Wasáse vs. violent struggle

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 Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom
"<i>Was&#195;&#161;se</i> is a spiritual revolution and contention. It is not a path of violence. And yet it is not pacifism either." &#151;Taiaiake Alfred

Taiaiake Alfred's Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom is a powerful tool in the struggle for Indigenous autonomy. Wasáse reflects on the struggles faced by Onkwehonwe (indigenous) peoples and charts a path for transcending colonialism. It offers, ultimately, a vision for a new, post-colonial society. Though written within the Canadian context, Wasáse is relevant to Indigenous peoples around the world who are looking for creative, non-violent ways to confront Western imperialism and strengthen traditional cultures.

Wasáse is a Rotinoshonni (Six Nations) word referring to the Thunder Dance or War Dance. Alfred, however, does not advocate a war of guns and bombs. Instead he encourages "spiritual revolution," in which change is brought about not by a small band of reformers or revolutionaries, but emerges as an expression of a more enlightened and involved population. Alfred describes his vision as "a sort of spiritual socialism," quoting the former president of Czechoslovakia Václav Havel, who wrote that a just political system "is something no revolutionary or reformer can bring about: it can only be a natural expression of a more general state of mind.... Without such a mentality, even the most carefully considered project aimed at altering systems will be for naught."

To bring about this fundamental change in Western society, Wasáse calls for the formation of a socio-political movement grounded in an "indigenous warrior ethic." The ethic is informed by what he terms "anarcho-indigenism": "How might this spirit be described in contemporary terms relating to political thought and movement? Two elements that come to mind are indigenous, evoking cultural and spiritual rootedness in this land and the Onkwehonwe struggle for justice and freedom, and the political philosophy and movement that is fundamentally anti-institutional, radically democratic, and committed to taking action to force change: anarchism."

Alfred champions a brand of anarchism in which the conventional bureaucracy is bypassed in favour of a direct-action, participatory approach. He calls the slogan "No Justice, No Peace" a truism of the movement, but favours Gandhian method over violent struggle. "The revolutionary guerrilla model of change," he writes, "is clearly a gendered concept rooted in machismo and valorizations of violence — the common and unexamined male approach to the universal need to prove a strength which comes to women naturally." Instead, Alfred calls for the emergence of a democratic movement to confront colonialism on all fronts. "The Indian mass movement against British colonization was not passive but militantly pacifist, and it actively confronted power in a strategic, creative and tactically diverse manner without using violence."

The book is passionate, uncompromising, and written with the urgency that the topic demands; however, some readers, especially admirers of Ward Churchill or Che Guevara and advocates of armed resistance to imperialism, may find the tone of Wasáse rigidly dogmatic at times. Alfred briefly dismisses the central thesis of Churchill's Pacifism as Pathology as "ludicrous," without elaborating, and rejects Guevara's legacy in just two sentences: "An emblem of the 'revolutionary' person and spirit, Guevara was uncompromising in his belief in the necessity of armed struggle and his hatred of imperialists. These are, in fact, the essences of the revolutionary spirit: violence and hatred."

The hard distinctions Alfred seeks to establish here — between the warrior (good) and the guerrilla (bad), "the warrior spirit" (good) and "the revolutionary spirit" (bad), and "armed self-defence" (good) and "armed struggle" (bad) — risk breaking down entirely under scrutiny. That vulnerability to scrutiny perhaps explains Alfred's vehement but brief dismissal of his (mostly unnamed) opponents. Ultimately it only serves to obscure the complex tactical and strategic choices that Onkwehonwe activists face in the struggle to defend their lands and communities.

That said, Taiaiake Alfred's encyclopedic knowledge of indigenism, his insightful commentary and the practical strategies for change he offers make Wasáse a must-read for indigenous activists and (though not Alfred's primary audience) their settler allies.—Brent Erickson

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