Language, culture, society and the frameworks used to define experiential reality; living a good life, pathways of decolonization
October 26, 2010 11:01 PM   Subscribe

An internationally recognized Kanien'kehaka (Mohwak) intellectual and political advisor, Taiaiake Alfred is well known for his incisive critiques and groundbreaking work in the fields of Indigenous governance and political philosophy. In the past, Taiaiake has served as an advisor on land and governance and cultural restoration issues for many indigenous governments and organizations, and he has authored several important books including Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom and Peace, Power, Righteousness. Currently, Taiaiake serves as a Professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria. Recorded March 23, 2009 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, University of Victoria Professor of Indigenous Governance; a broad, deep, and beautiful discussion of pathways toward the future for indigenous people, Gerald Taiaiake Alfred talks about the “Resurgence of Traditional Ways of Being: Indigenous Paths of Action and Freedom”

Taiaiake Alfred speaks of “freedom from fear” as being critical to indigenous people achieving freedom. He mentions Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while considering the concept of Freedom from Fear
The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment
where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately
apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule
of law
- Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear (quoted in the online version of "Inked over, ripped out; Burmese Storytellers and the Censors", Anna J. Allott)
In 2007 three women from civil society organizations in the Philippines launched a campaign to make the control of small arms central to reducing violence and promoting peace-building in their country. We conducted workshops, held regional consultations throughout the country, joined with other peace activists and lobbied the government. Three years on, we won a commitment in the National Action Plan on 1325 to "enact and enforce of laws regulating the possession of small arms".

Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism[pdf]

Taiaiake Alfred also speaks on the great importance of language, on how it is not just a set of words signifying objects; language instills a pattern of thought, a framework to understanding, and the pathway to unlocking one’s deepest sense of being.

Wade Davis speaks about related linguistic issues in his Lecture Series titled "The wayfinders. why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world (from the CBC’s Massey Lecture Series), recently available to stream.
Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half may disappear in our lifetimes. This does not have to happen. The other cultures of the world are not failed attempts to be modern, failed attempts to be us. Each is a unique and profound answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question the peoples of the world respond with 7,000 sources of knowledge and wisdom, history and intuition which collectively comprise humanity's repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that we'll face as a species in the coming centuries. Every culture deserves a place at the council of the human experience.
Author, educator and activist Gerald Taiaiake Alfred’s most recent book is titled Wasáse, the Kanienkeha (Mohawk) word for an ancient war dance ceremony of unity, strength, and commitment to action. He says that the book is a reflection on “the process of transcending colonialism in a personal and collective sense: making meaningful change in our lives and transforming society by recreating our personalities, regenerating our cultures, and surging against forces that keep us bound to our colonial past.”
Global Encounters Initiative Symposium webcast sponsored by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Hosted by MOA, From Noble Savage to Righteous Warrior: Regenerating and Reinscribing Indigenous Presences by Taiaiake Alfred (Indigenous Governance, UVic) and introduced by Paige Raibmon (History, UBC).

Mohawk writer, scholar and activist Taiaiake Alfred is one of the most influential figures in a new generation of First Nations leaders. Taiaiake was born at Tiohtiá:ke (Montreal) and raised in the community of Kahnawake. As an influential social philosopher, Taiaiake has had significant involvement in the public life of his own community, of the Haudenosaunee, and other Indigenous peoples over the past 15 years. He is the author of two books, Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors, a history of Mohawk militancy and nationalism, and Peace, Power, Righteousness, an essay on Indigenous ethics and leadership. He is a prominent Indigenous voice in scholarly circles, holding a Canada research Chair at the University of Victoria, and an award-winning journalist known for his passionate and incisive commentary on culture and politics.
posted by infinite intimation (14 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

Canada's historical roots are largely European-French and English. Right? Wrong, says John Ralston Saul.
In a new book
[and this TVO interview], he argues that we are a Metis nation, far more Aboriginal than European. And he claims our history of multi-culturalism and peacekeeping reflects that heritage. Saul is one of Canada's leading writers and thinkers. His book is called "A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada".

Scholars suggest that this can very much be read as a furtherance, and continuation of the legitimation, and normalization of colonization culture. Continuing to elevate European culture, a continuation of accommodating Indigenous Societies under Greater Canada.

Part of the seminal series Challenge for Change, You Are on Indian Land [NFB] was one of the first films to voice the concerns of First Peoples in Canada. Filmmaker Mort Ransen, shooting in the style of direct cinema, records the blocking of the international bridge that cuts through the St. Regis Reserve. While the news media focused on altercations with the police, Ransen showed what led to these altercations and let the Mohawks of the Reserve speak for themselves and tell their own story.

Club Native is a candid and deeply moving look at the pain, confusion and frustration suffered by many First Nations people as they struggle for the most important right of all: the right to belong.

On the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, located just outside the city of Montreal, Canada, there are two firm but unspoken rules drummed into every member of the community: Do not marry a white person and do not have a child with a white person. The potential consequences of ignoring these rules-loss of membership on the reserve, for yourself and your child-are clear, and for those who incur them, devastating. Break the rules, and you also risk being perceived as having betrayed the Mohawk Nation by diluting the "purity" of the bloodline.

In Club Native, filmmaker Tracey Deer uses Kahnawake, her hometown, as a lens to probe deeply into the history and contemporary reality of Aboriginal identity. Following the stories of four women, she reveals the exclusionary attitudes that divide the community and many others like it across Canada. Deer traces the roots of the problem, from the advent of the highly discriminatory Indian Act through the controversy of Bill C31, up to the present day, where membership on the reserve is determined by a council of Mohawk elders, whose rulings often appear inconsistent. And with her own home as a poignant case study, she raises a difficult question faced by people of many ethnicities across the world: What roles do bloodline and culture play in determining identity?
posted by infinite intimation at 11:02 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is not good.
posted by schwa at 12:05 AM on October 27, 2010

Wish I had a day off -- you're living up to your username in a big way, here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:01 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Superb post, thank you.

Watching white settler colonialists adopt the "we are an indigenous nation" mantle and co-opt the actual experience of aboriginal people (it's happening in the US, Australia, Canada, and throughout Latin America) is both amusing and unsettling. Oh, whoops, we didn't mean that genocide thing, actually we are just like you!

Kanien'kehaka people have been leading voices for indigenous sovereignty on indigenous terms. Faced with a national border that divides their traditional lands, they (like Inuit people) have had to become a transnational indigenous polity.

Taiaiake Alfred is an amazing intellectual and activist. Once again, thanks for the post, and don't take the lack of comments personally. It's just great reading, not too much else one can say.

Thanksgiving is coming. Spend at least part of it contemplating the betrayal that followed the first thanksgiving for the next several centuries. I always spend my Thanksgiving in a Native community as a personal thing, but also a political one.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:06 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Watching white settler colonialists adopt the "we are an indigenous nation" mantle and co-opt the actual experience of aboriginal people (it's happening in the US, Australia, Canada, and throughout Latin America) is both amusing and unsettling. Oh, whoops, we didn't mean that genocide thing, actually we are just like you!

That's unnerving, even if it has roots in good intentions. Sounds like whitewashing, whether or not it's meant to be.

Being of mixed native/european ancestry, I struggle with this internally a little bit. Culturally though, I'm pretty much European, so I don't go around bothering my distant Blood relatives, despite feeling attached to them spiritually. It's tough - I'm not proud of my Dutch and German ancestry in particular, but I don't want to deny it, either. (I go back to the Vreeland that came over a year after Stuyvesant, so there's some history there, too) I am fiercely proud to "belong" here even in some small way, but I know I don't really belong on any reservation, or to any native tribe. I feel kinda landless a lot of days. I'd guess that lotsa mostly-white folks living on conquered land feel the same.

I wish I could have some part in supporting and engaging with Blood & Blackfoot culture, but it's really not my place and I'm a little ensaddened. Still, I try to know it's not my place.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:22 AM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd like links to the scholars that suggest John Ralston Saul is part of an effort to "elevate" colonizing culture through a dominating accommodation. I am not saying this is wrong, but it really differs from the broad consensus on what he's about and what he'd say he was about.

Before anyone answers in the general about this in lieu, they should consider that if they are not extremely familiar with Canada there is en excellent chance they have no clue what they are talking about. One of the special irritations of being Canadian is listening to American progressives make sweeping assumptions about this sort of thing.
posted by mobunited at 6:32 AM on October 27, 2010

Most of the people who live in my zip code do not even know the name* of the native tribe that used to live here before influenza and measles and smallpox and murder wiped them all out. To the point of the (very fine as much of it as I have been able to read) post, Laura Nader at U. California has done a lot of work on non-Western "legal" systems and how disputes are resolved in different places. Her book The Life of the Law is a great read.

*Karankawa if anybody is interested.
posted by bukvich at 6:36 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

ombunited, on the chance that was a bristle at my comment (which did overgeneralize something that is more than a century old and does happen in distinctive ways in different countries), I'm an anthropologist who works with Inuit people (albeit on the US side) and am quite familiar with the different cultural, legal, and historical frameworks that apply in Canada. (And as a result of my work, consider myself no simple "progressive" on any broad question of native rights -- the right/left framework really breaks down there for me.) That said, I'm talking more about a sentimental framework, if you will -- the idea that the major post-colonial nations on formerly aboriginal lands can be distinguished from the old world by virtue of their aboriginal legacies of thought. I actually believe this could be true -- in an ideal world where historical justice could be rationally apportioned, there is much to be respectfully learned from indigenous knowledge that could benefit all citizens, or all humans even. Addressing the question of what "respectful" means in the context of a genocidal history is a focus of my own work, in fact.

Naive separatism or knee jerk anti-modern nonsense ain't my thing either -- I have a substantial Mefi posting history on this subject you can check out if you like. Canada is different, but the broad cultural logics of the native resurgence are becoming global even if they inflect differently under different legal and moral and historical conditions.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:26 AM on October 27, 2010

this is like a fucking thesis in a post THAT I WILL HAVE TO READ NOW BECAUSE IT'S JUST TOO AWESOME. thanks for giving me more non-work work :)
posted by liza at 7:40 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

@fourcheesemac John Ralston Saul (who I am not a total fan of) has a thesis of unconscious appropriation of First Nations values as they historically manifested in Metis and indigenous interactions with colonial trade. He is talking about what he feels has happened, but I don't think it follows from any reasonable reading of his work to assume that this is some kind of takeover. In fact, the broad suggestion in his argument is that Canada is culturally neurotic by allowing the colonial narrative to choke the history he thinks really created Canadian society.

I'm talking about culture, and not the lofty realms of policy. My general aggravation stems from numerous interactions with people who treat aboriginals as much more . . . *special* than I am used to or is practical for many Canadians, even here in Central Ontario. If I had to use elaborate Contrite White Guy rituals to deal with my ex-roommate or that Inuit dude I got really stoned with one time after we buit an Inukshuk (it was for a project clowning Trent University for not building a promised Native Studies building in the 90s) it would make my life very awkward. I'm nobody special here -- I just live in a rural community. This is in no way meant to diminish what happened and what is happening, but I think there's a point where it's easy to think yourself out of the realm of what is practical for citizens in affected communities to actually practice.

Now the other side of that is that the racism is qualitatively different too. People around here will say things about the Anishnabe that really suck in a straightforward, ignorant white-supremacist fashion the likes of which I cannot see the same proportion of Americans ever condoning. I think this also speaks to differences that need to be addressed. It's one thing to talk about plastic shamans and hiding colonial injustice, but up here at least, there needs to be a level of discourse where yelling whoop-whoop and calling somebody a fuckin' drunk lazy Indian on the street gets beat down.
posted by mobunited at 9:44 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Myra Jehlen has written quite interestingly, from a literary criticism/critical cultural theory perspective, about the early US appropriation of indigenous nations' experience in her book American Incarnation. It's a long continuum from Thomas Jefferson to James Arthur Ray, and a shameful one.

Thanks so much for this pointer to Taiaiake Alfred's work. I look forward to reading more by him.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:53 AM on October 27, 2010

I know Taiaiake a little tiny bit, having served on a few committees with him - also he rides the same bus I do. Taiaiake (pronounced Tie-AGH-eh more or less, Tai to his friends, Gerry to his mom p'haps, Dr Alfred to, well, no one, really) is a fascinating person. He holds the warrior ethos in his daily life. An ex US Marine, he walks like a soldier (not that common on a lefty Canadian campus) and holds your attention like a real leader. He is completely fearless and pushes strongly at the boundaries of his job (there is essentially zero chance he would end up being Ward Churchilled - CRC is a powerful and pretty bulletproof position, even if the University may not have realized what they were signing up for, and in any case Taiaiake is a better scholar.)

He is in every sense a warrior for his people.

But one interesting counter-point here is that he is operating from a base far from his homeland, in the territory of the Lekungen and SENCOT'EN Speaking Straits Salish people - Songhees, Esquimalt, Pauquachin, Tsawout, Tsartlip - and while he is respected as a fighter, his very agressive manners very often act can defeat or frustrate (intentionally or otherwise) consensus which might otherwise arise.

Consensus is extremely important in Straits Salish society.

So I have a huge respect for his intellect and his fearless leadership of a thoughtful, militant, spiritual indigenous battalion, and perhaps his uncompromising stance is a necessary part of progress, but he has deeply divided the aboriginal faculty, and especially Metis faculty, at his university. Maybe this will end up being wisdom, sometimes it looks like chaos, and sometimes it is perceived as being a "bad guest" on Salish land. I'm not aboriginal so I am only commenting on the ripples I see and hear as Taiaiake makes his way through the world.

I really respect Taiaiake and, maybe, to be completely honest in my own heart, I am a little afraid of him as well!

(Incidentally, if anyone is interested in UVIC's innovative Indigenous Governance program, you can download a bunch of theses and dissertations arising from that program by looking at the files in this open directory, some but not all of which are also linked here. There has been a frightening number of amazing pieces of indigenous scholarship arise from that program.)
posted by Rumple at 11:19 AM on October 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

But one interesting counter-point here is that he is operating from a base far from his homeland, in the territory of the Lekungen and SENCOT'EN Speaking Straits Salish people - Songhees, Esquimalt, Pauquachin, Tsawout, Tsartlip

Fascinating point, Rumple--as you point out, he is an expatriate of two nations.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:39 AM on October 27, 2010

"Certainly, we must aspire together."

Canada signs
the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples

Sean Atleo, a champion of education as a vital element of Indigenous issues speaking with CBC, describes the education funding gap* the sentiment across the land on the need for a reboot in Aboriginal education funding imbalances, and relationships, addressing and reducing the funding gap, and working forward. I hope that Taiaiake, his words ringing true, and many like him with big ideas are consulted in considering how to approach, and incorporate new ways of learning past ways.

*The Funding Of Aboriginal Education
Proposed by the National Education Committee The Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW)

posted by infinite intimation at 11:59 PM on November 13, 2010

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