Indigenous Sovereignty: Defining The Indigenous Nation Against European State-ism:

by anathema, Mar 30, 2006

A Brief Examination of State-Communist, Democratic-Capitalist, and Anarchist Influences in the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement.

One Gitxsan journalist's report on sovereignty comes from a paper entitled, 'Sovereignty: By Whose Perception and Definition?'

"[Some people] define sovereignty in the western European context - as a principle of authority, as the supreme power of the ruling elite to make decisions and enforce them. It is important for people to have shared concepts of nationhood, especially concepts as complex as sovereignty, however, many Indigenous people do not share or identify with the definitions of sovereignty stated above. For some Indigenous nations, sovereignty is as a western philosophy imposed on them since the inception of colonization. Many Indigenous institutions did not govern by domination or by asserting authority over other human beings, animals, or the earth in the same way, as do the westernized or capitalist institutions. Often, First Nations see sovereignty not as a supreme power that embodies a nation but a 'force that binds communities together and represents the will of a people to act together as a single entity.

Gitxsan people, for example, have a Chief and Clan system that asserts sovereignty and jurisdiction in specific House territories; however, that sovereignty is intertwined with other Houses where decisions are made collectively. Spirituality also played an essential role in the sovereignty of many Indigenous institutions.'"

Basil Johnston, an Anishinaubae historian writes, "In the Anishinaubae nation there was no central authority or government, divinely appointed or humanly seized… Leadership was chosen according to specific tasks and projects, "[The] chosen leader was 'ogimauh,' the foremost person for that one project or enterprise, which, when concluded, ended the tenure of the leader. …The only authority was the collective of elders who adjudicated disputes put before them, counseled observance of the laws that governed the seasons, fostered friendship and goodwill within the community, and deferred to the manitous and the mystery of life by performing rituals and ceremonies and making offerings as prescribed by custom and tradition."

Within the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement the concept of personal autonomy and its value differs vastly in various indigenous cultures, and also from one individual to another. We respect the difference of each others' ways, while providing solidarity for our mutual struggle to de-colonize.

This is done both by maintaining and rebuilding the integrity of our cultures; and forcing the colonizer to remove its bureaucracies and policing agencies from our land, our lives, and our spirits. The goal is not to get more funding from the government, but to get the government off our backs. The indigenous sovereignty movement does not seek to have the government grant us our 'rights', it asserts our pre-existing 'indigenousness.'

'Rights,' 'sovereignty' and 'institution' are western concepts that indigenous people are forced to both define ourselves against and also use to establish our distinction from the colonial state, and state systems in general.

Within the indigenous sovereignty movement there is disagreement about the usefulness of the state form. Many indigenous sovereigntists reject the state system and capitalism. Whereas many indigenous sovereigntists believe that the state has grown to a place where it is unavoidable, as thus must now, reluctantly be embraced or utilized to protect indigenous people's existence. The acceptance of the state form manifests itself in three main ways. First: social democrat capitalists who work in the 'left' and use existing legal systems such as Canadian and US constitutional law, the UN and even the WTO to garner some recognition of native land title. Second: non-governmental organizations that either rely on government funding and/or participate heavily in the global lobbying industry. And third: revolutionary groups that gravitate towards communism --mostly Maoism.

Firstly, I will address communist influence, then democratic capitalism.

The American Indian Movement was heavily influenced by Maoism, as was the Black Panther Party and global anti-colonial movements in the 60's and 70's. While the general membership of AIM had a strong undercurrent of anti-statistism and anti-authoritarianism, its leadership under Dennis Banks had weak critical opposition to state systems themselves. Global indigenous resistance continues to be heavily influenced by communism, which in turn informs and inspires indigenous resistance in north america.

Communist groups have been much more influential in indigenous resistance movements than anarchism, this despite the facts that 100's of thousands of indigenous people and peasants have been killed, disappeared, and displaced, under communist regimes. Elements of Marxism are negligent and insulting to indigenous people. And social organization and interpersonal relationships within indigenous societies often come into conflict with state-communist systems.

The reasons for communism's prominence is an extension of the history of anarchism: the brutality of the rise of state-communism and the defeat of the anarchist movement. In Europe, the anarchist movement was at one point in a stronger position than communism in terms of broad based implementation of anarchist principles and action, but alliances with communist groups proved fatal. Anarchists suffered a double onslaught from capitalists and communists. This resulted in extreme marginalization of both the anarchist movement and the history of the success of the movement. Prior to the communist revolution in China, there was also a strong, large anarchist movement that was crushed in similar dual communist and capitalist attacks. The anarchist movement has had to spend the last fifty years recovering. In Europe and South America it has largely recovered, and has manifest itself strongly, but differently in the present day. North america had a potent anarchist history with mass involvement, popular anarchist social/educational/economic projects, wide spread sabotage, and direct attacks on the government; including a presidential assassination. Heavy repression in the 1930's and 40's, involved deadly police attacks, state executions, imprisonment, and deportations. The U.S. movement was practically wiped out, and has yet to recover. Today, north american anarchism is weak, disorganized, insular and isolated. From inside the indigenous sovereignty movement, anarchists look like a bunch of rag dolls with sticks in their hair and B.O. Even though looks can be deceiving, the north american anarchist movement doesn't have much to offer.

But anarchism, anarchist economic criticism, and anarchist methods of resistance and organization has much to offer the indigenous sovereignty movement. As one small but significant example; the rigid hierarchal and centralized structure of AIM was an easy target for infiltration and exploitation by the FBI. All the FBI had to do was get to the top of the ladder and it could have influence and knowledge over everything. And that is exactly what they did with Douglas Durham: AIM's head of security and Dennis Banks' right hand man. Durham was exposed as an agent in 1975. The indigenous resistance movement has since adopted anarchist organizational techniques --such as small, independent affinity groups that are inter-connected by a loose federation or umbrella group. Thus, it has been more able to avoid the pitfalls of internal conflict and external infiltration that plagued AIM. While individual groups may dissolve, the movement as a whole can continue.

In other places where there is strong indigenous resistance, communists have provided large infrastructure and support; money, weapons, food, transportation, training, medical help, military back-up, and a very large support base…. In north america, many people seem unaware of the executions, prison camps and re-education campaigns that characterized historic state-communist revolutions. Some current communist revolutionary groups do seem to be learning from the past and currently work toward cooperative relationships with indigenous people. This could partially be due to an evolution in communist movements to include principles of autonomy, and also the tenacity and success of indigenous liberation struggles could not be ignored.

While there's never been an anarchist prison camp, what do anarchists bring to the indigenous resistance movement? Besides a few very dedicated allies who have gained the respect of sovereigntists, north american anarchists bring nothing but photocopied tracts of revolutions occurring elsewhere or in the past. Anarcho-communism, or federated anarchism, seems to completely ignore the existence of native people. Green anarchism or anti-civ type anti-ideologies are too often insulting or outright racist against native peoples. Activist-anarchism can't get past the fact that natives drink coke and aren't vegetarians, and are also just annoyingly paternalistic and managerial in that cloying middle class way. The only places I'm aware of in North America that have produced long term and meaningful alliances of affinity between non-native anarchists and indigenous sovereigntists are a handful of insurrectionary anarchists in Montreal and in Southern Coastal British Columbia.

Despite the weakness of the north american anarchist movement, and its failure to create alliances and affinity with indigenous sovereigntists, or evenly widely educate itself about indigenous resistance, there are indigenous anarchists. There are native people who, because of the traditions of their societies, are naturally anarchistic. There are native people who have chosen to follow anarchist principles and interpret and implement their traditions based on those principles. And there are native people who suffered almost complete loss of their native identity due to the processes of colonization, and found anarchism as a source of liberation from the colonial world, and a path to their living heritage as native people. Indigenous anarchists may not call themselves anarchists, because they are Haudenosaunee, or Secwepemc, or Innu, but anarchism is vital to the indigenous resistance movement.

Anarchism is increasingly valuable, and more urgently needed because, the indigenous sovereignty movement is constantly gravitating towards social democratic capitalism and UN style liberal-statism. This is very dangerous, number one because of the unrelenting predatory nature of all forms of capitalism, but also because the state form itself goes against indigenous social traditions. The concept of the indigenous nation is very different from, if not in outright opposition to, European statism, or the modern global mapped out version of countries or states. The state is characterized by bureaucracy, police, and institutions. No indigenous society in north america had anything of this sort as part of their social organization. There were, and are, laws, social regulations, penalties and consequences, but there were no police, no prisons. There was, and continues to be internal leadership and inter-national relations, but there was no bureaucracy. There was/is education, healthcare, marriage, regulatory bodies, but no institutions.

From the beginning of colonization, indigenous people have, out of a sense of graciousness and courtesy, engaged Europeans on European terms. While European concepts were initially bizarre and incompressible to native people, they quickly learned, and became experts at British, French and Spanish law. Today, many elders in the indigenous sovereignty movement, while having the equivalent of a grade nine education, are more fluent in Canadian law than elected government representatives and the lawyers they hire to defend themselves. But where has this gotten us?

The capacity for success in the court system can be summed up by the conclusion of the trial of the Ts'peten defenders, where the judge actually told the jury in open court they had to disregard the entire presentation by the defense and that they had no option but to find the defendants guilty. This trial had gone on for two years, it was the longest and most expensive trial in Canadian history. The foundation of the trial was the jurisdiction of the Canadian police to remove native people from land that had never been ceded, treatied, sold, or lost in battle. The man who claimed to own the land could not even produce a deed of ownership over it. Yet after two years, the judge just waves his magic wand and makes all the state's own laws disappear. Every effort at litigation has failed or come up noxiously short for native people. Delgamuukw, the Nisga'a treaty, Haida, and recent international court cases about softwood lumber: all recent court cases have failed to force the government of Canada, the government of England, the US government and bodies of international law such as the UN to recognize the full sovereignty of native people. Nor do they challenge the validity of the state system itself. In fact, they uphold the global state system.

Participation in these protracted legal battles both undermines struggles of other indigenous peoples against statism, and collaborates in the assimilation of our own people. In eastern Canada, our native ancestors signed treaties, be it by force and coercion, they do exist (even though their validity is questionable). Even so, Native people assert that treaties are agreements between two nations, and the signing of a treaty by no means relinquishes our liberty to independently organize our society and hold title to our land base. But, the entire province of British Columbia exists outside the treaty frontier. It is what is called unceded territory: never been sold, abandoned or lost in battle. Indigenous people have, and continue to consider it the rightful territory of their people, and thus is a place for their people to enjoy and get life from, and also to exclude people who are damaging the land or social relations of the people. Over the past decade, since the Oka Crisis, the Gustafson Lake (Ts'peten) Stand-off, and rising native unrest, the Canadian government, the BC government and native band councils have been engaged in what is known as the BC Treaty Process.

Highly simplified, the purpose of this process is to placate natives in order to create stability in BC so that big business feels more comfortable setting up shop and chopping off the tops of mountains and flooding entire watersheds…. The function is to assimilate huge numbers of native people into the bureaucratic state system. First the government sets up the apparatus, then it lends band councils millions of dollars to proceed with their 'land claim' through the massive bulk of the legal system. But native people don't naturally have lawyers and secretaries and office administrators and clerks. So a huge stream of indigenous people march off to school, which of coarse is in some distant, off reserve location. School, urban and office environments are suddenly at the center of a huge and increasing number of young native people's lives. On most reserves, resource extraction jobs are drying up, and the encroachment of pollution and environmental destruction makes traditional subsistence increasingly difficult. The only money coming into the rez is from the Treaty Process, the only job in the treaty office, or in the band council.

But all this money is on loan -millions of dollars to each of the bands in the process- and what happens when the treaty is settled, and the Canadian government calls in its loan? The fledging native self-government has to sell all the assets it just won to the highest bidder. This is exactly the same process that third-world countries face today. After supposedly extracting themselves from their third world colonies, rich first world countries and multi-national corporations, through World Bank programmes, forced loans on these newly independent and 'developing' nations. These loans add up to billions and trillions of dollars in debt. Now profits from resource extraction and surplus product dumping are coming in second to debt service which equals billions of dollars in interest. Predatory investors are able to buy up resources and infrastructure -paid for by World Bank loans- at dirt cheap prices. In the meantime, World Bank and IMF programmes wield tyrannical power over the application of government funding. Always, industrial development is prioritized while social programmes are barred.

After WWII a lot of people thought states were still a good idea --despite anarchist warnings to the contrary. It seemed that through the state system, socialist programmes could be implemented and capitalism limited and controlled. Millions of people put their effort into building socialist democracies and communist states. But history has shown that even the most benevolent efforts to build a just state system only served to provide capitalism with ripe grounds for exploitation. Now those socialist states that won their liberation from colonial captors are held in even worse bondage with an ever increasing debt burden, and viciously parasitical investor markets. The state, very obviously, is just a way to hold millions of people captive for exploitation. The socialist state experiment is proven itself to be a failure. Yet people keep falling for it, and seeing the state system as the only option. This is especially ironic for indigenous people because the state system is exactly what the colonizers forced on us, and is what we are fighting for our liberation from.

The north american indigenous sovereignty movement is opposed to the BC Treaty Process. But still gravitates dangerously towards statism. The indigenous sovereignty movement needs strong and accessible anarchist analysis, and to build alliances with anarchist movements globally. The European anarchist movement has grown and intensified over the past thirty years. But it is very difficult to build affinity between indigenous people and European movements -even if those movements are fighting European imperialism and capitalism. For obvious reasons, many native people have little to no tolerance for europeans -who have inherited the brutal legacy of colonization, and in America and Canada, are also settlers themselves. The predominance of euro-centrism in the north american anarchist movement is a huge obstacle. There is an inaccurate perception that anarchism is a 'white' movement. This myth is perpetuated by PC activists who lack a global and historic comprehension of anarchism, and is also due to the predominance and insularity of euro-american anarchists in north america. In reality, the vast majority of anarchists are brown people who live in the third world. But it is very difficult to communicate between isolated northern reserves and southern liberated zones, and even harder from anarchist peasant uprisings in Asia.

More effort at affinity and alliance building needs to be made. In order for this to occur between north american anarchists and indigenous sovereigntists, settlerism must be reconciled with from within the anarchist movement. A deep understanding of indigenous sovereignty needs to be widely developed, and included in the foundations of the north american anarchist movement.