Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sovereignty and the Colonial Occupier Government

I have been ruminating on my friend Audra’s main focus of study for a couple of days now. She is currently a professor at Columbia University where her main focus has been on re-shaping the notions of sovereignty for indigenous people. She always makes me think about what it means to be a sovereign people, and what that does for your sense of identity.

I often think of sovereignty in Mohawk terms – we understand that our Confederacy formed alliances, political and military, with the other sovereign powers at the time of Contact and our political understanding of how we deal with foreign nations stems from that. However, colonization seems to have shifted the settlers’ idea of how they perceived us. Suddenly we were no longer allies; we were a nation that had to be subdued, conquered, or failing that, remade into a lesser version of the whites who had suborned our economic, military and political systems. Suddenly there is no talk of allies but talk of subduing, of remaking, of eliminating our nations because we stand in the way of settlement. The continuing settler monologue shifts focus, taking on a blatant racist cover to allow Manifest Destiny – and this is not just an American ideal, but a Canadian one as well, couched in friendlier terms as “exploring” and “settling” and “unifying” the west –to continue as an unchecked philosophy that extinguishes the people who were already there and by extension, their inherent title to the land.

I discovered this excellent quote taken directly out of the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples that would go a long way in explaining the relationship – if anyone bothered to read through and understand the damn thing:

Canadians need to understand that Aboriginal peoples are nations. That is, they are political and cultural groups with values and lifeways distinct from those of other Canadians. They lived as nations - highly centralized, loosely federated, or small and clan-based - for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. As nations, they forged trade and military alliances among themselves and with the new arrivals. To this day, Aboriginal people's sense of confidence and well-being as individuals remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the twenty-first century.

Let us be clear, however. To say that Aboriginal peoples are nations is not to say that they are nation-states seeking independence from Canada. They are collectivities with a long shared history, a right to govern themselves and, in general, a strong desire to do so in partnership with Canada.

I am not so naive as to expect that we would declare ourselves a separate country and secede in bloody, anguished revolution; in fact, Canada is damn lucky that as children of the Great Peace, we don’t believe in blowing up ourselves or innocent bystanders; we believe in the tenets of the Peacemaker and a pathway that seeks peace, power, and righteousness – the peace between individuals, the power that stems from a recognized, lawful leadership, and the moral authority to govern. In this, are we not inherently Canadian? Are not our goals the same as the colonial occupier government? I always chuckle when I say that, but truly, to the Iroquois, it is a colonial occupier government and remains so until it lets us in. The reason there has been resistance and land reclamations in Iroquoia is because we are defending the last of our territory, the defense of which we believe is lawful in that we have never surrendered this land and it is the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself. However, we are always open to negotiations. Maybe they would like to join our Confederacy, to come in under the House of the Long Leaves. Now that would be a truly interesting development.

This is why I am interested in the petition that the Gitskan have put before the government of Canada, to essentially disenfranchise their entire population from the Indian Act. While bold and interesting and radical, I wonder if they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. Is this a revolutionary attempt to control their own resources, land, and membership base, to truly embrace self-government, or is this a short-sighted means of getting some dollars now? And would they introduce their own form of taxation in to their members? What about people who were not on their membership lists but are living in their territory? What are they going to do about them? And lastly, how will they define who is a Gitskan and who is not? Will you be able to apply to be a Gitskan in the same way you can apply to be a Canadian? True nationhood confers these rights, so it would be interesting to see what they do about it.

In the meantime, sovereignty begins with the self, and this self is looking forward to an intense hot yoga class tonight. Also I am looking forward to visiting Winnipeg next week, where I will be Queen of the Indians for a weekend. More on that later...