What Does the Land Mean to Us?

By Posted in - Voices Rising on November 19th, 2013 5 Comments 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

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.

(5) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • […] By Taiaiake Alfred, Indigenous Nationhood Movement […]

  • Tlalli Yaotl - Reply

    November 19, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    At a certain point, we’re simply discussing semantics, but 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.

    • Josh - Reply

      November 20, 2013 at 3:54 pm

      I agree entirely, but perhaps this is why the idea of authentic cultural survival (and by this I mean a culture that is not gutted of its political economic core. Otherwise this isn’t culture, just another form of assimilation and dependency) is so scary for most non-indigenous people. What would the dominant society be if there were no more people at home or abroad to dominate? Thus, liberation becomes “terrorism” and sensible solutions become “radical ideology”. That’s why I would argue that it’s the dominant society which is truly dependent. Without global indigenous dependency forming the basis of its economy, this society would not exist.

  • Chris Baulman - Reply

    November 20, 2013 at 4:23 am

    I cannot come to terms with the idea that the land is, was or ever could be “owned”, either by settlers or by original inhabitants. Pretty sure it was Chief Seattle who said that man can no more own the land we walk upon than lay claim to the air we breathe. I agree.

    So where would that leave us in relation to a way forward?

    True partnership between equals is necessary for positive & lasting outcomes. Where I live, this is not the situation that exists for indigeneous Australians, because non-indigenous Australia holds the key to life for indigenous people.

    Whatever input they may be allowed, ultimately they have to accept whatever is offered – any welfare arrangement or whatever employment they can get. This applies to non indigeneous Australians too & it is equally unjust for all.

    As land is the ultimate source of life, the land issue is fundamental in any partnership of equals.

    An acknowledgement that the land has been taken over in ways that deny some basic human rights is needed.

    There also needs to be the recognition that, however wrongly white Australia took root, all Australians have equal rights, & some have a right to compensation for wrongs done.

    Next, given that neither traditional ways nor current lifestyles can be upheld as sustainable for our nation, a new way of relating to the land is urgently needed.

    Clearly qualifying rights and responsibilities to land in these terms would require government to support a suitable compact of mutual obligations.

    Government support would involve guarantee of the human right to “be” somewhere that can support a dignified existence, conditional upon living sustainably.
    No rights are ever unconditional.

    Government support would also be appropriate in training and remuneration for the essential work of developing sustainable communities which all Australians would benefit from.

    In Australia, CDEP could be the mechanism, but CDEP has been seen only as a stepping stone to paid work – that should change. “In Italy, the principles differentiating the social economy from mainstream business and/or public sector agencies are institutionalised in the legal framework that recognises social welfare cooperatives as enterprises pursuing the general interests of the community and the social integration of disadvantaged citizens.” p240 http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/8500/1/PhD_mm_final.pdf

    The emphasis needs to be upon rights and responsibilities in regard to the land needed to sustain life … to build shelter, to feed one’s self, to establish community and to live in a sustainable way.

    Management skills and the ownership of knowledge have also led to self-empowerment problems. This can be overcome through a better process of sharing and cooperation. One approach to this style of community development in Australia is described at http://bit.ly/YD3L01

    Chris Baulman

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