Jessica Yee
Occupy Wall Street: The game of colonialism and the left

| October 1, 2011
Occupy Wall Street: The game of colonialism and the left

The "Occupy Wall Street" slogan has gone viral and international now. From the protests on the streets of Wall Street in the name of "ending capitalism" -- organizers, protesters, and activists have been encouraged to "occupy" different places that symbolize greed and power. There's just one problem: The United States is already being occupied. This is Indigenous land. And it's been occupied for quite some time now. I also need to mention that New York City is Haudenosaunee territory and home to many other First Nations. Waiting to see if that's been mentioned anywhere.

Not that I'm surprised that this was a misstep in organizing against Wall Street or really any organizing that happens when the "left" decides that it's going to "take back America for the people" (which people?!). This is part of a much larger issue, and in fact there is so much nationalistic, patriotic language of imperialism wrapped up in these types of campaigns that it's no wonder people can't see the erasure of existence of the First Peoples of THIS territory that happens when we get all high and mighty with the pro-America agendas, and forget our OWN complicity and accountability to the way things are today -- not just the corporations and the state.

Let me be clear. I'm not against ending capitalism and I'm not against people organizing to hold big corporations accountable for the extreme damage they are causing. Yes, we need to end globalization. What I am saying is that I have all kinds of problems when to get to "ending capitalism" we step on other people's rights -- and in this case erode Indigenous rights -- to make the point. I'm not saying people did it intentionally but that doesn't even matter -- good intentions are not enough and good intentions obviously can have adverse affects. This is such a played out old record too, walking on other people's backs to get to a mystical land of equity. Is it really just and equitable when specific people continue to be oppressed to get there? And it doesn't have to be done! We don't need more occupation -- we need decolonization and it's everyone's responsibility to participate in that because colonialism affects everyone. Everyone! Colonialism also leads to capitalism, globalization, and industrialization. How can we truly end capitalism without ending colonialism? How does doing things in the name of "America" which was created by the imposition of hierarchies of class, race, ability, gender, and sexuality help that?

I can't get on board with the nationalism of an "American" (or now "Canadian!") revolution -- I just can't. There has been too much genocide and violence for the United States and Canada to be founded and to continue to exist as nation states. I think John Paul Montano, Anishnaabe writer captured it quite well in his Open Letter to Occupy Wall Street Activists:

"I hope you would make mention of the fact that the very land upon which you are protesting does not belong to you -- that you are guests upon that stolen indigenous land. I had hoped mention would be made of the indigenous nation whose land that is. I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless '-isms' of do-gooders claiming to be building a "more just society," a "better world," a "land of freedom" on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life. I had hoped that you would acknowledge that, since you are settlers on indigenous land, you need and want our indigenous consent to your building anything on our land -- never mind an entire society."

I will leave you with this new art piece from Erin Konsmo (also pictured above), our fabulous intern at The Native Youth Sexual Health Network, created on "Occupy: The Game of Colonialism." Hopefully you get the picture now.

This article was originally posted on


What an incredibly fatuous, sectarian, and pointless blog post.

As if standing to one side and sniping at left-wing activism (an all too rare phenomenon in the heartland of imperialism these days) is going to advance the cause of indigenous peoples!

If Yee actually believes the Occupy Wall Street protests "erode Indigenous rights" she certainly doesn't say anything that would back up such a startling assertion.

Indigenous people have not been excluded from the protests (contrary to the nonsense promulgated by some bloggers). They are more than welcome to participate.

Decolonization is not going to take place so long as the Wall Street class is in charge. If Yee recognizes that, I invite her to join with serious and responsible indigenous activists who are supporting the Wall Street protests.

Exactly what us sovreignist were fighting for decade. Our plan had alway include to free them from the indian law and help there comunity and culture to grow strong enough to defend themself from disapearance.

Hm, while I normally enjoy Jessica Yee's writings, in this case I feel that "occupy" is being used in a different sense than "occupied land".  It's long been a word used by activists who are putting themselves in a space they are normally excluded from.

Actually, if it has become a dirty word due to its constant use in "occupied palestine" "occupied Indigenous land" etc, we shouldn't forget that it is slightly euphemistic in these cases as people invading another territory generally do more than simply occupy or take up space.

Really. What a total waste of effort this blog is. Ms. Yee, capitalism is THE reason indigenous peoples have been suppressed. Maybe if those horrible, self centered "lefties" cam succeed in kicking capitalism to the curb, everyone will be better off. Indigenous peoples included. Then we can build an equitable, inclusive society. 

Would it be acceptable to change it to "Liberate Wall Street...and all those who were paved over to create it!"?

The critique was fair...but the answer now has to be in correcting the terms...they can't just stop the thing and start over...too much time will be lost.

The 'first official statement from Occupy Wall Street codemns colonialism:

They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.

They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.

They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.*

To the people of the world,

We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

Join us and make your voices heard!

*These grievances are not all-inclusive.

"I can't get on board with the nationalism of an "American" (or now "Canadian!") revolution -- I just can't. There has been too much genocide and violence for the United States and Canada to be founded and to continue to exist as nation states."

This I can get on board with. In fact, I advocate that leftists involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement get on board with pan-secession: secede from Wall Street, Washington D.C. and the U.S. This is the quickest and most genuine path to ending imperialism, corruption, corporate greed, bailouts, etc.

Here's my piece on it: We Need More Than an Occupation, We Need Pan Secession at my site, American Indian/Alaska Native Attack the System.

For Native Americans this means true tribal sovereignty, not the half ass US funded tribal governments we have today. My conception of a decentralized Tlingit Nation. I would like to see every tribe on the North American continent develop a similar strategy to move back to our old political and economic units based on band, clan and tribe.

As for the "Occupy" in Occupy Wall Street, I'm not one to whine for more attention, sympathy and recognition from the mainstream. This gets us nowhere. It's largely a strategy that comes from the left: which sub group of victims can whine the loudest and therefore win the most concessions from the very entity that is the agent of our oppression? Sorry, not going to play that game!

It seems to me that there's an inherent flaw in reasoning in the above blog. No Nation or People can own the land. We must all share and acknowledge our role as stewards of the land. When I was a child I was proud of my First Nation ancestry because I believed that the Indiginous Peoples lived in peace on the land, only taking what was needed, and always being thankful for the gifts from The Great Spirit. When I got a little bit older and less naive, I began to understand the truth about my Native ancestors. And that truth is, the Indigenous Peoples were no different than the European Settlers/Conquerers. People were at war over the land here long before any Europeans showed up. People were killing each other, raping, and pillaging. The sad truth is, land ownership has always been a matter of conquering the previous "owners"/"occupiers" and taking over control. The people with the biggest weapons and strongest armies have been the same people that claim to own the land. So, you say the US/Canada etc are occupying Indigenous lands? Well I say the tribe that used to occupy New York etc before just occupied the land after conquering it from whomever was there before. If humanity is going to evolve, we all need to acknowledge that none of us owns the land. And that we must collectively manage/steward the land and it's resources. I believe this to be an aspect of the reasons behind Occupy Wall Street.

Despite feeling disheartened by Yee's piece, I am going to take a deep breath, and a step back from my defensiveness to hear the truth in her words.  Feel free to join me. 

I would like to start by sharing that I am white, middle class and my ancestors have 'settled' on this continent as far back as seven generations.  While these traits do not define me, they greatly shape my understanding of this world, and my position in it.  I believe its incredibly important for us to understand our respective positions, for they directly affect how we are able to contest systems of destruction and genocide, (capitlism, colonialism, etc **).   As mentioned in the article, we all have an investment in decolonizing, but how we are able to do this depends on our positions in the colonial structure.   For myself, my ability to effectively engage in the processes of decolonization is hindered by my ability to understand the effects of colonization. I am a settler who is in many ways privileged by the colonization of this land, and the colonization of the people of this land. My ability to understand colonialism is greatly hindered by the forces which are determined to see me complicit in my role as a colonizer. Forces which have permeated (and continue to) my activism for so long (entitlement, self-righteousness, defensiveness... yes DEFENSIVENESS) 

Conversely, there are people who are the direct targets of the colonial agenda of land theft and genocide. People whose commitment to defend their territories and their communities is seen as a incredibly threatening to the colonial agenda, and thus are labeled as terrorists. People who--from the moment of birth--are personally aware of the existence and destruction of colonialism. It is from these people that I strive to take direction so as to ensure that my efforts to decolonize are more than just 'good intentions'.  When I am truly commited to doing good work, and addressing the root of the sicknesses in this world, I need to listen to the perspectives of people who challenge me to go deeper, look harder, and will probably threaten my self-righteous perceptions of myself.  And instead of responding with agressive defensiveness, grattitude is much more useful. 

**I use an anti-colonial lens to understand the sicknesses of this planet, as I see capitlism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, as parts of a long and complex history of the Earth, and the beings of this Earth, being colonized.

BunkyDeCrow: The best way to mitigate the constant warfare you point out is via decentralization. Hitler as Chancellor of Germany is a nightmare, Hitler at a townhall meeting is just an asshole.

Was there war in precontact times in the Americas? Of course. But not nearly on the grand scale that Nation States wage war. Some of that may be due to technological advancements, but I think it has more to do with the consilidation of power.

I imagine that a decentralized clan system with acknowledged rights led to stability, sustainability and peace in the Pacific Northwest. A complex culture, a network of kin, and mutual respect would go a long way in assuring the settlement of disputes. See this piece on tribal law:

Additionally, control of resources at a more local level would lead to more sustainability. This is why Native American clans and tribes were able to sustain yields from the land they owned in common. A similar system of common resource ownership was in place in the British Isles prior to the enclosure of the commons, and it led to a relatively easy life for peasants that was pretty light on the land. With some modern adaptations there's no reason we can't do this sort of land "ownership" arrangement today.

As a Haudenosaunee person and as a person who supports the OccupyWallStreet movement I think that this article raises some incredibly valuable criticisms of the movement, and something that hopefully Canadian participants can learn from for October. But I think that the issue of education has been under emphasized. I think Montano is right to expect non-indigenous movements to acknlowedge the occupation of these lands, but I think that condemnation is not the answer. Most people probably have never taken a single Native Studies class and even people of aboriginal heritage may not know where their ancestral lands lay. It is the duty of elders and allies who have this education to spread their knowledge. To a degree, people who are opperating under anti-O frameworks should undergo some self education, but it may seem intimidating or difficult to go about on your own, especially if you have no community supports to help you engage. I think that Lee's criticism is very helpful to the movement, and should be considered strongly by the General Assembly(s) when considering their actions, language and goals. Aboriginal solidarity must be obtained, but I think that aboriginal communities and allies must also be willing to share their knowledge to help better educate people on the organ of colonialism and its continued manifestation today.

Also, great perspective @BunkyDeCrow !! You are totally right and I can tell you the Haudenosaunee were not peaceful.

@VinceR: You made some interesting assertions. Here are some thoughts that came to mind.  The world is a much more complicated place now than it was a few hundred years ago.  I'm in favor of the First Nations right to self govern. And I also believe we need to strike the right balance between centralization and decentralization of power.  It's true that decentralization has many benefits (particularly locals having more control over land use and resource decisions), but it also has some drawbacks.  Decentralization makes us less unified and more susceptible to the will of the bigger, more efficient, unified power structures (Nations/Corporations).  Peoples, groups, tribes, and states tend to unite because of the increased ability to defend and assert their autonomy.  When we elect Chiefs and Politicians, we are supporting the centralization of power. If we want our interests attended to, then we need to hold our elected leaders accountable to us (we get a Fail in this department).  Centralization of power is a tool. And like any tool, can be used for ill or good.  The alternative that you suggested earlier in the thread: to collectively secede from US/Canada is unwise, not to mention nearly impossible. It's far more realistic and efficient to utilize and reform the power structures already in place in order to bring about positive change.  Luckily, we are in the midst of a social revolution due, in large part, to the interconnectedness made possible by the internet. This enables the community of humanity to come together and have collective dialogues about how to choose the wisest path moving forward.  The Occupy Wall Street Protests are an example of people demanding some decentralization of wealth from what it is now, into something more equitable for all of us. The fact that there's a history of different warring nations that used to occupy the land we now know as New York is, in my opinion, mostly irrelevant at this point. Evolution is a game of survival of the fittest. And while we must remember and learn from the past, we shouldn't be sore losers. Instead, let's acknowledge the reality of the current status quo, and together strive to use our knowledge to improve it.

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