Harsha Walia
'Land is a Relationship': In conversation with Glen Coulthard on Indigenous nationhood

| January 21, 2015
Photo courtesy of Glen Coulthard

"Your good words make my ears tingle," says Elaine Durocher as she overhears Glen Coulthard at a diner in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, unceded xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories.

In December I had the opportunity to sit down with Coulthard, and in our discussion, he is describing how the granting of certain rights by the state works perfectly within colonialism by effectively masking the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Durocher, a Metis grandmother and activist who I know within the Downtown Eastside community, joins our conversation and is nodding along.

Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, an assistant professor at UBC, and involved with the Dechinta Bush University. His debut book Red Skins, White Masks is a trail-blazing opus, quickly gathering a storm of praise and becoming a manifesto for Indigenous resurgence within academic, activist and community circles, as well as amongst Indigenous and settler communities alike.

Coulthard's premise is a forceful one: there is no freedom to be found in or from the settler-colonial state. Drawing primarily on Frantz Fanon, Coulthard interrogates how concessions by the state maintain both the objective and subjective realms of colonial power. He challenges the liberal pluralism of state-based efforts at recognition that serve to mediate and accommodate Indigenous claims through the Canadian state itself. Coulthard's work contextualizes the sentiments of those like Tsleil-Waututh elder and residential school survivor Amy (Ta'ah) George. In an interview last year, George said of Harper's apology and the Truth and Reconciliation Week: "The government said we're sorry for what happened to you. They didn't say we're sorry we built these schools so you would die. Every apology they make, I say, 'that's bullshit.'"

Instead of state-recognition and its resultant colonized subjectivity that ultimately embeds the power of the state as the arbiter of Indigenous rights, Coulthard argues for Indigenous self-recognition through the redeployment of Indigenous land-based practices. Here, he makes a critical connection between the reinforcing processes of colonialism and capitalism by illuminating that state-negotiated self-determination not only attempts to assimilate Indigenous people within colonial institutions, it also forces a reliance on an extractive capitalist economy that is "entirely at odds with the deep reciprocity that forms the cultural core of many Indigenous peoples' relationships with land."

As such, Coulthard's vision for decolonization is an intersectional one which "must account for the complex ways that capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the state interact with one another to form the constellation of power relations that sustain colonial patterns of behavior, structures, and relationships."

Below is an edited version of our wide-ranging conversation.

You have spent a decade analyzing how the politics of state recognition has come to reproduce, rather than work against, settler-colonialism. Can you explain how current forms of state recognition have evolved from previous modes of colonialism to still maintain Indigenous dispossession?

The book looks at how the colonial relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state has changed over 40 years. During this period we have witnessed the directly coercive rule of the last two centuries morph into more indirect rule that imposes political, economic and psychological structures that maintain ongoing appropriation of Indigenous peoples' lands and resources. Settler colonization is still about maintaining access to our land; it's just carried out slightly differently now. The politics of recognition, such as land negotiations and offering us certain cultural rights, are the contemporary tools designed to continue Indigenous dispossession.

The tactics of land negotiations emerged specifically to reproduce state interests and accumulate capital, not to work against these forces as Indigenous peoples had hoped. The negotiations of land claims function to domesticate Indigenous claims within the colonial framework of Canadian sovereignty and its structural drive toward settlement and capitalist accumulation based off resource extraction. The formal powers delegated to Indigenous communities through self-government processes are limited in ways that make it very difficult to stop certain forms of development on our territories.

You propose that the alternative to state recognition is Indigenous self-recognition and the recentring of Indigenous land-based and cultural practices. Do you see the politics of resentment -- of righteous anger as an embodied form of resistance, which you also write about -- as playing a role in that critical journey of self-affirmation?

I do and I don't, depending on the specific context. The chapter in Red Skin, White Masks on Indigenous peoples' anger and resentment as a critical, even cathartic, antidote to the current infatuation with "reconciliation" and "forgiveness" isn't meant to shy away from the fact that these emotions can sometimes be very disempowering and harmful. Indeed, they can result in forms of lateral violence and self-destructive behaviour, and I want to recognize that because we're all deeply affected by this when it happens.

There is another story to be told about these emotions, however, which I try to depict in the book. These emotions, especially resentment, which I characterize as a particularly intense form of politicized anger, also indicate that we care deeply about ourselves, our communities, and the land. One doesn't resent or get angry at being systematically treated like shit for the benefit of another unless one has a deep sense of self-respect. In such cases, harbouring resentment can and often does represent a critical affirmation of our Indigenous selves.

Perhaps more importantly, however, these emotions can also serve as a catalyst for change. They're explosive and prompt people to act, to take matters into their own hands, individually and collectively.

Speaking of taking action, the 25th Annual Women's Memorial March will soon be taking place in this neighbourhood. Can you speak about such forms of Indigenous women's leadership against colonial gendered violence?

To my mind, the memorial march is one of the most important practices of decolonization that exists in Canada. It understands that colonialism is not just a political and economic structure but that it is also fuelled by patriarchy and sexual violence and always has been. Because the issue of violence against Indigenous women has for decades gotten such little support, the march is an absolutely crucial embodiment of grassroots and community-led organizing that is raising awareness of this core feature of our colonial present. Any serious practice of decolonization and any serious scholar of the colonial relationship must take into account colonial sexual violence.

The realities of state engagement versus disengagement are often complicated and not dichotomous, specifically with respect to state engagement not as a long-term vision but perhaps sometimes as a short-term tactic. So how do we determine when and how to turn away?

Not all forms of engagement with the state can be understood in the same way. For example, there is a very important qualitative difference in state engagement when it comes to land claims, for example, than gendered and sexual violence. A Native mother who has to call the cops to get an abuser out of her house and leadership negotiating land surrender under the current comprehensive claims process are two different scenarios; there is a difference in the character of violence that is being reproduced.

When I speak about decolonizing our relationship with the state I am mainly gesturing towards the macropolitics of land negotiations, and our need to start vacating these fields and instead putting our efforts in bottom-up nation-building and land defence.

Land is central to Indigenous nationhood; land shapes Indigenous relationships to culture, community, knowledge and ways of life. Can you expand on this idea of being-in-place, what you call "grounded normativity," and how the whole field of Indigenous relations is informed by and through the land?

One thing that I have come to learn is that when Indigenous folks speak of their relationship to land we don't usually do so in an exclusionary sense. Our claims to land and conceptions of nationhood are not based on an understanding of land that is something to be exploited or horded to the exclusion of others.

Land is a relationship based on the obligations we have to other people and the other-than-human relations that constitute the land itself. In my book, I refer to this ethical orientation to land and others as "grounded normativity" and it has served as the framework for many of our communities' struggles for self-determination.

One of the settler expressions of solidarity is "We Are All Treaty People," stemming from calls such as "Honour the Treaties." How do you contextualize historic treaties within the current dynamics of settler-colonialism?

While it could be argued that some historic treaties were made in conditions where the power differential between Indigenous peoples and settler-colonial representatives was less pronounced, that is not the reality today.

Those historical relationships were interdependent enough that settler-colonial representatives could be compelled to respect the economic and political strength of Indigenous nations, resulting in a recognition of the relative equality and autonomy that some historic treaties speak to. However, in our current reality the colonial relationship is structured by profound dependency, inequality and hierarchy; in such a situation the analogy of "sharing the river" no longer holds true, nor does it make much sense as a model to aspire to.

Two problems emerge when we try and apply the nation-to-nation framework -- for example to the 17th-century Haudenosaunee Two-Row wampum treaty -- to the power relations we face today. First, they assume a moral equivalency between the colonizer and the colonized that simply doesn't exist. And second, they assume the legitimacy of the ship -- of the state's economic, legal and political institutions that have destroyed the river and eroded the riverbank. Under such conditions, "recognizing" the legitimacy of the colonial ship's right of travel is an impossibility and we need to start orienting our struggles toward a different goal.

The conceptions of reciprocity that inform many Indigenous peoples' understanding of land and relationship cannot be established with, or mediated through, the coercive institutions of state and capital. These constitutive features of Canada need to be radically transformed for an authentic relationship of peace, reciprocity and respect to take root. In order to build a truly decolonized set of relationships grounded in respect and reciprocity we need to sink the ship.

Do you have any additional comments on the responses from settler communities that have accompanied the resurgence of Indigenous nationhood?

I have some concerns regarding how some non-Native movements express their support for Indigenous sovereignty movements because they may see similar interests aligning around, say, environmental protections but have little interest in supporting Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination. This seems overly instrumental, not based on an ethical obligation to support Indigenous land and treaty rights.

Solidarity based on such an ethics must also stem from an understanding of one's, often unwitting, complicity in maintaining the colonial relationship and an active understanding and critical self-reflection of one's own power and privilege. Non-Native working-class solidarity, for example, must be understood as occurring within a colonial context where workers are working on the very territory and land that is the material basis of Indigenous people's health and nationhood.

However, I also believe that solidarity is a demand placed on Indigenous peoples. Solidarity must be a reciprocal relationship and this demands that Indigenous peoples be more open to and take up other communities' struggles more seriously. In the 1970s when the Dene fought against the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline, one of the reasons we resisted was because of our obligation to people in Nigeria in their struggles against corporations like Shell. These were people we had never met but the Dene believed it was important to support struggles that were not directly our own.

It was a truly radical form of solidarity grounded on Dene place-based conceptions of land, relationship and reciprocity. It demanded that we recognize our ethical responsibility to support other struggles that stems from our reciprocal relationship to the land.

Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia) is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. She is the author of Undoing Border Imperialism (2013, 2014). The column, "Exception to the Rule," is about challenging norms, carving space and centring the dispossessed.


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