Imperialism, capitalism, and the revolutionary potential of urban Indigenous land relationships

The following talk was delivered at the “From the Tar Sands to the Salish Seas: Resisting Pipelines & Profits” panel held on March 23, 2018 at Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Vancouver, B.C., unceded Coast Salish territories

Thank you to the organizers who have put together this weekend’s events including tonight. My name is Natalie Knight and I am Navajo from New Mexico and Yurok from northern California. I have been an unwelcomed guest on unceded Coast Salish territories for six years. Right now I live on Qayqayt territory.

What I would like to talk about tonight is land stewardship and how we practice land stewardship in the city, whether we are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. This is also a suggestion for one way that we can both broaden and deepen anti-colonial and Indigenous sovereigntist movements. There are three points I would like to make in the course of my talk, and they have to do with: imperialism, capitalism, and urban Indigenous people.

North American Indigenous peoples within imperialism

Anti-colonial and Indigenous sovereigntist movements often frame the fight against the injustices Indigenous people experience as a fight against colonialism, and there are many reasons to do so. The wide-ranging effects of colonialism – dispossession of us from our ancestral lands; the decimation of our communities through residential schools, foster care and adoption; intergenerational trauma that causes mental health challenges, addictions, and suicides; the ongoing destruction of our territories in what we call Canada for resource development projects – these are just a few of colonialism’s effects. And it is right to say that colonialism is the force that is driving these attacks on Indigenous communities and our territories.

But colonialism in its recent 500 year form did not emerge from nowhere, and it did not emerge on its own. Colonialism and its forms of domination, exploitation, and oppression can be largely dated to the rise of a European empire that included the North Atlantic slave trade, the colonization of the Americas, as well as the imperial control of once colonized nations in East and South Asia, on the continent of Africa, and in the South Pacific. This early imperialism was exercised by Europe’s forceful imposition of its military, economic, social, and political power onto other sovereign nations. So this is the first point of my talk tonight: that colonialism as we experience it as Indigenous people living in Canada is also the experience of imperialism, if we pay attention to connections with many other parts of the world.

My second point is that contemporary imperialism is itself the product of the historic rise of capitalism. This imperialism, often in the form of colonialism, is deemed “necessary” in order to harness either labour power, as in the case of India, for example, or land and labour, as in the case of the Americas. In the Americas, some sovereign Indigenous nations, especially in Central and South America, experienced both the dispossession of their lands at the same time that they experienced slavery and forced movement into a wage labour force under capitalism. In Canada, as well as the United States, though there were Indigenous slaves alongside Black slaves especially during the plantation era, the colonizers were not so much looking for a free or very cheap labour source – instead, they were, and still are, interested in removing, by whatever means necessary, Indigenous communities in order to steal the land, settle it, and make the land “productive” in a capitalist definition. For land to be productive under capitalism, it must be harnessed as essentially a dead object that carries potentially profitable value within it, and this profitable value must be wrung out of the land, by any means necessary, and by often violent means.

North American Indigenous peoples within capitalism

What I am hoping my words point towards is that if we just see colonialism as the root cause for the injustices experienced by us Indigenous peoples and the root cause of land dispossession and destruction, we’re leaving a big part of the story out. Part of what it means to be Indigenous is to practice different ways of being and perceiving the world around us than Canadians. These different ways of being and perceiving the world indicate totally different understandings of our place within a complex network of interrelatedness. One aspect of this network of interrelatedness is the economic practices of harvesting, hunting, and gardening in respectful relations with the land that our nations practiced and continue to practice.

These economic practices are in direct contrast to the laws of capitalist production: competition, which requires the amassing of profit at an infinite and exponential rate; perpetual growth, requiring capitalist markets to always seek to grow rather than seek sustainability; and domination, requiring the imperial imposition of the interests of “great” countries over other sovereign nations in order to steal their natural resources and their cheaper human labour power. So, rather than focusing on the cultural and political ways that Indigenous difference expresses itself, I’m suggesting that another, and crucial, form of difference is the living practice of noncapitalist Indigenous economic forms that are as diverse as our nations are culturally diverse.

Overall, there are two major pieces to this part of my argument: 1) that Indigenous nations practice noncapitalist economic forms as a foundational part of our nationhoods, and 2) that our economies and nationhoods are in conflict with a fundamental law of the capitalist mode of production, which is to violently dominate all means of survival, destroying or absorbing all noncapitalist economies. This process of absorption or destruction is never complete, but the process is intense, violent, and unending. So the state governments that administer capitalist economies never stop attacking Indigenous noncapitalist economies, economies that are based on land relations.

If we can agree on these two points, then part of practicing or supporting Indigenous sovereignty is to support anti-capitalist resistance. We can’t think of these two things separately. The rise of colonialism occurred at the very same time as the rise of capitalism; the two are so intertwined that any analysis that presents one without presenting the other is missing a big part of the story. What I am suggesting is that supporters of Indigenous sovereigntist movements can also expand their practices of resistance and allyship by also contributing to anti-capitalist struggles as well. This would be a more well-rounded resistance that would get to the root and address the practices of colonialism’s driving force.

Urban Indigenous land relationships

To think about how to fight these parallel and interlocking enemies, I’d like to offer some words about urban and dispossessed Indigenous people – those of us who live in urban centres and those of us who do not have strong living relationships to our families, communities, and nations. The reasons for this are vast. For myself, I was adopted out of community at birth. While I have re-formed relations to my birth mother and her family, it will be a lifelong process of building connections that will draw me into my communities in responsible and accountable ways.

For others of us, we may have been raised in our Native families and communities, but it may not be safe for us to return. Colonialism enacts so much violence on Indigenous peoples, and unfortunately we can internalize this violence and enact it on each other. Regardless of the reasons, there are a great number of dispossessed Indigenous people, who have varying levels of relationships with our communities and nations. Right now, there is no clear way for us to be involved in Indigenous sovereigntist movements. We are not simply supporters, especially because this category is always framed as being for settlers. And we are not land defenders, because we do not retain strong relationships to our ancestral territories. So what can we do?

I don’t think it is realistic to expect us to return to our ancestral territories and take up land defense as our contribution to Indigenous sovereignty movements. This is just not possible for so many of us, and setting up these expectations actually does not pay attention to how colonialism has affected us – how it has robbed us of our land relations and community relations. Putting the onus on us as individuals to somehow remake our relations individualizes the effects of colonialism and collapses our political positions with other Indigenous people who do have relations with their lands, communities, and nations.

But there are many ways that dispossessed and urban Indigenous peoples can contribute to Indigenous sovereigntist movements. One way is to recognize that we are deeply affected by both colonialism and capitalism. Unlike settlers, Indigenous peoples hold a dual relationship, structured through both capitalism and colonialism, to the labour market and to land. While working class groups may fight for incremental demands like higher wages and job stability, these gains may come at the cost of Indigenous peoples’ claims to Aboriginal title. An example close to home is Indigenous opposition to resource extraction projects in British Columbia, and elsewhere in Canada, the U.S., and Central and South America. These projects often entail some amount of job creation, and often employ unionized and relatively well-paid workers in the construction of dams, pipelines, or logging projects. But these projects, often upheld by unions and their party, the NDP, and certainly fought for by some working class proponents, require the destruction of our territories and the displacement of our communities.

I think that urban and dispossessed Indigenous people are positioned to contribute to both anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements. We are positioned in a way that we are deeply caught between both of these forces, and our subjectivities are wrought out of their complexities.

I also think that urban and dispossessed Indigenous people can relearn practices of land stewardship on the very land where we most often find ourselves: the city. What if we were to consider the city as a site of Indigenous land stewardship? How would we treat and care for the city, and all its dwellings, from an Indigenous grounding? In Canada, more than half of Indigenous people live in urban areas. That is a great potential resource, a great and diverse knowledge base of cultural and national practices of land stewardship. What if Indigenous resurgence was, parallel to the significant efforts of land defenders and sovereigntists who act on and with their ancestral territories, extended to the city, and urban Indigenous people began to view ourselves as stewards of this land? What principles would we assert in protecting and caring for the city? Our urban Indigenous principles would draw from what we retain from our diverse Indigenous knowledges of land stewardship, and what we might relearn as we re-ground ourselves in Indigenous ways of being.

These are the questions that dispossessed Indigenous people are best suited to grapple with. We can turn our positions into sites of strength that push us towards politicization and action. Ultimately, this is how I view my position in the city, and the work that I can dedicate myself to. It is an ethical, accountable way of responding to the world around me. It also honours the very networks of urban Indigenous and non-Indigenous kinship that have supported me since I have lived on unceded Coast Salish territories.

Thank you.

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