What Does the Land Mean to Us?

Wet'suwet'en Nation

A Warrior is the one who can use words so that everyone knows they are part of the same family. A Warrior says what is in the people’s hearts, talks about what the land means to them, brings them together to fight for it.

– Bighorse, Diné

By , Indigenous Nationhood Movement

If the goals of decolonization are justice and peace, as is often stated by governments and people in Native politics, then the process to achieve these goals must reflect a basic covenant on the part of both Onkwehonwe and Settlers to honour each others’ existences. This honouring cannot happen when one partner in the relationship is asked to sacrifice their heritage and identity in exchange for peace. This is why the only possibility of a just relationship between Onkwehonwe and the Settler society is the conception of a nation-to-nation partnership between peoples, the kind of relationship reflected in the original treaties of peace and friendship consecrated between indigenous peoples and the newcomers when white people first started arriving in our territories.

Settlers rebuke attempts to reason logically through the problem in this way. Mainstream arguments about restitution (paying for crimes and giving back land) and reconciliation (creating peace) always end up becoming conservative defences of obvious injustices against even the most principled and fair arguments for restitution. Tolerating crimes encourages criminality. But the present Settler argument presumes that since the injustices are historical and the passage of time has certainly led to changed circumstances for both the alleged perpetrators and for the victims, the crime has been erased and there is no obligation to pay for it. This is the sophisticated version of the common Settler sentiment: “The Indians may have had a rough go of it, but it’s not my fault: I wasn’t around 100 years ago” or, “I bought my ranch from the government, fair and square!”

But this idea, so commonly held by white people, is wrong; it assumes that the passage of time leads to changes in circumstance. This is fundamentally untrue, especially when made in relation to Onkwehonwe, Settler societies, and what has happened between us. Between the beginning of this century and the beginning of the last, people’s clothes may have changed, their names may be different, but the games they play are the same. Without a real change in the realities of our relationship, there is no way we can consider the wrongs that have been done as historical. The crime of colonialism is ongoing today, and its perpetrators are present among us.

Where are we on these questions now, as Onkwehonwe? When our demands are put forward to the Settler governments accurately — not co-opted or softened by aboriginal collaborators with white power, Onkwehonwe all over the Americas have three main demands:

1.     governance over a defined territory;
2.    control of resources within that territory, with the expectation of sharing the proceeds of development with the state; and
3.    the legal and political recognition of Onkwehonwe cultural beliefs and ways in that territory.

What is so radical about that? It’s only fair and right that Onkwehonwe are recognized in our homelands.

But “radical” is how Settlers have responded to our demands. Their responses to Onkwehonwe demands have been the same across borders among even the so-called “progressive” Settler states, like Canada and the United States. These governments have refused to halt the continuing erosion of our land bases; they insist on benefiting financially from all resources within Onkwehonwe territories; they defend the legal and constitutional supremacy of their governments over ours; and they insist on the equivalency of rights between us and the Settlers in our homelands.

From Nunavut in the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and even across the Pacific Ocean to Aotearoa, there is consistency in this pattern of demand and response.

Some people may think that the struggle of our people has change in recent years. But no, Brothers and Sisters, it is the same as it has always been. Land, culture, community… these are the battlegrounds of our survival. The Settlers know it, and we will remember this too or they will succeed in their ancient mission of dispossessing us from the land, from our heritage, and from history.

But there is a danger in allowing colonization to be the only story of Indigenous lives.

Colonialism is an effective analytic frame, but it is limited as a theory of liberation. It is a narrative in which the Settler’s power is fundamental and unquestioned; it limits the freedom of the colonized by framing all movement as acts of resistance or outcomes of Settler power. For Indigenous peoples, colonial systems have always been ways of gaining control over Indigenous peoples and their land for the sake of Western notions of progress and Settlers’ interests. We now live in an era of post-modern colonial manipulation; the instruments of domination are evolving and elites are inventing new methods to erase Indigenous identities and presences. While on the surface subtle and non-violent, these strategies deny the ability of Indigenous people to act on their authentic identities, severing Indigenous lives from vital connections to land, culture and community, and offer Indigenous people only one option: dependency or destruction.

Far from being a post-colonial era, the very survival of Indigenous nations is threatened today just as in earlier more brutal eras of colonial oppression. The current discourse and framing of Indigenous peoples in Canada is an example of this new reality. A façade of “reconciliation” is being used to buttress white supremacy, pacify and co-opt Indigenous leadership, and facilitate total access to Indigenous lands for resource extraction. Against this, an ancestral movement has re-emerged among Indigenous and Settler ally thinkers and activists in North America: Indigenous Resurgence.

We are dedicated to recasting the identity and image of Indigenous people in terms that are authentic and meaningful, to regenerating and organizing a radical political consciousness, to reoccupying land and gaining restitution, to protecting the natural environment, and to restoring the Nation-to-Nation relationship between Indigenous nations and Settlers.

This reframing of Indigeneity as Resurgence provides the ethical, cultural and political bases for a transformative movement that has the potential to remove the stain of colonialism from the land and to liberate the spirits of Original Peoples and Newcomers alike.

Taiaiake Alfred is a Bear Clan Mohawk from Kahnawake. He is a Full Professor in Indigenous Governance and in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria. He is the author of three published books, Wasáse: indigenous pathways of action and freedom (Broadview, 2005); Peace, Power, Righteousness (Oxford University Press, 1999/2009); and Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors (Oxford University Press, 1995). You can follow him on Twitter: @Taiaiake.

2 responses to “What Does the Land Mean to Us?

  1. “What is so radical about that? It’s only fair and right that Onkwehonwe are recognized in our homelands.

    But ‘radical’ is how Settlers have responded to our demands….”

    The Latin etymological foundation of “radical” means going to the origin, root, or core of something. I believe decolonization and the indigenous reoccupation of ancestral lands is “radical” in the sense that it strikes at the root of the settler-colonial system, and is in fact incommensurable with its very existence. Decolonization is “radical” because it challenges the very foundations of settler-colonialism and the ‘Western’ conception of the Nation-State, predicated on fixed geopolitical boundaries, the ownership of life and land, etc.

  2. Pingback: aperturas (beginnings) | trazar la frontera

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