Inspired by artists, academics and activist colleagues who have rolled their eyes at the spiritual beliefs of their Indigenous counterparts as well as protested the inclusion of prayer and ceremony into political, academic and artistic activities, I have decided to share my thinking on some fundamental differences in values and knowledge ways that impede relationship-making across our communities.
While I can’t generalize about what Indigenous or other racialized peoples mean by the words “decolonization”, anti-racist or “anti-colonial”, I can certainly observe how SOME philosophies and action strategies employed in leftist movements relegate anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles to the periphery.
Furthermore, concepts of “decolonization”, as they are talked about in many Indigenous and other racialized communities, are not always compatible with what are essentially Eurocentric philosophies and actions strategies.
The following are issues for all activists to keep in mind when working to build relationships.
At its heart, socialist-, Marxist-, and anarchist-informed activism centralizes the class struggle and workers rights. These are considered the core of “the struggle” all other struggles get “included” into that framework. This has required people from a variety of social locations (women, people of colour, differently-abled people, Indigenous folks, etc.) to function within a worldview that is not always intrinsic to or based in their cultural identities, community values and historical or personal experiences — even when they are resisting colonization.
Nor does this framework always address the aspirations of racialized communities, which in the case of Indigenous peoples involves recovering a specific Earth-informed, spiritually-infused culture and worldview. In this sense, leftist philosophies are like a one-size-fits-all dress that only a very small minority feel comfortable wearing. This doesn’t mean that such frameworks can’t be useful but they are not our historic starting place and that matters.
Leftist philosophies are theoretical frameworks that were initially developed BY MEN in Europe. European-descended women and racialized peoples from the rest of the world took up that central philosophy, critiqued and developed it. While we honour the works of many who have added to the body of theoretical work, we still need to understand that these theories basically started with a patriarchal, Eurocentric, colonial-minded framework. That framework informed everything that came after. Much like in the pages of a colouring book, you can colour outside the lines, select unconventional colours, draw your own illustrations elsewhere on the page, etc., but the book’s drawings dominate and, to a great extent, define whatever appears at the end.
Struggles of Indigenous and other racialized people (as well as those from other social locations) become adjectives or appendices in a feminist, anti-racist, green, anti-colonial class struggle that (sometimes) includes differently abled people. While we can acknowledge that there are various approaches to “inclusion” (and some approaches work better than others) we will never get away from the necessity of having to be “included”. We will always be the recipients of accommodations or adjustments to theory and practice. (Even though indigenous and other racialized peoples together comprise the majority of the world’s population.)
Marxism, socialism and anarchy do not address relationality, that is the inter-relatedness and inter-connectedness of all life — past, present and future. Such theories still operate under the assumption that we two-leggeds are separate, differentiated individuals. As a species we are still considered to be superior to rather than inherently part of the other life forms on this planet and beyond. While lefties (and others) are increasingly shifting towards understanding that the “environment” is part of our bodies, that we cannot harm another without harming ourselves (based, in part, on emerging scientific knowledge), new analyses are still being tacked onto or integrated with or assimilated into larger leftist frameworks. Relationality is inadequately understood and still seen as an appendix to existing theory, rather than a legitimate and viable worldview in and of itself.
Some leftist philosophies are antagonistic to, uncomfortable with, or otherwise look down on Indigenous cultural beliefs and practices. Many activists who attempt to respect those cultures would still like to see spirituality as separate from political work; something to be done “over there” rather than to be infused into or inform our work. They often generalize about their negative and oppressive experiences with colonial/imperial/institutionalized religions and apply them to belief systems that are Earth-informed and relationship-centred. This rationalizes their desire to compartmentalize spirituality and deny how it infuses and informs Indigeneity.
Decolonization is often seen as a process in which only Indigenous and racialized people need to engage. Many lefties do not understand the need to shift their frameworks, change their mindsets and alter their actions. They do not always see that we are all in this together, impacting each other in a web of life processes that inter-relate. Remarkably some lefties see decolonization as a process whereby Indigenous and racialized groups simply shed one Eurocentric framework only to adopt another. Consequently, lefties can also become “missionaries”, encouraging or requiring assimilation into their own worldviews.
Indigenous and other racialized peoples have their own cultural and/or spiritual and/or wisdom traditions in which two leggeds are neither “centralized” nor “included” but are, instead, interwoven into a complex set of relationships with the Earth and all the life it supports, past, present and future. These frameworks of relationality inherently provide a critique of both capitalist and left-wing ideologies. If the aim of decolonization is to rid ourselves of colonial mindsets why not centralize our own wisdom traditions and use class analyses or other frameworks if and when they enable us to think and act in ways that support our communities (including Mother Earth, Our Relations and the Great Spirit)?
Relational frameworks served Indigenous and other racialized peoples for millennia before colonization. Remarkably, these ideologies and life ways are still alive and evolving, despite brutal colonizing efforts. Idealizing pre-colonial cultures and assuming that life was problem free before the coming of Europeans is neither true nor helpful. However, pre-colonial knowledge and values were and are perfectly viable and sustainable in these times. In fact, they might be crucial to getting the human species out of the mess we now find ourselves in on Mother Earth. Besides, don’t we all need to connect with who we are and where we come from before we can successfully move forward?
Taking on someone else’s ideology is like wearing someone else’s eyeglasses. If they aren’t made for your specific vision problems they can do harm. As indigenous and racialized peoples our eyes have been damaged, our worldviews stolen from us through the process of colonization. But in our case, the glasses we choose can either promote our healing or they can leave us dependant on lenses crafted by others.
That isn’t to say that glasses can’t ever be useful. No one philosophy or worldview is going to enable us to see everything that needs seeing or explain everything that needs explaining in our lives. One single worldview cannot inform ALL of our strategies for change. It might be necessary to wear bi or tri-focals from time to time and use the part of the lenses that provide us with the clearest view of what we want to see. But of course, the best of all options is to heal our eyes so we can see clearly for ourselves.
Zainab Amadahy is a mother, writer and activist. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press). Most recently Amadahy has contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, Ed. 2008) by co-authoring “Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies?”