Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Canada
Pathways to an ethic of struggle (Taiaiake Alfred)
Canadian Dimension Magazine, January/February 2007 Issue
My discovery of what colonization really is took a long time in coming. It took a long time because you can’t understand the impact of these powerful forces of disconnection upon our people until you work within this system and try to make change. That’s the reason why this understanding is the sum of my own political experience, my lived experience. But it took a really intense effort over the past ten or twelve years to come to an intellectual understanding of it, and really to find a way to articulate it.
Lack of Self-Government?
In my first book, I wrote that the problem was a lack of self-government. Back then, that’s the way the problem of colonization was defined. It’s still the dominant discourse in Native communities.
But from the personal perspective of a person from Kahnawake and a person who has travelled and talked to a lot of Native people who still have a commitment to our ancestors’ objectives and to the values and principles of living like an indigenous person in a modern era what I found was this: Self-government isn’t enough. In fact, it is a kind of Trojan horse for capitalism, consumerism, individualism.
So, in my own path, I shifted political affiliations. I had managed to work my way up from a measly researcher/coffee go-getter for guys like Billy Two Rivers and Joe Norton, guys who I still really respect and learned a lot from. I worked my way up to senior advisor on land and governance, and I had started taking on a lot more responsibility. But when you come to the realization that it’s taking you in a direction not consistent with the direction that your ancestors would have you go you have a choice to make and it’s this: Do I embark on a different pathway? Or do I remain on this pathway, but compromise my idea of what it is to be a Mohawk?
Now, anybody who knows the language, the ceremonies, the teachings anybody who has heard traditional elders talk about what it is to be a Native person they are all very, very clear about your responsibilities, your roles, your relationship to the land, your relationship to one another. Those lessons are so, so profound and so clear when you hear them, and they are taught to us over and over and over again. So, when you are on this pathway, you find yourself coming to the point where you have to give up what you’ve accomplished your position, your salary, your consulting fees.
And you have to re-imagine what the elders would have wanted you to do.
Heeding the Voices of the Ancestors
So, I titled my next book, Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors. This was because I found myself reinterpreting the voices of my ancestors rather than heeding the voices of the ancestors. I figured it’s time to get out of that business.
Luckily for me, I had a day job, teaching in a university. I realized that teaching affords a person a lot of insulation in terms of freedom of movement and thought. You have a job and you have a means to sustain yourself that’s not dependent upon the political structure that you’re working with at any one time. So, taking advantage of that shifted directions a little bit.
The book was an exploration of what it would be to be a traditional leader today. I really took my task seriously, saying to myself: “If I listen to all the teachings, if I listen for hours and hours and if I read as much as I can, and if I put as much intellectual energy as I have and try and understand what it is to be, in our language, a chief which literally translates as ‘a good man’ how would I do that today?”
And what I found it involves is a traditional ceremony from the Mohawk, from the Iroquois culture actually, Haudenosaunee culture. It’s the condolence ceremony when a chief passes away or a clan mother passes away. A new one is raised up and there’s a whole cycle of ceremonies where different elements of leadership are brought to this person. This is all done through songs, teaching and speeches.
A Revival of Traditional Forms of Government
Of course, that led me to a second level: It isn’t enough just to have space; you need to fill it up with something indigenous. The answer I came to is, that what we need to do is this: We need to revive our traditional forms of government. We need to raise up the long house again, so to speak; we need to raise up those chiefs, those clan mothers; we need to rebuild the long house. We need to restore our traditional forms of government. It’s a dominant theme in Native communities that traditional government is the antidote to the corruption, to the abuse of power, to the disempowerment of our communities.
But there’s a fundamental problem there, too. The fundamental problem is that our people are not the same as they were a hundred or two hundred years ago, when these traditional governments were functioning in their full power and their full capacity. In saying this, I am not pointing fingers. I’m more looking in the mirror and looking at my family, my friends and everybody I know. I don’t think anybody would disagree that our people collectively today have been weakened by colonization. Our language, our culture, our understanding of history, our sense of trust, our wholeness, our relationships, the power that we possess as individuals and as family, the ability to work together, the unity that we had that is the foundation of everything for our people our understanding of our relationship to nature, our communication with the spirit world.
In all these ways we really have lost a lot.
Yet the systems of government that we’re trying to bring forward and raise up again as traditional forms of government are crucially dependent on the very things we lack today. So, it’s not enough to call for traditional government. It started to dawn on me that the problem really is the way we have been de-cultured as a people. We’ve been disconnected from who we are as a people, from the sources of our strength and our very survival: land, culture, community. Those things have been broken, or nearly so, by colonization.
In my view, that’s really the root of the problem. Colonization is a process of disconnecting us from our responsibilities to each other and our respect for one another, our responsibilities and our respect for the land, and our responsibilities and respect for the culture. It’s that simple and that profound. It took me fifteen years to work it through. I went through the educational system and the political system. Some people might say, you should have just opened your ears and listened when the elders told you that to begin with. But I was 24, and I didn’t really listen that well. I had to learn from experience and go down those other pathways to figure out what the problem was.
Modernity and Aboriginal Identity
The eventual solution the one with integrity for our people is one that allows us to remain indigenous and still engaged with modern society. That’s the hope.