Volume 24, Number 1
Taiaiake Alfred: So, as a “realistic
radical,” what are you doing about the Indigenous
I’m most sure about what I should not be doing.
From my own experience in conventional protest politics,
the “activist left” holds no possibility
of building the necessary link or the broad cultural
base for struggle through local politics or community
organization. People in the activist left aren’t
willing to do that, mainly because it’s not
glamorous—no going to protests and no getting
arrested all the time.
Yeah, it’s not sexy. You’re not likely
to be anyone’s guru when you have “a
rather measured point of view.” :Instead of
romantic idealism, I’ve been thinking about
how my own work and my schooling can help me link
to and begin to do this type of on-the-ground community
work. Not to build a movement myself, but to facilitate
and help communities to move toward building the
cultural base of a movement. Without that essential
foundation, you can have any kind of politics you
want, but there won’t be any real meaning
That’s some serious dedication on your part.
What made you want to do this kind of work?
a good question, because when I was a kid, and even
when I was starting university, my consciousness
about Indigenous peoples, even in the Americas,
was very low. It was sort of like I knew that, “Native
peoples had been hard done by,” and I wished
that things could have been done different, but
something was always a bigger priority. Because
of my family background, I was always committed
to anti-imperialist struggles; but it was always
an anti-imperialist struggle somewhere else. I looked
to Indigenous struggles in Latin America—although
I never saw them as “Indigenous”—and
in Palestine and in Africa. I saw them as anti-imperialist,
but I never saw that they were rooted in Indigenous
communities and culture and history.
TA: What opened your eyes?
GH: It started
for me with a growing awareness coming out of Oka
in 1990, which happened when I was really too young
to appreciate the significance of what was going
on. The constitutional debates in the 1990s had
an important effect on me too, but after that my
interest kind of drifted away. I was mixed-up in
a bunch of different things: anti-fascist activities,
international solidarity work, ending the blockade
on Cuba…all that sort of stuff. My consciousness
of Indigenous peoples drifted away. Those events
in the early 1990s brought Indigenous issues to
me for the first time, but they didn’t really
stick. There was always something else that came
up that seemed to be more important. Among student
activists, Indigenous peoples rights were never
even brought up, much less anything done about them.
It’s probably the most ignored struggle out
of any that I’ve seen.
What really did bring it all home for me was the
Nisga’a Agreement. When I saw what was going
on with the Nisga’a, I instantly recognized
it as neo-imperialism. In my mind, I related it
to what was happening in the Middle East, and what
had gone on in Latin America, too. That is how I
see the so-called “BC treaty process,”
as a kind of “Middle East peace process,”
but in the north. The only difference is that it’s
not about getting people to surrender and put down
their guns, but about getting people to surrender
by giving up their court cases. The basic similarity
is in the long-standing grievances, and a dispute
over unilateral dispossession that is then negotiated
in an imperialist legal and political process. And,
proposed solutions to the grievances are only tolerated
by the state if they are within the confines of
what is acceptable to imperialism.
I recognized the Nisga’a Agreement for what
it is: a “final solution” for the Native
question in BC. With that insight, I began to see
the Native land question as the critical problem
for those who want to maintain the status quo in
this province, and also as the potential struggle
around which politics in general could be re-ordered.
I saw it as an opportunity to create new political
and new social movement possibilities. I recognized
that this was the only chance of there ever being
any kind of true political movement in this part
of the world. I’ve since come to realize that
it’s much more complex and difficult than
I imagined. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t
be simple, but I was not prepared for the reality
of just how difficult it will be to create movement
in Indigenous communities. I think this is especially
true here in British Columbia because of the corruption,
division, and manipulation the BC treaty process
has brought into, and what it’s done to the
people, in these communities.
The gap right now between what people need and what
is politically possible is astounding. It’s
massive. I’m still trying to figure out how
I can be remotely useful.
There’s a tinge of despair in your
words. You sound like many people working in Native
politics right now. But you’re different in
one way though, because most people take a lot longer
than you to understand the structure and scale of
the problem we are facing. Many of our people have
lost the spiritual and emotional strength to continue
to resist. It’s all used up, especially for
those who have been going up against the government
for 15, 20, or 30 years. The first priority is to
convince people to not give up in the face of all
this cooptation, hostility, and manipulation. We’ll
only ever make change if we constantly renew the
struggle with young people and bold, creative challenges
to the old, entrenched power.
GH: That whole notion of not giving up is
so important. I had sort of given up for a while.
I had despaired about ever accomplishing anything
meaningful in this neo-colonial country.
TA: Now that
you’ve come through to the other side, and
you’re all stoked for the next battle, what
are you thinking these days?
How do we work from where people are at right
now? How do we form a network of committed people
to build concrete projects that will move things
forward in a strategic way? How can we make a contribution
to the cultural base needed to support resistance
in Indigenous communities? If we focus on answering
these questions, and take action to apply the answers,
we’ll get somewhere.
by Taiaiake Alfred
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