This article appeared in June 2002 Focus on Women Magazine in the… focus on men, section Dr Taiaiake Alfred is founding director of the Indigenous Governance Program at University of Victoria. Born and raised in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory (near Montreal), he is widely known for his scholarly work on Native nationalism, Iroquois history and indigenous traditions of government. He is the author two books, with another to be completed this summer.
Taiaiake credits his Native heritage along with schooling by the Jesuits at Montreal’s Loyola High School and a three year stint in the US Marine Corps with teaching him discipline, rational thinking and a commitment to public service. He earned a degree in history from Concordia University in Montreal and subsequently his doctorate in government from Cornell University. Taiaiake’s work as a writer, teacher, and advisor to indigenous governments across North America are all focused on helping Native and non-Native people understand and rectify the injustice of colonialism.
He believes the Mohawk experience holds a key for other First Nations. Besides his academic work, Taiaiake has been active in media, appearing on CBC’s Counter Spin and Aboriginal Television Network programs and writing for First Nations’ publications.
Taiaiake was recently awarded the prestigious Canada Research Chair which he will use to examine the intellectual and cultural foundations of the colonial mentality in Canada; and second, to explore the means and methods indigenous peoples can use to advance their rights, ensure their survival and restore their collective strength.
The following interview with Taiaiake was conducted by Leslie Campbell, founder of Focus on Women, in late April 2002.
LC: One of the parts of your vision for a more just and better world for your people is education. You’ve benefited so much from your different experiences, but do you do you recommend Jesuit school for other Native people now? Or the US Marine Corps?
TA: I send my nephew to Loyola now. In place of an indigenous society and culture that is all healed and strong and decolonized and free, we have to make due with the tools out there in order to develop as people. We don’t have a school of that quality in our community.
In terms of the Marine Corps, I am not sure I’d send my nephew to the Marines now, but I don’t know whether I’d discourage him if he found himself in a setting like I did growing up in Kahnawake in the late 70s which was extremely dysfunctional, violent, alcoholic, with no Native content to speak of. I doubt whether he’d have the same reading of his life situation as I did back then.
It has changed a lot in the last 20 years in Kahnawake, as have lots of Native communities because of a return to traditional values and the political and social movement that started in the 50s but came into its own in the 70s and 80s. This reoriented our people towards looking at their behaviour, their choices in life individually and collectively in terms of what is right by that Native value system. It was a very mixed up culture in the 70s with the effects you’d expect: lots of violence and drinking—pretty much the situation in every Native community in British Columbia.
So Kahnawake came through earlier. I was right at the cusp of it, growing up seeing the riots and confrontations and clashes between traditionalists and Catholics, police and Mohawks; and also seeing the gradual evolution towards a nation against Canada in 1990 with the Oka crisis. This is all the same path: it’s the Natives coming back to who they are and the powers on the outside trying to keep them down in a colonized state.
But we were in that colonized state when I was growing up. And it’s ironic to say but I joined the Marines to save my life because it was more dangerous on the reserve at that time than in the Marines. You had to have a little bit of a death wish to go into the Marines, but everybody in Kahnawake had a death wish at that time.
LC: I’ve read you think the BC treaty process is a farce. Do you think treaties are even necessary?
TA: They are necessary. The reason they are a farce is because the government and the elite Native leadership have constructed a process which takes the word treaty and manipulates it to mean something that it’s not. A treaty is a relationship between nations of people. What they are doing is calling it a treaty but it’s just the Indian Act elaborated and expanded. So it’s just another evolution in this colonization as opposed to any type of freedom from colonization.
LC: What do you recommend when you act as a consultant to bands?
Tai: Up until this year I used to recommend trying hard within the process to move the federal and provincial governments away from their basic position which is that Native people have to surrender all their rights and give up their claims to ownership over land, and in return they’ll be granted back some subsidiary rights and land title from the governments. Who would do that in any other kind of negotiation? It would be stupid to do that.
It’s like you coming home from a vacation and finding someone is living in your house. They offer to negotiate with you saying, “well there’s 10 of us and only two of you. We’ll negotiate: you give us title to your house and we’ll let you live in the outhouse. How’s that sound? We’ll give you $50 so you can buy some groceries every week.” If you want to develop this metaphor further, that occupying family would lend you—with interest— the money to hire a lawyer to help negotiate your surrender. Out of the $50 they give you, you’d have to pay them back.
So when I advise people, I give them this historical context. I don’t really have to tell them anything else. The thing that colonization took away from them is their memory of who they are. History helps them realize “hey, not only were we here first, we never gave up any of our rights. What happened essentially was that other people came here and they took all our rights away, we got sick as a society, our numbers died off.” So what’s the solution? Continuing to negotiate as in my metaphor or is it playing fair and saying that the Natives aren’t going to develop to populations of millions and all the white people aren’t going to leave, so there’s something called restitution which says: let’s pay them fair and square for what was taken and let’s negotiate some political autonomy for whatever they are capable of and let’s let them make their own choices for whatever future they want—because that’s their right as a people. Otherwise what we’re doing is just continuing the process of colonization which is what we criticize all over the world as genocide but we allow it to happen here because it effects us personally.
Native people are saying, basically, “we are human beings and we have rights and you can’t stomp all over us at will. You have to give us some sort of compensation; you have to consider us in terms of an historical injustice but also in terms of our future. We want to exist not as we are but as a nation. We want to preserve our distinctive culture and identity.” It’s not a lot to ask. It is a lot to ask of politicians who have this mentality of control and power; and it is a lot to ask of older Canadians who grew up with a racist mentality. That’s why I see education, combined with continued political and social struggle, as the solution.
Education is the long term base that’s going to make change possible but at the same time we have to recognize that there are governments and interests that are trying to take away what little we have left. They are still trying to expropriate reserve lands, to take away things every day. People either don’t know about it or tacitly acknowledge it or even encourage it, so that means we have to resist. Which means simply defending our homes and our lands—that’s just defending what we have left. As far as expanding and coming to some sort of justice, that’s a much longer political and social struggle that’s going to take understanding and support in the outside society among people who care about justice rather than just their material wealth, and it’s going to take a completely regenerated Native society. There are very few Native societies these days that are capable of carrying on that sort of struggle but I don’t see it as a violent struggle; I see it as political awareness and awakening.
LC: If not violent, then using tools like civil disobedience and the Canadian courts?
TA: The courts have been useful to us to a certain degree. They’ve certainly kept out the worst abuses of provincial government authority. The major enemy of Native people is the provincial governments across Canada. The federal government has been a kind of dictator that doesn’t want to exterminate us but is quite happy to keep us under its thumb. They are quite willing to deal with us, give us money, engage us as a client.
LC: They seem to have developed a whole industry around Native people.
TA: There’s a huge industry built around this and lots of our people are oriented towards it. They accept that that’s the reality and have decided to participate in it. In a lot of Native people’s minds there’s no problem with the federal government. The provincial government, on the other hand, is not benefiting from this Indian industry; they want more authority over Natives, which means Native lands, the tax base and so forth. They want to gain control and always have. The real enemy of the Native people is greedy politicians in all levels of government who see Native rights as a threat to their revenues. They haven’t been sensitized to all the historical realities.
LC: I heard our premier and attorney-general went to visit the Nisga’a Territory…
TA: If they think the Nisga’a is a model then that’s a joke, because every Native who’s not Nisga’a and half the Nisga’as themselves think it’s a major sellout and a joke. It’s the bare bottom line of acceptability for Native people. It shows what can be achieved with simple legal maneuvering. When you add social and political struggle, the horizon expands, and Native people will get a much better deal.
If black people in the US had simply gone to the courts in the 50s and 60s what do you think they would’ve got? Nothing because the courts always denied their rights or they legislated them but it was unenforceable in reality. There has to be a political and social element to make change in society.
LC: That was certainly the case for women. Many thought, back at the turn of the century, that all women needed was the vote to be free and equal beings within society, but we got the vote and learned there was much more to it.
TA: Right. Our Native leadership in this country for the most part is part of this Indian industry I’ve mentioned. They have material incentives to stay within that framework and also they are of a mentality that denies the validity of social and political movement because they are mainly bureaucrats and so what hope is there within the current structure for significant change as opposed to bureaucratic tinkering? There’s basically none under the system we have. So I tell people they need to make a choice: Do they want to be integrated completely as consumer citizens on the lower end of the economic structure of Canada? Or do they want to preserve some of their culture and rights, empower themselves as Nations again? If they choose the former, fine, keep negotiating, keep making deals. If they want to re-empower and regenerate their society, then they have to prepare themselves for a long, involved and difficult struggle because you can look at any struggle in the world—women’s, in South Africa against apartheid, the black civil rights movement—it takes a long time and a lot of sacrifice and right now our people have been told and have started to believe that there’s the possibility of freedom within colonization through the law and negotiation. The older generation believes it; the younger generation knows it’s a farce.
LC: What is the alternative; what is the vision of a just society that you and these young people have and how do we get there?
TA: That’s what I am trying to show in the book I am working on now.
LC: What is the basic premise or argument in the book?
TA: The argument is that we need to regenerate ourselves as true indigenous people and to engage in a struggle to create the political and cultural space to allow us to exist as indigenous peoples. That means engaging colonial forces in all of those areas. In terms of identity, the definition of Indian is created by media: white movie-makers, white tv producers, white writers, white journalists tell us what an Indian is. We need to change that. We need to take back and put out an authentic identity in the cultural realm. That’s one element. The other element is in terms of society. Right now there’s a big trend towards assimilation—although it’s denied— to pay taxes, to be subject to the same laws. That’s just assimilation. People don’t understand where the historical basis for our separateness comes from. So we have to defend that as well—the idea of true indigenous society—in partnership with the newcomers. That’s the basis of all political solutions. If people understand that to be in partnership—and in fact this country was founded on that partnership and there’s a constitutional history to that partnership-then of course, the kinds of solutions we’re proposing in terms of distinctiveness and cooperation make sense. But right now that’s being obliterated by the rhetoric of simple equality.
And politically, there’s our fundamental, international human right to govern ourselves. We’re not municipalities or provinces, we’re distinctive nations and of course that means being creative given the small number of people left, their very low capacity and complete financial dependence, but those are conditions created by Canada and you can’t use them as a justification for exterminating those people and that nation. That would be a genocidal logic. You have to say we value this as our history; Native people were here first and they need to be partners.
LC: Are there examples inCanada of working self-government models?
TA: No, because the Canadian government is very informed, very active and powerful and makes sure that any movement towards this is co-opted. Authentic, Native governance is done as a resistance, in sort of guerrilla fashion. In Kahnawake, a large number of people consciously rejected the Canadian government’s laws, funding, everything. They don’t register their children as Indian. They live by their own law. They have found a way to develop, to educate their children, to do all the kinds of things a people need to do. But it’s always done in a hostile, adversarial way relative to the Canadian government which actively tries to undermine their efforts. But that’s as close to authentic self-governance aside from families who choose on their own as indigenous people to be true to their indigenous teachings. In every community you have a few marginalized people who say they aren’t going to take money from the white government: that they are going to live according to their own laws. But there’s no cohesive movement. It’s there in people’s minds and hearts but the political forces of colonization are just so strong that there’s no opportunity for it to be legitimized.
Only during the Oka crisis was it legitimized. I was working (like most) for the band council—the co-opted government institution in the community. When the rebels had the blockade and the government recognized they were there in force and capable of holding them off and didn’t need their money, and didn’t need their programs and could match—up to a certain point—their level of violence, they started negotiating with them. They stopped talking to their own employees (the band council) and started negotiating with and legitimizing the rebels. The rebels became recognized by the government of Canada as the government of Kahnawake.
What’s the lesson for young people? The band council tried for 20 years to negotiate from under colonialization and got nowhere. The rebels took three days and all they had to do was stage a physical defense based on their own understanding of what it meant to be Mohawk and demonstrate to Canada that they had power in a way that the Canadian government understands power.
LC: They viewed themselves as a Nation.
TA: And acted like it. Just like Michael Collins said in Ireland in the last century: If you want to be a nation, you have to start acting like a one. It was the same lesson for us. We did that and were very successful up to a point but the government wouldn’t tolerate what they saw as overstepping a boundary, which was tax revenues from selling cigarettes to addicted Quebecers. I was told directly by a Quebec cabinet minister: “when you start taking our tax dollars you’ve gone too far.” They had tolerated our political independence: they had tolerated not being able to send their police into our territory for 10 years. But the minute we started taking tax revenue from them, then they attacked us. That’s what Oka was about. It benefitted Quebecers to have Native sovereignty because they could buy cigarettes at $20 less per carton than in the stores. They supported us in droves at first and only reacted when it was completely manipulated and turned into a militarized and racialized situation by the Quebec and later the Canadian government.
LC: This does bring up the other economic concerns many Canadians probably have about how much is it going to cost to make restitution to Native people?
TA: It will cost much less that it’s costing them now. If every Native person in Canada received just restitution for what was stolen from us I doubt whether it would come up to what the government spends today to keep us colonized, probably about $10 billion a year to maintain a bureaucracy and to control Native people. Most of it, I have to say, goes to white male bureaucrats and lawyers to maintain the system. But the entrenched interest in this country—the Department of Indian Affairs, the RCMP, social service agencies, academics, local governments—that all benefit from the situation today wouldn’t put up with that. It’s too elegant and easy a solution! In terms of monetary amounts it would be less than we spend now, but it’s very difficult to convince people of this when you have the media controlled by the same people, at board level, who control other corporations with mining interests and the like.
Another myth we have to deal with is that money for Native people comes from the Canadian tax payer. If you add up all the revenues the federal and provincial governments derive from Native lands that have never been surrendered, this is trillions of dollars over the years. Indian Affairs costs about six billion per year. If you add up both sides of the balance sheet you see that the Canadian tax payer doesn’t pay a dime; it all comes from revenues generated by the land we still own in accordance with international law. In terms of our return on our ownership of land, we are only getting a fraction of one percent.
So you wonder why there are no treaties here? The politicians are stalling because they are deriving funds from the lands.
Why have a resolution when the status quo suits you just fine? Look at stumpage fees here in BC that the government gets from so-called Crown lands. It’s just Native land that the Crown occupies illegally and derives billions in forestry revenues from each year, not to mention the profits the corporations make. And what do Native people get? A few million, most of which goes to white lawyers and bureaucrats. The average Indian who owns that land from which billions of dollars in revenue are generated every year, gets maybe $8,000 to $10,000 in services like inadequate health care.
There are many Native people who take a pragmatic approach, attempting through the courts to gain benefit from economic enterprise on their lands, but accepting they cannot control the land or their resources. But it isn’t revolutionary or nationalistic. It’s only a first step towards a longer solution. But most Native people right now would be satisfied receiving benefit, a little more control. In fact the Canadian government could solve the whole problem by being more cooperative and sharing.
LC: Do you think people have to deny themselves material comforts in order to be true to Native traditions?
TA: There’s plenty of ways in this society to live according to Native ways. There are certain ways that are blocked: for sure you can’t work for the Department of Indian Affairs. I doubt you can be a corporate lawyer and for sure you can’t be an advisor to Gordon Campbell. But there are lots of professions—teacher, journalist, writer—that allow you a measure of self-sufficiency and freedom to live your life without compromising your own values. Or you can be entirely self-sufficient and go live where you can feed yourself. So there are options. If someone came to me and said you have to change your message in order to continue teaching here at UVic, I’d say “see ya later.”
Many Native people are starting to see how this band council, materialist kind of politics is really leaving them unsatisfied. Even if you are successful you still feel like crap because you know it just means money and what does money give you in the end? They want to emulate white Canadians who they assume are so happy. But the white people who are happy are so because they have a cultural and spiritual life that means something to them and they have some money. But it’s not the money making them happy; the money allows them to do these other things.
Without regenerating Native culture, the money won’t help Native people be happy.
LC: Describe your vision for justice in Canada for Native people.
TA: The best word is restitution. It’s not reconciliation: this is the big buzz word these days. But I’m not ready to reconcile, to accept the colonization of Native people. That’s not justice given what’s happened here. To reconcile would be to legitimize a crime.
Restitution involves asking what do we owe Native people, given the historical wrongs and their rights as human beings?
Land, compensation, money are all considered. What is affordable? It also involves negotiation but instead of negotiating, as we are now, our entry and reconciliation to colonial Canada, I want to change the political and social context so that negotiations are about how Canada and Native people can co-exist. I can’t predict a model or the jurisdictional arrangements. That’s dependent on every nation and every region: what do they want. Maybe they don’t want to be a nation; maybe they want assimilation like the Nisga’a. But it won’t work for the Niskonlith near Kamloops; it certainly won’t work for the Gitksan. So in terms of my model it’s an honest negotiation on coexistence’s as opposed to reconciliation with the colonial history of this country.
LC: The Native people in BC are then in a unique situation because there are so few treaties?
TA: They are if they recognize their power: they can completely delegitimize the province’s power. But it has to be coordinated. And Native people are understandably afraid to use their power; afraid of the government’s reaction and afraid of being successful. What would we do without our chains?
LC: You’ve just been awarded the Canada Research Chair. What’s that about?
TA: I submitted a proposal to the University, and the Board of Governors accepted it and passed it onto Ottawa where it was evaluated by the Social Science Research Council. It gives our department five years of funding, renewable for another five years; $100,000/year. I proposed a twopronged research agenda: First, what are the main obstacles to self-determination in Canada in the colonial mythology of non-Native Canadians. So basically, what’s wrong with the mentality of non-Natives that they allow this to happen? And second, what is wrong with the forms of organization Native people have that’s preventing them from achieving their goals.
It’s a pretty radical agenda; I was actually quite surprised it was supported. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the actual methodology wasn’t a standard research project, but involves public education, generating communication among Native people and between Native and non-Native people and eventually the publication of a book on these subjects.
LC: Most Focus readers are non-Native women. Do you have any special message for them?
TA: The same message for my students and all non-Natives: Now that you know about the injustice, you have the responsibility to either accept the legacy of your country—a colonial, racist legacy—or to challenge it in whatever way you’re capable of, whatever way your personality and skills allow you. If you do the latter then you are part of the solution. If you accept the legacy and perpetuate it then you’re part of the problem.
I don’t think there’s any blame or guilt to ascribe non-Native people whose ignorance or even their inability to transcend their own material wants makes them weak. The ones who are blameworthy are the ones who do it in full knowledge and power. Most can choose on a daily basis to be part of the solution. It takes big things from big people with big powers, and little things from the average person who doesn’t have much power but can make changes to their lives to further this country towards justice.
That’s the enemy, not the average reader. Even though [the average reader] has benefited all their life from what’s going on, even those of low socio-economic status because they’ve been privileged through their identity. But there’s no blame attached to that.
There’s no blame or guilt so long as they realize that this is a substantial problem in this country and that they should do whatever they can once they’ve satisfied their own basic needs for food, shelter and creating happiness in their family. Instead of dedicating themselves to causes like African relief or orphans in Guatemala—these are all problems worthy of our attention—but we also have problems in our own backyard. Go to Songhees in Esquimalt. Look at the problems there and try to help out.
LC: What about the B.C. referendum on treaty negotiations?
TA: The process was not constructed to do anything but reaffirm the Liberal government’s stated position. It’s a completely ridiculous exercise; transparently political. If you disagree and vote ‘no’ it’s not binding; if you vote ‘yes’ it is. Even as a non-Native person I would be very upset with the government, as many BCers are. They can see that their government is presuming to have an election in which only the government’s position can be advanced. Even if 90% voted ‘no’ to all questions they can still advance their old position.
I am not an expert on electoral politics. I don’t vote. As a Native person I think I am just validating a system if I participate.
For non-Native people there are creative ways to voice one’s discontent. If I was non-Native, I’d have written a letter and said exactly how I felt and sent it in with the ballot for the historical record. Sure it may not count in this referendum but there’d be a historical record for researchers in the future. If you want to have an effect that’s probably the only effect you can have because it’s not designed to have any constraint on the government’s agenda anyway.
Unfortunately I do believe most will vote ‘yes.’ Most are ignorant or racist against Native people especially in rural areas where they feel their interests (farms, enterprises) are more threatened by justice for Native people.
Six of the eight questions are non-issues since Native negotiators have already agreed to them. Number six is a back-handed, underhanded way of the provincial government gaining something they have no hope of gaining in a treaty process right now—which is control over First Nations governments completely. Municipal governments are under the authority of the provincial government. That’s not on the table, that’s not being talked about by Native people and they want to put that as a bottom line position. That’s why the Liberals aren’t phrasing the question properly. They’re asking “should it be a local government.” Well, they don’t tell you that local governments are completely under the authority of the province which has no precedent historically. They are trying to all of a sudden achieve something they couldn’t achieve through negotiation or legal means.
And number eight, on tax exemption, they have no business talking about: they have no jurisdiction or authority over it. If the federal government, which does have authority and jurisdiction over it, doesn’t see fit to question that principle, why does the provincial government?