Alfred – Wasase – Reading Notes

Citation: Alfred, Taiaiake. “Indigenous Resurgence.” Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. 179-282.

Argument  In third section of Wasáse, “Indigenous Resurgence,” Alfred proposes that improving the lives of Indigenous peoples will require rejecting “aboriginalism” (governmental forms of engaging with FN peoples) and fostering a form of nationhood / sovereignty that derives from holistic forms of subjecthood, compassion, knowledge, and economics – holistic referring to a constitution that is spiritual, psychological, and physical, with eyes on both the past and the future. As Alfred writes, “Key to this mentality is the release from dependency on the colonial state and regaining our independence in every form possible: financial, political, physical, and psychological” (278).

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

3.1               “Liberatory Fantasies”

Alfred writes, “A real commitment to justice points us towards both a deeper challenge to the very foundations of the colonial state and culture and the need for an effort to deconstruct and then reimagine the surface and symbolic reflections of the heritage of empire.”  What he terms “deep decolonization” is made particularly difficult because Onkwehonwe (“original people,” loosely) committed to real change make up a small part of the population because “the principled causes that are so important to our survival are not the ones funded by colonial government programs” (180). Alfred wonders how and if it is possible to make change without becoming drawn into colonial government structures, and thus lose the essence of Onkwehonwe.

Alfred interviews Joan and Steward Phillip from the Okanagan Nation and leaders of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Joan describes being a “sovereigntist” as having “a real intelligence, a broad vision, and an ability to see forwards and backwards, a way of analyzing the world to figure out where to go from here.” This orientation towards the future and past is in the interest of “four sacred trusts: looking after that land, looking after the people, looking after the spirituality, and looking after the culture, which includes language” (181). She also says that “our struggle is part of a global struggle that revolves around money and control and land and resources” (183).

For Alfred, his interview with the Phillips reveals the “immense challenge of deconstructing colonialism within ourselves and rebuilding the foundations for a movement that has indigenous integrity” (186), demonstrating the relationship between political action and personal attitudes and perspectives.  Alfred worries that too many people “believe that we are going to be led out of our colonial reality by the colonial surrogate organizations we have running our communities today” (187). He also identifies materialism as a problem: “The sources of freedom are attitudes and actions. Here I mean actions of a certain type, actions that restore the selflessness and unity of being that are at the heart of indigenous cultural life, that reject individualistic and materialist definitions of freedom and happiness, and that create community by embedding individual lives in the shared identities and experiences of collective existences” (187).

Material lives are intricately linked to collective identities (related to “shared being” [189]), which ties embodied living to mythmaking, histories and knowledge practices. In building this argument, I would say that he risks romanticizing poverty – the “immaterial root of happiness” (188) – which seems to be the way that Alfred and other sovereigntists deal with asking poor people to make sacrifices in the name of a better future.

Alfred explores the distinction between “traditionalists” and those interested in economic benefit or negotiation and cooperation with the colonial government. He interviews Sximina (involved in the resurgence of the Nuxalk nation), who outlines the difficulties in facing anger and resentment from those not interested in a “traditional” version of culture: “It’s a slow process to rebuild our nation’s traditional culture, but being traditional is living it, and making it part of your life” (191). She emphasizes the importance of place; while the Nuxalk are “not different” than other people, but they “have been put on earth in this place and this place is our Holy Land” (191). Feeling like one belongs in place (ie. through affinity for local foods and practices) is a form of cultural expression. This feeling and action is also a form of resistance, as Sximina explains with a story about the Canadian government attempting to prevent Nuxalk from fishing (192).   Her account emphasizes the importance of matching philosophy with action: “As we stand, we are preserving and protecting, but we are not capable, with the understandings we have, of launching a resurgence on the basis of ‘traditional’ teachings; the element of action is missing from the teachings as we have directly inherited them” (197).

Alfred argues for a reinterpretation of Handsome Lake’s teachings, stating that the central message is “to be aware of and to avoid all mind-controlling agencies,” identifying a relationship between a good mind and a good place (198). Referring to Thohahoken’s work on “Indigenology,” the Onkwehonwe model of orality is actually an “aural traditional” that values listening over talking. This relates to Onkwehonweneha as involving learning, critical reflection, and “a positive view of change; it is participatory and involves working with others in the learning process; and knowledge comes from learning traditions within a society of thoughtful people” (199). Some work needs to be done to deal with the tension between knowledge as a process and a product of cooperation, and the types of intelligible essences that Vanessa Watts, as well as Battiste and Henderson identify (ie. the agency of the earth that underpins and informs knowledge).

A concern is that the “moderate activist approach” (200) falls short because it does not require “self-transformation” (201): resistance under the terms of self-examination recreates freedom and aims to “end the humilitation of living identities that were created to serve others” (201).  He argues for a “politics of contention” that explicitly rejects the tenets of colonial recognition. In this point, he promotes direct opposition rather than the types of negotiation that Sximina outlines. He rallies for creative and “non-violent contention, withdrawing from participating in the state’s political institutions, and enhancing our presence in and effective use of mass media” (230). The oppositional nature of this form of politics is at work “when people recognize the chance to assert their authentic existences when cracks and weaknesses in the colonial system present themselves as opportunities” (230). This bears the question, how might direct opposition to colonialism actually constitute some of the fundamental makings of the colonial system. Is colonialism possible without Indigeneity? Does colonialism work by shoring up its “cracks” when they are identified in dialectics of resistance?  Alfred cites Fanon’s statement, which interests me greatly, that “[n]o colonial system draws its justification from the fact that the territories it dominates are culturally non-extant” (202).

3.2               “The Great Law of Change”

This part is more in line with Sximina’s notion of resistance informed by “traditional” philosophies. Alfred looks to resistance to British imperialism in India and concludes that “an anti-colonial movement is not total systemic resistance. Instead, its actions are designed to be specific to the evil or injustices being targeted by the movement at whatever time and in whatever place the struggle is taking place. This implies an approach of strategic (though ironic) cooperation with those parts of the imperial system which are in fact good or which simply are not involved with the specific injustices being targeted for action by the movement in that situation” (205). Alfred proclaims that resistance “will transcend Euroamerican notions of time and place that constrain the recognition of Onkwehonwe identities and rights to those who act in ways and live in places sanctioned by the state. Land is not territory, except in a colonial way of looking at the landscape” (206).

This rejection of territory is important for disrupting lazy ideas about urban spaces, as well as the boundaries of the reserve.  In terms of transformation rather than opposition, Onkwehonwe philosophy would have it that “politics and social movements are part of a larger perpetual struggle to generate meaningful relationships that reflect the fundamental indigenous imperative to seek life and harmony over all the forms and faces of death and destruction” (236).

Indigenous nations working towards economic prosperity due so partly in response to an idea that colonization works through financial dependency. Those who have succeeded to attain financial autonomy “have been successful in their own terms in gaining control over significant financial resources and land bases. Yet, it must be remembered that nothing is free in this world” (211). He interviews Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation, who has been involved in a casino. He argues that the accumulation of wealth and power is a natural reaction to colonialism, and a course of action that must be taken up. He claims that economic success has allowed for Indigenous success, particularly as it has allowed his nation to get land back. He acknowledges that this approach has been a challenge for unity, but the benefits are easy to itemize. He does make a connection, too, between money and psychosocial relations: “Economic power can’t be denied, in my view. You can see it; look around. Se we’re very successful economically, but the real value to me is the way it’s changed the self-concept of our people: how they see themselves” (216).

Alfred accepts Halbritter’s claims, but he is clearly suspicious of the philosophies that this approach valorizes (221). The implication here is that such courses of action are reactive as opposed to informed by a traditional philosophy. Does such successes represent working with the present moment to do what is best, or is it a form of “selling out?” Can it be both? Alfred proposes a helpful definition of ideology, as something that stems from intellectual concepts rather than life experiences and “actual interactions” developed through “the collective voice of the people” (223). His concern is that Indigenous concepts of nationhood have been corrupted through being placed “in an ideological framework” (225) of bureaucracy and State recognition.

An interview with Oren Lyons (Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation) describes ceremony as daily life, and notes that “long-term vision, understanding” and “consistency of being” have been key to the survivance of his people (237-9). In terms of economic autonomy, he insists a nation is not a corporation (242). And, “money is not your future. Look what is happening now: land and jurisdiction on that land, that’s your future” (243).  Alfred grapples with the need for a return to languages, ultimately concluding that it is important, not only because culture is embedded in language, but because the destruction of language is an assertion of colonial dominance: the loss of language “happens in a context of duress and social stress, the conditions created by colonial aggression and the dispossession of Onkwehonwe from their lands” (247). Hence, it is not the “sacredness, essential superiority, or divine or mystical quality” of language that merits their recovery, but “the combination of their usefulness as philosophical systems and as the gauge of peoples’ success at reasserting their authentic existences” (247).

Alfred relates the homogenization of language systems to colonization, stating that homogenization of culture is central to colonial dominance. Multiculturalism is simply the “accommodation of the ethnic power of colonial Euroamericans and their more recent immigrant allies. […] Holding the conceptual keys to a non-imperial worldview, Onkwehonwe languages are indispensable to this liberating possibility” (248). Language is not the only part of the anti-colonial formula. In addition, “indigenous narratives are the foundations upon which our indigenous identities and resurgent cultures will be reconstructed. Beyond the languages used to express cultural perspectives, beliefs, and values, we must consider the importance of stories, ceremony, and rituals in the regeneration of authentic indigenous existences” (249). Such things are interwoven with language.

An interview with Gaihohwakohn, a woman working to teach indigenous languages, includes  a telling of the Sky Woman story. One of the lessons is that the story encapsulates the “powerful agency” of not only women, but of creation, and frames love as a form of creativity (255).

As a side note, Alfred includes a fantastic allegory concerning the difference between a sapling that is stabilized by strong roots (culture) or by a backhoe hired to pile dirt around the base of the young tree (251).

3.3               “Vigilant Consciousness”

In the final section, Alfred interviews a group of high school and college students in Saskatoon. One interviewee, Shana, says, “People become socialized to want to advance themselves as a person, as an individual, and that means money, that means possessions, and they lose sight of the direction and forget about helping other people. What you need to do is to look back, at your history and your traditions before advancing forward in kind of an unconscious way” (260). Her insight here raises important considerations about the role of individuals, the internalization of colonial ideals, and the tension between the need for financial stability and the continuance of culture, land, community, tradition, etc.

Alfred argues that we “must move from colonial-imperialist relations to pluralist multinational associations of autonomous peoples and territories that respect the basic imperatives of indigenous cultures as well as preserve the stability and benefits of cooperative confederal relations between indigenous nations and other governments” (266-7). He identifies two paths to Indigenous sovereignty, the first of which is more easily accessible than the other: “One of these is to gain economic power and thus the basic means to influence law and policy. The other, short of immediate access to land to generate economic power, is to reorganize ourselves to force change though the power of the demonstration of our collective will to survive” (268).

Economics is really tricky to address properly, particularly as Alfred notes, “The economic injustices, social problems, and inconsistencies of the law are well known, yet the economic impact of the moral and logical means of redress and recompense for Onkwehonwe remain intolerable to the Settlers” (265).

He closes with an interview with Teyowisonte and Konwatsi’tsa:wi. Of interest is Teyowisonte’s reference to “autonomous responsibility” which turns to traditional culture in order to “lead your own life consciously aware of how your actions affect the Nation” (275). He reads this imperative through the Great Law and an emphasis on the right path, versus dwelling on the past (274). This again gives us a reworked concept of traditionalism.  

Points of Importance/Interest: 

  • I am interested in the tension between the need for personal sacrifice (180) and Indigenous lifeways that are good for everyone.
  • How to think about economics without materialism, as Alfred is clearly has no room for materialism, but economics and a turn to financial concerns is present (187). This is important for identifying what is left out with recognition (of political engagement, and of affirmative culture).
  • Responsibility as assertion of culture as well as a form of resistance (192); akin to civil disobedience, but not in direct contradiction of State objectives.
  • The difference / relationship between awareness and action.
  • Many interviewees offer a different idea of traditionalism: not as something stuck in the past, but as something informed by place, identity, culture.
  • Rethinking the relationship between story and the material as a way to rethink Indigenous identity (based on the way that colonization works through such differentiations): “Wasase will be a struggle to get rid of our status and identity as this continent’s colonized Indians and to make real the wisdom coming from the land and from the experience of our peoples” (207).
  • Alfred accepts Halbritter’s claims, but he is clearly suspicious of the philosophies that this approach valorizes (221). The implication here is that such courses of action are reactive as opposed to informed by a traditional philosophy. Do such successes represent working with the present moment to do what is best, or is it a form of “selling out?” Can it be both?
  • For a discussion of art and culture, Alfred notes that “ways of seeing the world and of constructing value systems are not contained only in verbal languages. Songs, pictures, ceremony, and many varied art and cultural forms contain knowledge and can be read for insight, knowledge, and guidance on how to be indigenous” (245). (I bet that this has relevance in conversation with Craig Womack’s Red on Red. )





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