The end of Indigeneity

Chapter four: On National Culture

The end of Indigeneity

Indigenous is an analytic, not an identity. I think about that comment made by Troy Storfjell (Sámi) almost every day because when I first read it on the site formerly known as Twitter my brain exploded. It’s a few years now that my work has reckoned with global Indigeneity, the recognition that it was Indigenous Africans who were colonized and then transported across the middle passage. That Europe itself contains peoples like the Sámi and the Basque. Thinking about the ways that the circumpolar people with their own connected relationship have been separated and redefined as Canadian, American, Russian, European. Indigeneity is a political invention, a manufactured category like racial categories, like migrant, citizen, and others that, in the words of Mahmood Mamdani (Ugandan)1 in Neither Settler Nor Native, creates permanent minorities who need to be managed and controlled by the dominant power. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t real. Marriage, money, and political systems are manufactured as well. Nobody would argue that they aren’t real, but as with any manufactured identity or structure, we have to look at their purpose and ask who that purpose serves.

The implication of this, as Fanon (Caribbean) notes in Chapter 4 of Wretched of the Earth, is that if we are successful at decolonising2 we will stop being Indigenous and return to ourselves. The end of colonisation means an end to the identities it constructs, the permanent minorities it requires. If you have read my work for any length of time, you know that this idea of biskaabiiyaang, returning to ourselves, has become a central theme. For Ojibwe people the word has the connotation of going into the woods, which makes sense because we are a woodland people. It isn’t about going home, although I am a big fan of going home if that is at all possible, it is about returning to something central about who you are as a people and for the Ojibwe that means going to the woods and listening to our relatives there, listening to our stories, learning our history and who we are. The Maori have a similar concept, Ka mua, ka muri. Walking backwards into the future. We have to know our history, and of course that means unforgetting.

Fully aware they are in the process of losing themselves, and consequently being lost to their people, these men work away with raging heart and furious mind to renew contact with their people’s oldest, inner essence, the farthest removed from colonial times.

Wretched of the Earth, p.148

Unforgetting comes from the Greek word aletheia which is equated with uncovering truth. I’ve written before about Robert Lovato’s (El Salvadoran) book Unforgetting in which he applies this idea to El Salvadoran history and challenging the US narratives about gangs and violence. Both Fanon and Mamdani talk about the rewriting of our own history, not just the overarching narrative but our own histories as Ojibwe or Palestinian or Tutsi or Arab, as part of the deliberate construction of the native as a permanent minority. Mamdani writes about the US, Nazi Germany, South Africa, Sudan, and Israel demonstrating the way that colonialism created ethnostates even within their own borders, because what are reservations if not ethnostates under the authority of a white supremacist project? We never lived that way, with hard borders and laws about citizenship that provide access to state services for some and deny them to others. The Anishinaabe, as described by Aaron Mills (Anishinaabe) in his dissertation on Anishinaabe Constitutionalism, had centers of influence that radiated outward. Other people had similar centers and in the places of overlap we learned how to get along with each other. But Mamdani notes, that way of living together was not useful to colonial powers who sought to control the land and the people.

Colonialism is not satisfied with snaring the people in its net or of draining the colonized brain of any form or substance. With a kind of perverted logic, it turns its attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, disfigures it, and destroys it.

Wretched of the Earth, p.149

So they divided us, took our cultural differences and told us that meant we were different, significantly different, and that those differences had political meaning. They took those differences and, erasing our multiplicity, rewrote our history by constructing us in their image as homogenous racial groups, inculcating within us their ideas about racial purity and the threats posed by others to weaken us by weakening our blood. They created consequences for children with what they defined as “mixed blood” as if all blood doesn’t mix. Laws about miscegenation, about who could own property. “Full bloods” were simultaneously more authentic and infantalized, unable to own property for example, because our cultures redefined as races were themselves infantalized, seen as less civilized and in need of training and teaching. A task handed over to Christian missionaries.

Contemporary ideas about racial purity come from the Christian church in Europe. It came to a head during the Spanish Inquisition, but the ideas had been around for a while. The idea that “Old Christians” had pure Christian blood, no Jewish or Muslim ancestors hiding in the family tree, and were therefore trustworthy. They could hold public office or have other forms of authority. Converts, or “new Christians” were viewed with skepticism and the suspicion that they had joined to avoid violence or gain access to places of power. This is the root of both contemporary white supremacy and the blood quantum rules around Indian status.

This rewriting of our history, this remaking of people as permanent minorities means disconnecting us all from our histories. I once toured a former residential school and when we got to the final room that had been a lounge area, I thought about how during the final years that this school was in operation the students and I watched the same TV shows. All of us learning about Indians by watching Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie.

In thinking here about how we are constructed and then used, Fanon writes about cultural exploitation and denial. Cultural denial is, he writes, “the contempt for national demonstrations of emotion or dynamism and the banning of any organization that could help spur aggressive behaviour.” So even though we are constructed as domestic dependant nations, micro-ethnostates, any kind of cultural pride or activism that promotes our interests is not permitted. Witness the reactions to Standing Rock and the Wetsue’ten. The reactions to the Black Panthers and other resistance movements that emerged from within these communities. Note also that each of these movements, and many others, relied on transnational solidarities that not only transgressed the borders created internally to separate us but those that reached across nation-state borders.

Exploitation is what these states do with what is left after centuries of being told that we have no culture, that what we do have is inferior or pagan so it becomes stripped of its meaning and “radically shriveled. It has become an inventory of behavioural patterns, traditional costumes, and miscellaneous customs.” We are paraded on stages and applauded, much like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, part of a multicultural mosaic within the colonial frame and any deviations or evolution in our cultural artifacts are denounced by experts (sociologists and anthropologists) as inauthentic. The colonialists becoming the authenticators and protectors of Indigenous style. First they tell us who we are and then they control how we express that identity and connection. It’s a pretty neat trick made worse by all the ways that we absorb and reflect it.

migration-centric histories assumed that receiving societies were internally static and that all meaningful change came from the outside.

Neither Settler Nor Native, p 208

Did Europeans really believe that we had no trade networks? No history of travel or relationships with others outside our communities other than war? I remember being amazed when I learned that the purple and white beads of the wampum belts came from the shells of a clam found only on the east coast. That the shells we used for smudge bowls came from what is now California. That our silver came from what is now Mexico. Every now and then some genius on the site formerly known as Twitter will comment that pre-colonial societies in the so-called Americas didn’t even have the wheel. Have you looked at a map? This continent is covered in rivers. The Aztec had wheels on children’s toys, but no use for them otherwise. Wheels need roads need massive amounts of labour. On the other hand, a good canoe will take you almost anywhere you need to go as long as you don’t mind the occasional portage. Change kind of does come from the outside. It comes from those layered places that Mills describes. Those places where the friction between us creates new things. But we were never static because we have always been in relationship with others. We were never static. Not as ethnostates, not as societies.

So what do we do.

Of course Fanon offers us something. Last chapter he wrote about the trials and tribulations of building a national consciousness, in this chapter his focus is on the national culture. Culture is the container that holds the accumulations of centuries of knoweldge, experience, belief and values. As a container it holds us together, a kind of shared language. Then it communicates those things to the outside world, to others. Culture communicates things about us, which is why disconnecting culture from history strips it of meaning. It becomes a costume, a piece of jewelry, an empty ritual. Being a writer himself, Fanon reflects on the power of writing to contribute to the building of a national culture. On pages 158 and 159 he identifies three stages of the colonized writer:

  1. The colonized intellectual proves he has assimilated the colonizer’s culture. His work corresponds point by point with those of his metropolitan counterparts. The inspiration is Eurpean and his works can be easily linked to a well-defined trend in metropolitan literature.
  2. The colonized writer has his convictions shaken and decides to cast his mind back .. but since the colonized writer is not integrated with his people, since he maintains an outsider’s relationship to them, he is content to remember. Old childhood memories will surface, old legends be reinterpreted on the basis of a borrowed aesthetic, and a concept of the world discovered under other skies.
  3. A combat stage where the colonized writer, after having tried to lose himself among the people, with the people, will rouse the people. Instead of letting the people’s lethargy prevail he turns into a galvanizer of the people. Combat literature, revolutionary literature, national literature merges.

I had to put the book down after I read that because I saw myself and the evolution of my writing very clearly. I saw my early writing, I saw Becoming Kin, and I saw the kind of writing I am striving towards. Writing that fights for and with and alongside. Becoming Kin was a necessary book for me to write, but it isn’t the kind of book I want to write next. A Thousand Worlds (working title, don’t get invested in it but I have to call it something) is for my people. Not just the Ojibwe, although they are certainly my people, but the people with whom I am engaged towards collective liberation. My people in the sense of transnational solidarities that look beyond race and other divisions.

We have to think about transnational solidarities and get out of these silos that colonialism has put us in. Unforgetting, remembering our history and returning to ourselves is not about seeking some kind of ethnic or racial purity that never existed. It is not about protecting the ethnostates we’ve been given. Globally this post WW2 creation of ethnostates that Mamdani describes has resulted in extraordinary violence. We are not safer in militarized homelands and whether it is a native tribe expelling non citizens or Europe expelling Jews or Israel expelling Palestinians it is all on the same continuum and none of us are safer.

Anishinaabe stories are variable across communities. Even our creation story changes from East to West. There is no single story to which we must all be conformed as Anishnaabe nevermind as Indigenous peoples and that diversity, that responsiveness, is a strength. Our stories are meaningful and reliable because they are adapatable, not in spite of it. Fanon goes on to say that the existence of a nation is not proven by culture but in the people’s struggle against the forces of occupation. So if we aren’t building militarized ethnostates, what kind of nations should we be building then? I come back to Aaron Mills and those layered relationships, those places of friction and mixing of people and authority. Borderlands. Fanon has told us to get out of the cities which for him means the places where colonial attitudes have a stranglehold on everything. Get into the borderlands where the people live in layered relationships and learn from them. Go back to the woods or the desert or the place most like the place where your people emerged and coalesced around whatever unified them. Listen to that geography and the people who live there. Revolutionary writing reflects the beings of those wild places, not the colonial heart.

If a man is judged by his acts, then I would say that the most urgent thing today for the African intellectual is the building of his nation. If this act is true, ie if it expresses the manifest will of the people, if it reflects the restlessness of the African peoples, then it will necessarily lead to the discovery and advancement of universalising values. Far from distancing it from other nations, it is the national liberation that puts the nation on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness establishes itself and thrives.

Wretched of the Earth, p 180

That is the work to which I aspire. That as we unforget and return to ourselves, that my writing would gesture not to fortified ethnostates but towards transnational solidarities based in universalising, not homogenising, values. I love the Zapatista vision of a world in which many worlds fit which aligns with the constitutionalism of the Anishinaabeg, those centers that radiate outward layering with radiant layers of other centers. Culture is important, it is communication and connection not just with each other but backwards through time. But culture alone will not set us free. Culture alone will not push back against the forces of colonialism because colonial powers love our cultural artifacts. Culture is, in the words of my friend Sabrina, our home fire. It is what gives us strength so that we can join in that struggle against colonisation. So that we have a reason to.

Our liberation is truly bound up together.

  1. So I’m introducing a couple of new practices to these essays, both of which I have learned from Max Liboiron in their book Pollution is Colonialism. One is to use footnotes as a way of expanding on ideas or relationships and the other is to mark the people I cite. Not to impose an identity on them, but to recognize their self-described location. If I can’t find any self-identification I will, as Liboiron does, just use “unmarked.” Unmarked doesn’t necessarily mean white, it means they haven’t self identified as far as I can tell. This is a way of refusing the invisibility of whiteness and challenging the settler practice of disconnecting us from our histories. I was taught to introduce myself in Ojibwe by giving ny name, clan, community, and nation. A lot of diasporic people do that, my Germany grandmother did that when she met other Germans. It’s a way to create context and find connection. We should all be doing it. Think on how you would mark or locate yourself.

  2. More Liboiron! Working on using Canadian spelling because words come from place and that context matters too.