Part Twenty-three of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.
From Canada recently came a different voice, not of dejection – as in the words of Ms Paterson, or almost of resignation – such as in the words of Professor Davis after the Garma Festival and their disappointment at what Messrs. Turnbull and Shorten said-and-did-not-say.
The voice is that of a Yellowknives Dene, Glen Sean Coulthard, who is an associate professor in First Nations and Indigenous Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.
He is the author of Red skin, white masks: rejecting the colonial politics of recognition (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2014). For that work Professor Coulthard won the 2016 Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Frantz Fanon Award for the most outstanding book, as well as the Canadian Political Science Association’s C.B. MacPherson Prize and the Studies in Political Economy Book Prize.
Over the past forty years, recognition has become the dominant mode of negotiation and decolonisation between the nation-state and Indigenous nations in North America, particularly in Canada. The term “recognition” shapes debates over Indigenous cultural distinctiveness, Indigenous rights to land and self-government, and Indigenous Peoples’ right to benefit from the development of their lands and resources.
In a work of critically engaged political theory, Professor Coulthard challenges recognition as a method of organising difference and identity in ‘liberal’ politics, questioning the assumption that contemporary difference and past histories of destructive colonialism between the state and Indigenous Peoples can be reconciled through a process of acknowledgment. Beyond this, Coulthard examines an alternative politics – one which seeks to revalue, reconstruct, and redeploy Indigenous cultural practices based on self-recognition rather than on seeking appreciation from the very agents of colonialism – the invading power and the relative interests.
Coulthard demonstrates how a “place-based” modification of Karl Marx’s theory of “primitive accumulation” throws light on Indigenous–state relations in invader-colonial contexts and how Frantz Fanon’s critique of colonial recognition shows that this relationship reproduces itself over time. This framework strengthens his exploration of the ways that the politics of recognition has come to serve the interests of settler-colonial power.
In addressing the core tenets of Indigenous resistance movements, Coulthard offers fresh insights into the politics of active decolonisation.
“Coulthard’s book is for a generation of activists who have witnessed their parents’ and grandparents’ generations struggle against the Canadian state for Indigenous rights and recognition, having too often come away feeling cheated. Coulthard illuminates contemporary Indigenous-newcomer relations in Canada with theoretical interventions rooted in examples with which he is intimately familiar, such as the political manoeuvrings of the Dene Nation. Red skin, white masks is a book which is truly for a generation desirous to change things entirely,” writes a reviewer,Kam’ayaam/Chachim’multhnii (Cliff Atleo, Jr.) of the University of Alberta.
While Red skin, white masks focuses on Indigenous experiences in Canada, it is immediately applicable to understanding the false promise of recognition, liberal pluralism, and reconciliation at the heart of colonial relationships between Indigenous Peoples and nation-states elsewhere. Coulthard is able to bring a remarkably distinctive and provocative look at issues of power and opposition relevant to anyone concerned with what constitutes and perpetuates imperialist state formations and what Indigenous alternatives offer in regards to freedom.
With the premise that the last forty years of Indigenous-newcomer politics in Canada have been dominated by the politics of recognition, specifically the, “recognition (of) Aboriginal ‘cultural’ rights within the legal and political framework of the Canadian state” (pp. 1-2)”, Coulthard observes that “There is something very particular about settler-colonialism that lies at the heart of how we, as Indigenous peoples, have arrived at the current state of recognition politics. Indigenous political rhetoric, over the generations, has shifted from one focused on protecting the land and perpetuating unique Indigenous ways of living to one that is much more in line with state recognition and accommodation. Coulthard points out that the primary goal of newcomer-colonialism is, “access to territory” (p. 7), reminding the reader that newcomer politics is, and has always has been, about the land.”
Coulthard is concerned that “framing Indigenous claims in the language of the state may ultimately undermine those original claims and Indigenous worldviews.” (p. 78). He offers his reflections with some interesting insights into the affirmative utility of Indigenous resentment. He also concludes with two perspectives on Indigenous-newcomer relations in Canada. First, that land remains a crucial focal point: “Settler-colonialism is territorially acquisitive in perpetuity” [Emphasis in original]. … “Colonisation, or “primitive accumulation” to use the words of Marx, is not merely a historical phenomenon. It is ongoing, and our obligations to live responsibly and honour our reciprocal relations must remain a priority.” Second, “the forms of colonial power associated with primitive accumulation need not be understood as strictly coercive, repressive, or explicitly violent in nature; rather, the practices of dispossession central to the maintenance of [newcomer]-colonialism in liberal democratic contexts like Canada rely as much on the productive character of colonial power as it does on the coercive authority of the settler state.” (p. 152).
Coulthard closes the book proposing ‘Five theses on Indigenous resurgence and decolonization’, and this is where Red skin, white masks really comes alive.
The five theses which consolidate and contribute to the debates and conversations within the First Nations movement are:
- to promote direct action because these are the only tactics which have been effective.
- to advocate for the death of capitalism through the construction of Indigenous alternatives.
- to increase solidarity between urban Indigenous People and reserve-based First Nations People.
- to be active against gender inequality for Indigenous women and see the violence one experiences as the responsibility of everyone to remedy.
- to move beyond nation-state governance so that First Nations People discontinue engagement within the self-sustaining newcomer-colonial patriarchal systems of Canada.
The following development helps to understand what Coulthard writes:
Thesis no. 1: On the necessity of direct action.
Decolonisation is messy, disruptive, and necessarily uncomfortable for everyone. To quote Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “decolonization is not a metaphor.” (Decolonization: Indigeneity, education and society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012, 1-40). Reconciliation as envisioned by and within the parameters of the Canadian state, while being minimally disruptive, merely allows for business to carry on as usual. This is not what Coulthard is talking about. In order for things to be made right for Indigenous Peoples, a new relationship will require a massive transformation of political, legal, cultural, social and economic orders. More often than not, this requires Indigenous bodies on the land, protecting sacred spaces, and demanding and living alternatives.
Thesis no. 2: Capitalism, no more!
Capitalism has become so normalised, that to speak of a need for alternatives is often met with incredulity, but Red skin, white masks reminds the reader of its destructive and insatiable nature. There is no ‘Indigenising capitalism’. It is inherently predatory and exploitative. And yet there are some within Indigenous academia who consider this very possibility. Coulthard mentions three: David Newhouse’s, ‘Modern Aboriginal Economics: Capitalism with a red face’, Journal of Aboriginal Economic Development, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 55-61, Duane Champagne’s “tribal capitalism”, in Social change and cultural continuity among Native Nations, Rowman Altamira,Lanham, Maryland, 2007, and Robert J. Miller’s “reservation capitalism”, in Economic development in Indian Country, University of Nebraska Press Lincoln, NE 2013. There is also the influential Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and there are many aspects of the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, as well as the rhetoric of economic development which emanates from most Indigenous leaders in Canada. However, not everyone has been convinced, writes Coulthard. His book speaks to those who believe that a revival of traditional Indigenous practices and the creation of non-exploitative alternatives must be a part of decolonisation.
“The colonial language of reconciliation, recognition, land claims, and Aboriginal law has shaped our words and our thoughts, and consequently, certain Indigenous responsibilities have been forgotten or ignored. But not everyone has forgotten,” Coulthard writes.
Coulthard states that exploring Indigenous economic alternatives can reconnect the First Nations to their homelands as they seek to live out relationships of respect and reciprocity which are free from dependence on the state and capitalist enterprises. He points out that land is not only important in a material sense but also that “Indigenous anti-colonialism” is “deeply informed by what the land as system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach them about living their lives in relation to one another and the natural world in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms” (p. 13) [Emphasis in original].
Thesis no. 3: Dispossession and Indigenous sovereignty in the city.
This part of Coulthard’s work refers to the battle in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside for generations and the then recent Indigenous homeless encampment in Oppenheimer Park which gave the City of Vancouver an eviction notice in the summer of 2014. Coulthard states that “All of this is to say that the efficacy of Indigenous resurgence hinges on its ability to address the interrelated systems of dispossession that shape Indigenous peoples’ experiences in both urban and land-based settings” (p. 176).
Thesis no. 4: Gender justice and decolonisation.
Coulthard indicates that in the Canadian situation there are stern warnings to heed and new directions to consider. First, the rhetoric of “protecting our women” is paternalistic and patriarchal (p. 178). “Protecting our women”, in addition to being paternalistic and patriarchal, is also a platitude. Not hurting Indigenous women, symbolically, systemically, or otherwise must be a priority in the decolonisation efforts. Indigenous men can begin by stopping the perpetuation of symbolic and community violence which too often gets brushed off as joking or inconsequential to the ‘high politics’of self-government negotiations. Coulthard concludes that violence must be stopped, “in our daily relationships and practices in the home, workplaces, band offices, governance institutions, and, crucially, in our practices of cultural resurgence. Until this happens – he warns – we have reconciled ourselves with defeat.” (p. 178) [Emphasis in original]
Thesis no. 5: Beyond the nation-state.
If one accepts that every movement risks being co-opted, then one may easily come to the realisation that Indigenous People must remain vigilant.
Coulthard reminds his readers that Indigenous People in particular must continually rekindle their self-reflection, skepticism, and caution when engaging what he calls “the settler state.” (p. 179).
In Canada many leaders and scholars preach the importance of peace and engagement with the state, having forgotten how they have collectively arrived at the negotiation tables in the first place, through resistance and conflict. Coulthard clearly states that colonialism is not an ‘event’ but a ‘structure’. It remains voracious and unyielding. Therefore, one must continue to work towards “a resurgent politics of recognition that seeks to practice decolonial, gender emancipatory, and economically nonexploitative alternative structures of law and sovereign authority grounded on a critical refashioning of the best of Indigenous legal and political traditions.” (p. 179).
Coulthard says that these cannot be achieved through the present invader-state mechanisms which are designed to deny the very things Indigenous people seek to achieve, protect and perpetuate.
There should be no delusion about this, Coulthard warns, and what he proposes may be difficult to realise – even in Canada. It is not clear what he advocates: direct action? ‘bringing down’ capitalism? decolonizing the city? gendered justice? non-statist engagement?
In This is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a critical Indigenous philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario, 2006, Dale Turner, who is a very influential Anishinaabe scholar, calls for more engagement with the state, albeit very carefully. [Anishinaabe is the autonym for a cross-border group of culturally related Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the United States which include the Algonquin, Chippewa, Mississaugas, Odawa, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree and Potawatomi peoples].
Coulthard counters, “over the last forty years Indigenous Peoples have become incredibly skilled at participating in the Canadian legal and political practices … however, our efforts to engage these discursive and institutional spaces to secure recognition of our rights have not only failed, but have instead served to subtly reproduce the forms of racist, sexist, economic, and political configurations of power that we initially sought, through our engagements and negotiations with the state, to challenge.” (p. 179).
Coulthard adds: “If we are to survive in ways that our ancestors would recognize and respect, we must forge nonstatist solutions that not only resist settler colonialism, but also resurge Indigenous alternatives that go beyond the state and its reasonability.” (See also: Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, a book review by Daniel Tseghay, 17 August 2014).
Coulthard closes his book with a meditation on what an Indigenous resurgence can look like. It is a vision of communities deeply rooted to the land, organised around the ethic of mutual aid, and unencumbered by the urge towards hierarchies. It is also an explicitly anti-capitalist one. “For Indigenous nations to live,” Coulthard says conclusively, “capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.”
It is disputable whether many Indigenous leaders in Sahul would agree with Coulthard’s conclusion. As Fanon said: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” Most of those leaders speak the language of the Englanders. The world ‘culture’ in the language of the Englanders has taken up a very broad – often all-purpose – meaning, signifying everything and nothing at all, certainly nothing which would disturb capitalism’s present condition, temporarily inspired by neo-liberalism. Alternatively, one should think of the word in every-day currency, e.g.: multiculturalism = food, costumes and flags, nothing more.
This is what Professor Joanne Barker thinks of Red skin, white masks: the work “focuses on indigenous experiences in Canada, [and] is immediately applicable to understanding the false promise of recognition, liberal pluralism, and reconciliation at the heart of colonial relationships between indigenous peoples and nation-states elsewhere. Glen Sean Coulthard is able to bring a remarkably distinctive and provocative look at issues of power and opposition relevant to anyone concerned with what constitutes and perpetuates imperialist state formations and what indigenous alternatives offer in regards to freedom.”
Continued Monday with: Going around in circles (Part 1)
Previous instalment: The greener grass (somewhere) (Part 1)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.
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