Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: "Real" Indians and Others

[Bonita Lawrence. "Real" Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.]

This book does pretty much exactly the kind of work that I think powerful political nonfiction needs to do. It begins from individual experience, and draws out from experiences the ways in which the real lives of real people, and by extension the oppressions they experience, are socially organized. It does not flinch from hard questions or from following the implications of politicized understandings of the world. It refuses to oversimplify in the name of a political objective, and finds ways to show how diverse experiences of oppression and resistance are tied together.

More specifically, this book is an important study of racial formation in Canada, and of the evolution of colonial relations. It contributes to discussions among indigenous peoples with respect to how they are organizing against their diverse experiences of colonization. By implication, this also issues a challenge that non-indigenous radicals need to take up and work with.

The book takes a series of interviews done by Lawrence in the context of the urban indigenous community in Toronto, a community in which Lawrence herself has actively participated. It situates these experiences in the long history of the settler state regulating who is and who is not properly considered to be "Indian." This stretches from differential practices towards "pure bloods" versus "mixed bloods" by the Hudson Bay Company in the long years before 1867 and arbitrary decisions about who was or was not allowed to participate in treaty processes, through the many incarnations of the Indian Act, and the ongoing, relentlessly colonial orientation of the Canadian state. I actually found it difficult to read in places -- not that the overall idea was particularly new to me, but the relentless detailing of so many twisty, turny evil ways in which colonial management of indigenous lives has wreaked violence upon people made me heartsick at not a few points in the reading. Through all of this, the book looks at the historical and personal trajectories by which indigenous people in Canada have been pried away from their nations over many generations and ended up in cities, and also how they are struggling, individually and collectively, to navigate what history has dealt them.

The use of colonial identity regulation to attack nations by forcibly expelling potential members is a key insight of this book into the processes of colonization that have created Canada. Indigenous nations were forced into small, isolated pockets of land, and then a whole manner of (usually highly gendered) tools were applied to separate people from their nations, with the end goal of destroying those nations and, therefore, the challenge to the Canadian state represented by indigeneity. Generations of applying these tools have produced deep and painful contradictions within and among indigenous people -- differences and contradictions that cannot simply be wished away by labelling them "false consciousness" or some such, but that are very real and that have to be the starting point for establishing political unity in the struggle against colonial relations. These colonially created divisions, as well as settler ideologies around things like "authenticity," have powerfully influenced commonsenses among indigenous people themselves about who is and is not an "Indian."

Lawrence argues that, though the issues are many and difficult, indigenous people in urban areas, and those whose ancestors include both indigenous and non-indigenous people, have important roles to play in struggling against colonial relations and the liberation of indigenous nations as nations. A key element of the political vision that springs from her analysis is a revival of the ancient confederacies that organized the political life of the nations of Turtle Island in the days before contact. This would provide a location for political identification that was not so bound to colonial ways of organizing the world -- that could, without denying the real bases for contradictions among indigenous people, provide a forum for working through them and building meaningful anti-colonial unity. I don't think I have enough knowledge to comment on this as a political strategy, and it wouldn't be my place anyway as a settler, but it certainly sounds compelling as she presents it.

Though it is not its focus, I think this book also issues a challenge to non-indigenous people. I read this, of course, as a white guy who swims within the vague, largely dispersed and disorganized something that could be called the settler-dominated and white-dominated left. There are at least three tendencies within the white settler-dominated left with respect to relating to indigenous struggles. Though it is less universal than it used to be, the first tendency just ignores it. There is a second grouping that pays it some rhetorical heed but with minimal appreciation that there is a necessity not just to voice token acknowledgment but to open up our own politics to be transformed in encounters with indigenous anti-colonial thought and action. And there is a third tendency, and in this one I'm thinking particularly of some segments of the white settler-dominated radical left, that is still usually not terribly good at sophisticated listening and opening up self for transformation, but that takes anti-colonial politics more seriously at least in a general sense. Yet this last grouping often pays attention to certain land-based struggles, particularly those using confrontational tactics, and ignores other aspects of colonization and resistance.

All of these tendencies could benefit from reading this book, but I am particularly interested in seeing it read by folks in the last grouping -- that segment of us that know that taking indigenous struggle seriously is important but that is fumbling around to figure out how to do that. This book doesn't answer that question for us, of course, but by making urban indigenous realities visible in an anti-colonial framework it provides both a push and a resource for correcting one of the traps into which we frequently fall.

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


Red Jenny said...

Hi Scott. I just read this book and was doing a search on Google only to find your site!! I, too, was profoundly affected at times by this book. I especially appreciate her very grounded exploration of gender. She doesn't just add some gender theory onto questions of indigeneity or legal status, but actually shows how women and their children have been systematically excluded from their nations and identity and the consequences of this. An excellent read!

Scott Neigh said...

Hey Jenny! Yes, an excellent book...a real lesson in taking seriously the project of figuring out how ordinary people's lives are actually organized and why. And it always makes me smile to find out that the semi-randomness that is internet searching has lead someone I know to the site in an unexpected way. :)