The Great Unlearning

From the start, Newcomers to this continent have thought of the Original People as a problem – The Indian Problem. Our problematic presence is deeply embedded in the collective settler consciousness and the ancient attitude is a constant and consistent trope in literature and academics. You also know that we are failures when it comes to adapting to the natural reality of the development of a modern society, don’t you? Lately though, some Canadians have started to question The Indian Problem’s place at the core of the country’s identity and agenda. I think of this as the silver lining to climate change; not everyone is convinced that progress is good anymore, and some are even starting to question the whole idea of Western culture and capitalism.
There is suspicion about as to whether or not countries like Canada represent the apex of human civilization, and there may have been some terrible trade-offs and problems with the way that these societies have been constructed. One of the emerging realizations that comes from thinking through history in a different way and thinking through the problems that are besetting our communities is that people all across the land are beginning to recognize that there is some form of responsibility for transforming the governing institutions and the fundamental relationships in the society. In a sense, people are starting realize the effects of industrial contamination on people’s lives everywhere, and of climate change. Soon people will come to understand that Canada doesn’t have an Indian Problem, it has a Colonizer Problem, and that it may be that the way to a better future is not necessarily focusing effort on redefining and removing Indigenous people from the land so that corporations can exploit its “resources” for the settler population’s enrichment. They are starting to see that the country’s roots as a colonizing enterprise has created a pattern and structure to the relationships between all people and between people and the land in this country that is ultimately destructive to everyone and everything involved.
The Colonizer Problem is the fact that Canada is built on the assumption of a perpetual re-colonization of people and land that allows settler society to enjoy the privileges and the prosperity that are the inheritance of conquest. So what is the fundamental problem of justice and injustice in Canada? Seen from this angle, it’s certainly not that we have failed to keep up. It’s not even a problem of social justice demanding a rights and recognition discourse to elevate us to the same status of material wellbeing as the mainstream of society. Social justice is a conception and objective is not enough, because if we just focus on that we’re looking at just the symptoms, if we’re not looking at the fundamental problem, which is the dispossession, the continual occupation, the separation of people from their homelands and the fundamental essence of who they are, we have a massive engine generating social, cultural and physic discord; and not only among the perceived victims but among the imagined beneficiaries of dispossession too. The engine is hot and humming and producing social discord, health harms, and environmental destruction at a never before seen pace.
There is a basic connection between the dispossession and abuse of Indigenous peoples and the structure and effective functioning of the Canadian economy. From where we stand today, in the middle of a Colonizer Problem, fixing the economy, addressing climate change, and respecting the earth all require the achievement of a just relationship with the nations of Original People and manifest respect for the worldview at the base of their cultures. Tinkering with or reforming existing institutions and relationships are useless. What we need is a fundamental shift away from a conquest mentality to a frame of mind that places human beings in real and lasting relationships with each other and the natural environment. This is a psychic change is a ways away for people in the mainstream, though there are some early adopters beginning to engage and the ideational reframing of relationships in this country and for whom an Indigenous environmental ethic offers an alternative way of thinking and being on the land. But what is the Indigenous environmental ethic?
It’s all about the land, for us. In the Mohawk language you say, Konnoronkwa Iekeni’stenha ohontsa, “I love my mother the earth”. Being Indigenous means having that kind of intimate relationship with the earth, that sense of deep relationship and responsibility to the earth; it means living that relationship, having that connection, fulfilling your responsibility, taking the loving sustenance, taking the sacred knowledge and giving back, loving, and protecting your mother. This is why colonization, which is predicated on the denial of our ability to live out the ethic of universal relation and responsibility is so destructive and demoralizing. Disconnection from the land is more than just an economic deprivation. Disconnection from the land is more than just the political injustice of territorial alienation. Disconnected from the land, we cannot be Indigenous. To be Indigenous you have to live out the Original Instructions and honor your basic responsibilities to your family, to yourself, to other people, and to the other nations of trees, of animals and fish and insects and the waters and winds… all of which speak to it is to exist in a peaceful good way as a human being in this land. Living out this environmental ethic is essential for freedom, health, happiness and justice to be realized in the life of an Indigenous person.
What about reconciliation, some may ask – aren’t we in a new era of respect for Original Peoples? The Prime Minister did stand up in the House of Commons and read an apology to the victims of residential school abuses. It was a great mistake, it was entirely unacceptable, it was wrong for us to take those children from their families and to allow them to be abused in schools by the people who ran those schools, we should never have allowed those children to be abused, he said. But this was not the start of a true reconciliation. In turning the page on history by admitting what happened in those schools, the Prime Minister did not talk about the the multi-generational effects of that phase of history. Is the harm of residential school that a grandmother suffered abuse and was not allowed to speak her language and grew up despising her Indianness after that and moved to Brooklyn and called herself Irish? (this is a true story from my family) Is that the harm? Of course it is. But you would have to have a very narrow perspective – Harperian – to argue that there’s also not harm as a result of residential school from the grandchild not speaking Mohawk, in fact that the grandchild lives in Brooklyn and not in Kahnawake where the grandmother was born and where her ancestors were born. What was the real intent of residential schools? The intent of residential schools was to break the connection of Native people to their land. They were put in place to remove children from their families and their cultures so that next generation would not know the land, would not be present on the land, and so they would not have the ability to take in the knowledge and the language to be able to defend that land, politically, culturally and physically from the intentions of the people who wanted to come and use that land. That was the intent of residential school. After residential schools, there was barely anyone left to defend the land spiritually and physically. So reconciliation is actually recolonization because it is all about consolidating the territorial gains of previous generations of settler crimes, and it has nothing to do with transformation or even change.
I think the proper targets are the powerful institutions of the Canadian Government on one hand and our own people. We need to define for ourselves what this movement is and this movement should be a movement back to the land. I’m not meaning to seem like a complete romantic here who’s a total dreamer saying, back to the land in terms of let’s all turn away from the city and go live out on to the territory. That’s not even possible unfortunately in most of our territories because the destruction that’s occurred to the environment, the loss of animals and so forth. What I’m talking about is that we need to recover the ability to have a relationship with our land that can sustain us spiritually, culturally and economically in partnership with the society that came here and promised to do that from the beginning.
There is a thing called the Kuswentha in my language, which is the Two Row Wampum. Kuswentha means the Wampum Belt and it’s a very potent symbol in Canada and in the United States. Because what it does is it represents in very stark terms, in very clear terms and it is the oldest agreement between indigenous nations and newcomer peoples that’s continually in existence. But it represents very clearly the vision of native peoples as they bring it to the struggle to redefine the relationship away from colonisation to de-colonisation. I’ll just tell you about it.
The Two Row Wampum is a very simple principle. There’s a belt that represents an acknowledgement of the fact that we share an existence. The metaphorical languages of a river, the river of time, we’re travelling the river of time together. Right there you have a concession on the part of the native people to the new reality. A lot of people say the vision of the traditionalist is so radical as it’s impossible to conceptualise. What is it that you want? You want us all to go back to Europe, you want us to do this, that. Well no, actually the foundation of the indigenous prospective is of a co-existence. A peaceful co-existence which was the very thing that allowed these societies to develop in the first place in Canada and the United States.
Canada and the United States were built on this here which was a commitment on the part of each other to honour our co-existence going down to the river of time. Honesty, peace and friendship, three beads in between, honesty, peace and friendship. If you have friendship as your intent, if you are peaceful in your conduct and if your words are honest for all time, the canoe of the native person and the ship of the white person will travel together. Our autonomy and our interdependence will be respected and will have what this white belt represents which is peace. Peace and prosperity together. If this belt is lived out this way forever, will we travel.
At no point does it start to bend slightly to the point where in 2010 the existence of the canoe is now under the existence of the ship. That’s an injustice. At no point does it become the One Row Wampum where the sovereignty of the Canadian State supersedes the sovereignty of the Mohawk Nation for example. Very, very clear and very simple, respect for autonomy, yeah, look at our interdependence and acknowledge that we rely on each other. If we’re going to have happy, healthy prosperity in our country, we need to live it by this nation to nation principle called the Two Row Wampum. That’s what native people are fighting for. This is the expression of it in a Haudenosaunee culture.
But I have the honour of teaching in a territory that’s very far from my own. It’s my wife’s area of the country in British Columbia. I travel all over the place like many of you do. I talk to native people all over and although the manifestation of it may be different in cultural terms, the principle is the same. People did not surrender when they saw white people and white people came. Contrary to what people think people were embraced in our area of the world. People were embraced and they were given a seat, they were told that now you can share in what we have. But if you’re going to do that you have to abide by these principles. Unfortunately the fact of our history in North America is that the European peoples abided by these principles until they didn’t have to anymore.
Until the population demographic shifted, until the military balance of power shifted and until things were such that people could throw this on the ground and say, now we have not the Two Row Wampum, we have the Indian Act and what are you going to do about it? That’s the callousness with which history and the commitments that we had that went into the founding of the country called Canada were thrown away. So when we’re talking about a new struggle called the Indigenous Nationhood Movement we’re talking about reconnecting back to this original belt which is something that shouldn’t be seen as so radical for a people whose ancestors made commitments explicitly to this belt. It’s not radical at all, it’s actually a restoration and a resurgence of an original way of being, not just for natives but for the settler society as well.
That’s what this Indigenous Nationhood Movement is doing, it’s taking the energy of Idle No More, it’s taking the frustration of the younger generation of people, it’s reforming it and developing a way of articulating it. We’re calling it Indigenous Resurgence and then we’re trying to develop it into a political movement called the Indigenous Nationhood Movement but it’s a very old movement. It’s the oldest movement on the continent because Indigenous Nationhood, that’s what this is, it’s the Two Row Wampum. Everybody here as we say in Canada – if I was talking in Canada – would be a treaty person. We’re all treaty people. Treaties are not just for natives. You can have a treaty with yourself. If we’re all treaty people, if we have treaties, we made treaties with other people and that means Canada and that means the nations of people who came afterward.
So that’s the vision of de-colonisation that’s playing itself out in Canada today. I sense there’s some parallels and some similarities to things that are happening here in Australia and hope to have a long relationship with my friends and the people here as I do already. To continue to learn and share and actually to develop solidarity, not only with my indigenous brothers and sisters but with the non-indigenous people here because I’ll leave you with the final thought which has always been a commitment of our people. Is that the philosophy and the ideas that go into indigenous nation from our perspective are not just things that are going to save us from colonisation, they are actually necessities to save the world from the impulses and the imperatives of capitalist development that happens in a framework without an ethical frame and without a set of principles that talks about sustainability and it puts limits on the idea of growth and exploitation. That’s always been a part of this as well, how to live sustainably in an environment. Not to block out realities, not to deny that change happens and time is moving on but to work through it together to develop a relationship, not only with each other that is sustainable but with the other nations of animals and plants and the earth so that you can have [Skennen] which is peace and that you can have a reality that we can be proud to pass on to all of our children, native and non-native in this country.

The Great Unlearning

Land Claims, Reconciliation and Resurgence


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.

Land Claims, Reconciliation, and the Resurgence of Indigenous Nationhood

Hay Festival Medellin Interview




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.


The Indigenous Exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

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…

Alfred 1 _MG_5839 _MG_5849 (1) Alfred - panel 15306404953_abd0ae7d2a_o

The Failure of Reconciliation

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.

Being and becoming Indigenous: Resurgence against contemporary colonialism

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.”