Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Lighting the Eighth Fire

[Leanne Simpson, editor. Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2008.]

This book is a collection of essays mostly by young indigenous scholars from nations across Turtle Island. They draw from and contribute to a particular vision of resurgence and decolonization. This vision, at least as I understand it, focuses on the importance of indigenous people and nations revitalizing the land-people-language-tradition nexus -- and it is key that these are seen as inseparable -- as a basis for strengthening their capacity to persist, to resist, and to transcend the colonial domination they have faced for over five centuries. As Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred and others have written, this is not some sort of rigid and fundamentalist approach to tradition, but instead a complex, nuanced, living of it that draws on strength, practices, intelligence, and wisdom built over millenia, and does so with the confidence to explore what it means to live those truths in the particular circumstances of today.

Most of the essays in the book are different kinds of grounded explorations of this approach to resurgence in the context of the authors' own lives and nations. The where and the what and the how vary a great deal, as does the balance of "this is what we are already doing" with "this is what we desperately need" in each essay. A few of the later ones are a bit different, and include a look at what this approach might mean for urban contexts, a fascinating essay by Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez about the (indigenous) inter-national level and about how notions of self and difference are shaped, and a powerful piece by Glen Coulthard that starts from Frantz Fanon's writing to show the inadequacy of liberal politics of recognition when it comes to struggles against colonization. All in all, with the proviso that as a white settler I comment as an outsider to the debates and struggles of which these essays are a part, the collection reaffirms the sense that I have held since I first learned about this way of thinking about indigenous struggle and resurgence that it seems to be a very powerful combination of the practical and the radical, and is therefore something very important for settlers trying to figure out how to work against colonization to listen to and align with.

A big part of the reflecting that I did as I read this book was trying to figure out what its implications were for me, as someone situated on the other side of the indigenous/settler relationship. There are general answers to that question that are always relevant, if not always easy to live: listen, educate yourself, build relationships, speak in support, act where you are, and so on. But in the case of this book, I was particularly drawn to a kind of thought experiment, to a deliberate attempt to de-centre whiteness, inspired by my recollections of an essay that I read many years ago by Mohawk legal scholar Patricia Monture in which she talked about being asked about ... I think they asked her about her experience of the very white and racist environment of law school, but it might have been about her experience more generally, and it was someone who clearly expected her answer to be all about hardship and pain and suffering. Instead, she talked about feeling sorry for white people, since they don't have access, as she did, to a different sort of space that operated by a different logic in which to ground and nourish themselves.

And the re-focusing of perspective inspired by that essay and by this collection goes as follows: One way to think about social struggle that has transformative intent is as attempts to transform or replace the predatory social logics of white supremacist colonial heterosexist patriarchal capitalism with a liberatory mosaic of other ways of living that allow for genuine, widespread flourishing. A key question is how and where to ground those logics of living and organizing the social world otherwise. The various strands of the settler-dominated left in North America have a number of ways of approaching this issue -- ignoring it, seeking to impose abstractions, or deferring it to either an ever-retreating future or to a magical spontaneous moment -- that have in common the fact that they mostly do so quite poorly. However, the basis of the approach to resurgence that is the focus of this book is the reality that indigenous peoples already have access to such other logics in the form of traditional teachings and practices, and therefore their struggle is a matter of strengthening them, carrying them forward, and winning back more physical and social spaces to them. (Indigenous approaches also offer a basis for how the diverse elements of this mosaic can/will be able to relate to each other, through the notion of the treaty commonwealth.) The lesson here is not, of course, that we need to just take someone else's ways of living otherwise, which would be a horrendous way of missing the point. But maybe we might do a better job of responding to this void, this uncertainty, that lies at the centre of our visions for social change -- better than ignoring it, trying to fill it with abstractions, or pretending that being unable to fill it (yet?) is a virtue -- if we allow an awareness of the rather different situation of indigenous nations to knock our own experience out of the centre of things. I have a few thoughts on what that might mean but they would stray farther from the book I'm responding to here than I want to go, so perhaps I'll save them for another post, but I think seeing the specificity of our situation might help us address it better.

In any case, this is a book that should be read widely, and as one of "the ones that only read" (21), in Simpson's delightful phrase, I am very happy that its insights have been shared in a form I can access.

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

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