Building connections across decolonization struggles

  • October 29, 2013

Land & Liberation

Indigenous and Afrikan activists have much to gain from joining forces. Making demands on the state won’t do. To win, we must struggle for autonomy.

Editor’s note: ‘Turtle Island’ is the name used by several Native American tribes to refer to the continent dubbed North America by its early colonizers. ‘Afrikan’ here refers to peoples of African descent living in Turtle Island. The authors are an Afrikan and Indigenous activist, respectively.

On October, 4, 2013 Herman Wallace, an Afrikan Freedom Fighter, died in the United States after being held in solitary confinement for 42 years. On October 7, 2013, Indigenous groups joined in an international day of action, to “proclaim the importance of indigenous sovereignty” and to mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation: a document claimed to be both a foundational recognition of Indigenous rights in Canada and “a British declaration of ownership.”

Two separate days and two seemingly disconnected struggles. In order for our stories not to die in the silences that separate them, our movements must move toward what Pamela Palmater has called the “fundamental change that is needed to keep the status quo from killing our people.” We must flip the script of our seemingly isolated struggles by connecting the pathways that transcend colonial borders, and by reflecting on the strategies we are employing in our shared struggles for freedom.

The rallying cry of the Idle No More movement first surfaced online in November 2012. Since then little has changed. Bill C-45 — the Orwellian Jobs and Growth Act against which the movement first arose — has become law. The 13-point Declaration of Commitments that ended Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has yet to be implemented. The Harper government refuses to support a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. On October 7th, UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya was finally allowed to enter Canada to begin his inquiry. Where are we, as the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, since the first wave of actions swept across public consciousness?

Herman Wallace was released three days before his death. After 42 years of imprisonment, Federal Judge Brian A. Jackson ordered his release on a technicality because women were excluded from the jury in his trial. The release said nothing about the contradictions of a legal and penitentiary system built on slavery and genocide, holding captive an Afrikan activist fighting for the freedom of his people. To mitigate the tragedy of Wallace’s passing, many have tried to find comfort in the notion that he might have found peace and freedom in death. But in what state are our struggles if we somehow find reprieve in death?

Beautiful, but the struggle isn’t so lovely

[A]s architects of discourse and as builders of a movement, what do we know about the bottom of the barrel? How is that place of knowledge, clarity, injustice and violence reflected in our work? What everyday choices would we make if we were accountable to that place?

Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Colonialism, displacement, and the violence of the state has Afrikan communities under continual siege. The bottom of the barrel for Afrikans is a place of abject poverty, alienation from ancestral histories, and a place where every 28 hours an Afrikan person in the United States is murdered. The everyday survival of Afrikans, in a world that sees us as valuable only in terms of profit margins, is a revolutionary act in and of itself. But we must constitute our revolutionary struggles beyond just survival.

What everyday choices are we making as Afrikan communities? What structures of governance are we creating or replicating? How do these structures affect our fight for self-determination?

You say you wanna see the truth
But it’s so ugly
No way that I can hold you up
If you don’t trust me
But the struggle isn’t so lovely

— Ian Kamau

Afrikan communities are in a state of emergency. Our people are being killed in the name of ensuring the growth of capital and, by extension, the systems of white supremacy that embody its cultural hegemony. We are seeing these patterns from Haiti to the Congo. The continual subordination of Afrikans is the basis on which white supremacy flourishes. There is an inherent contradiction in the fact that Afrikans’ continue to seek refuge from this violence by imagining our freedom within the state.

As Sem Mbah and I.E. Igariwey put it in their book, African Anarchism, “electoralism in Africa [and the Diaspora] is merely a diversionary tactic used to mask the transfer of power from one group of exploiters to the other. The fact that countries such as Congo, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and Malawi have lately installed multi-party electoralism is evidence that it leads to nothing really new.”

As architects of discourse and builders of movements, it is imperative that we shift our political paradigms and begin to act on alternatives that can provide for the material needs of Afrikan peoples, without further tightening the chains of our oppression. Our self-determination cannot be confined to systems of governance that require us to always be hungry in order to function.

Kai Barrow calls this contradiction “raw opposition” — a space that is created when people fighting to be free must navigate the reproduction of oppressive systems: “this contradiction creates a “raw opposition” that is explosive… As organizers, our challenge is to identify the nature of our raw opposition and build/create within the space between oppression and freedom. We are charged with entering the space of raw opposition with clarity, precision, and analysis, passion, energy, and generosity.”

The choices we make as organizers, if we were responsible to the explosive raw opposition, must incorporate anti-authoritarian alternatives. Our appeals to the state are precisely what allowed our Afrikan Freedom Fighters to sit in solitary confinement for 42 years to find freedom only in death. Our appeals to the state have gone unanswered. We must do things differently. We must, as C.L.R. James put it in his History of Pan-African Revolt, turn away “from protests by asking for reforms, to protests by revolutionary action.”

What happens when the call-to-action becomes the action itself?

The Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island must also turn away from the endless cycles of protests and appeals to the state, by seeking new forms of revolutionary action. Before the glazed-eyed apathy of our media-haze became a stupor-induced refrain of endless proclamations, calls-to-action, proposed mobilizations and incessant repetitions of demands, there was movement. Indigenous people have long refused to be idle in the face of ongoing colonial violence. Our resistance remains a precondition of our survival.

And though our organizational networks have expanded through the recent upsurge in Indigenous activism, existing colonial power structures remain intact. Indigenous resurgence continues to be met with equal and opposing force. How are we enacting new forms of struggle in the face of state violence and corporate coercion?

The persistent survival of Indigenous nations has long been perceived by settler society as inherently outmoded, savage and obstructive. Yet the seeds of our strength can be found in the occluded spaces of this narrative of domination. Indigenous peoples’ collective capacity to obstruct, to interrupt and — substantively — to break from the destructive force of the colonial status quo, constitutes much of our “raw opposition” and regenerative political power.

Our strength is constituted in a pre-colonial Indigenous nationhood that remains rooted in our homelands and territories, manifest in our laws, ways of life and traditional systems of governance. Our power predates the state’s official revisionist histories. Indigenous nationhood exceeds the limits of the settler imagination.

The legacy of the Idle No More movement is to have given renewed voice to this disruption. When the movement exploded into public consciousness with the full force of our repressed histories of resistance, our struggles were made visible: colonial Canada was laid bare. And when thousands of our people lined the halls of parliamentary buildings, malls and public spaces, our multiplicity coalesced, powerfully, into the unitary force of a determined presence. We were many as one.

But emergent fault lines became visible in the silences that followed. While some fight for decolonization, others continue to pursue ideals of justice and freedom defined by settler paradigms of state-based rights and recognition.

Our movement has succumbed to new forms of stasis. We have been coerced into accepting the false promises of fulfilled treaty partnerships, revenue sharing agreements, Royal Proclamations, and United Nations declarations. Networks of Established Activism, and an accompanying phalanx of settler sympathizers, have infiltrated our movements at every turn. And this defanged form of contention is now performed through re-purposed protests, marches and re-branded public demonstrations. The “Indigenous rights revolution” has become a mechanical spectacle.

Yet, facing this crisis of credibility, the rhetoric of sovereignty continues to be called upon to designate all forms of Indigenous political action. Sovereignty is proclaimed with every neoliberal utterance of selfhood, public declaration of presence, and aphoristic status update. What happens when the call-to-action becomes the action itself?

Declarations of revolution remain trapped in their own enclosed rhetoric — abstracted from action and severed from the very doing and becoming that are necessary for us to produce alternative “possible futures”. Action becomes the production of affect, divorced from the more urgent project of transforming the material conditions of colonization that have produced our oppression in the first place. And as the recent crisis in Elsipogtog demonstrates, every assertion of Indigenous autonomy that disrupts the flow of capital sparks a new round of state violence and repression.

The louder my voice the deeper they bury me”

Our organizing demands clarity of purpose in our actions in order to mutually reinforce our shared struggles, as peoples and nations, seeking to reorder our world. Actions that do not move us closer toward these objectives have to be jettisoned.

If we can accept that raw opposition exists in the silences between battle cries and spectacularized public sentiments, we can recuperate the power of a potential found in interstitial disruptions of state-made memories. If we accept the current corporate form of Indigenous activism and Afrikan electoralism as the basis from which to articulate our political demands, we will encounter a form of colonial bondage which dictates that the struggle for freedom be waged in terms that are already accepted by state institutions.

What does this freedom look like? As George Manuel reminds us, “They say freedom has no colour. It’s pure white”.

Our survival as Afrikan peoples and the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island will be determined by how well we are able to build movements not for the sake of their own motion, but with the capacity to conceive and enact transformations of our existing political institutions. The textures of this transformation will require us to weave our resistance with fabrics of creativity and accountability.

These dreams of freedom mean that our acts of resistance are inextricably linked as Afrikan peoples and Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. But fundamentally, what this means is that we need to seriously, purposefully and with urgency begin look to each other — not to the state — for our self-determination.

As Kuwasi Balagoon put it, “freedom is a habit” we need to start practicing.

Luam Kidane

Luam Kidane’s curatorial work, research, and writing examines movement building at the intersections of anti-authoritarian thought and practice, cultural production and articulations of self-determination. She is the co-curator of NSOROMMA, a pan-African arts initiative.


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Jarrett Martineau

Jarrett Martineau is Cree/Dene from Frog Lake First Nation. He is a scholar, organizer, artist and media producer currently based in Brooklyn, New York, and a Ph.D. Candidate in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria.

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