help us think about how these colonial systems (and settler-colonial structures) should not be intellectually unlinked. Rather, understanding them as a unit shows how they must be simultaneously and reciprocally dismantled, not attacked on the individual level. If intersectionality helps us understand various oppressions and privileges, it will also help us understand the inseperability of structural and systematic inequalities.
Immigration policy – in the USA, Canada, and even Mexico – cannot be understood outside a history of longer and deeper systemic and systematic appropriation of Indigenous lands and seizure of resources. We must also acknowledge the establishment of violent assimilative systems to convince Indigenous people that they were/are Canadians, Americans, or Mexicans. Earlier this autumn, Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul said that, ‘I think assimilation is an amazing thing. A good example of how even in our country assimilation didn’t happen and it’s been a disaster for the people has been the Native American population on the reservations.’ Contextualization isn’t even needed to understand how Rand understands the workings of hegemonic systems and what this means.
In North America, settler colonialism is, in fact, the system. The question becomes, I think, how do we dismantle the many-headed hydra of settler colonialism and capitalism? How do we work to revitalize Indigenous sovereignties (including aesthetics and artistic articulations of sovereignty) in ways that acknowledge how capitalist-globalization precipitates migrations across settler-colonial borders by Indigenous and other oppressed peoples? What does it mean when Indigenous people migrate onto the traditional homelands of other Indigenous people? Moreover, can ever escape the systematization of colonialism, as Sartre convincingly writes, or the coloniality of power, as Quijano has it?
I have been accused of imagining or wishing away the settler nation-state. At first I didn’t fully know what this critique even meant, but have grown to embrace this criticism as coming from a very limited way of being in the world. As I’ve heard this response to my work a few times now, I think it means that my line of thought imagines that we can somehow live as if the settler-colonial nation-state is not always in control. While I understand the limits of settler-colonial and capitalist hegemony, I wonder why we cannot live in ways that are not fully contained by it. While this criticism was, at some point, a hurtful one (I am not certain why I felt inadequate for this challenge), I now wear this critique as an honor and intentionally work in ways that creatively seek to dismantle the nation-state, while also imagining a world without them.
Is it a contradiction to understand that colonialism and capitalism and associated structures are always encapsulating us, but simultaneously trying to locate and exacerbate fissures in their structure? Or better yet, can we imagine a world without limitations and commence building new worlds (based in the teachings of the ancestors) that are not delimited by settler-colonial and capitalist constraints? Can I acknowledge the presence of existing systems, but live as if they are not in control? I am not a political scientist or a politician, and do not arrive at this proposition as one committed to ‘politics’ as we know them. Instead, I ask if we should not all be imagining a world where nation-states and corporations do not control things. What is the meaning of our collective existence if we cannot imagine something beyond colonial ontology?
As an artist, my task is not to simply work inside the contours of this existing world and its political and ontological structures. Artists must fundamentally express ambiguity, while creating tangible works that exist both inside and outside structural limitations. It is for this very reason that I have been thinking through and writing about ‘Indigenous Aesthetic Sovereignty’ (IAS), a concept similar to that printed on a t-shirt in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC). On this shirt, the ACC advocates ‘Activating Indigenous Creative Sovereignty.’
What aesthetic or creative sovereignty means, exactly, is unclear. The opacity of Indigenous sovereignty is part of what makes it, as a concept, so powerful. Just as Idle No More was not entirely fixed, so too is Indigenous sovereignty somewhat indeterminate. It must be noted that sovereignty, in this context, is shorthand for self-determination or self-governance or autonomy and should not be understood in its purely Westphalian interpretation. Indigenous sovereignties existed long before – and will long after – the nation-state became the dominant global polity. Indigenous sovereignty – as a political manifestation that emerges from within Indigenous ontologies – is not limited by the nation-state, even if the settler-nation-state can still exert authority over it. While I am committed to reclaiming the aesthetics (can we talk about aesthetic self-determination?) from its Kantian colonization, both the ACC (a multiplicity of voices, of which I am a member) and I understand that there is an undeniable relationship between Indigenous sovereignty and the maintenance (or revitalization) of Indigenous aesthetics. All of this exists within colonialism and capitalism, but is not contained by it. I guess that is what I am trying to get at here: the nation-state can, in fact, be imagined away, if only we envisage living without it.
Being utopian and desiring a place for true Indigenous liberation does not come from a place of naivety. To not imagine a way of being that is simultaneously beyond and before (and after) colonialism, is much more naïve. I’ve read Fanon and understand the ‘pitfalls of national consciousness’. Even so, imagining ‘other possible worlds,’ to borrow from the Zapatistas, is what we must all be struggling for. Didn’t the Zapatistas imagine away the nation-state, while also working within it? If you read the EZLN communiqués, you will certainly see how the Zapatistas imagined away the nation-state and, at the same time, created alternative governance models (caracoles).
As I write this article, Indigenous communities are continuously forced to assert themselves against capitalist and colonial encroachment. In the unceded territory commonly known as British Columbia, Unist´ot´en Camp is protecting the interests of Shkaakaamikwe (Mother Earth) by exercising their own sovereignty to stop the encroachment of big oil in their traditional territory. Earlier this autumn in Anishinaabewaki, the Indigenous lands that we know by the Dakota name Mne Sota (Minnesota), Anishinaabe harvesters are confronting the Minnesota state government as it interferes in their harvesting of manoomin (wild rice) and giigoonyag (fish).
Would imagining away the nation-state mean that you or I, or folks harvesting manoomin in Minnesota or that the Unist´ot´en resistance to oil pipelines, would not face state confrontation or enforcement by the nation-state? Likely no. Does the presence of continuous and uninterrupted self-governance by Indigenous nations or tribes or bands somehow exist outside the presence of the settler-colonial nation-state? Of course not. However, thinking (and living) beyond the limits of the nation-state can do something else. What would happen if we collectively imagine true sovereignty – or something else that better describes Indigenous autonomy and self-determination? I believe that it is up to us – and the ancestors and spirits and rocks and land and water, among others – to prefigure something else.
In my utopian desire to prefigure better and more just ways of being in this world, I consistently turn to the ways that Xicano (Indigenous Mexican-Americans) and Wiisaakodewininiwag (Otepemisiwak or Métis or Michif) communities have imagined away the border since its very inception. They have consistently asked if borders must exist. In this way, can’t we collectively imagine a non-colonial ontology where borders are not needed? I see the creative imagining of a non-colonial way of being as central to the work I do. If we cannot imagine a way of living beyond the limitations of the nation-state (or any imposed limitation), we are doomed to not only destroy Shkaakaamikwe, but also annihilate ourselves.
At various points in time, my paternal ancestors travelled the vast expanses of Mikinaak-minis, using the rivers and lakes as pathways. Because they so intimately knew both aki (land) and nibi (water), settlers employed them – as was common of Wiisaakodwininiwag at the time – to serve on survey expeditions and as translators. While geopolitical borders meant little to First Nations and their Halfbreed cousins, the segmentation and privatization of land ownership was paramount to colonial agents and the system they imposed. Mapping and ownership over the land, as an abstract and inanimate object, was what settlers so greatly desired. Inversely, kinship and land-use was far more important for Indigenous communities. These are very disparate ways of relating to the land and distinct ways of being in the world. Each respective relationship – one based on ownership, the other on usage and relationality – forms the core of two conflicting modes of sovereignty and the polities that then emerge from them.
As has been frequently noted, Indigenous communities were (and still are) stewards of the land and, as such, territories were commonly shared – a concept that Western nation-states and their settler-colonial administrators cannot comprehend. Indigenous territoriality was not a monolithic and individual claim. Alliances and confederacies were (and are) common across Mikinaak-minis. Although we shouldn’t pretend as if war and conflict never occurred, we should also recognize that how we understand sovereignty (that is as a form of Westphalian sovereignty) and its unique form of territoriality is a colonial imposition. If decolonization, anti-colonialism, and the non-colonial are not simply metaphors, then we need to imagine modes of understanding Indigenous ‘sovereignty’ beyond dominant juridical and political systems. For me, this begins with imagining something else. As an artist, that is what I do.
Currently, at least according to Wikipedia, there are five ongoing border disputes, with many more historical ones, between Canada and USA. The very presence of a Wikipedia page titled ‘List of areas disputed by Canada and the United States’ is indicative of this ongoing problem with how contemporary nation-states imagine their boundaries. Isn’t this border supposed to be a non-conflictive one? Unfortunately, the Canada-USA border, like all geopolitical borders, is violent and conflictive. However, the structures and discourses circulating around the Mexico-USA border are even more violent. The Canada-USA border masks its violence better than the border located twenty-five hundred kilometers to the south. Contemporary ‘crises’ have their origin in continual colonialism and capitalism. There is no denying this.
The Canada-USA and the Mexico-USA borders share many similarities with other geopolitical borders. But even when borders are not militarized or viewed as conflictive, the border – by its very presence – enacts a certain power over individuals and especially over Indigenous and migratory peoples. As an indigenist, that is someone who takes Indigenous issues as their the utmost priority, I am particularly concerned with the violent imposition of geopolitical boundaries and the nation-states that impose them. With the ongoing impact of climate change on Indigenous communities, as well as the eminent threat of armed-violence and the economic clash of capitalism, Indigenous capacities to self-determine are quickly being further and further eroded.
This past July, the Haudenosaunee Women’s lacrosse team withdrew from the Federation of International Lacrosse U19 World Championship held in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 2010, the Haudenosaunee Men’s team – commonly known as the Iroquois Nationals – also withdrew from the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England. On both occasions, European governments failed to recognize the legitimacy of Indigenous passports, asking instead that each player submit either a Canadian or USA passport in conjunction with their Haudenosaunee one. On both occasions, Indigenous sovereignty was challenged and, in the face of global transnational migration, Indigenous presence was denied. Inversely, just this month, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy stamped the passports of members of international lacrosse teams, welcoming them to Onondaga territory for the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship.
We are in the midst of a never-ending settler-colonial barrage against Indigenous peoples and their abilities to self-govern, maintain Indigenous political and economic structures, and travel in traditional and contemporary ways. Border and immigration policies across the continent are indicative of this. Since the initial arrival of Europeans to this continent, immigration and Indigenous sovereignty have been irreducibly linked. In many ways, it has not been Indigenous peoples who have made this so, rather it emerges from the settler-colonial logics of Manifest Destiny and Canadian Confederation. While many Indigenous communities are fundamentally linked to seasonal and other migrations patterns, the cementing of geopolitical boundaries between different nation-states significantly impedes this ability, if not ending it at all. Nearly two decades after Propagandhi taught me to sing along to ‘Fuck the Border,’ I am inclined to, once again, reflect upon these words and their ongoing relevance today. Shall we continue to uncover ways to resist the border and its imposition on each of us?
Over the course of the past three years, I’ve created a series of projects coming from an Indigenous understanding of the Canada-USA border. These were commissioned by curator Srimoyee Mitra for an exhibition cycle at the Art Gallery of Windsor titled Border Cultures. In 2013, for the Border Cultures first exhibition, I created a series of screenprinted posters, in addition to an installation and mobile screeprinting units with Indigenous and Latina/o youth on both sides of the border. The posters, printed in the art gallery during the exhibition’s opening, included the text ‘Gaagegoo Dabakaana[n]’ and ‘Debenjigejig.’
As is common when I work on a project, I asked an elder how I would say a particular English-language idea in Anishinaabemowin. As a language-learner, I still need to make direction translations, knowing the futility of this ask, but also acknowledge the power in my attempts to move beyond my colonial language usage. These posters communicated ‘No Borders’ and ‘Indigenous Sovereignty.’ While a small and seemingly insignificant act, on some level these collective actions sought to undermine the power of the border and imagine a world without it.
In an art gallery, geographically located on the Detroit River on the Canada side of the settler-colonial border , a small group of Indigenous and settler individuals collectively printed posters in Anishinaabe-language text that called for the dissolution of borders and assertion of Indigenous sovereignty. We were struggle for a world without borders and where Inidgenous sovereignty was not limited. A few years later, I think I had better ask an elder how to say ‘No fences, no borders. Free movement for all.’
Dylan Miner is a Wiisaakodewinini (Métis) artist, activist, and scholar. He is Director of the American Indian Studies Program and Associate Professor (RCAH) at Michigan State University, as well as member of the Justseeds artists collective. Miner has been featured in more than twenty solo exhibitions and was granted an Artist Leadership Fellowship from the National Museum of the American Indian in 2010. His book Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island was published in 2014 by University of Arizona Press. He is presently working on two books – one on contemporary Indigenous aesthetics and a book of poetry, Ikidowinan Ninandagikendaanan (words I seek to learn).