In the wake of two horrific world wars, American Quakers coined the phrase “speak truth to power” as part of a campaign for peace. The truth they wished to voice to the American public, its leaders, and to power itself was a familiar one: “love endures and overcomes.” Speaking truth to power stood in contrast to the silence of cold obedience as exemplified by the professional soldier. Here, the Quakers follow a long-standing tradition in western political thought of identifying speech with agency and disobedience.
This view of politics extends back to the ancient Greeks and reflects the guiding intuition behind contemporary democratic institutions. Throughout that long history, the disruptive potential of speech has been a mainstay of emancipatory movements, struggles for the full inclusion of the marginalized, and the fight for basic equalities that have been historically denied. Dominant communities have accordingly sought to protect their privilege by limiting the ‘voice’ of groups who seek to speak their truths.
But a very different strategy of power is deployed when contending with groups who seek collective autonomy as opposed to equality and inclusion. In the past half-century, settler colonial society has come to realize that excluding Indigenous peoples and their perspectives from public discourse has not stopped them from speaking to one another or from strengthening their nations. These nations are, of course, rooted in the very lands over which dominant society unilaterally asserts its claim of sovereignty. Formal exclusion has proven a limited strategy. And so Indigenous nationhood movements have inspired a distinctive and seemingly counter-intuitive response from dominant society: an invitation (sometimes even a demand) that Indigenous peoples speak truth to power.
Why would colonial institutions accommodate and in some cases encourage the voices of Indigenous peoples? Because at its core, what settler society fears more than the disruptive potential of Indigenous speech is the inevitability that Indigenous peoples, once released from an imposed duty to justify themselves to the colonizer, will turn that massive investment of energy back into being truth to power. Being truth to power is reflected in those embodied practices of love for community and for the land, diverse practices that undermine the homogenizing violence that sustains colonial privilege. Accordingly, colonial power increasingly works through sites of dialogue designed to sap the vitality from these embodied practices of autonomy. The goal is to lift Indigenous peoples out of communities and off the land and drop them into a permanent state of explanation, a limbo wherein they are compelled to talk endlessly to settlers about community and about land.
When Indigenous peoples are not engaged in being truth to power, then, it is often because they have been induced to explain and justify themselves to a colonial audience. They have been tireless and resilient at the podium, these elders, activists, advocates, academics, lawyers, artists, teachers, and children. They have tapped every shared register and common understanding available in the hopes that genuine reciprocity might drip, however slowly, into the rusted tin can of colonial institutions. They have argued for nationhood through the abstract lens of high philosophy, through the concrete immediacy of violence against women, and from every location in between. They have deployed the arcane legal language that colonial courts revere as authoritative and they have attempted to transpose Indigenous perspectives into every idiom that the general public might understand. They have been repeating the message at every opportunity and in every institution be it the media, grade schools, universities, courts, legislatures, international governance bodies, conferences, committees, commissions, corporate boardrooms and negotiating tables.
Indigenous peoples are prompted to reach across the colonial abyss by the urgency and immediacy of threats to health and well-being. Despite the fact that these efforts have led to some important gains, from the perspective of settler colonial power there are advantages to promoting still more dialogue. For one, such exchanges are an important method of maintaining surveillance and control. As mentioned, they also sap and divert vital energy. But there is another, less obvious reason why settlers champion more robust discourse: Indigenous ‘voice’ is the primary source of narcissistic settler redemption.
In situations where Indigenous peoples have resumed being truth to power, ignoring the order to justify themselves, settlers have responded with revealing questions: How will our institutions be reformed without reference to Indigenous perspectives? How will we, the colonizers, be emancipated from our morally untenable positions of colonial privilege if not through discourse with Indigenous peoples? How will we know what to do? Questions like this expose the manner in which settlers have cultivated an inverted ‘white saviourism’ through their interactions with Indigenous peoples. No longer are we the great civilizing redeemers; rather, we are the hallowed subjects of redemption. In dialogue, settlers situate themselves as the lead characters around which the plot moves toward our beautiful deliverance from the name of colonizer. We become, in effect, the very raison d’etre of Indigenous decolonization efforts. In the past we rejected Indigenous agency, having assumed the mythology of a white man’s burden, but today we are insatiable consumers of Indigenous intellectual and cultural labour.
Decolonization as dialogue is a pre-emptive strike against Indigenous resurgence, one that allows settlers to renounce any agency or responsibility to challenge colonialism on their own terms. It is very difficult for settlers to interpret the appeal to dialogue as anything but innocent and constructive, even when it so clearly constitutes a form of exhausting interference. But coming to grips with these structural and subjective dynamics is essential to understanding our position in modern colonial relations.
Respecting and promoting Indigenous nationhood, on the other hand, entails confronting colonial institutions with their greatest fear, which is perhaps our own greatest fear: the fear of silence. Honest responses are needed to difficult questions: Am I willing to lose the privilege of being the audience? How comfortable am I with the silence that follows? For it is in the absence of obligatory discussion – in the silence that signals genuine Indigenous autonomy from any imposed duty to explain, perform, or justify its existence – that narcissistic colonial society might lose its grip. Recall that this is not a silence that protects or promotes injustice – it is not a silence of erasure – for it is not the silencing of native voices. Native peoples will continue speaking to one another as they always have. They will continue practices of ceremony and prayer and sage against the machine. Rather, it is the silence experienced by settlers when we are neither the audience nor the arbiter of Indigenous being, when the survival of Indigenous nations no longer hinges on opportunities for Indigenous peoples to justify survival. Could you accept the silence that marks the presence and flourishing of Indigenous nationhood irrespective of your understanding, approval, or participation?
Behind these questions are certain assumptions about the capacity of settler society to contribute to decolonization. The questions assume, for instance, that settlers have adequate intellectual and cultural resources to address the problems. Do we? Indigenous and settler peoples have had constructive exchanges throughout history and we have inherited valuable conceptions related to treaties and nationhood from these exchanges. Still, for many settlers, the idea of Indigenous nationhood and practices of resistance can be disorienting and discomforting. Can we get at an understanding of our responsibilities to Indigenous nations without ensnaring those communities in the machinery of colonial preservation?
I believe we can and that we are obligated to do so. Settler history presents a chaos of conflicting ideas and practices through which we must sift for useable ideals. For instance, the Quakers who championed speaking the truth of love to power were early colonizers. They emigrated to the Americas to avoid persecution at the hands of both the church and the state whose centralized power the Quakers openly refused. Indeed, they rejected any self-proclaimed authority to impose a particular relationship to community or to God. Unlike many settlers, the Quakers sought peaceful relations with Indigenous peoples. Yet they were also missionaries who managed reservations on behalf of the government, as well as leaders in the move to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Notably, Quakers were ridiculed and persecuted for their commitment to a distinctive form of silent worship and work. This silence was viewed with suspicion and derision by a dominant religious culture heavily invested in traditions of confession, sacrament, hymns, and sermons. The Quakers would not yield, however. They continued being their truth to power by working and worshiping in silence. In doing so they resisted and survived.
Our history is full of mixed lessons and exemples of this sort. Settlers have the opportunity and the obligation to comb through the historical confusions to reveal both the pre-conditions of western dominance and the points of resistance to which we have access. The task that settlers must undertake in the present context, I believe, is to forsake the conviction that we are an indispensable or even appropriate audience. Instead, we must assert our agency and autonomy in the process of decolonization, for in doing so we honour the agency and autonomy of Indigenous peoples. This is, of course, the very foundation of the nation-to-nation relationship.
The hard work of decolonization, for the settler, is getting comfortable with the silence of mutual autonomy. In this silence we refuse the authority to summon Indigenous performance, we avoid the proclaimed right to surveil Indigenous reasoning, and we abandon the program of engagement that saps Indigenous vitality. We must interrogate our motivation to promote the dialogue that so routinely establishes reconciliation (as salvation), parasitically, on the work of Indigenous ‘voice’.
Tobold Rollo is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto where he specializes in democratic theory and Canadian politics. Rollo is the author of various articles, including “Mandates of the State: Canadian Sovereignty, Democracy, and Indigenous Claims,” forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence. Follow him on Twitter: @SettlerColonial