Tag Archives: settler colonialism

Summary of ‘Urbanizing Frontiers’ by Penelope Edmonds

Penelope Edmonds: Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th Century Pacific Rim Cities

urbanizingfrontierspicThis is a summary of a new book by Penelope Edmonds, comparing two settler colonial cities—Victoria in Canada and Melbourne in Australia—to reveal the operations of British settler colonialism in the 19th century, and its implications for settler colonialism today. She focuses on the ways that both cities increasingly regulated bodies and spaces in attempts to create civilized, British subjects, and to dispossess and discipline indigenous people and control and police indigenous bodies.  I drew heavily on Edmonds’ work in a recent piece I wrote about the acknowledgement of territories by Victoria’s newly-elected mayor, Lisa Helps, her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, and the racist backlash that followed.  Edmonds wrote an article called “Unpacking Settler Colonialism’s Urban Strategies,” which unpacks a lot of the book, especially as it pertains to Victoria, specifically.  It’s available here.

Victoria vs. Melbourne

I live in Victoria, so in this summary I focus in particular on Edmonds’ work on this city, with less of a focus on Melbourne. Compared to Melbourne, the dispossession and violence perpetrated in Victoria against indigenous peoples was more subtle and less overt. In Melbourne, pastoralism meant that indigenous people were quickly targeted for removal and elimination, whereas in Victoria, the mercantilist economy of resource extraction (especially the fur trade) meant that indigenous people were necessary, and they were much more a part of the emerging colonial city:

During the fur trade, there was great violence, but land was largely under the control of Frist Nations, because mercantilism left Aboriginal peoples on their land. Settler colonialism, by contrast, sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their land and denied or extinguished Native title. In the Australian pastoral frontier, land, not labour, was the primary object. It was an object that was pursued with rapidity and violence. (33)

Colonial Frontiers

Edmonds suggests that the ‘colonial frontier’ has been conceptualized as “a distinctly non-urban geographical space that sits somewhere out in the country or borderlands” (5). She shows how frontiers exist within urban spaces (through the segregation and contestations around spaces) and in intimate/bodily relations (through attempts to maintain the racial purity of whiteness and concomitant attempts to police indigenous bodies). These frontiers are “mercurial, transactional, and, importantly, intimate and gendered” (6). This is a counterhistory of Empire, which challenges the amnesia of settler colonialism, which makes its own processes seem natural and normal (to settlers, at least). This historical amnesia is political, writing out the dispossession of indigenous people, and the political processes and struggles that attempted to make Victoria into a white, propertied, bourgeois space. In this context, Edmonds explains that she seeks to “indigenize historical understanding of the settler-colonial city by focusing on human stories and individual lives transformed in the context of British colonizing structures and urbanization in the Pacific Rim” (9).

Counter-history

Edmonds notes how dominant histories create a top-down view of power, privileging narratives of individual white males and military engagements in a supposedly linear process of colonialism (6). These condition the idea of Victoria as it’s marketed to tourists, as ‘more English than the English’ which erases the way that space in Victoria was transactional, heterogeneous, and contested. Furthermore, Edmonds argues that geography and urban planning has tended to understand colonialism in functionalistic ways, focusing on the circulation of products and goods, omitting “the important human and cultural aspects of empire’s urbanizing landscapes: the displacements and transformations of peoples and ideas” (50).

Crucial to this counter-history is a conception of space and race as a processes, and an attempt to reveal the lived realities of these cities. Whereas race and urban space tend to be understood as natural or given, Edmonds draws on Henri Lefebvre’s work to show how space “is a process of uneven power inscription that reproduces itself and creates oppressive spatial categories” (10). In this sense, spaces are always contested: “the unequal distribution of power in social space becomes naturalized and its operations forgotten. That is, spaces obscure the conditions of their own production” (10). To write counterhistory and reveal the production of spaces, then, requires tracking the “generative processes” that make spaces work in the ways they do (11). In the case of both settler-colonial cities, these crucial processes included the “regulation, partition, and sequestration of Aboriginal peoples and attempts to control so-called mixed-race relatiosnhips” (12). Indigenous peoples were systematically constructed as nuisances and prostitutes, and indigenous spaces in the city were represented as bedlam, chaos, disease and filth. Edmonds argues that these categories are key to understanding the production of space in Victoria, and to understanding the process of settler colonialism more broadly.

Victoria was constructed as a white (initially Anglo-Saxon) space. Edmonds suggests that whiteness needs to be understood not simply as a skin colour but “as a strategy of power or a set of political relations” which is associated with property and the segregation of bodies (17). She explains that “shoring up a white settler population became a priority in both sites, especially after the 1860s” (45). This involved engineered immigration schemes to encourage Anglo-Saxon migration and discourage Chinese immigration.

Dispossession

The supremacy of settler society and the backwardness of indigenous peoples was legitimated by stadial theory, in which four various modes of production (hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce) conceptualized as hierarchical and successive forms of human progress. Specific to stadial theory was not simply the concept of different modes of production, or their hierarchy, but the linear telos: “pastoralists were not merely superior to nomads; they were so because they had once been nomads but were no longer” (58). This meant that indigenous lands were conceptualized as ‘wastes’, waiting to be improved by European agriculture and industry, and “the precondition for the highest stage of progress and commerce was the absence of Indigenous peoples in the city” (61).

The Douglas treaties were modeled on the idea that Indigenoups people had “the right of occupancy but not property”—their claims “extended only to their cultivated fields and building sites or villages” (42). These cultivated fields had to be enclosed to be considered cultivated, so this did not extend to camas fields. Legally, indigenous people could ‘pre-empt’ land within the terms of colonial law, by clearing it, fencing it, and building a house. Edmonds doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s striking that owning land requires clearing, fencing, and dwelling like settlers.

Edmonds only briefly discusses the cultivation of camas in and around Victoria (90-97) and notes that colonizers immediately saw camas meadows as future sites for agriculture (94). Edmonds traces early settler imaginings of land to show how they followed stadial accounts of “two modes of subsistence—the uncultivated inviting land and the land transformed by European agriculture” (96). The land that Douglas described as a ‘perfect Eden’ was most likely Meegan, or “Beacon Hill Park.” Settlers systematically appropriated these camas fields: wherever Europeans sought to settle on the islands of the Puget Sound, they looked for these open meadows… these fields that in fact had been cultivated by Coast Salish peoples” (96).

Edmonds suggests that the enclosure of these fields were closely linked to broader processes of dispossession and dominance:

the balance soon tipped in favour of the newcomers as the gradual encroachment of fields for cultivation, the grazing of livestock, and the allotment of lands pushed Lekwammen people off their lands and threatened the camas bulb fields on which they subsisted. A growing cadaster of European-style fields began to overcode Aboriginal land (98).

This encroachment was resisted by indigenous people, who “retaliated against the invasion by harvesting the settlers’ cattle” (98). When these tensions escalated, Lekwungen people threatened to attack the fort, and the HBC fired a cannon into the chief’s house (which was empty) as a demonstration of military strength. As Edmonds explains, this display of “sheer firepower” and outright violence “would be used repeatedly in Victoria and the surrounding area to elicit co-operation from local peoples” (98).

Settler-colonial cities

Edmonds points out that transnational colonialism made metropolitanism possible: the grand metropoles of Europe were produced through the exploitation of Europe’s colonies. The city was the epitome and consummation of colonialism as a complex assemblage, involving “specific styles of architectures, certain kinds of transport and communications, hygiene and the regulation of bodies” (61). This corresponded to the ideal subject of colonialism and universal history, Civis Britannicus: “Defined by and made through his global entitleemtns, civis Britannicus could make tranglobal journeys between British settler colonies, where he (not Indigenous peoples) would be configured as native” (64).

Abjection of indigenous spaces and bodies

A central focus of Edmonds work is the representations of indigenous peoples by colonial newspapers, authorities, and settler subjects. They were part of settler fears and anxieties about indigenous peoples. Crucially, they were connected to property values: indigenous peoples were represented as “nuisances” and their existence “render[s] property in their quarter useless” (191). The Native camps were inscribed with European medical ideas about racial hygiene, and posed “as the antithesis of the ordered, rational civil space of the gridded city” (197). This was part of a new set of regulations around contagious diseases in colonies, which “identified female prostitutes as the main source of contagion” (220). Indigenous womenThe medicalization and pathologization of indigenous people helped to erase the complicity of settlers in the theft of land and the policing of indigenous people, positioning settlers as virtuous, moral, and law-abiding (200). This went hand in hand with ongoing attempts to control space and increasing encroachments on the Lekwungen reserve, along with efforts to get control of it and remove indigenous people. Settlers fought about different strategies: missionaries and assimilation, expropriation, purchase, or ‘waiting until they became extinct’ were some of the options discussed. This finally happened in 1911, when a select number of families were paid ten thousand dollars each and forced to relocate (205).

The bridge between the reserve in Esquimalt and the fort in Victoria was a particularly prominent frontier, constructed as “a liminal space, a border between civilization and savagery” (202). Colonial authorities used surveillance and curfews in an attempt to enforce this partition, in an effort to keep indigenous peoples on the other side of the bridge: “they decreed that an Aboriginal person found on the wrong side of the bridge after 10pm could, at the discretion of the police, be searched and detained” (202). The reserve thus increasingly “became a space of confinement within the cityscape” (202). Edmonds also shows how vagrancy was largely a charge reserved for settlers who entered indigenous spaces: the partition was enforced on both sides, though settlers were always punished less severely (213).

This was part of a broad regime of surveillance and control in Victoria. Edmonds reveals the way that Douglas deployed the “civilizing power of the grid. The grid plan, with the help of police surveillance on every corner, he hoped, would both organize and discipline First Nations subjects and reshape their subjectivities (209). This was part of the shift to increasingly modern, disciplinary forms of power in settler colonial cities, relying less on overt and explicit violence, and more on policing and surveillance, including a formal pass system. At the same time, she notes that this disciplinary power was “backed by the exceptional violence of sovereign power” (209). If indigenous people didn’t conform to the grid and the regulated spaces of the city, there was always the possibility of execution, lashings, and other forms of violence.

In addition to its racialization, this violence was also gendered. Edmonds explains that “violence by European men against Aboriginal women was frequent and stunningly brutal” (215). In fact, her evidence is drawn primarily from police reports, which means she is documenting a high level of reported gendered violence, let alone that which was not reported, or ignored by police.

Edmonds sums up her argument about bodies and spaces:

As has been shown, in the early streeets of Victoria an dMelbourne, Indigenous peoples were routinely described as ‘inconvenient,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘nuisances,’ ‘vagrants,’ or ‘prostitutes,’ but to varying degrees. These categories, I propose, take us to the heart of the socio-spatial relations that are distinctive to settler colonialism and reveal how law and property served to racialize the streetscape. Racializations were not only amplified in these colonial contexts, they were also particular to the urbanizing settler landscape. In Malbourne and Victoria, Aboriginal peoples’s amps were not natural entities but spaces produced through colonial relations; likewise, colonized Indigenous bodies or subjects were materially produced as abject, unnautrual, and inconvenient entities. These productions, I argue, were directly related to the settlement phase, when the taking of First Nations land became a key objective (217).

Contact zones and resistance

Part of Edmonds’ counter-history entails revealing not just the dominant constructions of space, but also the ways that early settler colonial reality looked very different from the idealized, white, ordered spaces of the colonial imaginary. Edmonds seeks to “counter scholarship that posits colonialism as a unilnear projection from the metropole by denying the interactivity and subversions of the urbanizing frontier” (15). Settler colonial cities were (and are) “contact zones” which were contested and transactional. She also argues that indigenous women’s bodies were contact zones, and that “paying attention to indigenous womens’ bodies as particular sites of anxiety in the streetscape can tellus much about imagined colonial orders that were both imposed and defied” (16).

Indigenous people also resisted police authority. Among other incidents, in 1860, the newspaper reported that when police accused an indigenous man of stealing a watch and attempted to take him prisoner at an indigenous encampment, the police were “set upon by about one hundred men and women armed with pistols, knives, and clubs who demanded his release” (207).

Suburbia and the Creation of Anti-Indigenous Space

A short piece by Nathan Ince on the ways suburbs as a purification of settler space and the erasure of indigeneity: “This process of suburbanization could almost be viewed as a ritual of purification, as a potentially contested landscape is transformed into a sort of anti-Indigenous space, where not even memory of First Nations occupation is able to survive. While the process might not be conscious, it serves an undeniable purpose in Canadian society. Through a comprehensive transformation of the landscape, we are absolved of the sins of the past.

Similarly, many smoldering land claims burst into flames as soon the disputed land is slated for suburbanization. For the protesters at Oka and Caledonia, the development of their lands would have marked the point of no return, where their land would have been transformed beyond recognition or repair.”

White Pine History

The town of Waterdown is not often associated with history. Situated just north of Hamilton, the one-time village has seen an explosion of growth in recent years, with thousands of new houses being built in subdivisions on every side of the old core. While by no means the most striking example of suburbanization in Southern Ontario, I grew up only a few kilometers from Waterdown, and for me this development remains emblematic of what is perhaps the most radical transformation currently affecting the landscape of our region.

There is something fundamentally ahistoric about suburban growth. In the typical development of a subdivision, the landscape is bulldozed, the hills are flattened, the watercourses are channelized, and traditional land uses are replaced with a form of human settlement that has never before occupied the site. Non-native trees are planted along the lawns and driveways of residents who might imagine them to be…

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Kwetlal Against Colonialism: A Summary

This is Corey Snelgrove’s summary of his MA Thesis, drawing connections between environmentalism, colonization, and what he calls “settler stewardship”–settlers’ ways of knowing and relating to the land perpetuate and reify settler colonialism. All of this is grounded on Lekwungen Territory, in “Victoria” where he did his MA, and he also gestures towards productive alternatives where settlers are taking leadership from indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous relationships to land, worked through his participation in the Community Toolshed here:
“This orientation marks a difference between the Tool Shed and settler stewardship, and this difference is shared by many of those participating in the Tool Shed. For example, discussions with Community Tool Shed participants reveals a recognition of the entanglement between colonization and the environment. Participants also recognize the different role for non-Lekwungen peoples than Lekwungen peoples in engagements with the land, such as removal of invasive species versus the harvesting of camas. Additionally, participants do not seek to absolve themselves from colonization. Rather, they often trace their involvement to their implication in colonization.”

The following is a short summary of my Community Governance Project completed as partial fulfillment of an MA in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria under the supervision of Cheryl Bryce (Songhees) and Dr. Jeff Corntassel (Tsalagi)

I have never considered myself an environmentalist. And, to be clear, I still don’t.

Over the past two years though, I’ve found myself engaging in what are often referred to as environmental issues. Most specifically, I’ve been involved in the removal of invasive species from Garry oak ecosystems in Victoria, British Columbia. This work has mostly entailed the removal of scotch broom.

Introduced to these lands by the first independent settler on Vancouver Island, Broom is an invasive plant with deep, thick roots, and which produces up to 18,000 seeds that are in turn spread by human and non-human forces. Not only does removal require physical labour to uproot these plants, but it also requires…

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White Settlers and Indigenous Solidarity: Confronting White Supremacy, Answering Decolonial Alliances

“If white people who practice Indigenous solidarity miss, or never consider these nuances when invoking “settler” status, I am concerned that we then leave its whiteness normalized and unchallenged within our theories and activism.”

Decolonization

White settlers who seek solidarity with Indigenous challenges to settler colonialism must confront how white supremacy shapes settler colonialism, our solidarity, and our lives. As a white person working in Canada and the United States to challenge racism and colonialism (in queer / trans politics, and solidarity activism) I am concerned that white people might embrace Indigenous solidarity in ways that evade our responsibilities to people of color and to their calls upon us to challenge all forms of white supremacy. This essay presents my responsibilities to theories and practices of decolonization that connect Indigenous and racialized peoples. I highlight historical studies by Indigenous and critical race scholars — notably, those bridging black and Indigenous studies — as they illuminate deep interlockings of white supremacy and settler colonialism. I call white settlers to become responsible to these, and related projects, so as to challenge the authority we might claim, or…

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notes on a bioregional decolonization

Really thought-provoking and nuanced perspective on decolonizing bioregionalism: “For every thread in the fabric of colonialism, there is a story of resistance to be told. For every lie told by the civilizers, there is a truth to be told. For every place that has been decimated through industry and agriculture, there is still possible a good way to live there; and this way is kept alive in the stories of that particular place, the Indigenous Knowledge so viciously and systematically attacked by the colonizers. And each of us as an individual is a living story, connected to place(s) and ancestors, whose stories formed the world we live in today. Our identities are not static. Our stories evolve and our cultures evolve, as Cascadia herself rises in fire and falls into the sea. All of our stories need to be told, and in a way that empowers us in our responsibilities, not as a set of evasions or “settler moves to innocence5.” Telling our stories as our identities moves us beyond the dualism of guilt or innocence, denying neither, while illuminating our responsibilities as individuals and as Peoples in this life. (I reject the guilt-ridden associations of the word “responsibility” and embrace response-ability as the antidote to resignation and disempowerment)”

Míle Gaiscíoch

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The lands and waters of the Northeast Pacific Rim are a colony.  This was not always so.  Colonization began in the late 18th century and has continued unabated to the present day, as the centralization of power continues to be concentrated into a disembodied abstraction called Capital.  Prior to colonization, power was balanced throughout the many Nations here, each with their own decentralized network of autonomous clans, bands, villages, and families.  At that time, the epistemological separation between the Land and the People was contradictory to the cultures here, and it was exactly this division that the colonizers came here to enact in order to replace laws of relationship and reciprocity with resource extraction to feed the growth of Capital.  This process has turned living communities into dead commodities through the imposition of a culture of occupation1, and despite the many successful acts of defense and restoration…

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Dear Rex: Colonialism exists, and you’re it.

Dear Rex Murphy,

When you write that Canadians are offended at the term ‘settler’ and ‘genocide,’ you don’t speak for all of us.  I’m a Canadian citizen, my ancestors came to Canada from Europe a few centuries ago, and I understand myself as a settler.  It’s not disrespectful for indigenous peoples to remind us of Canada’s legacy of genocide.  It’s not rude for indigenous peoples to label as ‘colonial’ the connections between the industries of resource extraction, the RCMP, and the corporate media you write for.  What’s insulting is your attempt to paint Canada as benevolent, open, and respectful of indigenous peoples, and your contempt for any understanding of present-day colonialism and oppression in Canada.

rex-murphy-picI’m not an expert on colonialism, but clearly neither are you.  In reading your vitriolic editorial, it struck me that you clearly hate the term ‘settler’ and ‘colonialism’; however, your writing also indicates that you probably don’t actually understand what these terms mean.  So I’m writing to you, one white settler to another, to explain to you what settler colonialism means to me, and why I think it’s important for understanding (and living in) present-day Canada.  With that said, I’m not convinced you’re really ignorant of these terms; I think you have a sense of their meaning and the implications, and it terrifies you, but that terror turns to anger before you can really feel it.  I think you—and many other Canadians—know that something is deeply wrong, even if you can’t admit it to yourself.  It’s something in the air, something we feel in our gut: we’re caught up in something horrible, and we can’t go on this way.

I think that’s why the truths spoken by indigenous people provoke so much resentment in people like you: because you know they’re speaking the truth.  It’s plain for everyone to see: Elsipogtog and other instances of indigenous resistance aren’t political stunts by over-educated ‘radicals’ as you’d like to portray them; they are principled stands by everyday people—grandmothers, fathers, mothers, and their children—against rampant and unending extraction, exploitation, and destruction.  These communities are not motivated by abstract ideologies or university jargon, but by deep responsibilities and commitments to protect land and people.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it clearly:

The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every Indigenous nation:  Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The very active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state. We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same – intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships”, promises, placated resistance and then more broken promises. Then the cycle repeats itself.

This is the structure of settler colonialism.  One of the basic assumptions of your editorial—and virtually all other mainstream media coverage of Elsipogtog—is that colonialism happened sometime in the past, and since then Canada has done a lot to “right our historical wrongs.”  When do you imagine colonialism stopped happening in Canada?  When the last piece of land was mapped, surveyed, and appropriated for the Crown?  When government officials first broke their treaties with indigenous nations so that settlement and resource exploitation could continue?  When the last residential school was closed?  When Stephen Harper issued an official apology five years ago?  When he declared that Canada has no history of colonialism a year later?  Of course, Canada has changed, and so have settler attitudes.  But the structure of settler colonialism is still very much intact.

You will likely dismiss my words as part of the “academically-generated ‘narratives’ of colonialism.”  Indeed, I first learned about colonialism in university, and I’m a student of some of the “colonial theory” you denounce.  But I only learned about colonialism in university because my public school education taught me that indigenous peoples had been wiped out in Canada, victims of the inevitable and noble march of progress.  Why do you suppose our public school system hides the history of residential schools, forced removal of indigenous people, ecological devastation, racist policies, theft of land, and broken treaties?  Could it be that we’re trying to cover up the fact that Canadian colonialism never ended—that it’s an ongoing process?

More and more Canadians are beginning to see that an ever-expanding economy based on exploitation of land and people can’t go on forever, and the impacts are also hitting home in more communities.  More Canadians are recognizing that voting for someone every four years isn’t real enfranchisement, and that this system is designed to foreclose popular participation, not encourage it.  More of us are seeing the need to take a stand to protect our families, the places we love, non-human life, and future generations.  More Canadians are beginning to see that this is what indigenous people have been saying (and doing) all along: defending their lands and communities against an ongoing colonial process.  With these recognitions comes one of the least comfortable: that we are caught up in this process—deeply enmeshed and complicit in it—as settlers.

Just as we feel the wrongness of colonialism in our gut, we can feel the emptiness of settler ways of life.  This isn’t just about “mentalities,” as you suggest, although the way we think is certainly part of it.  It’s most concretely about how we relate to each other and the land that sustains us (whether we recognize it or not).  Settler colonialism has produced a world where our food is industrialized and grown with chemicals, our political system is rigidly bureaucratic and exclusive, our culture promotes objectification and normalizes rape, our economic system is premised on exploitation and unending growth, our divisions of labour are racist and patriarchal, almost all forests and ecosystems have been pillaged and degraded, and our everyday lives are increasingly mediated through bureaucracies and commodities.  This is not to say that indigenous people are somehow outside these ways of life; however, they have consistently resisted our attempts at assimilation and resource exploitation.  They have maintained and revitalized their own ways of life, and have refused to be incorporated into the fold of settler colonialism.  Elsipogtog is only the latest conflict in a centuries-long struggle.

Our ways of life are predicated upon the continued subjugation of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of their lands.  For settlers, this is a terrifying thing to recognize: if our whole lives are based on this system, how could we be otherwise?  For many Canadians—and I think you’re part of this group, Rex—this uncertainty is quickly converted into a glib certainty that the problem is them: they’ve failed to integrate, or failed to govern themselves, or failed to obey the (our) law.  The settler problem gets converted into the age-old Indian problem.  But I think we know, deep down, even when we’re in denial, that it’s us: that we need to take action and change ourselves through the process.

We are living in the midst of indigenous resurgence.  All over the lands claimed by Canada, indigenous peoples are revitalizing their traditions and languages, reclaiming their lands and responsibilities, and refusing the colonial status quo.  We’re also in the midst of a decline of faith in the ways of life we’ve created, even among those most privileged by this system: the middle-class dream is evaporating, we’re hurtling towards ecological collapse, and the alliances between corporations and politicians are increasingly obvious.  Settlers—some of us—are learning to listen to that feeling of wrongness in our gut, unsettling ourselves, building solidarity, and finding new (and old) ways of relating.  None of us have figured it out, but more of us are recognizing that things need to change, and the problem is as much ‘in here’ as ‘out there’.  There is no neutral territory here, because doing nothing carries us along with the flow of colonialism.

We can’t wait for everyone.  Indigenous peoples can never afford to wait for support from settler society, and struggles in the future will continue to involve contention and conflict.  Settlers are learning how to take leadership from indigenous communities, and real alliances and solidarities are being forged.  As we learn to listen to our gut and shake off our colonial baggage, indigenous people defending their lands seem increasingly reasonable and admirable, and the supporters of colonialism, like you, Rex, seem pitiful and dangerous.

Sincerely,

Nick Montgomery

Here’s a link to Rex Murphy’s original editorial

From the Indian Problem to the Settler Problem: reactionaries, multiculturalists and decolonization.

The recent controversy over former BC NDP candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyk’s racism is part of a longstanding pattern in Canada.  The mainstream media tends to frame these controversies as a debate between politically correct multiculturalists (like Adrian Dix) and reactionary racists (like Van Ryswyk).  Both sides present different solutions to the “Indian Problem,” by asking how the Canadian government should deal with indigenous peoples.  Forced out of this mainstream debate is the “Settler Problem:” the ongoing colonial present, and the possibilities of grassroots resistance, solidarity and decolonization.

Dayleen Van Ryswyk was recently forced to resign over comments she made about First Nations (and Quebecois) in an online discussion forum.  Some highlights from her online tirades:

“It’s not the status cards, it’s the fact that we have been paying out of the nose for generations for something that isn’t our doing. If their ancestors sold out too cheap it’s not my fault and i shouldn’t have to be paying for any mistake or whatever you want to call it from MY hard earned money.”

dryswyk“I don’t think anyone is saying that wrongs didn’t happen (incredible wrongs) you could have almost any race, group or ethnic people tell you horrible haunting stories of what happened to them. […] In my opinion, holding an entire group of people liable for something that happened hundreds of years ago, people who weren’t even alive yet for the wrongs of their ancestors is ridiculous.”

“I’m getting so sick of having french stuffed down my throat..this isn’t Quebec,,it’s western Canada…we speak english here…so does the majority of Canada. I’m offended that the french is spoken first. […] Why can’t we celebrate Canada’s diverse cultures..everyone..not just natives!”

Van Ryswyk was quickly forced to resign by BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, and she quickly received a flood of support from her constituents in Kelowna and others across Canada.  Now she’s running as an independent.  Recent polls by Castanet showed 73% of those polled didn’t think Van Ryswyk’s comments were inappropriate, and 49% will vote for her (against the runner-up Liberal candidate with 40%).

In short, Ryswyk’s comments may have made her more popular, and her comments clearly resonate with many Canadians.  Others (including the BC Liberals and NDPers) have insisted her comments were racist, offensive, and inappropriate.  Van Ryswyk and her supporters have insisted that Van Ryswyk was just saying what most politicians won’t, because of political correctness.  So is Van Ryswyk racist, or is she just cutting through the bullshit of Canadian political correctness?

Both.  The debate between Ryswyk and other, more ‘tolerant’ politicians repeats a pattern of debate in the mainstream media between reactionaries and multiculturalists.  Elsewhere, I’ve called them Upsettler zombies and Monarchist demons.  Both camps ultimately reinforce Canada’s colonial present by presenting different solutions to the same problem.

Reactionaries and the exploitation of indigenous lands

On Ryswyck’s side are the Canadian reactionaries: settlers who resent what they see as Canada’s “special treatment” of indigenous peoples.  They tend mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, claiming that indigenous peoples receive undue ‘handouts’ from federal and provincial governments.  Recently disgraced Canadian academic Tom Flanagan publicly held this view for decades (and still does).  His book First Nations, Second Thoughts basically calls for the end to Aboriginal status: indigenous peoples should be stripped of any special rights or entitlements, so that they are the same as other Canadians.  In the BC context, Mel Smith’s best-seller, Our Home Or Native Land famously attacks indigenous land claims:

Tiny communities are given enormous tracts of land while the majority of Canadians is not only ignored but kept in the dark. Incredible sums of money are spent–worse, even larger amounts are committed to be paid by future generations.

The views of Flanagan and Smith dovetail with Van Ryswyk’s and a flood of others who reacted to Idle No More with outrage and hatred, such Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who likened indigenous communities to tiny, delusional, dysfunctional municipalities, entirely dependent on government subsidies.  A recent editorial in the Nanaimo Daily News by Don Olsen argued that indigenous societies are primitive peoples, devoid of technology and civilization, who now lack the ability to take care of themselves.  Michelle Tittler runs a facebook page entitled “End Race-Based Law,” calling for an end to any laws that distinguish First Nations people from settler Canadians.  Like other reactionaries, these tirades are often couched in the language of equality.  Olsen proclaims that the only solution is to “bring them into society as equals. They should be getting jobs and paying taxes like the rest of us.”

The idea that indigenous peoples are dependent on subsidies and so need to be “brought in” to Canadian society is one of the most prevalent myths in Canada.  For example, when Idle No More began, the Conservative government leaked documents about Attawapiskat, suggesting fiscal mismanagement and corruption by Chief Theresa Spence.  But as Drew Oja Jay explains,

Right now, DeBeers is constructing a $1 billion mine on the traditional territory of the Āhtawāpiskatowi ininiwak. Anticipated revenues will top $6.7 billion. Currently, the Conservative government is subjecting the budget of the Cree to extensive scrutiny. But the total amount transferred to the First Nation since 2006 — $90 million — is a little more than one per cent of the anticipated mine revenues. As a percentage, that’s a little over half of Harper’s cut to GST.
Royalties from the mine do not go to the First Nation, but straight to the provincial government. The community has received some temporary jobs in the mine, and future generations will have to deal with the consequences of a giant open pit mine in their back yard.
Attawapiskat is subsidizing DeBeers, Canada and Ontario.

Indigenous peoples are not economically dependent on Canada; Canada is economically dependent on the exploitation of indigenous lands (and on the subjugation of indigenous peoples who would protect those lands).  When indigenous peoples refuse to accept resource extraction on their lands, the reactionaries call for the ‘rule of law.’  Since the law allows for resource extraction and environmental destruction and criminalizes resistance, they are calling for the continuation of settler colonialism.  ‘Canada’ is made possible through this ongoing colonization, and it has consistently tried to assimilate and eliminate indigenous people so that land exploitation can continue.

These views aren’t just racist, radical outliers on the fringe of Canadian ideology.  They’re entirely in line with much of Canadian policy and practice.  For example, Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper aimed to wipe away any special relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.  The White Paper sought to eliminate “Indian status” and treat indigenous peoples as citizens with the same rights as settler Canadians.  This was a final solution to the problem indigenous peoples posed to land exploitation and settlement, and the White Paper was only defeated because of a wave of mobilizations and resistance across indigenous communities and the lands claimed by Canada.  When reactionaries mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, they’re in line with past policies like the White Paper, which would assimilate indigenous peoples completely and immediately into settler society, at least under Canadian law.

Multiculturalists, benevolence, and land negotiations

On the opposing side of the mainstream debate are the Canadian multiculturalists. They advocate a more measured approach, supporting some combination of reform and recognition of the special status of First Nations.  BC leader Adrian Dix quickly denounced Ryswyk’s comments as “unacceptable” and forced her to resign.  He is likely to be the next Premier of BC, and the NDP is being billed as a party that is more sensitive to the concerns of environmentalists and indigenous peoples.  Multiculturalists are much more willing to negotiate with First Nations, as long as they don’t get in the way of the Canadian economy and its industries.  Multiculturalists support some version of limited self-government, the resolution of land claims, and special rights for First Nations.

Multiculturalists are experts at appearing benevolent and respectful.  A Dix government in BC will try to kill the Enbridge pipeline plan and invest in ‘green’ initiatives, but it will support other pipelines, logging of old growth forests, and other industries on unceded indigenous territories.  Indigenous communities will continue to be faced with blackmails framed as opportunities: collaborate with ecologically disastrous resource extraction and get a tiny portion of the revenue, or resist, receive nothing, and the project will likely go ahead anyway.  But multiculturalists would never put it in such stark terms.  They are always in favour of negotiations, reasonableness, and compromise.  For federal and provincial governments, this means negotiating with First Nations band councils on special rights, entitlements, forms of self-governance, and revenue-sharing agreements, without radically reshaping Canada or its relationship to indigenous peoples.

A prime example of this is the British Columbia Treaty Commission.  The BCTC is often celebrated as an example of decolonization and multiculturalism.  It is supposed to result in the return of unceded territories to indigenous peoples in BC and usher in a new relationship between settler governments and indigenous peoples.  But the process was designed by Canadian settlers, and indigenous peoples were then invited to negotiate for a tiny portion of their lands (around 5%) through their band councils.  If negotiations ever finish, the land is not returned to indigenous peoples allowing them to manage it and govern it autonomously; all land remains under federal and provincial authority, reclassified under the Land Title Act.  Taiaiake Alfred outlines the extreme limitations of the BCTC process:

  • No recovery of indigenous lands held by private individuals.
  • Municipalities retain present legal authorities in indigenous territories.
  • Non-indigenous people have access to indigenous lands.
  • Non-indigenous people not subject to indigenous laws.
  • No new budgetary allocations for agreements.
  • Federal government pays most of the costs of negotiations and agreements.
  • Non-indigenous companies on indigenous lands will be paid a settlement.
  • Province keeps control resource management and environmental protection.

Federal and provincial governments aren’t negotiating with indigenous peoples with the aim of returning any of their lands.  The intention is to change the way a small portion of these lands are classified under Canadian law, while ensuring complete control over the rest.  The government also loans First Nations the money required for the legal fees in this process, sending them into crippling debt, which forces them to follow through on the process so that they can use their settlements to pay it off.  The BCTC requires indigenous peoples to give up the capacity to advance any future assertions of rights or land claims as part of the agreement.  The federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development explains the economic imperative behind the BCTC:

Uncertainty about the existence and location of Aboriginal rights create uncertainty with respect to ownership, use and management of land and resources. That uncertainty has led to disruptions and delays to economic activity in BC. It has also discouraged investment.

The consequences of not concluding treaties are lost economic activity as well as escalating court costs and continued uncertainty. Key benefits of negotiated settlements are economic and legal certainty as well as harmonized arrangements between the different levels of government.

The overarching aim of the BCTC is to ensure that settler governments can have economic and political certainty over land and resources, so that resource extraction and industrialization can continue.  As Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Johnny Mack writes:

The conclusion seems unavoidable – the provisions [of the BCTC] ensure that we are still subject to a constitutional legal order that we did not create, and within that order, only 5 percent of the lands taken from us will be returned to us.  Rather than providing for a reincorporation of the colonial takings into our own story, this process acquires our consent to lock that plunder into the state structure, where it will be subject to state authority and exposed to the hungry forces of the global market.

This situation has led many indigenous people (and whole communities) to abandon the BCTC and other offers of reconciliation by colonial authorities.  These policies are the legacy of multiculturalism in Canada, which promise reconciliation and respectful relationships.  As an indigenous mentor once explained to me, this is like breaking into someone’s house, killing most of their family, and trying to force them into the closet for years while we ransack the place and make ourselves at home.  Indigenous peoples resisted the whole way along, and most forms of resistance are criminalized.  The reactionaries are angry that they still have to put up with people making noise in the closet, and they are especially outraged when the homeowners disrupt the goings-on in the rest of the house.  The multiculturalists announce that they want to negotiate and maybe indigenous peoples can have one more room in the house, under certain conditions.  Neither party ever considers the fact that they’re uninvited guests, living in a stolen house, and destroying it.

Reactionary and Multicultural solutions to the “Indian Problem”

Multiculturalists and reactionaries are often portrayed as polar opposites by the mainstream media.  The reactionaries like Van Rysywyk go on racist tirades, and the multiculturalists denounce this racism and call for respectful relationships with First Nations.  Each camp resonates with different segments of the Canadian population.  The reactionaries play on liberal notions of individual equality, mixed with the racist underpinnings of Canada and its attempts to eliminate indigenous peoples.  The multiculturalists play on a different version of liberal equality, combined with the fantasy of a Canada where indigenous peoples are a little bit different, and a few policy tweaks makes everyone get along.  To be clear, I’m not saying indigenous peoples shouldn’t negotiate with governments, or that they’re naive for doing so.  I’m talking about the way in which Canadian multiculturalism is framed as respectful negotiation, while continuing to impose colonial structures on indigenous peoples.

The reactionary and the multiculturalist are two different solutions to the “Indian Problem” in Canada.  The Indian Problem is a phrase made famous by Duncan Campbell Scott at the beginning of the 20th century, who sought to eliminate all indigenous peoples, either by outright extermination or forced assimilation:

“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.”

This was the explicit purpose of Canada’s Indian Act.  Some of its most heinous elements, such as residential schools, have since been abolished over the last half-century, but the Indian Problem continues to inform the way governments (and most Canadians) understand their relationship to indigenous peoples.  When the Indian Act failed to destroy indigenous communities and eliminate all indigenous ways of life, Trudeau and others attempted to use the language of equality to finally assimilate them.  In a different way, as Taiaiake Alfred explains, the BCLT is structured as a final solution to the Indian Problem:

In essence, the BCTC process is designed to solve the perceived problem of indigenous nationhood by extinguishing it and bringing indigenous peoples into Canada’s own domestic political and legal structures with certainty and finality […] the federal and provincial governments are evidently seeking to consolidate the assimilation and control they have gained over indigenous peoples and their lands since the collapse of indigenous social and political strength as a result of the mass dying by epidemic diseases – a tragedy that began to recede only in the early part of the 20th century.

Indigenous peoples are still prevented from accessing the vast amount of their traditional territories, and settler colonialism continues to occupy indigenous lands, extract resources from them, and subjugate indigenous peoples.  When colonialism is discussed at all, it is framed in terms of the Indian Problem: what do we do about them?  What do they want from us?  How can we finally ‘move on’?  The Canadian government still seeks to manage, assimilate, or eliminate indigenous peoples and their ways of life.  That is the endgame of colonialism.

Reactionaries want to solve the Indian Problem by getting rid of any special status and assimilating indigenous peoples as equal citizens under Canadian law.  The multiculturalist wants to allow some room for special rights and entitlements, and limited self-government, while ensuring that resource extraction and industrial development can continue.  Both views lead settlers to understand colonialism as an “Aboriginal issue” that happened in the past, to be resolved by governments, with no implications for the daily lives of settlers.  Settlers keep living in the house, arguing about whether indigenous peoples should be allowed a whole room, just a closet, or nothing at all.

The Settler Problem: complicity and decolonization

The problem is the Indian Problem itself.  It tries to deal with indigenous peoples from within a colonial framework, and leaves that framework intact while framing colonialism as something in the past.  As Adam Barker and others have argued in recent years, Canada actually has a ‘Settler Problem:’

“Settler people who are so immersed in colonial psychology that their political structures make co-existence with Indigenous peoples impossible.”

The Settler Problem invites settlers to focus the problem on ourselves, our institutions, and our inheritance of a colonial system that shapes the way we relate to indigenous peoples, each other, and the land we live on.  The Settler Problem is ongoing; it’s not a past wrong to remedy through reparations.  Settlers came, committed genocide, set up colonial institutions, occupied and pillaged the land, and we’ve inherited this situation.  The recognition of settler involvement in ongoing colonialism often provokes paralyzing guilt or denial.  A common reaction is that ‘we’ didn’t do anything; it was our ancestors (or other peoples’ ancestors).

Settlers are often eager to point out that they or their ancestors didn’t benefit from colonialism.  My great great grandfather was an Irish indentured servant who was forced to come here and work for nothing.  This implies colonialism is about individual blame or guilt, and we’re either guilty or we’re not.  But this individualistic response frames colonialism as part of the past, rather than an ongoing project.  As Lorenzo Veracini and Edward Cavanaugh write, in the definition of settler colonialism:

settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; […] settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear).

The Settler Problem frames colonization as an ongoing phenomenon; it’s happening right now and we’re implicated in it, whether we like it or not.  White, middle-class settlers like me are the ones with enough privilege to ignore it if we choose to: settler colonialism can fade into the background for some of us, as a way of life that seems normal and natural.  Not all settlers have this option, and the settler/indigenous dichotomy can flatten out differences between settlers.  ‘Settlers’ are often implicitly white, European-descended people whose ancestors took part in conquest and slavery.  Depending on how it’s used, the term ‘settler’ can miss the ways that privileged white men like me are positioned differently from people who don’t benefit from the linked systems of capital accumulation, heteropatriarchy, and racism.  But acknowledging these differences, privileges, and positions in the structure of settler colonialism doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t affect the ways we live our everyday lives.  The concept of ‘complicity’ has been advanced as a way to move beyond individualistic discussions of privilege, towards the ways that people are positioned differently in the colonial structure, with implications for collective action.  As Beenash Jafri explains:

Complicity hasn’t been circulated in the same way as privilege. Nor are there many handy pedagogical tools or checklists for thinking about complicity. Complicity is a messy, complicated and entangled concept to think about; it is not as easy to grasp and, because of this, it requires a much deeper investment on our part. This would demand, for example, that we think about settlerhood not as an object that we possess, but as a field of operations into which we become socially positioned and implicated.

Complicity might offer a way out of individualistic, guilt-ridden discussions that often plague settlers’ coming-to-awareness of our roles in this process.  Complicity focuses our attention on relationships and institutions, rather than individual identities.  I don’t think this means that differences are flattened out, or oppression doesn’t matter; I will always have to keep unlearning my own heteropatriarchal, racist, colonial ways of thinking and being as a white guy; that unlearning is crucial for respectful relationships across difference.  As El Machetero explains, complicity helps frame oppression and resistance as a collective project:

It also focuses much less on individuals, and much more on this system and its accompanying parasitical lifestyles, understanding that this is an arrangement which is violent, genocidal and ecocidal (since it increasingly involves the actual destruction of the land itself) and which makes accomplices of us all. What matters more than where such a system would choose to locate us for its own ends is what we choose to do together with one another, the strength and quality of the relationships and communities we build, and our knowledge of the context in which we live and our foresight towards the consequences which emerge from the choices we make within it.

Towards collective decolonization

The solution to the Settler Problem is collective decolonization: moving towards non-dominating relationships between settlers, indigenous peoples, and ecosystems.  I have no idea what these decolonized relationships will look like, but I know it will take more than a multiculturalist yearning for a kinder Canada, or outraged denunciations of Van Ryswyk and other reactionaries, or a guilt-ridden ‘awareness’ of settler colonialism.  What would it mean for settlers to act like uninvited guests?  What are our responsibilities as settlers?  What happens when settlers give up on their certainty and sense of entitlement to indigenous lands?  How can settlers divest themselves from a faith in government and begin to build direct relationships with indigenous communities?  How can settlers build alliances with indigenous peoples and help stop the destruction and exploitation of their lands?  If settler colonialism is a ‘field of operations,’ how do we navigate this field?  How can we disrupt its operations and construct alternatives?  People are already asking and responding to these questions.  There are indigenous peoples and settlers across the territories claimed by Canada who are resisting settler colonialism and working towards decolonization.

Many of these efforts were galvanized by Idle No More, though INM is only the most recent and visible movement of resistance and decolonization amongst indigenous peoples.  From the perspective of the mainstream media, Idle No More seems to have vanished, but this is only because the mainstream media can only see things from the vantage point of the Indian Problem.  If indigenous peoples aren’t publicly protesting and presenting demands to governments, there’s nothing happening.  When Naomi Klein interviewed Nishnaabeg writer and activist Leanne Simpson, she asked Simpson what the next step was for Idle No More.  Simpson replied:

“I think within the movement, we’re in the next phase. There’s a lot of teaching that’s happening right now in our community and with public teach-ins, there’s a lot of that internal work, a lot of educating and planning happening right now. There is a lot of internal nation-building work. It’s difficult to say where the movement will go because it is so beautifully diverse. I see perhaps a second phase that is going to be on the land. It’s going to be local and it’s going to be people standing up and opposing these large-scale industrial development projects that threaten our existence as indigenous peoples—in the Ring of Fire [region in Northern Ontario], tar sands, fracking, mining, deforestation… But where they might have done that through policy or through the Environmental Assessment Act or through legal means in the past, now it may be through direct action. Time will tell.”

Beyond the gaze of the mainstream media, things are happening all the time.  In British Columbia for example, grassroots Wet’suwet’en peoples have erected a permanent camp and blockade on their lands to protect their territory from oil, gas, and bitumen pipelines from the Tar Sands and fracking projects.

They’ve been defending this camp for three years.  In the process, they’ve forged alliances with settlers and other indigenous nations across the province, including an upcoming teach-in organized on Lekwungen and WSANEC territories (Victoria) on April 28th, on settler solidarity and decolonization:

This Teach-In will provide settlers with an understanding of how the destruction of land as well as violence experienced by Indigenous peoples, who stand in assertion of their inherent sovereignty, can be located in both a historical and contemporary reality of colonialism. In preparing for resistance to the Pacific Trail Pipelines, this Teach-In will begin to prepare settler people to stand alongside Indigenous peoples in resisting the ongoing processes of colonialism – whether that be at the Unis’tot’en camp in the spring and summer, or elsewhere.

noptpAs the description implies, this isn’t just a one-off event; it’s designed to create the conditions for meaningful and lasting solidarity with indigenous struggles, and it holds open the possibility of decolonized relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples.  This is just one of hundreds of public events that focus on decolonizing the relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples on the lands claimed by Canada.  And these public events are only the most visible forms of decolonization in response to the Settler Problem.  The mainstream media won’t cover these efforts, and when they do, they’ll frame them as terrorism, because there is no place for them in the narrative of the Indian Problem.  Shifting to the Settler Problem asks us all to reflect on the ways we’re caught up in settler colonialism, whether we like it or not.

“An Open Letter to My Settler People” – Adam Barker

This video was originally posted near the time when the Idle No More movement began.  In it, Adam Barker lays out settler colonialism and its implications for settlers in a really accessible way, urging settlers to take responsibility for colonialism here in Canada: “The theft of land has enabled our incredible achievements, and also our dreadful mistakes.  It is up to us to reclaim our responsibilities as Settlers – as world makers, as dreamers and builders, and people who can work together despite our differences to achieve great things – and to use our powers, privileges, and skills differently.  We built this world, we built the nations of Canada and America, but we did it by trying to destroy many other nations as part of the process.  It’s time to reverse this process.  It is time to let go of our nations and privileges, and throw our support behind the regeneration of Indigenous nationhood.”

Adam shared his transcript with me, and I’m reposting it here, along with the video, below:

An Open Letter to My Settler People

Hello, my name is Adam Barker, and I am a Settler Canadian. If you’re listening to this, then you have probably already heard about Idle No More and the protests that have been happening over the last few weeks demanding rights, recognition, and most of all, respect for Indigenous peoples and their lands.

I am not speaking to you today to air another listing of grievances against the Harper government.  I am not going to advocate for changes to policy and law.  This is a message to my fellow Settler people about who we are and what we want to be in the future.

Maybe that term – Settler – makes you uneasy.  I’ve often heard people say ‘I didn’t take Indian land; I’m no settler!’  Let’s start with a really important point: this movement is not about historical redress.  Indigenous peoples have not suddenly risen up to demand that we educate ourselves on treaties and racist policies and laws from yesteryear.  Nor have they ‘suddenly risen up’ at all.  The Indigenous people you see protesting today are part of the same resistance against settler colonialism that has been going on for almost five hundred years.

All of us – every person who lives on and benefits from the theft of Indigenous lands – is a Settler.  We all live on someone else’s lands, and almost all of us do so illegally.  Everyday that you live in Canada or America, every day that you make a living, have freedom of movement, and enjoy a standard of living much higher than most of the world, you are part of settler colonization.  It does not matter if your family has been here since the Mayflower landed, or if you just recently moved to Toronto from abroad: you are part of this.  That is how settler colonization functions.  It’s not just about soldiers and conquest, and it’s not just about residential schools or underfunded housing.  It’s about thousands, millions of individual people, families, and communities pursuing freedom and wealth, at the expense of Indigenous people, their lands, and their cultures.

No, you alone are not solely responsible.  No one is solely responsible.  Your government is not solely responsible.  Corporations is not solely responsible.  Churches are not solely responsible.

Which means: we are all, collectively, responsible for this.

And what is ‘this’?  Settler colonization.  It’s land theft.  It’s the imposed change of lifestyle in places we claim as ours.  It’s modernity, and progress, and industry, and finance, and so many other things that we take for granted as part of our world.

But we have to recognize that our world is synthetic.  Our society is built from bits and pieces of shattered Indigenous societies.  Our wealth is ripped out of land that, for Indigenous societies, was holistically maintained and ministered to by place-based ways of being, very different from our own.

And let’s be clear, too, that this is not about more or less advanced technology.  Indigenous peoples achieved levels of good health, types of governance, and ingenious environmental technology that still surpass what we can often make with our high-tech, modern means.

This is also not about people who, through ignorance, did not see what they were doing.  The first colonists from England in the 1500s understood that they were on Indigenous lands.  They recognized the complex societies that they encountered as powerful, political entities.  They signed treaties that allowed them to live in these new colonies, but in respectful relationships withwith their Indigenous hosts.

Land surrender did not happen.  Terra nullius is a lie, invented years after settlements were founded, as disease and warfare took their toll on Indigenous populations, while the teeming poor of Great Britain and Europe increasingly flooded Indigenous lands.

Settler colonization is the excuse that we make for being here.  Settler colonization is our perceived ‘right’ to live on someone else’s land, without their permission.  Settler colonization is the belief that those people are too primitive, too weak, or simply too ‘extinct’ to have a voice.

Look out your window.  Look at your television.  Look at your twitter feed, facebook page, or youtube.  Indigenous people have voices.  Their cultures are strong and vibrant even after five hundred years of theft, murder, rape, genocide, and political and legal extermination.  And by their continued insistence on BEING on their OWN land, Indigenous peoples expose settler colonization for what it is: an elaborate lie, an imagined world, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves as Settlers.

Are you uncomfortable hearing that?  It is okay if you are.  I am.  I have been for a long time.  When I first began to discover the depth of settler colonization, I did not want to believe it.  I wanted to find ways to make things right, through party politics and voting, or through ethical consumption, or human rights.  I wanted Indigenous people to have what I had: a comfortable life in Canada.

But that’s simplistic because, if you listen to your Indigenous friends and neighbours, that isn’t what they want.  They don’t want to share in the spoils of exploiting the land.  They don’t want a proportional voice in Parliament.  They don’t want to live like you do, look like you do, talk like you do.  That, my fellow Settlers, is another colonial fantasy: it’s called assimilation.  It has been the official policy of our governments in the past, and it remains the unofficial ‘idea’ behind reconciliation in the present: making things ‘equal’, but by our own measures of equality.

But would you accept that?  If someone forced you out of your house, took your possessions, beat your children, and burned your history books, would you gratefully accept room and board in that house?  Would you aspire to be just like them, to be friends with them, to do to others what they did to you?  Or would you be angry and motivated?  Would you be damn determined to get your house back, to rewrite your histories, and to get justice for those you love?

I know what I would think.  I know what I would feel.  I also know what I do feel now: scared, uncertain, and more than a little ashamed.  Sometimes I feel like there is no way out of this predicament.  I feel like the only way to make things better is to leave.  But guess what: that doesn’t fix things either.

I have been living in the United Kingdom – where my family came from, all immigrating to Canada in the early 20th century – for the past three years.  There is no ‘decolonization’ in this.  My leaving has done nothing to restore Indigenous governance, to return stolen lands.  I still have decades of privilege that allowed me to move, to pick up my life and relocate it, in ways that Indigenous people can’t.

We cannot make things right by running away.

Let’s accept something right now, Settler people: this is our mess to clean up.  This is our house to manage.  This is our legacy that we are building, and most of us build that legacy by refusing to take an active part in it.  What is that legacy going to be?  Will we be usurpers, continuing to take and take until there is nothing left?  That, my friends and family, is genocide.  Extermination.  It’s the most heinous crime imaginable and we pursue it everyday.

Oh, we lie to ourselves by pumping money into ‘social programs’ to help keep Indigenous bodies alive and breathing.  But that’s not living.  We long ago learned that we can kill a people by destroying their cultures just as effectively as by killing their bodies.  We can destroy with education, with appropriation of images and symbols, and by insisting that our way of living is the one, true way.  We destroy while convincing ourselves we are doing anything but.

If we do not want this to be our legacy, we have to change.  And I don’t mean change which party is in government: the Liberals introduced the White Paper in 1969, designed specifically to eliminate legal recognition of Indigenous peoples, making them just one more minority in their own lands.  Abraham Lincoln preceded the Emancipation Proclamation by ordering the mass hanging of almost forty Dakota people in what is now Minnesota.  Let’s be clear here: our sovereignty over these lands, the very basis of our political systems, our citizenship, and our legal rights, is based on the appropriation of land from Indigenous peoples and the imposition of our power over them.

We can’t vote our way out of this.  We can’t count on the NDP, or the Green Party, or anyone else seeking political power, to dismantle those same systems of power.  The Supreme Court of Canada or America cannot declare Canada or America illegal.  Why?  Because the government and courts are only empowered to make decisions and impose policies by settler colonization.  Expecting governments and courts to end settler colonization is like asking them to cut down a tree while sitting on one of the branches.

So what do we do?  If you’re like me, you might be feeling exasperated.  Votes don’t matter; lawsuits don’t fix what is broken; even just making a living, humbly and quietly, is colonizing.  But there is a way out.  And it starts with you, and me, together.

You see, all of this only happens because, despite the many, many differences between us Settler people, we all agree to relate to each other in settler colonial ways.  We think of politics as our governments and parties, not our treaty obligations to traditional Indigenous governments.  We think of economics as jobs and corporations, not the sustainable relationships to place practiced by Indigenous societies.  We think of our individual rights as of paramount importance, neglecting our collective responsibilities to our host nations.

We do this, in part, because we can.  Collectively, we are powerful beyond almost any measure.  Think about it!  We have created entire worlds!  We have imagined new societies, then built them, and regardless of the follies of war and failures of social justice, it is impossible not to be impressed by the incredible things that Settler societies have done.  Settler people, in all our diversity, over centuries, have very literally changed the world, forever.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

It is time to stop pretending that we are not powerful, that we are just individuals beholden to law, politics, jobs, and social norms.  We have made law.  We have invented our politics.  We defined and redefined our work and our social norms, again and again, in many places and many times.  But we have done all of this in part because of something we lack: land of our own.

The theft of land has enabled our incredible achievements, and also our dreadful mistakes.  It is up to us to reclaim our responsibilities as Settlers – as world makers, as dreamers and builders, and people who can work together despite our differences to achieve great things – and to use our powers, privileges, and skills differently.  We built this world, we built the nations of Canada and America, but we did it by trying to destroy many other nations as part of the process.  It’s time to reverse this process.  It is time to let go of our nations and privileges, and throw our support behind the regeneration of Indigenous nationhood.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: what kind of person do I want to be?  Do I want to be responsible? Do I want to control my own destiny and build a different world? Or do I want to live in the illusion of freedom that is built on dispossession, destruction and the death of whole peoples and nations?  Do I want to be a usurper?

If you would rather be the former, then there are a few more questions you need to ask yourself.  First among them is: how much am I willing to give up?  And I don’t mean money or property, although that’s certainly part of it.  I mean: how much of these artificial worlds that we have built are you willing to let go of?

I identify as a Settler Canadian because I have to recognize my privileges: I carry a Canadian passport, I have the freedom of movement that goes along with that.  I can participate in and benefit from the Canadian systems of politics and economics as much or as little as I want.  And that is precisely what I am willing to give up.  I am willing to think of a day when Canada is no more, America is no more.  I’m not so arrogant as to believe that these nations will last forever.  But more than that, I’m certain that they should not.  I’m willing to think of a time when my very identity has to shift, when I have to think about how you and I are related differently, not defined by our passports or flags or jobs or status or wealth.

I don’t know what that might look like.  But I am willing to try and find out.  That’s why, in addition to being Canadian, I first and foremost identify as a Settler; I accept that along with a legacy of colonization, being a Settler comes with incredible possibility for the future.

Can you conceive of letting go of your nationalism and patriotism, seeing them for what they are: expressions of our shared settler colonial privileges?  Can you picture a world where your government, whatever form it takes, doesn’t rely on ‘sovereignty’ to assert your right on the land, but instead talks about treaties and responsibilities that earn permission to live on someone else’s land?  It’s hard to let go of the things we think we know, the stories we tell ourselves, the world we take for granted.  But as a great man once said: imagine.  It’s easy if you try.

And once you have imagined these things, you have a responsibility to act.  And by all means, go to protests with signs, march and sing and dance and make yourself seen and heard in public.  Show Indigenous people that you support their struggle.

But rejecting settler colonization is more than that.  We have to work together, in our own communities, and not just when protests flare up, but every single day.  We have to relate to each other differently before we can relate to Indigenous nations differently.  We have to be differently in our homes, our workplaces, and our lives, before we can walk differently on the land.  If you KNOW now, if you SEE now, you have a responsibility to confront settler colonialism wherever you encounter it.

Are you ready for that?  Because it means you will have to engage your families, your friends.  You can’t let racism or ignorance slide.  And you can’t ever, not for one second, think that you know enough or have done enough.  Do you want to be an ally to Indigenous peoples?  Then here is one more hard truth you must accept: ally is a verb, not a noun.  It’s something you do, not something you are. 

There is always more to be done because there are always those who, when confronted with their own illegitimacy, choose to usurp.  There will always be colonizers.  We ourselves – and I speak from experience – will always be tempted, seduced back into the easy path of taking rather than giving, of demanding our rights rather than living our responsibilities.

And it is not our Indigenous hosts’ responsibility to challenge this colonization; we brought it with us when we came here, and it is up to us to expel it from our lives.

I’ll leave you with one more thought, my fellow Settlers: a friend of mine once told me “Freedom is the other side of fear”.  What are we afraid of, really?  Freedom itself?  Or just the change it would take for us to be free?  Right now we are not free.  We’re shackled by our arrogance, our conviction that our societies are good, or perfect, or just.  We’re shackled by our own hands.  Ask yourself this: are Idle No More and the many other Indigenous movements that have and continue to thunder across our nations really calling for you to give them freedom?  Or are they really demanding that you fight for your own?

Hoping Against Hope: The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada

Created by Praxis Media Productions & the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, this audio documentary covers Canada’s genocidal (past and present) colonial project, and the continuing resistance of indigenous peoples.  This is a great resource for introducing the history of colonialism in Canada.  Among other things, contributors discuss “historicide:” erasure of colonialism from history and the ongoing denial of Canada’s colonial past and present.  Like many other settlers, I was taught in school that indigenous peoples (or “Indians”) were noble savages that eventually died out in the face of a superior European civilization.  This documentary dispells this myth, forcing settlers like me to grapple with the fact that we’re part of an ongoing occupation.  It’s narrated by Ardath Whynacht and includes interviews with Ward Churchill, Andrea Bear Nicholas, Roland Chrisjohn, Michael Parenti, Patricia Monture-Angus, Jeanette Armstrong, Tove Skutnabb Kangas, and Arnie Jack.

Part 1 – Colonization and the Killing of History
The first episode examines the origins of European colonialism, its growth in Canada, and the importance of treaties winding up with a look at why the absence of the truth about this history can best be described by a newly-coined word, historicide.

Part 2 – Racism, Assimilation and Genocide
The second installment looks at the issue of racism as a product of colonization, and within the context of the current era of neocolonialism in Canada, discuses assimilation and residential schooling as part of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people.

Part 3 – Education, Language and Resistance
The third piece brings our attention to Indigenous languages, and education both as a tool of oppression and resistance. We wrap up the series with a brief exploration of resistance to colonialism in Canada.

In Case my links above don’t work, check it out at A-infos radio project or at the G7 Welcoming Committee Records

Spaces Between Us: Queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. Spaces between us : queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

I skipped over a chapter in this summary and I found myself quoting Morgensen extensively as I tried to summarize, because so many of his claims were quite complicated and nuanced.  I’m still digesting this book; I might be able to say more about what I actually think about it later…

Morgensen’s book tracks what he calls “the biopolitics of settler colonialism” in queer movements.  He shows that the biopolitics of settler colonialism structures Native and non-Native queer movements, and their interrelationship.  Colonialism is always there; it structures desires and relationships, and it tends to remain naturalized in settler society: the targeting of indigenous communities for death seems natural, necessary, or already-accomplished.  In the intro, he advances three claims:

1)   “In the United States, modern queer cultures and politics have taken form as normatively white, multiracial, and non-Native projects compatible with a white settler society.

2)   Within broad transnational alliances (focused here in the United States), Native queer and Two-Spirit activists directly denaturalize settler colonialism and disrupt its conditioning of queer projects by asserting Native queer modernities.

3)   Settler colonialism and its conditioning of modern sexuality produce an intimate relationship between non-Native and Native queer modernities that I interpret as conversations (ix).

Thinking settler colonialism ‘biopolitically’ means “reading ‘modern sexuality’ as the array of discourses, procedures, and institutions that arose in metropolitan and colonial societies to distinguish and link primitive and civilized gender and sexuality, while defining racial, national, gendered, and sexual subjects and populations in biopolitical relationship.  The colonization of indigenous peoples was a “proviing ground for the biopolitics of settler colonialism,” which, he argues, “defines modern sexuality as ‘contact’ between queered indigeneity and its transcendence by settler sexuality” (23).  In short, settler colonial biopower affects all modern sexualities (32).  Heteropatriarchal settler colonialism sought “both the elimination of Indigenous sexuality and its incorporation into settler sexual modernity” (34).  He argues that the sovereign power of death and the relegation of indigenous people to a state of exception worked in tandem with “a modern and siciplinary education of desire that produced normative subjects of life” (34-5).  European sexualities fostered misogynist hierarchies and ‘queered’ indigenous peoples, interpreting transgressions of heteropatriarchy not only as abnormality in individuals, but as symptoms of a flawed society, requiring heteropatriarchal interventions and discipline (36-7).  This is part of a shift from the singling out of individuals (the regime of sovereignty) towards their subjection “with their communities to military attack, containment, or removal” (38).  Thus residential and reserve schools “used disciplinary education to try to break Native communities, languages, and cultural knowledges” without the need for “brute violence” (39).  This is part of the “deadly logic of regulation,” which never precluded overt and extreme violence, but nonetheless represents a distinct and pervasive aspect of colonialism (40-1)

So what are the implications of biopolitical settler colonialism for settlers?  Morgensen situates the subjugation of indigenous peoples as “proving ground” for the sexual regulation of settler societies and modern sexuality more generally.  Colonial settler subjectivity was still in formation, not yet naturalized: “far from reflecting the finality of conquest, this period was one of tense negotiations of active and contested settlement.  Any iteration of modern sexuality in this time that placed Native people in the past knew itself to be a contingent claim that remained open to challenge” (42).

Method and ‘conversations’

Morgensen combines metatheory, textual exegesis, ethnography, document analysis, and history to analyze non-Native and Native queer movements.  He interprets these movements as “conversations.”  These conversations aren’t (usually) literal; the term orients us to power-laden relationships produced in and through settler colonialism, so they aren’t necessarily unsettling or anticolonial; they can involve appropriations and other interactions that reproduce or naturalize settler colonialism.  This idea of conversation conditions the way Morgensen interprets narratives, “interpreting U.S. queer politics across the national differences of Native peoples and sovereignties” as a way to displace settler colonialism (xi).  He follows Andrea Smith in reading (Native) activists as theorists who challenge settler colonialism.  These conversations can also be about disruption or contestation, “where interlocutors’ competing claims tell more in their differences with one another than any single narrative can tell alone” (xi).  “This book explains non-Native queer modernities as forming within the friction of conversations with discrepant Native queer modernities denaturalizing settler colonialism.  Neither chosen nor denied, these conversations are not utopian; but they nevertheless form creative zones of contact and transformation whose outcomes are not preordained.  Interreferential moments in conversation show that the meaning of non-native or Native queer subjectivity appeared by engaging relational claims” (28).  In the end, more than a study of conversation, this book is a kind of conversation, as well as an effort to transform those in which it arose and that it examines” (28).

He aligns his work with settler colonial studies, which he positions alongside recent currents in Native studies that have focused on indigenous decolonization (2).  He explains that he interprets “non-Native and Native queer modernities as forming within the intimate relationships of conversation, in which their friction produced a multiplicity of narratives for textual and ethnographic interpretation, while mapping genealogies wherein their differences became interreferential amid the persistent and transforming power of settler colonialism.  M positions his book and his ethnographic method in relation to these conversations, by “shifting my ethnography of queer spaces where I lived to studying their formation in relation to the spaces they elided: those formed by Native queer and Two-Spirit activists” (13).  In the 1990s he encountered different, Native spaces “only by moving outside normatively white queer politics to attend to Native queer activists space, including women of colour feminist spaces where Native queer women were providing leadership” (14).  He is keen to point out that he is not framing Native activism and theory as a “discovery:” “Instead, I cite Native queer activist texts as a distinctive body of critical theory to which queer non-Natives already were intellectually and politically accountable, and to which my now-comparative and historical study of non-Native queer politics offered a response” (14).

Morgensen also engages with literary and theoretical texts to work through multiple interpretations, teasing out the political implications of competing interpretations, raising questions about how to read the intended audience of a piece and putting writing in historical context.  At several points in the book, this close attention to texts seemed tedious to me, as if Morgensen has spent a long time parsing these texts and so feels a need to write about them.  However, upon reviewing the book, I can see how he situates their importance in the book.  He explains that the book “explains narrative relationships among queer subjects by situating them within ethnographic and historical accounts of U.S. queer politics” (12).  So these close readings of narratives and identity are required, so that they can then be situated in the context of movements.  In his discussion of the Radical Faeries, for example, his reading of Native writing and activism allows him to show that the indigenous people begin answers in other places and arrive at different conclusions than dominant settler discourses (155), they tend to avoid generalizations or universalizations of their indigeneity, and when they do articulate transnational spiritualities, Morgensen insists that it is “neither primordial nor authenticating, but historicizing” (156).  This emphasis of history over and against autheniticity/primordiality is an important theme in Moregensen’s text; it could be read as a methodological (and ethical) axiom in this context.

In this way, he explains that his work is not really an ethnography of Native or non-Native peope, but rather “on the genealogies of settler colonialism that produce non-Native and Native queer modernities in relationship.  I examine non-Native tales of Native truth—anthropological or popular, romantic or objectivist, colonial or anticolonial—as claims conditioned by the persistent power of settler colonialism.  I comparate them to Native narratives that address non-Natives without beginning or ending in non-Native logics (16).

Settler colonialism

Morgensen’s analysis is based on the insight that settler colonialism is ongoing, and that it conditions and produces relations between settlers and indigenous peoples, even and especially when those relations seem absent: “Settler societies engender a normative relationality between the designations “Native” and “settler” that imbues histories of intermingling, interdependence, or the attempted erasure of indigeneity as a marker of national difference.  The distinction between “Native” and “settler” informs all power in settler societies and their relations with societies worldwide” (1).

Because settler colonialism is a ‘structure’ rather than an ‘event,’ it’s ongoing and it calls for “a sustained denaturalizing critique” (2).  He extends this to queer subjectivity, explaining that “queer will refer to statuses produced by the heteropatriarchal power of what supremacist settler colonialism” (2).  This isn’t a claim that all queer identities are equivalent (or equally conditioned by whiteness and colonialism) but he is arguing that “queer politics produces a settler homonationalism that will persist unless settler colonialism is challenged directly as a condition of queer modernity” (so settler colonialism is a condition—however differential and uneven—of all queer modernities).  Settler colonialism produces “non-Native queer modernities,” in which “modern queers appear definitively not Native—separated from, yet in perpetual (negative) relationship to, the original peoples of the lands where they live (3).  Settler colonialism “is naturalized whenever conquest or displacement of Native peoples is ignored or appears necessary or complete, and whenever subjects are defined by settler desires to possess Native land, history, or culture.  Settler colonialism thus must be denaturalized not only in social and political spaces but also in definitions and experiences of subjectivity” (16).  “Settler colonialism is present precisely when it appears not to be, given that its normative function is to appear inevitable and final.  Its naturalization follows both the seeming material finality of settler soecity and discourses that fram settlers as “those who come after” rather than as living in relationship to Native peoples in a colonial situation” (42).  This is why Morgensen is so focused on desire and narratives of settler subjects: because these give him some clues about the intentions and motivations of settlers, and he locates these spaces as important sites of intervention.  He says settler colonialism is naturalized in two ways here: (1) in the seeming disappearance of indigenous peoples from a settled landscape and (2) through the incorporation of indigeneity into and as settler subjectivity (18).

Non-white settlers?

Morgensen argues that settler colonialism produces non-white people “are located distinctly from the settler status inherited by the representatives of Anglo whiteness—even if they might accede to that status if the interpretation of their racialization changes” (18-9).  He cites Bonita Lawrence’s critique of antiracism as a call on non-Native people of colour in white settler societies “to ask themselves how their histories of racial subjugation and antiracist resistance might be compatible with settler colonial elimination of Native peoples and their sovereignty” (19).  He suggests that the differential positions of people of colour within settler colonialism can also be understood as an effect of settler colonialism: “the control of non-Native peoples of colour reproduced their collective subjection for economic and social roles within a normativiely non-Native multiracial and transnational settler society (43).  But people of colour and their struggles can also naturalize colonialism if “the experience of subjection or the struggle for liberation among non-Native people of colour naturalizes the erasure of Native people as inevitable, necessary, or complete or has Native people’s subjection as its effect” (43).

He points back to white settlers and the normalization of whiteness even in anti-colonial solidarity movements: “white radicals often fail to note the racial specificity of their settler colonial inheritance.  If they project their experience into theorizing the responsibility of non-Natives to demonstrate Indigenous solidarity, they may reproduce white supremacy by not considering how people of colour negotiate settler colonialism—perhaps within Indigenous solidarity that white people will not share (20).

He articulates a shift away from asking “who is a settler?” and instead asks “how subjects are produced by social processes: ‘who under what conditions, inherits the power to represent or enact settler colonialism?’” (20)… “the teleological binary Native/settler is perpetually complicated by the nonbinary relations of diverse non-Natives and Native peoples across commonalities and differences” (22).

Beyond identity politics and including diverse voices

Although he wants to challenge and unsettle queer theory and its whiteness and settler colonial heritage, he insists that “the problem is not that white, class-privileged, national inheritors of settler colonialism have been central to queer accounts.  The problem is that all conclusions drawn from such accounts fail to explain not only all who are excluded from them but also all who are included: because the only possible explanation of queerness under white-supremacist settler colonialism is one that also interrogates that condition.  Queer studies must examine settler colonialism as a condition of its own work” (25-6).

Primitivity and (queer) appropriations

A major argument in the book is that non-Native subjects [in this case, queer folks] appropriate indigeneity and reinforce settler colonialism: “white settlers adapt indigeneity’s putative opposition to civilization through “Indian impersonation,” which performs opposition to settler rule as well as the authority to claim it for themselves as settler subjects.  In both accounts, settlers supplant and incorporate indigeneity to attain settler subjectivity” (17).  He argues that the colonial demand on settlers to replace indigenous peoples “incites white settler desires to be intimate with the Native authenticity that their modernity presumably replaces.  Indigenity’s civilizational replacement thus is complementary to the settler pursuit of primitivism” (17).  “Settler citizens in the United States are at once civilizationists and primitivists” (27).  “Modern sexuality comes into existence when the heteropatriarchal advancement of white settlers appears to vanquish sexual primitivity, which white settlers nevertheless adopt as their own history” (1).  By this he means that white settler sexuality emerged in colonial relationship with indigenous sexualities, as more civilized and coming after.  Indigenous sexuality is something in the past and it is universalized as the past of ‘all of us;’ this is what he means by settlers adopting primitivism as their own history.  He points to “a settler colonial logic that disappears indigeneity so that it can be recalled by modern non-Natives as a relationship to Native culture and land that might reconcile them to inheriting conquest.  Thus ‘non-Native’ signifies not a racial or ethnic identity but a location within settler colonialism” (3).

In particular, Morgensen focuses on the way in which Native people are produced within settler discourses through the anthropological concept of ‘berdache,’ which anthropologists used to describe indigenous people who would now be understood as Two-Spirit.  By linking their own identities with berdache as a transhistorical form of sexuality, settlers position their identities as part of an eternal and sacred form of sexuality, and reconcile their position as settlers, Morgensen argues.  In the intro, he focuses on the writings of Judy Grahn, a lesbian feminist writer who was among the first to make this move.  He argues that “positing an indigenous embrace for queer exiles from a white settler society lets her imagine switching allegiances to play “Indians” against her own people… white Americans associate marginality and resistance with the Indian as an internal antagonist to settler society, which then lets them impersonate indigeneity when they launch social critiques that reconcile them to settler society.  He generalizes this through his ethnography: “I recurrently heard participants tell that Native American societies historically honored people like themselves with social esteem and spiritual gifts” (12).  Even though Grahn and other settlers readily admit that indigenous societies are still functioning and resisting settler colonialism, “her story displaces that intimacy with occupation by investing in emptied Native land as a past and present home” (6).  He is pointing to a pattern whereby settlers narrate their exile from white settler society and then take comfort in imagining their own “indigenized emplacement” (6).  Morgensen also points to distance as an important part of this relationship: settlers don’t have much actual interaction with indigenous peoples, but they often desire this interaction/appropriation/indigenization as a path towards cathartic healing and reconciliation.

If his critiques of particular groups or writings seem harsh, it’s because they can easily be read as a simple attack or critique of their complicity with colonialism.  But he repeatedly explains that he’s actually more intent on showing how all of these appropriations are more like symptoms of a broader problem: “if white sexual minorities traversed their primitivity in order to claim national whiteness, they followed a normative path to citizenship for white settler subjects” (45).  He links this to the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and other forms “when modern sexuality discourses taught white men to tap and control their inheritance of primitivity” (45).  It’s this ‘normative path’ that he wants to trace, and his ethnographies function more like examples of the way in which people get caught up in these paths, as ways to reconcile/erase their relation to colonialism (45).  In terms of settler appropriations of berdache in particular, M argues that it “allowed white subjects in a settler society, led by white men, to answer their settler colonial inheritance by accepting Native roots as theirs to possess and replace” (48).

The Radical Faeries

Morgensen has a full chapter on his ethnographic work on the Radical Faeries, and they’re woven into other chapters, as well.  This chapter was of particular interest to me because he’s focusing not only on the appropriation of berdache and indigenous ritual in white queer sexuality, but also on settler desires to possess and live on settled land.  He explains his longstanding links with them through queer networks, and his eventual acceptance of an invitation to engage with them as an ethnographer: “my ethical responsibility to experience and understand the situated practices in which I participated on their own terms complicated the relative simplicity of distanced criticism and generated, in its place, the critically reflexive account I provide here” (128).

He summarizes his ethnographic account:

“My ethnographic account portrays the way Radical Faeries produce queer subjects by creatively deploying rurality and mobility in the context of settlement.  Notably, this resolves racialized exclusions of white queers from sexual modernity by claiming roots in Native authenticity that appear to resolve contradictions in their non-Native inheritance of settlement” (129).

He locates the Radical Faeries within a broader genealogy of settlers who have sought to “enact self-exile from privilege” as part of a revolutionary opposition to racism, capitalism, and imperialism.  This rejection is materialized by “relocating to homes based in democratic socialism, anarchism, or counterculturalism” (131).  So what?  “Belief that removing U.S. gay men or lesbians to spaces coded as communal, antiauthoritarian, or premodern would interrupt their power was the very means by which such practices fostered modernist sexual politics animated by colonial discourses” (131).  Again, the problem here is not anarchism or antiauthoritarianism as such, but the way in which these ideas and practices are deployed to naturalize settler colonialism, in a way that is assumed to nullify privilege and/or oppose dominant systems (131).  They imagined themselves as “allies to people of colour and colonized people worldwide, but their desire to also emulate or even embody the oppressed whom they knew they were not translated into their ruralist, naturist, and primitivist projects” (132).  The Faeries’ founder emphasized “gay shamanism” and although Morgensen acknowledges critiques of normative whiteness, anti-intellectualism, and appropriation, he suggests that these were rare and failed to shift RF practice (133).  In particular, Morgensen is interested in the ways in which RF practices shape desires through enactment of their practices, creating a “performative map” that Radical Faeries can then take with them (134).

He’s not only critical of the appropriation of indigenous spirituality, but also of the reclamation of paganism and European spiritualities, a move that is often seen within anticolonial settler movements as a viable way to avoid colonial appropriation.  Again, this is because his prime concern isn’t with the unethical practice of appropriation as such, but with the way it function in the broader colonial context of settler colonialism: “neo-paganism itself is reinvented by them to gain a relationship to Native land and culture that does not feel like the conquest that they know they inherit” (136).  He locates the most thorough naturalization of Native culture in the practice of ‘heart circle,’ which foregrounds “emotional speech, deep listening, and collective conversation” as something central to Radical Faerie subjectivity (136).  These and other practices, such as memorialization of people who had died of aids, “created radical faerie community in an indigenized relation to settled land that simultaneously healed the trauma of epidemic and the inheritance of conquest for non-Native gay men” (139).  Unlike straight back-to-the-landers, Radical Faeries suggested that the land they acquired and their ties to indigeniety “were a birthright of being gay” (139).  He’s critical of the multicultural aspirations of the RFs, where they express desire to live in a multiracial space “while deflecting responsibility for forming a white space that produces the absence they regret” (147).

Reading indigenous people against settler narratives

Morgensen doesn’t just criticize settler narratives as colonial from his own position as a settler, he also narrates their unsettlement by interpreting indigenous writing and activism.  I think this is what he means by ‘conversations’ between Native and non-Native politics.  Whereas Judy Grahn looks to Native traditions to incorporate into her own identity, he points to narratives about indigenous queer subjectivity by Gay American Indians (GAI) as an alternative.  These narratives “do not divulge information about historical gender roles in Native societies, and non-Natives are not invited to identify with Native histories” (8).  Moreover, “No contributor argued that Native gays and lesbians represent the original nature of all sexual minorities” (8).

Morgensen argues that Radical Faerie encounters with Native Two-Spirit activists transformed some of their practices and ways of thinking.  First of all, he suggests that RFs initially had an appropriative mentality about this relationship: RFs tend to ask or assume that Native or Two Spirit people will “interact precisely as a difference that Radical Faeries desire” (152).  Instead, Native people invoked friendship as a way to affirm “how non-Nativeas have supported them while still holding them [non-Natives] accountable to work for indigenous decolonization” (153).  This interaction “brough Radical Faeries to admit their non-Native locations in a settler society and to hold themselves responsible to Native people as critics of colonialism” (153).  However, he’s careful to emphasize that these encounters did not fundamentally transform Radical Faerie culture.  Instead, these encounters “appear to be signs of a potential epistemic shift, in relation to which present and future accounts may ask to what extent a responsibility to Native work for decolonization leads to troubling colonial desires for queerness, modernity, or indigeneity or to denaturalizing the relationship of Radical Faeries to settlement” (159).  They are interpreted as “moments in larger conversations articulating non-Native and Native queer subjects within the power relations of ongoing settler colonialism” (159).

Transformation

Morgensen is also intent to show how the power of relations produced by settler colonialism can be and have been destabilized and unsettled, or ‘displaced.’  He follows Foucault and Butler in suggesting that “power is the very condition of agentive action—a transformative context for its repetition and potential destabilization” (3).  Analytically, the task of critique then requires “close reading to ascertain which forms of creativity might produce decolonizing ends” (3).

In terms of useful responses, he insists that “even antiracist and anticolonial work by queers of colour may become compatible with settler projects,” and suggests that “displacing any such effects can start by locating U.S. queer modernities in the biopolitics of settler colonialism that still impose non-Native, normatively white, and settler relationships on Native peoples, and by efforts of Native queer and Two-Spirit people to denaturalize settler colonialism” (49).

He thus locates the primary (perhaps the only) agency in unsettling colonialism in organizing efforts among indigenous people.  In terms of queer politics, he points to the recalling of “subjugated knwoeldges of embodiment, desire, kingship, and peoplehood in modes of language, memory, and reliatnality that were discrepant from colonial modern definitions of sexuality and gender” (51).  He insists here that indigenous activism is not simply reactive to or derivative from settler colonialism; on the contrary, “settler colonialism is a relationship between something that may attempt totalization and all that it attempts (forever incompletely) to suppress” (51).

Morgensen suggests that “non-Native queers can evaluate their work by the degree to which it troubles settler colonialism while being held accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit activists and allied critics” (226).  Here he implicitly positions himself as someone to whom non-Native queers might be accountable, since he repeatedly positions his work as an non-Native allied work in conversation with Native decolonization.  But is the reverse true?  Is Morgensen accountable to non-Native queer activists, who are trying to figure out their own relation to colonialism, or how to challenge it?  Has he interrogated the (often invisible) power relations accorded to him as an academic critic, and what it might mean to write in a way that’s relevant and accessible to non-academics?  I’m not invoking this as an imperative or an obligation, but as a question that seems to arise logically from his standpoint.  He says that he wants to challenge and unsettle non-Native queer activism, but it’s unclear whether the people he criticizes (like the Radical Faeries) are actually his audience in this book.  Instead, the book puts him more into conversation with other academics who are steeped in at least some of the literature related to queer theory, postcolonialism, Native studies, ethnography and post-structuralism.

In his conclusion, Morgensen briefly offers the notion of groundlessness as a way to unsettle settler desires for indigenous land: “critically engaging histories of colonial, national, and racist violence and their survival has engendered mobile and transformative modes of decolonization for queers of colour in diaspora.  Such work links to Indigenous queer decolonization of Indigenous nations by acting from within mobile alliances.  I invoke groundlessness to invite new theory to displace settler imaginaries among queer non-Natives.  By detaching from their colonial desires to belong to stolen land, the settler state, or their projections into global possibilities, queer non-Natives can release imaginaries of indigeneity that formed to resolve the contradictions of settlers possessing stolen land and Native peoples’ pasts and futures.” (227).  He returns here to the idea of “conversations as the spaces between non-Naïve and Native queer people that shift when made accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit people’s pursuit of decolonization for their nations (227).  He locates the problem in the distance produced by settler colonialism: “Queer non-Natives in the late-twentieth-century United States regularly found everyday speech, activist agendas, and historical and anthropological writing that invited them to form a relationship with indigeneity at a sustained distance” (229).  “Native history was easy to consume, prepackaged in settler narratives; yet no degree of consumption placed non_Natives in greater relationship with queer Native people, or indeed any Native people, across the distances of geography, community, and politics that already divided them (228).

He concludes by explaining that even though this book focuses on denaturalizing settler colonialism, that’s not an end in itself: “it would be all too easy for non-Natives to merely unthink their relationship to settler colonialism rather than act in relationship to others in struggle” (230).  At the same time, he worries that solidarity efforts will be conditioned by the colonial desires he names.  These are “desires of non-Native queers to find theselves in Native religion, to form multiracial, global movements that incorporate Native people, or to define Native truth: they desire to be even closer to Native people than adopting Native culture as their own history satisfies.  I fear that their desires will perform the coloniality that initiated them if they include, or join, Native people after being motivated to adopt Native culture as queer history” (229).

It follows that “all normative modes through which non-Native and Native queer people appear to be in onversation must be disrupted for dialogue to occur from the decolonizing stakes fo Native queer and Two-Pspirit activists.  My experience has taught me that if this disruption occurs, it might follow non-Native queers first critiquing settler colonialism in the power-laden conversations that already constrain them.  Their critical work will mark them as accountable to Native queer and Two-Spirit activism, and they may be drawn into collaborations with Native people who work with them in the fraught spaces of a settler colonial society.  Such ollaborations must be sufficient for non-Native queers who wish to act as allies to Native decolonization struggles.  NO greater proximity to Native cultural space is necessary, nor necessarily helpful for them to desire” (229).