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The greener grass (somewhere) (Part 2)

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:

  1. to promote direct action because these are the only tactics which have been effective.
  2. to advocate for the death of capitalism through the construction of Indigenous alternatives.
  3. to increase solidarity between urban Indigenous People and reserve-based First Nations People.
  4. to be active against gender inequality for Indigenous women and see the violence one experiences as the responsibility of everyone to remedy.
  5. 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



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  1. Kyran

    “…understanding the false promise of recognition, liberal pluralism, and reconciliation at the heart of colonial relationships between indigenous peoples and nation-states elsewhere.”

    The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games were fascinating. The Common Wealth apparently represents 30% of the planet’s population, 2.4 billion people, a billion of whom watched on TV the procession of member countries. No wonder Turnbull looked distracted as he watched the ‘nation states’ of South Africa, Nauru and PNG parade by, given our recent relationship with those three countries.

    Hard to ignore, really. If that imagery and symbolism was not jarringly hypocritical enough, the motif of the Common Wealth was front and center during our First People’s ‘performance’, comprising no more than three words;
    It was intoned in the narrative that the Common Wealth was committed to these values and that was why they acknowledged the significance of our First People by giving them a high profile role in the opening ceremony.
    Some extracts from the Commonwealth Games website are informative, if not sickening.

    “The Commonwealth
    The Commonwealth is a collective of diverse nations spread across every continent and ocean and makes up to 30% of the world’s population. From Asia to Africa and beyond, the Commonwealth is composed of a rich variety of faiths, races, languages, cultures and traditions.”
    “The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) is the organisation that is responsible for the direction and control of the Commonwealth Games. As a means of improving society and the general well-being of the people of the Commonwealth, the CGF also encourages and assists education via sport development and physical recreation.
    Underlying every decision made by the CGF are three core values:
    • Humanity
    • Equality
    • Destiny
    These values help to inspire and unite millions of people and symbolise the broad mandate of the CGF within the Commonwealth. The main element of the Commonwealth Games brand is ‘The Bar’.
    A symbol that represents the Games’ effort to raise the bar of sports and level the playing field where athletes can come to complete in a spirit of friendship and fair play. It also acts as a collective aspiration for the whole of the Commonwealth and is something that will be present during the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.”

    Could the hypocrisy be any more blatant? But of course it can. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Dylan Voller, the embodiment of the abuses piled upon our First People, was arrested after the authorities reneged on an undertaking relating to protests at the games of the Common Wealth by our First People.

    “A delegation of 10 protesters had reportedly been told earlier they could enter the stadium but were stopped at the entrance by police after being advised no tickets were available for them.
    Mr Voller and activists Ruby Wharton and Meg Rodaughan were among the 10 and were detained by police as scuffles broke out.
    The three were charged with being a public nuisance. The 20-year-old Northern Territory man was due to appear in Southport Magistrates Court on May 3 while the two women, aged 21 and 30, would appear in the same court on April 23.”

    Could the hypocrisy be any more blatant? But of course it can. Our Leader sat beside our future King and looked at the little man’s little screen images of himself while the ‘performance’ by our First People went on. Who can forget our leader’s casual, callous dismissal of the “ULURU STATEMENT FROM THE HEART”?

    Did these ‘leaders’ even think about the simpatico of the values of the Common Wealth Games, Humanity Equality Destiny, with the important sentence contained within that aspirational document?

    “Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”

    Should we have to explain that seeking a ‘truthful relationship’ is nothing more than asking for us all to show our common ‘humanity’? That ‘justice’ is the mirror reflection of ‘equality’? That self-determination is the very epitome of destiny?
    That he doesn’t even pretend to care is an indictment on him, our ‘leader’. As for our King and his entourage, they have been doing this for centuries.
    These three ‘values’ of the Common Wealth have been their mantra for a while now. The Australian Human Rights Commission wrote about it in 2010 after the games in India.

    “Humanity, equality and destiny? As the Commonwealth motto reminds us, our ‘destiny’ is a shared destiny of a common humanity – of fraternity. Equality is the foundation for this – it is something that is not just expected, but is required of us all. Not just when we are in other people’s countries, but right here within our own diverse country – because one cannot occur without the other. This is perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from the experience of the Delhi Commonwealth Games.”
    “So, as we sit back and proudly eye our towering medal tally, it pays for us all to remember that all that glitters isn’t gold. Winning is not an end in itself. It is how you win. How you play the game. As a nation, we need to play fair and respect the rules on and off the field. Because the rules of life and the rules of the global community are far more important and have far greater repercussions.”

    It would be easy to argue that it is not a “false promise of recognition ….. and reconciliation”, but rather an open deceit, an active attempt to continue the abuses of colonialisation, whilst pretending to have changed the motives.
    In previous articles, reference has been made to our attitude to country and that of our First People. The ‘white fella’ way is to regard country as an item to be owned and exploited. Its resources, in our world, are regarded as infinite as long as there is a capital return.
    So much of the opening ceremony depicts the fundamental, basic difference with our First People’s regard for the land. They have ‘Welcome to Country’, they frequently refer to their relationship with country in terms of ‘belonging’ and ‘custodianship’. They are intrinsic values, not competing or adversarial interests.
    There can be no surprise that their culture is 60,000 years old and ours is struggling after a mere few thousand years.
    Thank you Dr Venturini, and apologies for the rant. Take care

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