This is the audio of an interview I did from the Hay Festival in Queretaro, Mexico with Indigenous Radio Mexico on the subject of Indigenous Rights:
National Native title Conference – Darwin, Australia
Thursday, 2 June 2016
The presentation details the shortcomings of land claims processes and the limitations of “reconciliation” in Canada as a framework for advocating for justice and decolonizing the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state. It outlines an alternative vision and set of strategic objectives of struggle that have emerged in response, framed as Indigenous Resurgence, which focus on restoring Indigenous presences on the land and water, reinvigorating language and traditional cultural practices, and strengthening Indigenous nationhood through the decolonization of family and inter-personal relationships.
Conversation with Gerald Taiaiake Alfred at Hay Festival Medellin
Indigenous Cultural Revitalization and Living Between Worlds
By: Erika Valero
Photography: Fredy Builes
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, January 28, Medellín-Colombia. Hay Festival Medellín
¨It is a very simple vision, our ancestor’s vision: just to be in a respectful, sustainable and honoring relationship with all of the other elements of the natural world, to not put the human above anybody else.¨
How would you describe your community, the Mohawk?
I am a person who grew up in the Indian reserve, in an environment of land loss, pollution, and all of the social problems that went along with that. But at the same time, from a community that is very proud and likes to fight for justice. I make it my own mission in life to fight for our land, to clean up the land, and to allow our kids to be even more indigenous so that we are in balance with the natural world.
In Canada we became very resistant to colonialism, so we have a reputation of being one of the tribes always in a confrontation, which is true. They tried to take away our land and our government.
The Mohawk are also known in New York for their work with steel, like the building of the Twin Towers and other high buildings. My father did that, all my friends did it. That´s what people think when you say Mohawk in New York.
In your work you talk about the youth and cultural revitalization, can you explain that concept to us?
My work is to look at each tribe and find opportunities they may have to maintain a connection with their practices. Or, if those practices are lost, we look at finding ways for them to relearn it from other tribes. The basic model is the Master & Apprentice, like you do with language or with art. A lot of our youth are lost, because of the lost of land and the racist assaults on our culture. They are native but they don´t know what that really means. They lost any connection with their traditions. There´s much frustration and anger, so there´s a lot of violence in our communities as well as lateral violence and substance abuse.
I was very involved in politics in what was called the reivindicación de la tierra. It involved the legal and political process to get our lands back. That was my work when I started over ten years ago. When I shifted over to cultural revitalization, which was when we were getting youth to practice our traditional culture and language on the land that we gotten back.
Twelve years ago I started working with one particular community on this matter. We tried to figure out a new way of getting youth to be focused and have a purpose and to be proud of being indigenous. Not to go back to hundred years ago, but to integrate where we have been with our modern life; a new balance. It’s been two years now and we have seen amazing changes in them and their families.
How do you use storytelling, language and art to be bring the youth back to their traditions?
I do a lot of different things but it’s always the same path. I used to write scholarships and more political stuff for that purpose, but now I´m doing more creative writing and storytelling.
There´s a lot of people who do it using the language but for us it’s mostly through speaking to groups and communicating on their level, which they are not used to hearing. In school they get to study history and leadership. It’s very political. But when I go to give my speeches I talk to them about the great Earth, because I lived there. I have suffered what they suffer. I try to convince them that all the answers that the government is giving them are not going to help them. The only thing that will help them to feel whole again is being in a respectful relationship with their territory, their land, and respect their ancestor´s vision of being indigenous.
What´s the ancestor’s vision of being indigenous?
It’s very simple. It’s just to be in a respectful, sustainable, and honoring relationship with all of the other elements of the natural world; to not put the human above anybody else, to look at it as an interconnected secret weapon. The relationships that exist and keep that balance are sacred. Humans are healthy if the natural environment is healthy, same with the animals. It’s very simple but profound.
It´s almost impossible to have this vision right now because of capitalism. This system looks at everything as a commodity, including people. It´s hard to have a vision of respect for each other in this context. So we are creating these non-capitalistic spaces where people can experience what it’s like to be an indigenous person.
How would you describe your job as an educator?
My job in the University of Victoria in British Columbia is Indigenous Leadership. I educate the leaders at the master and doctoral levels so they can go back to the communities with this cultural knowledge. These leaders are already in both worlds, but we feel they are to be held accountable to the indigenous tradition, not another idea of progress or capitalism. Most of the native people in Canada are segregated, pretty much what happens in Colombia with your native people. There is nothing for them. They are isolated in harsh, cold weather. Mostly they´ve been moved away from the good land to marginal land so other people can take advantage of the resources. That is colonialism.
In Canada, the option they are giving to these people is to leave their land and go to college. For me they are destroying their tribal identity. But even with that option, they do not make it. They have to go to the right college. There´s a lot of schools so we try to take care of their political education so they can make the best of both worlds.
Do you think it is possible to live between cultures and to have an indigenous vision of life in our actual social and economic system?
It´s very difficult, you have to commit and sacrifice. You can’t just live a normal life and expect to have that benefit. You have to sacrifice somewhat of comfort and material reward that comes from participating in this system in order to maintain that connection. It requires money and time, but it´s possible.
When I go hunting, sometimes I take my children or other people to maintain the connection. It costs a lot of money but it’s worth it because you can have a different relationship with food, with cooking, and with preserving the meat. We just need to shoot a moose. The meat will last a year for a whole family. We use guns so that the animal does not suffer. There´s many ways to preserve the meat but now we mostly freeze it.
I worked with the designers and curators of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba to put together the welcoming exhibit for the Museum. The space is the first thing visitors encounter when entering the Museum, and the installations in the space are meant to convey Indigenous worldviews and illustrate our connections to the land. My contribution was one of three Indigenous installations, and is based on the teachings of the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, the Ohenten Kariwatekwen.
These are photos taken by Museum staff of the installation and of the whole exhibit…
Conférence du professeur Taiaiake Alfred (Université de Victoria, BC) prononcée dans le cadre du colloque “Civic Freedom in an Age of Diversity : James Tully’s Public Philosophy” qui s’est tenu du 24 au 26 avril 2014 à l’Université du Québec à Montréal.
The 2013 Narrm Oration, “Being and becoming Indigenous: Resurgence against contemporary colonialism”, was delivered by Professor Taiaiake Alfred on 28 November.
Professor Alfred is the founding Director of the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He specialises in traditions of governance, decolonisation strategies, and land based cultural restoration.
The Narrm Oration has been hosted annually by Murrup Barak, Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development at The University of Melbourne with the support of Rio Tinto Australia since 2009.
Speakers (in order of appearance)
Professor Glyn Davis AC, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Melbourne
Professor Ian Anderson, Director Murrup Barak and Assistant Vice- Chancellor Indigenous Higher Education, The University of Melbourne
Professor Taiaiake Alfred, Founding Director, Indigenous Governance Program, University of Victoria, British Colombia
Professor Marcia Langton AM, Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, The University of Melbourne
“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 development. Against this, an ancestral movement has re-emerged among some Indigenous thinkers and Indigenous and Settler ally activists in North America: Indigenous Resurgence. These people are dedicated to recasting 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 promotes the kind of action and provides the spiritual and ethical bases for a transformative movement that has the potential to liberate both Indigenous peoples and Settlers from colonialism.”
In 2000 I co-wrote and hosted a radio documentary with Michael Enright called, The Idea of the Noble Savage: Images of Aboriginal Peoples from Columbus to the Present. The documentary was a combination of lecture, conversation, interviews, and dramatization, and it aired over three days on CBC’s national radio show, This Morning. It explored the concept of the Noble Savage from its origins in Western culture through to the contemporary uses and misuses of images of Indigenous people, bringing forward the important point that Canadian society has yet to understand and relate to authentic representations of Indigeneity, and continues to constuct false images of Indigenous people and use those falsehoods to support its colonial goals in relation to our identities and lands.
I think it is still relevant…