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A Kanienkeha (Mohawk) militant, intellectual and professor at the University of Victoria, Taiaiake Alfred was invited to McMaster University because he is widely acknowledged as among the most renowned scholars in indigenous studies on the continent. But Taiaiake is not a typical academic nor was he here to give an academic talk as he made clear right away. Speaking at Convocation Hall surrounded by portraits of bearded upper class white men, the wealthy elite of McMaster’s past, Taiaiake, a former US marine had this to say: “In the marines we have a saying. ‘The enemy is in front of us, behind us, on our left and on our right.” The scene captured perfectly the situation of all rebels today: within and against the system that exploits and oppresses us.
Taiaiake is first and foremost a Mohawk warrior or militant. His revolutionary goal is the decolonization of his people and the achievement of cultural, political and economic autonomy for all indigenous people on the continent. The message of his lecture, like his written work, was thus mostly intended for the indigenous people who made up a good portion of the audience. (He later spoke on the Six Nations reserve near Caledonia).
The heart of his message was that decolonization cannot be achieved by working through the legal-institutional process set up by the Canadian government for dealing with the demands of indigenous people. According to Taiaiake, this system, which includes “Aboriginal” rights defined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the land negotiations process, is in fact only the latest form of colonization.
This is because this process demands that indigenous people give up their claim to being separate nations in a nation-to-nation relationship to Canada, claims enshrined in international treaties with the British Crown, in return for “aboriginal” rights and a small piece of the profits made by exploiting indigenous lands. Put differently, it demands that indigenous people be redefined as another Canadian minority protected by minority rights and as part owners of privatized land rather than as a militarily conquered people seeking autonomy and the return of and de-commodification of their land.
This is a subtle but deadly form of colonization appearing as a negotiated compromise, complete with official apologies for past wrongs (i.e. Harper’s apology to residential school victims) while working to end how indigenous peoples have traditionally imagined their communities and their relationship with the Crown and later the Canadian state.
According to Taiaiake, indigenous people need to respond to this assault in two related ways. One, the traditional ways of life of indigenous people must be recovered and re-established in every area of their societies from personal conduct to forms of government. To do so means to recover and put into practice ways of life radically opposed to capitalism, the state and their accomplices, racism and patriarchy.
Two, enough stolen or annexed land must be recovered and placed under the autonomous control of indigenous communities. The two struggles are really one and the same. Since land is central to indigenous cultures, enough of it must be recovered if these cultures are to survive and recover. In turn, the recovery of indigenous ways of organizing life builds up the strength of the community and becomes the foundation from which to strike at the Canadian state and re-gain enough stolen land to provide a resource base upon which local autonomy can be established.
Listening to Taiaiake as an anarchist and non-native, I was struck by the similarities between Taiaiake’s vision of revolutionary struggle and the anarchist vision of “building a new world in the womb of the old.” For Taiaiake this means drawing upon existing and past indigenous ways of organizing life and re-claiming and decommodifying land. For anarchists this means drawing upon our histories of small and large rebellions which have given us the ideas of direct democracy, mutual aid, free association, direct action and models such as the neighbourhood assembly, the worker-run workplace and the decommodification of all goods and resources.
In both cases the struggle is to recover or create, in the here and now, forms of cooperation and community that challenge patriarchical capitalism and the state and that provide a growing foundation from which to launch further attacks on the system placing more and more resources under the control of our communities.
I asked Taiaiake if he came to define himself as an anarcha-indigenist because of these similarities and he agreed. He also jokingly said that once you come out against capitalism and the state the anarchists are the only non-native allies left as the “lawyers and liberals” scatter away. With this in mind it is good to know that many anarchists across the country and here in Ontario have stood in solidarity with indigenous peoples at Caledonia, Tyendinaga, Barrier Lake, Ardoch and elsewhere.
There is still much to learn about being effective allies. Most importantly we have a long way to go before we can build up the kind of political support and community strength within non-native communities that can act as a real barrier to further state oppression of indigenous struggles. As indigenous organizers have said over and over again, this is best achieved by educating and organizing our fellow non-native neighbours and co-workers. As anarchists we should also argue that we can best support struggles against decolonization by struggling against capitalism and the state in our own communities.