[Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto by Taiaiake Alfred. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.]
There is no better way to force yourself into facing the gaping void that is at the heart of whiteness than to read a book like this.
Taiaiake Alfred is the Director for the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria. He is also a member of the Kanien'kehaka (aka Mohawk) Nation, and was born and raised in the Kahnawake territory near Montreal. In this book, he outlines his vision for the next phase of the struggle by Aboriginal Nations in North America to throw off the colonial domination of settler states.
The heart of his vision is a call for renewed leadership in indigenous nations -- a new leadership cadre that is firmly grounded in ways of living and practices of governance based in traditional ways, but that is fully conversant in the skills of the modern world.
Without further explanation, this approach probably sets off some alarm bells in non-Aboriginal leftist heads. It sounds a lot like the liberal call to change society by changing the hearts of our leaders, while ignoring systemic change. And it also might seem to echo the calls for a return to strict adherence to tradition found among certain sectors of many of the world's major religions -- Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, probably others -- which are often imprecisely summarized by the Christian-derived catch-all label "fundamentalism." But it is emphatically neither of these things.
The traditionalism that Alfred seeks (and lives) is worlds away from the calls to stricter adherence to earthly hierarchy and word-for-word obedience to a particular, unchanging text. Rather, it is a traditionalism that looks not to strict interpretation of texts but to a true embrace of the values behind them, in a way that is flexible in response to changing times and needs but which does not forget its origins. In particular, one of the central values that he identifies as being present in almost every indigenous tradition in the Americas is an understanding of governance that is based on autonomy, consensus, balance, harmony, and respect. He doesn't make the comparison directly in this book, but it sounds like it is closer to some versions of anarchist thought than to any other European approach to structuring society.
Similarly, this manifesto is really nothing like the liberal creed that we really just need leaders who have better values to help us solve problems. That is because the embrace of values advocated by Western liberals is a privatized, individualized thing, but the embrace of values being advocated by Alfred is a call to a very material embeddedness in everyday practices in indigenous communities that function collectively in traditional ways. It is a call to be part of different collective structures, and to live in ways that come from those different structures. In this way, it is not just one individual's privatized conscience that is to supposedly withstand the forces that our political economy brings to bear on those who try to oppose it, not a single individual making highly constrained choices in a context that is beyond any individual's control. Rather, it is the collective unit of the revitalized indgenous nation which will provide a place of support, accountability, and grounding for leaders to make choices based on traditional values.
Of course, this book is really a document that is part of a process of Aboriginal peoples talking to each other. The author encourages non-Aboriginal readers to pick up the book and learn from it, but it is not we to whom it is addressed. So I have no basis to offer a tactical critique of his vision's suitability for advancing the struggle of Aboriginal liberation in the Americas. Even if I were presumptuous enough to attempt it, I have no knowledge base from which to start.
But the book did make me think about how its wisdom might apply to the broader society, and in so doing I could not help but come face-to-face with whiteness. Whiteness is a social construct whose organizing principle is and has always been that of domination. Eight centuries ago, nobody identified as "white." Rather, they identified as being English or French, and probably as being Christian (and, later, Protestant or Catholic). It was only as the historical processes of colonialism unfolded that being "white" took on any meaning at all. Those processes were, essentially, a collective term for the ways in which non-European peoples were deprived of their land, resources, labour, and lives by Europeans. To be "white" meant not to be subjected to those particular oppressions and exploitations, whatever other nastiness a hierarchical society might throw your way. Thus from the very beginning, being "white" has functionally translated not as sharing some common culture, not as sharing a common religion, not as sharing a common language, but simply as being qualified to escape from and, in ways small or large, benefit from certain practices of domination.
The emphasis on invoking culture as a strategy of resistance among some Aboriginal peoples is one I have not easily understood, because for a white, 21st century North American, culture tends to be instinctively understood as being about consuming certain things (food, media products, etc.) and about superficial memory and perhaps celebrations of past or present national identifications. Our basic ways of being in the everyday do not tend to be seen as culture, but rather are treated as being invisible. But for activists like Alfred, culture has power because it is about the coherence and vibrancy of collectives that function in their everyday in ways outside the homogenizing vortex of the liberal-democratic state and the creeping alienation of the market economy; yet it is precisely those two thing which have had the largest influence in shaping the everyday practices of white North America. In other words, "culture" in this sense is an important way of invoking the idea of actual material practices encompassing entire nations and their constituent individuals which follow different imperatives than those which the mainstream assumes to be natural and inevitable. "White North American culture," if such a beast can be said to exist at all, and the everyday practices that result from it are defined by their inseparability from oppressive structures like the capitalist/liberal-democratic state and economy.
When trying to apply this understanding of culture as a means of resistance to my own experiences as someone who seeks radical social change, it is obviously very difficult to come up with anything other than nothing. Once upon a time, my ancestors had such practices, but they have been lost for so long that I have no claim on any culture outside what capitalism has created that could be used as a basis for such a strategy of resistance. As I said, whiteness at its heart is empty.
It is a historically interesting question to find out when exactly that disruption of quasi-indigenous cultural practices (i.e. based in values simliar to those defined by Alfred for indigenous nations in North America) happened for Western Europeans. Certainly capitalism has played a huge role in eradicating the non-market relations that existed before it came into existence. Marx's phrase "all that is solid melts into air" is a poetic way of describing the power of market forces to colonize and disrupt almost every other way in which people might connect to each other and structure their existence except the market. That force privatized the commons back at the beginning of capitalism in England, it is resulting in the privatization of our very genes themselves today, and it is what makes it so difficult and, to most North Americans, strange to even think about ways of living that are not copmletely dominated by the capitalist marketplace. But my sense is that in pre-capitalist Europe, though there probably were elements of practices and ways of being with some analogy to the indigenous practices and values that Alfred talks about, the long history of institutions of hierarchy and domination like the Church means that such practices and values were deformed and struggling to survive long before capitalism came into play.
In a way, it is this very characteristic of capitalism -- "all that is solid melts into air" -- that leaves me with my biggest question about Alfred's thesis. This book is directed towards Aboriginal people strategizing for themselves and it does not address the question of what the broader society might have to do to meet the demands for complete decolonization that are at the centre of Alfred's vision. In a way, I think this is probably a deliberate act of political responsibility, because one of the principles of governance found in most indigenous nations is a respect for autonomy. I get the sense that the author's position is, "This is what we need to have to consider ourselves free. We don't really care about the details of what you Canadians need to do amongst yourselves in order for you to stop making us unfree. Rather, it is your responsibility to figure that stuff out and then to make sure it happens."
At the same time, there are hints that he believes it might be possible to achieve his goals still within the context of the larger society maintaining a liberal-democratic state and capitalist economy. I suppose in theory that might be true, but I have serious doubts. I think the kind of challenge to the political economy that is embodied in Alfred's vision is sufficient that it cannot be realized unless the political economy is more broadly transformed. Which, of course, is part of our challenge as non-Aboriginal peoples, purely from the point of view of our own liberation and not just in solidarity with North America's first peoples.
In any case, this is a must-read for radicals in North America. Alfred has a newer book as well, which I intend to read very soon.
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