Indigenous Masculinity and Warriorism

The following is the transcript of an interview I did on the question of traditional male roles and responsibilities and about the contemporary concerns of Indigenous males with Professor Sam McKegney of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario on February 11, 2011.


Taiaiake Alfred: Hello?

Sam McKegney: She:kon Professor Alfred. It’s Sam McKegney calling. How are you doing?

TA:   I’m doing pretty good, how about you?

SM: I’m well thanks. Actually, I shouldn’t say that, I’m kind of beneath the weather physically.

TA:   Ah yes, everybody is these days.

SM: That seems to be the case. But mentally I’m present. So is this a good time for chatting?

TA:   Yeah, I’m good to go for a while.

SM: Excellent. I have four areas I would like to go over, if that’s OK. The first being alienation from traditional male roles and responsibilities. So, in other words, why have conditions become like they have become. And, secondly, what are the contemporary concerns of Indigenous men? Thirdly, I’d like to talk a little bit about warrior ethics and re-imagining Indigenous manhood in productive ways. And then finally, what are the best paths to follow? So going from the “why”, to what the concerns are, to what the vision of a productive future ought to be, and then, how do we get there?

So, to start off with, in my understanding as a settler scholar living in Haudenosaunee Territory, there are a lot of elements in place in traditional Haudenosaunee society and among the different nations of the Iroquois Confederacy to promote balance in all things, including gender relations. I was wondering if you could reflect upon what sort of political, spiritual and linguistic foundations create that form of balance?

TA:   Well, for me it’s woven in everything, in all of our ceremonies and songs and dances, and in the Longhouse. And, not only that, but in how the culture has functioned for so long. We’ve been out of that whole classical, traditional mode for a long time now, but that doesn’t mean that everything was wiped out and that patriarchy was imposed, and all the kind of stuff, outright. I think a lot of stuff in our communities is based on the traditional, pre-contact kind of situation we had. One of those is the role of women, at least in the social and cultural life of the community, if not the political. I mean, you grow up in that kind of environment, and then it gets enforced when you learn more about the traditional teachings, whether it’s in governance or any other area. The notion of balance you’re talking about is pretty fundamental, and you could pick pretty much any aspect of Iroquoian culture and you’d find it as a central theme in there.

SM: Considering the interventions that colonial and Canadian governments have had on gender relationships in many Indigenous nations, why is it so crucial to the colonial project to remove that sense of balance from communities?

TA:   Well, I think there’s two main reasons—I guess you’d need to ask a colonizer for the real truth on this—but from our perspective anyways, you look at it in a historical context and there’s two reasons. One is that the central objective of colonization, as it was practiced in our part of the world, was to impose cultural practices and to impose worldviews that come from Europe on Indigenous peoples. It just so happens that at the time that this project was in full force, doing its business, patriarchy and the subjugation of women was at the forefront of that culture, so I think that was one of the driving forces. It was part of the package of European civilization. So, that’s one reason. The other reason is that the particularities of Haudenosaunee, and a lot of other Indigenous peoples in our part of the world, made it necessary to attack the power of women in the community in terms of decision making—when it came to making war, and making decisions on trade, and economic decisions and so forth—and also the fact that they were the title holders to the land. If you’re trying to steal somebody’s land, you have to go after the owners, and in the Haudenosaunee community, the owners, it so happened, were the females. So you put those two together, and it’s a pretty compelling reason to go after the traditional roles of women in our society.

SM: The way that that was carried out in a political fashion—through the imposition of the Indian Act, and the band council system, and of course Residential Schools and other forms of dispossession, as well as the encroachment of capitalism—all of this seemed to be going along coterminously with cultural production that would re-imagine gender relations among Indigenous peoples. I’m thinking about the way that first literature and now film—and even newspapers and music—have created simulations of what constitutes Indigenous womanhood and what constitutes Indigenous manhood. And, I’m wondering about your analysis of these, particularly of simulations of hyper-masculinity, in film in literature, about Indigenous men.

TA:   Well, the first thing, reflecting on what you just said, is that I think it started much earlier than the Indian Act and all that. The first instance when people changed their worldviews, or rejected their traditional world views and took on a Christian perspective of relationships of humans to the universe, you’ve done the deed then, and the ground is laid, so to speak, for the destruction of our societies. Because it’s based on balance, and it is necessary to understand that balance from our teachings, and from the ceremonies and songs and so forth, and if you take on a Christian worldview you forget that. And not only that, you get the implicit bias towards the male that comes from the Bible. So I think it happened pretty early on. The Indian Act and Residential Schools and all that, to me was kind of the “final solution,” so to speak, and it put a capstone on something that had already been laid as a foundation much earlier.

But the other part of your question, about popular culture and its stereotype images of Natives… I can only say—I haven’t studied this as a professional project or anything, that’s what you’re up to—in my own personal experience and that of my community, I can’t really say that the images have fundamentally affected our conceptions of ourselves. At least not me and the people that I know. The images of the buckskin warrior and the hyper-masculine images that, like you said, are in film and books and so forth, to me those were there and people were aware of them, but we always thought, “that’s the way other Natives are.” It’s not anyone I know. We had hyper-masculine guys, and guys who were pretty tough, but they weren’t the kind of images that were reflected in movies. There weren’t many iron workers and all that in the movies when I was growing up. The images didn’t really resonate, and therefore, they didn’t really connect. I think a lot of it has to do with it too, that the films and movies and the books tend to focus on plains Indian culture, and we’re not plains Indians, so there was no resonance there either. They were kind of a parody, at least I understood them to be a parody. You know, you
get upset when people—it’s not so much the image that’s being portrayed, its how people react to it. You see something like that on TV or in a movie, and prima facie, it’s not really insulting to me, because it’s not me. But if people are laughing at it, or if people are mistakenly expecting me to be that way, then it’s a problem. But to be honest, it wasn’t really an issue for me growing up, not so much in the community I come from anyways. I suppose it would be a lot different if you talked to people in the States or on the plains.

SM: I guess a lot of that builds from who the imagined audience from those works is. I think about watching Avatar with a class last week, or two weeks ago, and how clearly the audience for that film is a mainstream audience who is going to empathize with the white, male character who is able to become more Indigenous than Indigenous. But that’s another series of questions…

TA:   Yeah, I mean, the point is, if I’m sitting in an audience full of white people watching a movie and they’re all laughing at the film, that’s different than sitting at home in Kahnawake watching it at home on TV, where we’re all laughing at it, but for a different reason. The context of your experience makes a big difference in how it affects you. I grew up on a reserve surrounded by Natives, and wasn’t with white people all that much, and that shaped my experience, I have to say.

SM: Can I ask you about the impact that the focus on issues pertaining to women in Indigenous Studies criticism might have? I’m thinking specifically about people like Paula Gunn Allen in The Sacred Hoop, or Kim Anderson in her work, of even Tomson Highway famously arguing that colonization is the male Christian God raping the female Indigenous deity, and I’m wondering if there is a way in which, perhaps, Indigenous men might misconstrue the centrality of women’s power in Indigenous cultures as emasculating or disempowering to themselves. I realize it’s kind of convoluted in that construction because we’re talking about critical discourse as opposed to lived experience, but I’m just curious about how that focus on the gynocratic has been perceived.

TA:   Again, I can only say from my own experience, it’s certainly not emasculating for anyone that I have ever known in my community. It’s not really experienced in that way at all. I think it’s part of what I started talking about—it’s mutually reinforcing women and men’s roles, it’s one of the traditional things that’s been kept up. The men are not emasculated because the women tend to be strong and influential and key decision makers, but they also know the limits of their role and their power. And once a decision has been made, the responsibility to carry out the decision is with the men, and the power and the self-esteem and all of that comes from the action, and carrying it out. So there’s a balance.

I guess in a contemporary context, especially in an academic or arts community, I could see how it could be emasculating because you have women who don’t understand their own tradition and all they understand is that they want to be in charge. They think they need to emasculate a man in order to be a strong Native woman. I’ve certainly seen that. I haven’t experienced it, because no one has been successful in doing that, but some people have tried. I think it comes from women re-traditionalizing, and taking on—or attempting to take on—the role of the Native matriarch without being fully aware of the whole complexity, and having a full fluency in the culture. So, it tends to get acted out as a kind of revenge against the men who victimized them when they were growing up. So, that’s the worst-case scenario, which I’ve certainly seen, but I think I can relate to your question only in an academic context, and not in any kind of context where I was growing up.

SM: To move to the second series of questions, I was wondering if we could talk about Indigenous youth for a few minutes. I know you’ve really sought to include youth voices in your work. I’m thinking of some of the interviews from Wasáse, for instance, and your co-authorship of the important article on the meaning of political participation for Indigenous youth.[1]

TA:   OK.

SM: What factors inform what you describe in that latter article as the cynicism of a lot of Indigenous youth towards political processes, the feeling of disenfranchisement. What creates that sort of sense of alienation?

TA:   I think first of all, it’s a general thing having to do with their age. They tend to be more romantic in their notion of politics, and then they are easily crushed when they find out that politicians lie, and that it’s really all about the money and there’s no integrity in the process, whether it is Native or non-Native. I think that when they start to see the reality, when they get to an age where they can appreciate the reality of what politics is and how it works, and what their elders are doing in the political process, it breeds a cynicism, generates a cynicism, because they have such high ideals given that they’re young. I think that’s part of it. I think the other part is that they are part of a generation—it’s kind of a paradox—our people are getting more and more urbanized, and more and more assimilated, and more and more integrated into technological society, more and more dependent, less and less language and culturally oriented, but at the same time youth are being told that they need to be more Aboriginal, more First Nations. They get on the Internet, or in these seminars, or in counseling or whatever, all these so called “teachings”… so they get these “teachings” and this notion of what it means to be Native in a theoretical sense, and then they turn around and look at the lives that their leaders and their parents and everyone is leading, and they see such a disconnection. I think that is such a big part of it.

You know, teenagers are always hyper in-tune to hypocrisy to begin with. I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, if you’ve raised any teenagers, but if you’ve been in that situation you know that kids from the time they are pre-teens until late-teens, they’re looking to catch adults on their hypocrisy every single day. And I think that is a big part of it; it’s so easy to see the hypocrisy of what’s going on. When you get older, if you enter politics you have to willfully ignore it in order to rationalize your participation in it. Whereas the kids, they don’t have any stake in rationalizing it, so they just see it for what it is. And then sadly, they get turned off by it because they see nothing but hypocrisy. It’s very rare, I think, to find a leader that can motivate young people by being a role model in all of the ways that we expect our leaders to be in traditional senses—as a person, being consistent with the philosophy, being strong and courageous, all the things we write about and talk about. It’s very, very rare in terms of our leadership in Native communities. There are individuals who have different aspects of all of that, but, I don’t know… maybe if you threw some names at me I could respond, but I honestly can’t think of an individual who embodies the full spectrum, and is a person who is a leader in the full sense of the word.

SM: I’m thinking about the way in which getting turned off or disenchanted by, I guess, what a
mounts to disappointment in the hypocrisy of the generation before leads to a need for alternative kinds of communities. I’m thinking specifically of Indigenous male youth, about how gangs function, and what needs or desires are fostered, or can be worked through, with that kind of alternative community. Is that an over-simplification of what leads kids in that direction?

TA:   I don’t think that is an oversimplification. The only critical response I would have to what you said is the linking of it to this kind of sense of disappointment at the behaviour of leaders because that assumes a foundation for critique where they know and expect some cultural integrity. Whereas, I would say 99% of the people involved in gangs, they don’t have a cultural background, they don’t have any sense of what it is to be Native, or part of a family, or anything. They’re just existing in a cultural and social vacuum and the gang provides some structure in their life, and provides an identity which is entirely lacking. So, once you sort of de-link it from culture, and a critique of culture, I think that, yeah, you’re right. It does provide something; it provides absolutely essential things. But, unfortunately, that explanation I think too often—I’m not saying you’re doing this, but I’ve heard it before—if you go too far with it, it releases gang members from their own responsibility, and it really underplays the significance of the attraction of violence and greed, and sheer laziness—intellectual and physical on their part—to do the hard work to actually make a life. Sure, it operates and it fulfills a function that all humans need, especially these people here who are living the lives they lead, where it’s almost entirely absent, that basic family. But on the other hand, they are all acting like greedy pigs, and they’re all abusing women and killing and doing violence. So, yeah, they’ve made those choices. There are a lot of people who need culture who don’t go into gangs. It’s all about balance. I think that explanation makes sense, but I think it needs to be paired immediately with self-responsibility as well.

SM: In analyzing experiences like that, far too often people find themselves coming down on one or the other side: it’s either all the individual’s fault or it’s all this absence that is political and beyond the individual, when of course they’re always interwoven, right? Those things can’t function without each other.

TA:   Yeah, that’s for sure. I think you’re absolutely right. Most people pick a side, one or the other, because that’s the way most of our learning and most of our policy and most of our law operates, right?

SM: That makes me think a little bit—speaking to you from Kingston, the prison capital of Canada—about incarceration, and ways in which masculine identities are molded in prison settings. I know a few elders in this area who conduct cultural teachings in the different prisons. For many inmates, they haven’t had the chance to learn about their cultures until they’re in this place, but it’s a place that exists as an instrument of ongoing state coercion and violence. So, I guess I’m just asking you to reflect on what these tensions produce or what they can produce.

TA:   I don’t really know. I don’t have any experience, I’ve never really worked in that context. Of course I know people who have gone into prison and who’ve gotten out, and who’ve been involved in trying to learn cultural teachings and doing ceremonies and stuff while they were in prison. But to be honest, I haven’t seen it operate in any transformative function. I haven’t really seen it transform anyone. I can’t really say that learning traditions and teachings in that environment is a bad thing. I think it’s always good to learn, and if people can learn and take something from it, and be exposed to culture and to individuals who are embodying these teachings, it can maybe be an anchor for them in what is otherwise, no doubt, a pretty depressing existence. So right there, I think it serves a great function. But, as for them coming to know what the teachings are and being able to live them out, I don’t know. I can’t really say, because I don’t know what the realities of that environment are. I can imagine, but I don’t really know. I suppose there are some aspects of traditional Indigenous philosophies and teachings which are personal, which you can take and use to steel yourself, or help yourself survive in that environment. But as for the major thrust of those teachings and so forth, they are all communal and participatory and they take place either on the land or in the community… It seems to me that what you’re getting when you teach in that environment is really one slice of what traditional teachings are—those that are applicable to the kind of environment that those guys are living in. Or women.

It’s the same thing—I mean, it’s a different environment—but it’s a similar problem that you face with trying to teach it in a university, really. You’re not out on the land, you’re not in a community, and you have kind of a transient population, and so the kinds of things you do in a university tend to be things that are attractive to those people. They tend to be things to just help them maintain themselves while they’re here. There’s not really a level of commitment to actually living through those teachings, so much as using the teachings in order to make the experiences more palatable or to survive the experience. I suppose it’s just that much more heightened for prisoners.

SM: I wanted to ask you, also, about what Mohawk psychiatrist Clare Brant has called “the ethic of non-interference.” I’ve been thinking lately in some of my work about how traditional ethics of non-interference can become, I guess co-opted might be the right word, by capitalist individualism. In other words, how traditional ethics that support the autonomy of Indigenous individuals can become misconstrued in a capitalist environment that wants the individual to see himself as sort of unmoored from communal responsibility. Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between the ethics of non-interference and what capitalism seeks to recreate Indigenous communities as?

TA:   Yeah, well, Clare, he was on to something, and I think did a good job of abstracting a key component of Indigenous culture. But, in relation to the question you’re asking, there’s a big difference between the two because, as it was described by Clare, the ethic of non-interference operates in a larger context of pretty strict rules, and a pretty unified worldview, and a pretty solid sense that is shared among all the people of the community as to what is right and wrong in the end. And, we’ll call that a culture, an Indigenous culture and worldview. And, that’s a lot different than not giving a damn, and just playing with your itunes all day long, and not bothering with your neighbor in the context of global capital, where global capitalism seeks to atomize individuals and seeks to communicate with individuals only through advertising—implanted advertising these days, or subliminal advertising—and seeks to control that individual from a corporate perspective, right? Through corporate interest. They look the same, I guess, when you’re walking around. You could see an individual concerned only with him or herself, and maybe confuse that with a traditional-minded individual forty years earlier in that community, not judging, or not interfering w
ith what is going on in his neighbor’s yard, trusting that either from a spiritual perspective, or that the larger community will right things in the end, that things will be right and balance will come to the community. That’s a big difference in terms of the intention and the self-awareness of those two individuals, from maybe forty years earlier and maybe forty years later now. And, yeah, I just think it’s a very precarious state in our communities now, especially since the nineties, or maybe even in the last ten years or fifteen years, with personal technology—omnipresent television, computerization, facebook, all the kind of stuff—where there is really no accountability to community anymore. It’s increasingly becoming a situation where technology has really supplanted the community and people feel like they’re part of a larger global capitalism. That’s much more real to them than their little reserve communities which they can afford to ignore. It would have been unheard of fifty years ago for someone to say, “I’m leaving you honey, and I’m leaving the kids because of someone I met on facebook” and then move to a distant city and move in with them.

SM: [Laughter] Yeah.

TA:   It would have been impractical, but it also would have been inconceivable because the community, the family, the reality of that existence and that belief system… It would just be not something that you could ever imagine one individual doing. Whereas that happens all the time now. People don’t really care anymore about what their community thinks of them. They certainly don’t care, and they don’t believe in, the spiritual sanction that was the underlying kind of psychological, the spiritual/psychological force, that kept people in line a long time ago. The wool has been pulled back, and they think that they know how the world functions, and it’s all just money, and it’s all just technology, and it’s all just capitalism, so that’s what they’re accountable to. I think a lot of people are becoming like that. I think they’re wrong, as a matter of fact, like me personally, but I think that’s the illusion that people are sold, and that’s what they’re rewarded for believing in. Like on a material basis, they’re rewarded for believing in that. And what’s the reward for believing in the old ways? It takes a long time, and it’s not always tangible in the same ways that the rewards of participating in the capitalist world are tangible.

SM: How can the power of those rewards that are harder to see—of actual community involvement and connection with the teachings, with the land, and with the community—how can those rewards be highlighted? What can communities do in order to help people see the validity of the types of commitments that you’re talking about?

TA:   Beyond taking an approach to technology which is very adversarial? I don’t know. This is a global problem we’re talking about. You read the book Absurdistan? [Gary Shteyngart, 2006]

SM: No, I haven’t.

TA:   Well, it’s a comedy, but it’s about this. It’s about some Russian Jew who lives in this fantasy world, of having a Brooklyn girlfriend. He’s got a black girlfriend in Brooklyn who’s into rap, and he’s living in Russia, and he’s like this overweight Jew. But because he’s got itunes, and because he has an iphone, and all this kind of stuff, he can have this fantasy world where that’s his actual life, and his surroundings of actual Russia in 2010 are not real to him. He has to get back to his reality, which is eating pizza in Brooklyn with his black girlfriend. And I think that that’s just one example of how people’s perception of themselves is getting so monstrously skewed through this—it sounds crazy to call it evil technology or whatever—but if you believe capitalism is evil, you have to believe that facebook and all that is evil too.

SM: Yeah, well, it’s a form of narcosis right, if it takes people away from recognizing the reality around them. And, of course, that’s why it’s attractive, because it renders what might otherwise be untenable conditions tenable, because they can then be ignored.

TA:   That’s exactly right. And the way out? I don’t know. Most people, sadly, are quite willing to accept a level of gratification that goes only so deep as physicality, or maybe the first layer of psychology, and capitalism gives them that. But, you know, for those individuals who need a level of gratification that goes beyond that to the spiritual, the deeper levels of psychology—whose soul is a bit more attuned to the need for spiritual and psychological fulfillment—then, you know, you have someone you can talk to in terms of being critical of all this, and looking at spirituality and traditional teachings as an alternative. But to be honest, there are very few individuals who are swayed by that argument.

SM: Yeah, far too few, I would imagine.

TA:   Not only in Mohawk communities but everywhere. I guess the other alternative is when people go through a crisis. So, people become obese because of the lifestyle, or they get sick in another way because of the lifestyle, or they become psychologically damaged, or in crisis because of drug and alcohol abuse, or because of sexual… whatever they’re involved in. They’re sort of like the Buddha, I guess, before his awakening. They wake up one morning and it’s all ugly, and it stinks, and then they say, “what am I doing here?” There’s one Buddha in the last 5000 years, so that’s how rare it is, that that happens.

SM: [Laughter]

TA:   But I guess it does. It’s a metaphor, but it does happen. It’s so rare though. I find what we have at the university here, you know, we teach the traditional line, and we get people who’ve been through crisis — either intellectually, psychologically, or sometimes spiritually — they’ve been part of the capitalist machine and it has harmed them, and they’re looking for an alternative. And unfortunately I think our people, at least in Kahnawake where I’m from, they were denied the access to capitalist fulfillment for so long that now they’re just tasting it for the first time and they think it’s great. But, I already see signs of it cracking. It really is the role of intellectuals and artists and writers to explain for people what it is they’re feeling and what’s happening to them. There’s a lot of people in Kahnawake right now who are in crisis, psychological and spiritually, because they have too much money. Capitalism is not doing anything for them, it’s harming them. Their obsession is with capitalist success, and their identity is framed in terms of capitalism. And there’s not really anybody except for the old traditional practitioners coming to teach them and speaking their language and taking their experience and using that to awaken them as to what they’re living, and instruct them about ways to get through it. There’s no one really doing that.

We try to do our jobs, but we talk at a level that is beyond most people, eh? So, I think it’s really incumbent on a person who considers herself or himself a public intellectual, and especially an Indigenous intellectual today, to look at the realities and to try and communicate to people what it is that they’re facing, because they don’t understand critiques of capital
ism. They haven’t read all that stuff. They’re just feeling it, and they can’t process it really, unless someone comes and talks to them in their language about it.

SM: For intellectuals working within the rewards system of the university, we are pressured to speak a particular language to a particular audience that alienates so many others by that very same capitalist rewards system: if we want to get tenure, we need to publish articles in these types of journals. When actually, if what we want to be doing is critiquing that very system, we need to speak to other audiences. And, far too few of us, I guess, are doing that—and I count myself here among the guilty.

Let me ask you, I don’t want to take up your whole afternoon here, but I want to talk a little bit about re-imagining warrior ethics, which you’ve written about powerfully. To start with, the concept of “carrying the burden of peace”—rotiskenhrakete. In Kanien’kehaka society, how do you conceptualize the qualities of men charged with that burden?

TA:   First of all, I don’t know if that’s the actual translation of the word. I know there’s debate in our communities as to what that means. I think I’ve used both… I think I’ve maybe self-consciously chosen to use that translation a couple of times, because it sounds as compelling as the other one. The other one… are you aware of the other?

SM: I haven’t heard it translated differently, so no.

TA:   Well, you know, the verb, the central part of the word you’re saying is “skenhra,” rotiskenhrakete. But if you look at it from a linguistic perspective, it’s not actually right to translate it that way, because it would be rotiskenhrakete: “they’re carrying the peace.” But, when it’s pronounced and when it’s written it’s not rotiskenhrakete, it’s rotishrakete there’s not “skenhra” in there, and that literally just means “carrying the burden,” or “carrying something heavy,” I believe. Some older guys said it could originally be derived from carrying a rifle, ‘cause there’s a word there, the middle word, might be for iron or steel or something heavy, a burden. So maybe the rust from a rifle or something like that? So there’s two different opinions as to what that means, and it’s important to make that distinction, because you know, in the territory you live, most of the people there are Handsome Lake followers and they don’t really believe in the warrior ethic in the way that it operates in Akwesasne or Kahnawake, so of course, they use that translation without question, whereas in Kahnawake they use the other one. It’s carrying something, it’s carrying a burden, which is good enough for me. Being peaceful is a big enough burden. So I just wanted to make that clarification.

SM: That’s really helpful, and even the process of determining of what constitutes an ethical burden, that’s a profound conversation to have as well…

TA:   Yeah. I mean, like I said, at various times, depending on the context of its use, I could use both, and I don’t really see it as being as divisive an issue as some people make it. But going from there… what was your original question?

SM: I was just asking about what you consider to be the characteristics of those who would take on that role for the community?

TA:   Ok, yeah. I’ve written about that in Wasáse, but more poignantly I’d have to say the key characteristic, the key defining characteristic of a warrior is someone who is putting his life at risk, right? It’s not so much a set of skills or even traits, it’s people who have decided that they’re as good as dead, you know? And they are going to go out and do what it takes and fulfill the mandate of that community in terms of defending it, or projecting its power, or going on a spiritual quest. It’s a spiritual sense, a spiritually defined role, as opposed to a more political or social role. I think it’s not only Indigenous people who have that sense of it, when you look at it. The difference between a Warrior and a soldier—it’s misused a lot in popular culture, but there are some senses of it that survive into popular culture, especially if you look at it in other countries. I think I wrote about this in the book too, the notion of the warrior in Japanese culture, the Samurai. The philosophical—they wouldn’t say spiritual there so much as philosophical—the philosophical notion of the role that the Samurai is playing in that society: it’s someone who is as good as dead, who is fulfilling the mandate of his retainer, and who is quite willing, and not only willing but savoring, the ability to fulfill that role. And I think you find that… I mean, I was in the Marine Corps, and you know, there’s a lot of assholes in the Marine Corps, but there’s a lot of warriors too who see it as their sacred responsibility to carry on and defend the 236 years of tradition that they are now a part of. It has very little to do with patriotism or anything like that. It’s a spiritual role that these guys think they are playing in relation to the Marine Corps and the sacrifices that have been made by previous Marines. And I think in the context of our community, it’s a lot better developed in terms of the teachings around it, the ceremonies around it, the history, and the recent history of it in our community. I think it’s a universal thing across cultures where there are segments of the population who, because of their personality or because of their psychological make-up, have been selected and found to be the appropriate person to fulfill this role, serve in that role.

What I tried to argue in the book is that there are warriors in the sense that we are talking about here, who engage in combat, but there’s that sense of being a warrior which I think is important to bring forward to living today, because we live in combat with capitalism. So you have to have as sense of being a warrior if you’re going to survive, and if you’re going to be successful in stopping the flow of capitalism over your community and over your own life. But I wanted to make that distinction between warrior soldiers, fighters, and having that warrior spirit in everything that you do as an Indigenous person. The essential characteristic is someone who is concerned, who is driven, by the need to satisfy that warrior ethic, and the demands of the warrior ethic, as opposed to someone who is living to satisfy the demands of a value system that is constructed out of capitalism, or Christianity, or anything else. It’s clearly for someone who is motivated by something other than success in terms of a mainstream definition. And someone who’s willing sacrifice everything really, someone who’s willing to walk away and defend her or his—I don’t want to use the word “honour” too flippantly, because I think honour has been misused a lot—but when you think about it, someone who is willing to walk away from success in material terms in order to have respect as a warrior, as someone who has stood up and defended what was right. I think that is a warrior, someone who is embodying that warrior ethic. And again, not to depress ourselves, but it’s a very rare thing these days for someone to want to turn their back on the capitalist rewards systems in order to get gratification from the respect that people have for you as someone who is embodying traditional values and defending the truth.

SM: There’s a complicated relationship in a lot of your work between the role of the individual in making the decision to live an ethic of struggle, or a warrior ethic, and the need for community recognition and validation of that decision. I’m thinking specifically about a quote from a high school student named Shana in Wasáse, who states, “I think it’s important to look at who designates himself as a ‘warrior,’ or who is designated as a warrior. They serve the people, so they should be chosen by the people. A lot of times, people self-designate themselves, and maybe they’re not serving the interests of the main community” (260). How can, at the unit of the individual, a person make the right ethical choices for struggle in positive ways when, of course, that requires a connection and a responsibility beyond the self?

TA:   Yeah, well, they have to find a way to create for themselves a relationship, a set of relationships, where it involves them being accountable to respected people in the community they purport to be defending. They have to find a way, if they’re not born into that relationship, then they have “Job Number 1”: put themselves in a position of dependency, so to speak—for their own legitimacy, for their own self-esteem, and their own reward—on people outside of themselves. And, I think in every Native community, fortunately, there are still individuals like that, whether they are elders or not, that are respected people who are happy to mentor younger people in order to ensure, to teach them, and to ensure that they’re heading in the right direction. It means putting aside your ego in a fundamental sense, and not being afraid to say, “I’m trusting you with my ego here, and I’m going to take direction from you to build myself up, and to follow through on the path that I’ve laid out for myself. And, if I go off in a different direction, and you say that that’s wrong, I’m going to take that seriously.” In the end it’s still the individual. I think it’s a truly Native way of doing things because no one is going to come tell you that you’re not allowed to take that job, or to do this or say that or write that, but the respect or lack thereof, or mocking or lack thereof that you get from these individuals when you go into that community context is the end and be-all of your rewards system. That’s the way I operate. It doesn’t really mean anything to me at all what people think of me in an academic context, but it’s very important what people think when I go and talk about this stuff in a community, especially among the elders and the people who know the language and the culture, and who have experienced it. They’re the ones I look to for criticism or for reward, so to speak. And, I think that every individual in the world that we live in today has to re-create that accountability structure that was there inherently in traditional communities before. Everybody operated in that kind of relationship without question a long time ago. Whereas now, you have to do the work of setting yourself up in that relationship yourself.

SM: Yeah, because the rewards structures in most working environments aren’t based upon responsibility to a broader group. (This certainly seems the case in academia.)

TA:   The broader group may be your peers, your colleagues in the same field that you’re in, judging your work every now and then. But I’m talking not only about judging your work, but judging you as a person, and whether or not you continue to head down the road you’re heading down and the life you’re living—that serious. And if you’re asked to do something as an Indigenous person, as a member of that community, you have to take that into account in terms of your life decisions, and you can’t just ignore it and take it as advice, or under advisement so to speak. For me, the sacrifice is in limiting your life choices by that relationship, but the ultimate reward is that you’re living in an Indigenous way. And if we say that we want to remain Indigenous, the fundamental thing is being in a respective relationship to Indigenous communities and being a full and contributing member of a community. You can’t do that in an atomized, self-accountable fashion. So there’s a price to be paid, but there’s also an immense reward.

SM: Do you see a role for art, and literature, and other forms of artistic creation, in creating ethical warrior paths, or ethics of struggle, that are accountable to community? And my other question with relation to that is, how can literature or other forms of art build up gendered roles and responsibilities that are again accountable and can be lived in good ways?

TA:   Yeah, I agree. I would go so far as to say, part of the reason that we’re in the situation we’re in—the problematic situation we’re in—is that we don’t have enough serious art and literature that is subversive to capitalism and supportive of the worldviews and the senses of identity that are our own: Indigenous. I think most art is capitalist today, and most literature is very mainstream; it’s a typical kind of navel-gazing, middle-class, either feminist or politically-correct multicultural Canadianism. Even among Native writers, where is the subversive? So I would go as far to say that it is part of the problem. We don’t have that, and it’s part of the problem, a big part of the problem.

So, yes, the question of how? Well, of course the individual who is doing the art production or the writing has to be knowledgeable if he is going to, I guess, promote awareness of a worldview. It has to be authentic too. We need people who have lived this and who understand what it is that they are talking about in order to write about it. That’s getting to be a problem because most of the people who are skillful, I’d say, in either producing art or writing are, it seems to me, trained professionals. You know, they go to art school, or they go to university to take creative writing or something like that, so a lot of them are taken away from their communities and reflect back on it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see a lot of authenticity in artistic production and literature today. There are some, there are some really good people doing it, especially in literature I guess. But I don’t see a lot of authenticity in terms of people reflecting on their own experiences so much as skillfully telling stories. But not stories that resonate with the people who need to hear them most, which are people in communities, in reserve-based communities, or in urban First Nations situations, who are going through crises, the kind of psychological or spiritual crises we’re talking about. It seems most writing is done for a white audience, which is huge, and which sells. We’re getting into the whole capitalist incentive program again. But at the same time, I think it’s absolutely necessary for people to want to do that. That’s where you get your warrior thing you know? Put your ego aside, and take a risk to do what the Native people need. That’s why I’m trying to write a novel instead of another academic book.

SM: That’s amazing. How’s it coming along? Is that something we’ll see in the near future?

TA:   Well, I hope so. I’m on sabbatical and I’m working on it. But it’s learning a whole new… it’s putting aside something you have a great familiarity with, and you have a lot of skill doing—academic writing—and you jus
t throw that all out and start on something which you believe is necessary but which you don’t really have any experience doing. So there’s a steep learning curve, you know?

SM: Yeah. Absolutely.

TA:   I absolutely believe that’s what people need in our communities. Because they’re literate, they are literate—facebook proves that! People want to read, they are capable of reading, but nothing out there really speaks to them. Again, I’m not a literary critic, but I never really wanted to read like Joseph Boyden, or even Thomas King and all them; I just couldn’t really relate to what they were saying. It seemed like it was all written for a non-Native audience. The stuff we have to read is all either a stereotype or anthropology. So, I try to do something that speaks to people about their experience and hits them hard where they live, and maybe gets them thinking about answers to the problems that they’re suffering through. It’s something we really just don’t have. Also, there’s a little bit of ego involved; there are no Mohawk novels, so it would be the first one.

SM: Actually, I’ve never thought of that. I’ve read so many short stories and poetry, and you’re right… Huh.

TA:   Don’t go telling everyone that.

SM: [Laughter] I will keep it under wraps.

TA:   Yeah, I’m the kind of person where, like I said, there is a bit of ego. I don’t want to put out something if it’s going to be crap. So I’m going to make damn sure that it’s at least something that people can have a critical debate over. I don’t care if people don’t like it, but I don’t want it to be mocked.

SM: [Laughter] That’s the teasing you were talking about before, right? That’s what being part of a community means.

TA:   Yeah, it’s going to be something that the people I respect in Akwesasne and Kahnawake can respect. If they respect it, and also the people I know who know writing, and who are, like you, working in literary criticism and English departments, if they can respect it too… If it can have respect on both those fronts, I’ll put it out there, and I don’t care if it gets bad reviews, and I don’t care what people think of it necessarily, as long as there’s a fundamental level of respect where, OK, I’m doing something that is making a contribution. Then I’ll be prepared to put it out there. But we’ll see, I gave myself a year to lay a foundation, a kind of a draft, and see how it comes out. If it’s going somewhere after this summer then I’ll stick with it, and if it’s not… then I don’t know what I’m going to do. [Laughter]

SM: It’s important that people like you are taking on that role. When you were saying that communities need voices that can speak from authentic experience about the issues that matter to them, I was thinking that—given the small population of Indigenous people in a Canada and how books are marketed predominantly to non-Native audiences—to have someone who is actually going to achieve publication and dissemination of his or her work, it really has to be someone who is already established. Because a really subversive novel is probably not going to be published and disseminated unless it’s by an author who is known. And you’re an author who is known.

TA:   Yeah, I like your thought process, and I agree with it. I’m going to take advantage of that position. I was thinking about what I wanted to do on my sabbatical. I was like jeez, I could probably pretty easily spin off a book on hunting. I could pretty easily spin off another book on politics. Indigenous rhetoric and oratory, I thought about; that would be fun. But then, every time I go home, and every time I pick up the phone, and all this work I’m doing in Akwesasne on cultural restoration and stuff… It hits you in the face every single time that people are confused and lost, and wandering around, and they need some… I don’t want to say guidance, because that sounds too academic. They need to have their lives reflected back at them in a way that helps them understand what the heck they’re living through. And, they need to laugh too. Trying to do a little bit of all of that.

SM: Well, I’m anxious to see this work when it comes to fruition. I’m sure it will. And, I really wish you the best of luck and everything as you write it. I know writing is time consuming and arduous, and painful at times, but I admire that you are taking this turn in your work. And, you know what? It is intellectual criticism. It’s a way of putting analysis into a creative form that people will actually engage with.

TA:   Well, my goal is to get my mother and my wife to actually read my books.

SM: [Laughter] No such luck with the first three [books]?

TA:   No, they just watch the videos and listen to me talk. So, if they read this book that will be a major coup.

SM: Well listen, thanks so much for speaking to me today. I look forward to sitting down with these words again because there’s so much that came out of your mouth today that is meaningful to me. So, thank you again.

TA:   OK Sam, thanks for those good words, and good luck in your work. Hopefully we get to meet in person sometime.

SM: Yeah, I look forward to that.

TA:   Alright then.

SM: Take care.

TA:   O:nen ki’ wahih.



[1] Alfred, Taiaiake, Brock Pitawanakwat and Jacki Price. “The Meaning of Political Participation for Indigenous Youth: Charting the Course of Youth Democratic and Political Participation.” Canadian Policy Research Network Research Report, 2007.