Settler and indigenous. Colonizing and decolonizing. Colonial and anti-colonial. Black-and-white ordered pairs describing an unequal distribution of social power, spilling into discourse as indicators of who is experiencing or reinforcing privilege and who is being oppressed. But what happens when these ideas stop running parallel, and instead, we witness a subversive turbulence that unsettles the rigid separation of black and white? This blog post is about the emerging grey areas, written from a Settler’s perspective.
Before I started thinking of ways to express these phenomena, I started witnessing something within the Idle No More movement that threatened to polarize the grassroots even further from the new emerging waves of indigenous resistance. That something was persistent dispute of radical tactics, within the movement that itself promotes a diversity of tactics. Many organizers already know full well that there are too many people getting involved (and many more still on the verge of getting involved) to enforce or even demand unity under a banner of one-ness. We stand united, but acknowledge and celebrate the ways we are diverse. We stand as one nation, but we acknowledge and celebrate that we are many different peoples. We stand in harmony with one another.
What began in traditional Cree territory as a non-violent but disruptive reclamation of Cree culture in public spaces was not going to look the same on the west coast (even though it is also non-violent), as the traditions and cultures here are different. Important distinctions include the fact that on the west coast, round dances (taking place all across the prairie provinces in shopping centers, in the busiest streets in densely populated urban centers, and other locations) are not a traditional part of the cultures of this land. The drum beats, the language, and the songs are also different. The regalia is different. Even some parts of the history are different, and so on. West coast Idle No More rallies take on a different character overall, while still creating the space to honour some of the traditions of the many Cree who bring their culture along with them. This is a beautiful spirit of cooperation and mutual respect that I have been honoured to witness and take part in many times.
It is also an ideal example for this piece of writing, both of why a banner of unity and one-ness is divisive (as it erases important distinctions between many, many different cultural traditions — and how exactly is the One True Cultural Tradition elected as That Which All Others Must Follow?), and how a celebration of diversity and inclusion of diverse representation is the best possible solution to promote a better goal: harmony.
Harmony is and always has been the message of the two-row wampum belt. I only very recently learned a much deeper and profound appreciation for what that means, but even when my understanding of the two-row wampum belt was still very superficial, harmonious coexistence was the message it stood for. I have since learned that the two rows themselves represent two nations, two canoes, two sexes, and even two partners in equitable and harmonious matrimony. The two nations are indigenous peoples and the Settlers to whom friendship, acceptance, and a land to call home were extended by indigenous peoples. The principles of self-governance, non-interference (i.e., tolerance as opposed to imperialism), and mutual respect, upon which their treaty agreements were founded, are represented in the intricate weaving of the two-row wampum belt. The relationship forged is sometimes described as two canoes paddling side by side down the same river. These principles are also at the core of many indigenous cultures — in the balance and honouring of male and female energies. And they are traditionally enacted between husband and wife, who inherited these values from their Elders, and bestow them onto their children.
Some (especially academic Settlers) have been inclined to critique the male/female aspects of this concept as a form of sexism (there are additional critiques, but I’m sticking to one for the sake of simplicity). In so doing, however, the critique unconsciously projects Western (i.e., colonial) connotations of sexism onto the two-row wampum belt (i.e., that sexism is the single most divisive behaviour, and therefore it’s always innately bad and wrong). The critique fails to engage the wampum belt from a decolonizing perspective. It aims instead to colonize the two rows of woven wampum beads and all they stands for, thus reinforcing the idea (very common among both indigenous and Settler populations) that colonialism and Settler identity are inseparable. That they are one in the same.
But what if Settlers started paying attention to the ways that colonialism is maintained and reinforced, and actively began working daily to subvert this? And how would one go about this as a Settler living on colonized and stolen ancestral indigenous territories? The answer of course, is both within the Idle No More movement, and is the movement itself at the same time. Welcome to one of those emerging grey areas I mentioned at the beginning of this post: where the Settler identity intersects with a conscious effort to move continuously towards decolonization.
One of the first, most basic steps one can and should make towards decolonization is acknowledging that all of North America is a white supremacist colonial society. We are not post-colonial, because colonization is a continual, self-perpetuating process. Thus, if one is not indigenous (i.e., if one’s blood relations cannot be traced back to the First Peoples of this land, but to somewhere else such as Europe, Africa, or Asia), one is a Settler here and benefits directly from the perpetuation of colonialism on this land. Settlers have fairly enormous social power and privileges as Settlers (this may wind up being its own blog post — I suggest googling for one in the mean time). Some Settlers also have white privilege, while others did not descend from ancestors who arrived here by virtue of free will. Thus, Settler privilege and white privilege are not the same thing. Therefore, colonialism and white supremacy are not the same thing either. I’ve literally written heaps about how white supremacy is maintained, reproduced, and reinforced, but this particularly brief and bitterly cogent piece on thoughtless consumption of (homogeneous) whiteness may help most here.
From this point, it is absolutely critical that Settlers who wish to actively engaging in decolonizing themselves also acknowledge, learn about, and understand where and from whom they come from. It is not enough to recognize and acknowledge that white supremacy and colonialism are Bad. Without this firm and intimate knowledge of oneself, one is vulnerable to make egregious errors of attribution that are not at all unlike the unconscious attempt to colonize the concept of the two-row wampum belt. Only, what is more likely to happen within the Settler who has no sense of their culture(s) of origin, is that they will unconsciously co-opt or appropriate the history, knowledge, symbolism, language, or culture of indigenous peoples.
What will this look like? Look for the Settler who adores or even fetishizes indigeneity, putting all indigenous peoples on a pedestal above all Settlers without exception (see: violating the harmony principle of the two-row wampum belt). Look for the Settler who claims that any critique or criticism of any indigenous person’s actions or ideas is racist (advice: don’t do this unless you want a lot of people of colour to get righteously upset with you for not only speaking for them, but also for diluting the very concept of racism). Look for the Settler who speaks as though there exists some ceremony wherein a Settler is symbolically transformed and thereafter accepted by an indigenous community as being indigenous themselves (hint: there is no such ceremony — a Settler will always be a Settler, even if they have assimilated into indigenous culture; and likewise, an indigenous person will always be indigenous, even if they have assimilated into either colonial or white supremacist culture).
A second but equally important step towards decolonization is acknowledging that when speaking of indigenous peoples, one is not necessarily (and in fact, is unlikely) speaking of “pure” indigeneity. Apart from the Captain Obvious example of the Metis, who are a people of mixed indigenous and Settler heritage and were traditionally exposed to both cultures of their origins, most indigenous peoples of today are of blended heritage. This is partly an effect of colonization, and partly an effect of indigenous peoples of North America settling elsewhere — sometimes for a few years, and sometimes for a few generations. This phenomenon isn’t one-sided, either. Many Settlers in North America have some indigenous ancestors. But there’s a difference between being of mixed ethnic heritage and being an active part of each culture from which you originate.
Personally speaking, I am Anglo-Saxon and Jute on my father’s side; and Jewish, Polish, and Caucasian on my mother’s side. But I’m not actively taking part in any of these cultures, and was not taught by either my parents or my grandparents, to speak Hebrew, Polish, (what would now be) Russian, or (what would now be) Danish. The many spiritualities, traditions, cultures, songs, mythologies, and wisdom of my ancestors were not passed down to me or my two sisters. It is in this sense that I can profoundly relate to indigenous peoples who are only beginning to learn for the first time about their own culture(s) of origin through their participation in the Idle No More movement, as I learn alongside them and work to share that knowledge as widely and accurately as possible. This is where another grey area I’ve referred to at the beginning of this post emerges: the intersection of the indigenous identity with an unconscious process of mental colonization.
Many indigenous people have been living equally as immersed in white supremacy and colonialism as the Settlers all around them. They have themselves become colonized, and have to work just as hard as even the whitest Settlers, to decolonize themselves. And just as for those Settlers who will find the route to decolonization both within Idle No More and by virtue of the whole movement itself, indigenous people who are struggling to understand that they have internalized colonialism (and then, just how deeply it runs within) will find their answers in the same places. The process of decolonization is, at first, no different for an indigenous person than for a Settler. There are basic points of unity we all need to understand before we stop being complicit with and actively a part of colonialism and white supremacy. Because we have all been equally susceptible to internalizing colonialism and white supremacy (even though it disproportionately disadvantages indigenous peoples), we all have to take the same first steps to start that change from within. Just beyond these basic points of unity, though, individual paths will unfold for which no generalization can be appropriate.
It has been my observation, and I know I am not alone in this, that some indigenous people who are struggling to understand how to decolonize themselves stop the process at the point where they recognize who is indigenous and who is a Settler, and that the over-arching dominant culture of North America is structured on principles of white supremacy and colonialism. The resulting impulse is simply to invert these relationships, or turn them on their heads, and begin promoting indigeneity as a superior quality or state of being (which is no more in line with the principle of the two-row wampum belt than the unequal relationship being inverted). It is a critique, if you will, and a powerful one at that, of colonialism and white supremacy. I have been known to apply these critiques in a limited capacity within some of my writing, such as when I say “In 1492, Christopher Columbus was discovered lost at sea by indigenous peoples.” I truly believe there is a time and a place for this critique, and the #Ottawapiskat and #Upsettlers trends on Twitter are perfect (and often hilarious) examples.
But when this is all there is to an indigenous person’s efforts to decolonize themselves, there is a problem brewing. These are the voices who will appeal to Settlers who have no grasp of their own heritage — Settlers who, thus, get caught unconsciously seeking ways to co-opt or appropriate much of what uniquely characterizes indigeneity. This mutually reinforcing relationship of relatively quick-and-easy decolonization, fraught with problems as it already is at this point, also promotes groupthink. Whether or not groupthink is what led to Jessica Gordon and Sylvia McAdam repeatedly mishandling their time in the spotlight in national news, to dispute tactics instead of focusing on the issues, is anyone’s guess (see this open letter to these two women, who are part of the “Idle No More Four”). But without a doubt in my mind, groupthink is what promoted a lot of the misguided and unreasoned criticisms that unfolded from the publishing of that letter (see this follow-up post, wherein I transparently engage the many complex reasons for my deliberate and strategic application of white privilege in the composition and delivery of the message contained in the open letter). And one thing I can promise you is that no matter what your ethnic heritage or cultural background, groupthink and grassroots don’t mix.
As people living on this land together, we all need to keep working continuously at decolonization, every day, to put a stop to systemic social injustices on this land. We are all from different places, cultures, peoples, walks of life, and at different stages of the process; and as such, we need to promote harmony over unity and diversity of tactics over the idea that only peaceful protest is allowed — this is especially true when the meaning of “peaceful protest” remains both undefined and unqualified. We also need to keep an open dialogue about which tactics aren’t working, and why, in order to keep working towards harmony with one another. We can return to the harmonious relationship we once had, 8 generations ago, if we all do the work to honour the spirit and intent of the two-row wampum belt.