Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Redeploying Culture

I had been working through the article "Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the "Politics of Recognition" in Canada" by Glen S Coulthard for some time.  While I flew through the first pages, I left it for some time.  I returned to it after reading the article about decolonizing sitcoms as they seemed very close in their arguments and use of references.  In this piece Coulthard basically argues that in asking for recognition, indigenous peoples continue in the pre-existing colonial relationship where power is invested in the colonizer-state and the problematic relationship is reproduced.  In this case, recognition is not a path to a transformed relationship as is desired.

This is a theory heavy piece from a political journal and Coulthard draws from Charles Taylor's essay on the politics of recognition.  I found his use of theory to be at a good level, allowing a historical understanding of this concept without having a background in this area.  In the article he speaks as well to the construction of identity and the co-option of these constructions when the surrounding relationships are harmful.  This reminded me of the feminist question, do you change the system from within or break it down from without?  Can you have a healthy recognition of indigenous people by the state, or by it's nature and historical reality, will any recognition necessarily continue harmful identifications of the people being recognized?

To some extent he is fighting a theoretical fight, but I think the questions he raises are very valid in the modern context of indigenous peoples.  In particular, he raises the idea from Taiaiake Alfred, that perhaps this struggle should be better positioned as an opportunity for indigenous culture to query the dominant mode of mainstream existence and the related problems of capitalism, the autonomous individual and coercion of the state.  In short, it is not just about positioning indigenous people within the current reality, but also questioning that reality from an indigenous perspective.

Really he is trying to understand how the colonized (an implicitly the colonizer) can be free from their colonized identities and create a healthy sustainable relationship.  However, given that this reality is likely not in the interest of the colonizer, it may be difficult to propagate.  This may then, by necessity, be a one sided exercise with the colonized self-affirming though a "struggle to critically reclaim and reevaluate the worth of their own histories, traditions, and cultures against the subjectifying gaze and assimilative lure of colonial recognition."  We must recognize ourselves as free and redefine "recognition" on our own terms, not on those of the colonizer.  He quotes Alfred in his closing paragraph with a call to, "...critically revaluating, reconstructing, and redeploying culture and tradition".

I really like the idea of redeploying culture, it brings to mind the mobilization efforts of WWII and working together towards a common good.  Let's send out the indigenous world view, values, humor, art, ideas.  Let's do it on our terms and solve some of the other persistent social issues at the same time.  It is an exciting vision, if hard to operationalize and problematic on all kinds of levels when the legacy of historical harms are still strong for many.  A bit hard to reconcile the headline from today about "maybe drinking water for indigenous peoples should be clean" to a grand vision of recognition, be it on indigenous or colonizers' terms.  Maybe we got some other kinds of mobilization we need to do first or maybe these things go together?  What do you think?

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