Decolonize together: Indigenous activists send strong message at Occupy Toronto talk

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"I'm hopeful to see you all here visioning a different future. A future based on equality, diversity and respect for the land. And I'm excited and I'm hopeful for the impact that you're having on the world.... And so I say to you today...if you wish to align yourselves with the dispossessed and the marginalized, reject the language and ideology of colonialism, conquest and exploitation." - Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, January 23, 2012

Not long after protesters set up camp on Wall Street, indigenous activists began to question the use of colonial language to claim spaces that have been under occupation for over 500 years.

The unfortunate response, from some quarters, has been that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) should maintain a "united" front, disregarding the multiple hierarchies within the 99 per cent, as well as the rights and demands of indigenous peoples. Others, however, agree that there is a need to address this fundamental issue.

On Monday, January 23, Occupy Toronto sponsored a panel discussion, "Indigenous Perspectives on the Occupy Movement," at Beit Zaitoun. The speakers provided a forceful yet constructive critique. They recognized the hopefulness of Occupy's worldwide repudiation of capitalism, while also calling on activists to rethink the language and strategies of the movement so that it does not reinscribe colonialism by undermining Indigenous struggles. Furthermore, they proposed that a movement that seeks to seriously challenge economic inequality, environmental exploitation and other forms of oppression must stem from a commitment to decolonization.

Following a prayer by Daniel Beaton and a lively introduction by artist Tannis Nielson, the first speaker was writer, scholar and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson of Alderville First Nation. Currently, Simpson is an Adjunct Professor in Indigenous Studies at Trent University and an instructor at the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge, Athabasca University. She began her talk by establishing a sense of the history of this land and ongoing Indigenous struggles to resist occupation.

For Simpson, her community and her ancestors "occupation" has meant "400 years surviving under a system that has brought countless waves of gendered violence, colonialism, conquest and dispossession." She noted that Indigenous people make up the longest-standing anti-capitalist social movement on the continent.

Simpson called for a broader conception of resistance, than simply arguing it's more than just direct action. Given hundreds of years of genocidal practices, survival itself is a form of resistance for Indigenous peoples. Simpson explained:

"Resistance isn't just direct action and protest, sometimes just surviving is resistance. Sometimes having the will to live is resistance. Building a cultural and political resurgence based on Indigenous values, philosophies and traditions is resistance. Giving birth to and raising our children to know their responsibilities as Indigenous peoples, to have a connection to their homelands, to speak their languages and to tell their stories is resistance."

It is important that the Occupy movement recognize this history of resistance, so as not to erase Indigenous presence on, and protection of, the land. Simpson ended with a powerful suggestion: "If you want to be really brave and radical, place the concerns and the issues of Indigenous women at the centre of your de-occupation."

The second speaker was Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, in Northern Manitoba. Thomas-Muller is an Indigenous rights and environmental justice activist. Among the many hats he wears, he is the Tar Sands Campaign Director for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and was named "Climate Hero 2009" by Yes Magazine.

Thomas-Muller urged Occupy activists to acknowledge and educate themselves about local and transnational grassroots activism to avoid sacrificing existing social organizations. To make his point, he told the audience about where he was when news of OWS emerged. He was attending the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance Congress in Raleigh, North Carolina. This alliance is a network of 86 Indigenous and people of colour social justice organizations from across the United States. Their platform for 2012 is: "No war. No warming. Build a people's economy!" As news of OWS grew, people at the Congress were shocked that none of them -- important activists from all over North America -- were in the loop about this pivotal event. They asked themselves, "Why aren't we there?"

For Thomas-Muller, this pointed to a major problem with the Occupy movement. Many of the young, white, middle-class occupiers lack a sense of history and accountability. While his own organization takes direction from, and answers to, grassroots Indigenous groups across Canada and the U.S., Occupy does not have a clear base. As a result, he fears that OWS may grow at the expense of long-term activism that is based in anti-oppression and anti-colonial frameworks. His own organization, the IEN, relies on a network of activists in different cities. This past fall, support for IEN's campaign against tar sands exploitation in Alberta was detrimentally affected by activists whose energies were sapped by Occupy.

Thomas-Muller urged that, as it grows, Occupy needs to think through how to support and build on existing organizations, rather than create scenarios that detract from their capacities. Thomas-Muller was hopeful about the possibility for the "convergence" of movements. But, he insists, decolonization is the way forward, rejecting the movement's language: "Occupy's offensive." Indigenous peoples "can't just forget about it."

The final speaker was Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Executive Director of the IEN. He is also an author, filmmaker and a policy adviser on environmental protection, climate mitigation and adaptation. Goldtooth raised a number of questions about where Indigenous peoples fit within Occupy's agenda, interrogating the strategic frame of the "99 per cent" slogan. If Occupy is taking back for the 99 per cent, he asked: "Who are they? Who are we? Take back from whom? Where are we [Indigenous people] in that 99 per cent?" By asking these questions, Goldtooth pointed to the insufficiency of a framework that views the majority as equally oppressed, erasing a colonial history.

At the same time, Goldtooth emphasized the urgency for collaboration and solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists who seek not to "fix the system," but to get rid of it altogether. He proposed a protocol for collaboration. First, he called on Occupy activists to think about how they are reaching out to Indigenous people. He insisted that they must be approached as nations who have jurisdiction on this land:

"We are your older brothers and we are your older sisters... the ones who have immigrated here -- by choice or not by choice. It's very important to have opportunities like this to have dialogue....but we also have to take a moment to recognize that we have certain demands that we have put forward that are quite consistent."

Furthermore, Goldtooth argued, Occupy activists should follow the protocols that all visitors to a village must follow. Visitors -- those who are not Indigenous to the land -- must enter the community gradually and respectfully. They must allow the hosts to address their own agenda first, before adding more items. When the time is right, the hosts will add the visitor's items to the agenda. The ground is then set for dialogue and collaboration.

In Goldtooth's view, collaboration is essential. Indigenous peoples have already had many casualties resisting capitalist exploitation and colonialism. They should not, Goldtooth concluded, have to take on the corporations on their own. "It's going to take all of us to resist."

Vannina Sztainbok is a lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She teaches in the areas of gender, race, social inequality and citizenship studies.

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