By Waziyatawin, Unsettling Ourselves
“Colonial relations do not stem from individual good will or actions; they exist before his arrival or his birth, and whether he accepts or rejects them matters little.” -Albert Memmi
Colonization v. Oppression
Many oppressed people around the world identify with the oppression experienced by colonized people. Often, if they live in a colonized society, the poor, oppressed, disenfranchised, and marginalized individuals or classes have difficulty identifying with the colonizers and thus seek to identify with the colonized. Because they live in a society in which colonization is ongoing, they begin to see themselves as colonized.
This discussion is designed to help differentiate between oppression and colonization, and to clearly demarcate colonization as a distinct historical, political, social, and economic relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. In our volume For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook (Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press, 2005), Michael Yellow Bird and I offered this definition:
Colonization refers to both the formal and informal methods (behaviors, ideologies, institutions, policies, and economies) that maintain the subjugation or exploitation of Indigenous Peoples, lands and resources.
In the context of the United States, everyone is part of this colonial society. By definition, however, Indigenous Peoples are the only people identifiable as colonized. Because every bit of land and every natural resource claimed by the United States was taken at Indigenous expense, anyone who occupies that land and benefits from our resources is experiencing colonial privilege. Every non-Indigenous person in the country continues to benefit from Indigenous loss. In Minnesota, for example, all Minnesotans continue to benefit from the genocide perpetrated against Dakota people and the ethnic cleansing of our people. Occupation of Dakota homeland, especially while the vast majority of Dakota people still live in exile, places all occupants in the colonizer class. No matter the extent of oppression faced by various settler groups, being a settler means belonging to the class of colonizers.
It may be helpful to develop your own definition of oppression and clearly distinguish how that definition differs from your understanding of colonization.
Read: Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized
Albert Memmi offers one of the clearest explanations of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in his classic work that is still relevant in the 21st century colonial context. Understanding the desire of many colonizers to distinguish themselves from the brutality of colonization, Memmi imagines an intermediary category in the African colonial context that he calls the “colonial.” “A colonial,” he states, “is a European living in a colony but having no privileges, whose living conditions are not higher than those of a colonized person of equivalent economic and social status.” (10) Many oppressed or marginalized people would choose to embrace this identity because they envision the distinction between themselves and the colonial elites as both fundamental and immense. While the chasm between powerful and wealthy colonizers (such as corporate heads and politicians) and the poor, working-classes, for example, is certainly great, this still does not alter the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Thus, Memmi explains, “The colonial does not exist, because it is not up to the European in the colonies to remain a colonial, even if he had so intended. Whether he expressly wishes it or not, he is received as a privileged person by the institutions, customs and people.” (17) All colonizers, by continuing their occupation of another People’s homeland, remain colonizers, no matter their intent.
Memmi describes two kinds of colonizers: self-rejecting and self-accepting(read pages 19-76). Self- rejecting colonizers live in moral torment as they recognize the injustice of colonialism and do not want to participate in the subjugation of other human beings. They can return to their country of origin and relieve themselves of their guilt, or they can stay in the colony and continue to live a life fraught with contradictions. This is a difficult path. Memmi would even say this path is impossible to sustain. Drawing on his experience with leftist, self-rejecting colonizers, Memmi describes the point of divergence between colonizers and the colonized, “But now he [the leftist] discovers that there is no connection between the liberation of the colonized and the application of a left-wing program. And that, in fact, he is perhaps aiding the birth of a social order in which there is no room for a leftist as such, at least in the near future.” (34)
Memmi refers to the self-accepting colonizer as a colonialist. A colonialist is a “colonizer who agrees to be a colonizer.” About the colonialist Memmi tells us, “By making his position explicit, he seeks to legitimize colonization. This is a more logical attitude, materially more coherent than the tormented dance of the colonizer who refuses and continues to live in the colony.” (45) In the United States, nearly everyone has agreed to be a colonizer. Every day they engage in activities that continue to justify the theft of Indigenous lands, the killing and subjugation of Indigenous Peoples, and the ruthless exploitation of Indigenous resources. From birth, they begin teaching their children myths regarding the righteousness of the existing social order. That message is reinforced throughout their lives. It is hard work maintaining such lies, so whenever the colonized threaten to disrupt their myth-making, they are quickly silenced, suppressed, and further subjugated. The actions of the colonialist are predictable and consistent.
Non-Dakota allies are essentially choosing the path of a self-rejecting colonizer. If you support Dakota liberation, what are the implications of Dakota liberation for you? What is your vision of the future? If you are an anarchist, for example, what is your anarchist vision of the future? How might this differ from our vision of Dakota liberation? If we realize Dakota liberation, what will your role be? Many self-rejecting colonizers maintain fantasies, at least for a while, about their incorporation into Indigenous societies post-liberation. These fantasies need to be shed quickly. Most colonizers will not be incorporated into our cultures post-liberation. Can you accept this?
Disagreements with Memmi
While I agree with Memmi’s articulation of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, I also believe there is an important role that the self-rejecting colonizer can play in our struggle. Indeed, I think ally support of Dakota liberation will help facilitate the liberation of everyone from a perverse society. Not only do I believe that we need non-Dakota allies in our struggle, I also believe it is possible to have colonizer allies, including those who are willing to kill or die for our struggle.
Because of our numerical minority status, if we sought armed revolution by ourselves (without white allies), we would likely face complete extermination. We need dedicated allies who will stand on the front lines with us, or who are on the frontlines of solidarity actions to support us. Memmi would say these white allies do not exist. What do you think? What is your level of commitment?
Memmi argues that for decolonization to occur, the colonizers must leave. In most decolonization struggles, the colonized push the colonizers to go home. This is not the position I advocate, but certainly some Dakota people will express such sentiments. How will you respond to this?
- If you are a colonizer rejecting colonizer status, are you were willing to do whatever was necessary to assist in our liberation struggle, including killing, dying, or life-imprisonment
- Are you willing to work to challenge the status quo rather than maintain it?
- Are you willing to take on a lifetime of ambiguity, uncertainty, moral torment that is the life of a colonizer who rejects colonizer status?
- Are you willing to constantly engage in critical self-reflection and routinely have your white colonizer programming challenged?
About Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation is an issue that we must engage with all potential non-Indigenous allies. When colonizers appropriate aspects of our culture, this is just another part of a long colonial history. Colonizing society has worked systematically, over the centuries, to strip our cultures from us. Most Dakota people today are prevented, still, from living as Dakota people within our homeland. All aspects of our lives are subject to colonial regulation. That is, we are not in control of caring for our land base, establishing our own economy, educating our children, governing our people, or practicing our own spirituality (we are still denied access to sacred sites, lands, and waters, that are central to our spiritual traditions). Consequently, we grieve the losses we have suffered and continue to suffer. Loss of culture is tied to feelings of shame and guilt (for not practicing our culture), as well as pain. Most of us do not have the privilege of learning or practicing Dakota ways of being because we are so busy trying to survive any way we can. Many of us have low expectations for our lives and for our future. Most of our communities were also heavily Christianized. Missionaries and government workers were so successful at eradicating our spirituality that throughout much of the 20th century, most of our ceremonies ceased to be practiced in Minnesota. At Upper Sioux, where I come from, we have had no traditional spiritual leadership since 1862. Even today, we do not have a spiritual leader in our community. We do not have a sundance. Our spirituality remains inaccessible to most of our community members because our people do not know where or how to begin practicing the traditions that were stripped from us. Further, many of our people feel unworthy to practice them. We are working hard to revive the spirituality, but we still have a long way to go.
What does it mean, then, to see white people practicing aspects of our culture? What does it mean when white colonizers practice aspects of our culture while that privilege is still denied to us, or remains inaccessible for a variety of reasons? It is deeply offensive to most of us. White people coming to our ceremonies do not carry the traumatic history that we do. Instead, they come with a sense of entitlement. They consider themselves cultural ambassadors and under the guise of creating peace between all peoples, they believe it is righteous to exploit our most sacred teachings. When Indigenous people object to their theft of our traditions, they dismiss those objections as hateful, angry, and un-spiritual. Yet, those individuals have appropriated our inheritance. They are practicing what has been denied our ancestors and what our children have yet to recover. It is just another assault on our spirit. This kind of violence through appropriation can extend to other cultural practices as well. For example, if colonizers are practicing sugar-bushing or wild-ricing within Dakota homeland while most of our people live in exile, they become just the latest wave of colonizers exploiting Indigenous resources at Indigenous expense. Dakota people will respond to such appropriation with anger, resentment, and hurt. This is not a good way to build solidarity with the Indigenous struggle.
Does this mean that others should never engage Indigenous ways of being? Not necessarily. If we are struggling for Indigenous liberation on Indigenous lands, all people are going to have to practice Indigenous ways of being in some form. We will all need to engage in sustainable living practices and Indigenous cultures, including Dakota culture, offer excellent models for all people. That does not mean former-colonizers can appropriate our spirituality and ceremonial life, but it will mean they need to embrace Indigenous values such as balance and reciprocity.
In the meantime, it is far more appropriate for colonizers to work to ensure that Dakota people are able to practice Dakota ways of being. If you believe sugar-bushing and wild-ricing are important, than help Dakota people recover lands so that we can engage that practice. Perhaps, we can eventually engage such activities together.
Points to Remember for Indigenous Solidarity Activists
- The movement for Indigenous liberation is a radical political struggle
- Being an ally does not mean signing up for Indigenous spirituality
- We need strong, solid individuals who are not floundering with their own spiritual struggles
- This is not a struggle for those people who believe it’s trendy to support Indigenous causes—we are in it for the long haul
- You can find Indigenous individuals who will support any position you want them to support—that is a direct result of the colonial experience
- Those indigenous individuals who encourage non-Indigenous participation in ceremonies are often (not always) those who are attempting to curry favor with white women, or white people for their own purposes
- Because this is a political struggle, it is essential to work in solidarity with critically minded and politically engaged Indigenous individuals
- Remember that decolonization is a process for both the colonizer and the colonized.
The Big Picture
In the end, we must all recognize that we are full of contradictions, colonizer and colonized alike. Even those of us who have a greater critical consciousness are tormented by the contradictions and compromises with which we must live. In the end, we all have considerable work to do.
Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, in their latest collaboration, What We Leave Behind, ask us a fundamental question regarding our role in the well-being of the planet. They ask, “Will your legacy be a world who is healthier, stronger, more resilient, more diverse, than had you never lived? If not, then the world would have been better off without you. If not, then the world would have been better off had you never been born.” (191) If we wrestle with this question, we quickly come to the conclusion that the vast majority of us would not leave a positive legacy if we left the world today, whether we are colonizers or colonized. That means that we all have significant work to do to defend the planet from further destruction.
As Indigenous Peoples, for thousands of years we have been the first defenders of our homelands. We must resume that role. Those who presume to be our allies, must join us.