Thursday, June 22, 2006

Review: Journeying Forward

[Patricia Monture-Angus. Journeying Forward: Dreaming First Nations' Independence. Halifax: Fernwood Books, 1999.]

Among the many books on politics, society, history, and theory that I have read recently, some of those that seem to be making the biggest impression on me have something in common: they place a great deal of emphasis on starting (politically, practically, analytically, theoretically) where you are, understanding that, and moving on from there. I'm gradually getting to a point where it is starting to seem strange that such a thing need be said at all, but it is a long process to get out of the habit of reflexively leaping to occupy an artificial standpoint that claims the label "objectivity" and a nonexistent location outside of the world, but that actually just provides legitimating camouflage for knowledge generated in dominant standpoints and, by its claim to be "above the fray", makes actual respectful dialogue across difference in opinion and/or difference in standpoint (power and privilege) to be more difficult.

This advocacy of a very grounded, situated approach is one way to read some of the fairly dense theory in Gramsci is Dead, for example, as well as Decolonizing Methodologies. It is a central point in Looking White People in the Eye and applying the idea in a new and more rigorous way was a crucial learning for me from that book. It also plays a somewhat different but equally important role in Sociology for Changing the World. But in terms of this principle being modelled in a text in a way that is organic and seems deceptively simple but that utterly permeates it, I can't think of a more striking example in my recent experience than the work of Patricia Monture-Angus, in both her first book, Thunder in My Soul, and in this one.

Monture-Angus is a Mohawk woman and a legal scholar who currently works as part of a Native Studies department at a Canadian university. Her first book was a collection of essays on a variety of topics; this one is a focused look at the relationship between indigenous dreams of independence (or self-determination) and Canadian law, particularly constitutional law. This book is a dialogue, a tension, between the Mohawk ways of knowing and being and doing that are at the core of how Monture-Angus exists in the world, and the very different ways of knowing and being and doing that are part of the Canadian legal system. She does the difficult walk between these two places, both of which she is intimately familiar with, to try and map out the opportunities and dangers for pursuing the project of indigenous self-determination in northern North America in the context of the Canadian settler state's legal system.

In some ways, the focus of this book surprised me. In her earlier work, Monture-Angus is quite negative about the possibility for liberation for indigenous peoples via the law. She went into law with the hopes that such a thing could be found, but was inexorably drawn to the conclusion that the settler state's laws were and are one of the most significant sources of colonial oppression and simply could not be transformed through their own logic into a tool for true self-determination. But in other ways, this focus was not surprising, because it is not as if she has suddenly become more optimistic on this score -- rather, this book is an opportunity for her to describe her concerns much more comprehensively.

It is fascinating, particularly for someone like me with no background in law, to trace the ways in which colonialism remains an active, living part of the Canadian legal system. Things as simple and integral as the rule of precedence makes sure that cases today, even if they are not argued by the state on the basis of explicitly colonial ideas -- though often these are just below the surface in any case -- are decided in part based on precedents that did come out of explicitly colonial laws and assumptions. In fact, a theme throughout the book is the ways in which many of the assumptions made by judges to this day in their decisions are based, in one way or another, on ideas of European superiority which also still permeate the culture at large. She also points out that a central difficulty, both for the courts and for indigenous peoples using litigation as a strategy to recover at least some facets of their independence, is that there has yet to be articulated a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding Aboriginal rights cases in Canadian courts. Generally, courts, including the Supreme Court, have dealt with cases on a very ad hoc basis, often in recent years including flowery rhetoric about affirming Aboriginal and treaty rights and then including stipulations or modifiers that erase most of the substantive benefit that indigenous peoples might derive from the decision.

After setting a theoretical basis for the book, the remainder is spent looking at some of the highlites of the history of this sort of litigation. It is not an exhaustive examination of the case law, but it does make an effort to look in detail at the cases that have been most important. She divides the history into three sections: up to 1990, 1990 to 1995, and 1995 to the present. She divides the history at these points because of landmark cases, one which opened up some potential space for progress in 1990 and another which seems to have closed much of that space that was decided in 1995. An interesting point that she makes about the impact of colonialism when contextualizing supposed court victories by indigenous peoples in Canada is that it makes both the mainstream media and many indigenous peoples themselves, who are starved for any kind of progress, see what has been accomplished as larger than it really is.

As always when I read the work of staunch indigenist scholars like Monture-Angus, Taiaiake Alfred, or Linda Tuhiwai Smith, though their ideas are often grounded in speaking to and about their own nations while pointedly not telling white-dominated settler nations/states what to do outside of the demand for space for indigenous self-determination, I always get to wondering how the features of the Canadian state that are reproducing the colonization of indigenous nations in northern North America are also distorting the ability of those of us who are settlers to live free, just lives of harmony and respect, in balance with each other and nature. And always I find it a daunting task to even begin answering the questions that such musings give rise to.

But I think there is at least a glimmer of an answer in one simple idea, related to the traditional Mohawk concept that roughly corresponds to the English terms "self-determination" or "independence". Though it could easily be misunderstood (by both those who agree and those who might disagree) as being an embrace of liberalism, I think there is some profound, radical, anarchist-ish wisdom in Monture-Angus' assertion that "Being self-determining is simply about the way you choose to live your life every day." That is not, as a liberal reading would assert, an argument to disregard the ways in which our lives are shaped by institutions, by texts, by ruling regimes, and to live by the insipid question, "Can't we all just get along?" Rather, it is a recognition that challenging those institutions, those texts, those ruling regimes is something that can -- no, must happen at every level at once, and that understanding them and challenging them however possible at the personal level is integral to the production of emergent collectives that challenge them at other levels. But as always, a central problem for non-indigenous and particularly white people in North America is how to collectively ground that everyday self-determination, that quest to decolonize our lives and our communities, given the atomizing realities of neoliberal capitalism and the fact that we remain settlers on stolen land.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


rabfish said...


Spartacus O'Neal said...

Well said, Scott. The first answer to your question is to demand--as a matter of conscience--that our governments honor the commitments made to First Nations and diligently pursue a respectful, cooperative coexistence. The second answer is to support the First Peoples when our governments betray this trust.

Scott said...

Thanks rabfish!

Thanks spartacus, too! You're right, of course, though it is one of these situations which manages to be both very simple and very complicated at the same time, I think...those are definitely the things that we need to do, and how effectively we pursue those goals is one good measure of whether we are on an appropriate path or not. At a very basic level, we need to demand that respect and give that support wherever we are now and however we are organized.

But I have trouble beleiving that such goals with respect to First Nations people can be attained in substantial ways without significant transformation of settler institutions and ways of knowing and being and doing -- a transformation that it is up to us to figure out, and that I think is necessary for our own liberation as well (with accountability to indigenous peoples and others, of course), but that does not have an obvious pre-existing collective basis in current white-dominated institutions, collectives, ways of knowing and being and doing, and so on. It is when considering that reality that the seemingly simple goals of honouring commitments and respectful, cooperative coexistence appear quite a bit more complicated.

Spartacus O'Neal said...

A glance at history shows that social change comes not from institutions, but from the revitalization movements that preceed institutions. Institutions resist change and resist reform. They are the fossil form of earlier change, which is to say they are the absence of change, but the source of oppositional energy which enables future change.

--Warbaby, editor of World in Conflict

Scott said...

Yes, exactly! Institutions stand in the way of such change -- they often prevent us from being self-determining in the sense meant in the last paragraph of the post -- and they must, somehow, be transformed, their resistance to change overcome by our movements, to accomplish the goals you described in an earlier comment.

Which of course is not an easy business. :)