Thursday, June 16, 2016

Regeneration - and not the Dr Who sort

I have been putting off writing about this article for a while, as I knew it would likely be a long one.  The article in question being, "Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism" by Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel.  This piece was easy to read and the subject matter engaging, however, I found myself sometimes uncomfortable with the tone - it is angry for an academic article, but then perhaps, it should be, given the content under discussion.  Alfred and Corntassel begin with the assertion that, "Indigenousness is an identity constructed, shaped and lived in the politicized context of contemporary colonialism."  By the nature of this definition, indigenous identity includes a consciousness of the ongoing struggle to resist colonialism, especially as that colonization is related to the dispossession of land and traditional resources.

They argue that indigenous peoples need to remain vigilant about "contemporary colonialism" which they define as, "..a form of post-modern imperialism in which domination is still the settler imperative, but where colonizers have designed and practice more subtle means...of accomplishing their objectives."  So rather than a focus on eradicating indigenous peoples physically, colonization has turned towards eradicating them as "people" and focusing on the continued erosion of connections to history and culture. 

This they believe is accomplished through the imposition of a state created "indigenous identity".  Through this process, the specifics of languages, culture and relationships to specific spaces are erased and the peoples are redefined by the culture and language of the colonizer.  Here they reference the term aboriginal along with the related relationship with the federal government where this term can be interpreted as a means of bringing the indigenous person into the wider system of government in order to manage the related problem out of existence.

Creation of this "Indigenous identity" and related mindset, does not recognize the lost history of nation to nation relationships and the need to reclaim this reality, but suggests a, "silent surrender" to a continuation of the historical harms imposed on the indigenous body writ large.  Through acceptance of this identity, indigenous people risk the loss of connection to their original indigenous community and accept a legal construction of identity which is of benefit to the colonial state.

In the article, Alfred and Corntassel set out strategies for pushing back against this harmful identity formation and explore how communities can regenerate themselves in order to fight this double barreled colonization where not only is colonization an ongoing historical legacy, but a continuing practice today.  They argue that acceptance of this situation this has led to indigenous peoples using the tools and practices of the dominate group and risking reproduction of the related problems.  This they suggest, can distract indigenous peoples from decolonization processes. 

Alfred and Corntassel note that there is a danger in allowing the story of indigenous peoples to be told only in terms of colonization, where the settler is the main actor and the indigenous persons is the one acted upon as this narrative can be reproduced strategically a means of erasing identity and place.  According to the authors, the solution to this problem is a return to ceremony, community and the land, as well as freeing ourselves from the language of colonization. And that while we are refocusing, we must also take care to guard these things (ceremony etcetera) as they themselves are vulnerable to the continued application of colonization and related tools, especially as it relates to history and the gaps in our abilities to pass on key cultural elements, such as language, ceremony, time with the elders, etcetera. 

Alfred and Corntassel make the case that it is time to turn away from the challenges created by the colonizer in order to focus our energy on the everyday efforts of decolonization.  They speak to some of the ways people are trying to support this work, such as Feliciano Sanchez Chan, a Maya/Yucateco who speaks for "zones of refuge" which are away from the works of the colonizer and where traditional knowledge can be learnt and sustained and expressed.  They also note the importance of building up the individual so that they are ready to take up their spaces as peoples living authentic decolonized lives. 

A big part of this building is the process of indigenous identity formation.  They stress that this must be a personal act away from the influences of pan indigenaity, where there is a reclaiming of specific ties to community and place.  This one aspect I have struggled with.  What do you do if your connection to place is very fractured?  Is a modern creation based on historical fact, a legitimate response?  I am Métis, some ancestors were from the Red River, others not.  I have come to identify as a western Metis and leave it at that, but my place now is away from there.  I know that our roots are from both the red and blue metis.  However, that distinction does not seem relevant or helpful in the current environment.  I also think that there are benefits to pan indigenaity that can perhaps be co-opted.  But I do agree that there is something lost in submitting to the identity creation of others.

Alfred and Corntassel speak about identity formation, based on the life stages models developed by Devon Mihesuah.  This is a linear four stages model, (the linearity seems a limiting feature) with a goal of an internalization of indigenous identity.  However, they critique that this model is primarily formed through relationships with non-indigenous people and undervalues the connections to community and family, thus really bypassing the key elements of indigenaity such as connection and conception of the self within the series of circles.  It is tempting to fall back on a nice model that would clearly show how one can easily progress towards a perfect internalized indigenaity (I am an economist - I love models!), but I also think that this model in itself works against the very end that is desired.

The article then discusses the work of Kim Anderson ("A Recognition of Being"), who really has a lot of excellent things to say on this idea of identity and the challenges of claiming identity, even noting that this challenge may have become a unifying experience for a lot of indigenous people.  I wrote about her book in this post.  Anderson discusses the "foundations of resistance" which includes, surprise, "...strong families, grounding in community, connection to land, language, storytelling and spirituality."  This challenge was really the impetuous for this blog.  How do you reclaim these things away from the original  land and community?   I wanted to think about how we can rebuild/strengthen these elements within the urban spaces and to encourage each other the keep at this work, as it really really matters.  Some days I forget and then a lesson comes. 

I often feel bad that I do not tehch my children enough language, go to enough events and have enough circle time, but a few nights ago, we were at the river and the girls collected shells.  Runa carefully put hers in her bag to take home.  Her friend threw hers on the ground and ran over them with her scooter while Runa asked her not too.  Even thought I see what we do as too little, when I look at what I am doing I can see that Runa does have that sense of connection to the animals and plants.  She sees that they matter and she does not want to do harm.  The same friend destroyed a spiders web to Runa's horror on the next visit.  These reminders go a long way to revitalizing my efforts to keep at this exercise of reclaiming even when it seems like the children are not taking much in.

Alfred and Corntassel speak to the work of various indigenous scolars in laying out the elements of indigenaity and the related requirements for further study and community supports.  Overall there is agreement that the relationships to the land and community are key elements, with other elements such as language or ceremeny rounding out the definitions.  However, Alfred and Corntassel argue that it is these ideas of peoplehood and not the legal or political definitions that contain the most promise for the enduring success of indigenous peoples, which they suggest is rooted in regeneration of, "authentic Indigenous existence," while simultaneously continuously questioning the motivation of the state actors in developing their definitions for indigenous peoples.

They speak to the work of Cherokee sociologist, Evan Marie Garroutte in, "Real Indians: Identity and the survival of Native America," and her ideas of "Radical Indigenism" which suggest the need to persue scholarship that is rooted in the goals of the community and embedded in the traditional models of inquiry.  It is a call to build on the talents of all the people in the community, in order to revitalize the community.  The work of the self is a reflection of these wider efforts and a "...self conscious kind of traditionalism that is the central process in the reconstruction of traditional communities' based on the original teachings and orientating values of Indigenous peoples."

So they conclude, a process of self renewal, built within a renewal of the community, is the key to challenging the problematic issues in the current relationship with the state and the lack of real progress on the issue of decolonization.  The argues that we need to build our future on a healthy foundation grounded in the best of indigenous culture and not on top of the shattered remains of the more recent settler relationships.  To start with the settlers is to build them and the related problems into the process of reclamation.

Alfred and Corntassel further argue, that this very process of living out the indigenous world view, is a reclaiming of the value of these things and related ways of thinking.  We return to valuing relationships.  We come back to community.  We come back to respect. They state that there is no tidy model of resurgence, but they ask us to look to those peoples in our communities who are living authentically and learn and apply this to our lives.  In the final pages they suggest some "mantras" of resurgence:
Land is life
Language is power
Freedom is the other side of fear
Decolonizing your diet
Change happens one warrior at a time

They close by stating, "bringing it all together, being Indigenous mean thinking, speaking and acting with the conscious intent of regenerating one's indigenaity."  Each of us a people need to make this commitment and work together.  We don't need to wait for the colonizer to recognize us or validate our thoughts.  We need to start the work and listen to all our relations.

I left this paper feeling excited about what I could do in my life to be more cognizant of this regeneration process.  I would like to do some further thinking, especially on the decolonization of the diet, which I blogged about a few months back.  Is that something you are already exploring?  Would you be interested in exploring?  Let me know.

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