Tag Archives: settler responsibility

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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“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?