Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights
In Defence of Indigenous Struggles
Buried Deep in Peter Kulchyski’s new book, titled Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights: In Defence of Indigenous Struggles, is a powerful lesson from a Cree protest camp.
With Manitoba Hydro planning to unleash a dam onto a spillway in 2004, without the consent of the Aboriginal community affected, Grand Rapids First Nation set up an encampment in its direct path.
As The Red Indians (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2007) author and Native Studies scholar retells it, Pimicikamak Cree elders Charles Osborne and Gideon McKay arrived to show their solidarity, comparing those defending their lands to howling wolves:
“A lone wolf gives a weak howl, just loud enough to be heard by another. It responds, and slowly other wolves hear the call and respond, and as their responses bounce back and forth they gather strength, until finally the power of the wolf nation is unmistakable…The wolf has begun to howl.”
The government cancelled its Grand Rapids plans—one victory amidst hundreds of Indigenous communities’ struggles in every part of Canada.
In Aboriginal Rights, Kulchyski follows the path of The Red Indians—an accessible history through storytelling of Aboriginal resistance—to weave together his observations and experiences of Indigenous peoples’ struggles across Canada today.
Written during the explosion of the Idle No More movement last winter, Kulchyski stitches together essays on everything from a brief history of treaties, to an array of proposals (from creating a new northern province to reserved Aboriginal seats in government), and a critique of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
The book’s key thrust is that, in the rush to celebrate that hard-won international document, activists risk losing sight of the importance of the inherent “customary rights” of Indigenous Peoples, which emerge from their own specific cultures and struggles and cannot be handed down “from on high as a gift from the King or the United Nations.”
Unlike the human rights of individual Aboriginals, Aboriginal rights are asserted “in the practice of Indigenous culture” and expressed through blockades, occupations, specific cultural traditions and “the repetition of political and economic and social and spiritual and expressive activities.”
Though disregarded throughout Canada’s colonization—and Kulchyski continually reminds the reader that in 2013 “the colonial regime remains in place”—Aboriginal rights form the backbone of Indigenous resistance, and must not be trumped by a Eurocentric individual rights model.
The author sees no problem with UNDRIP being referenced in Indigenous struggles. But as Canada continues its push to extract resources from Aboriginal lands, eliminating legal title to traditional territories (the basis for modern and historic treaties ) is crucial. “Aboriginal Peoples are very likely to continue to live on a marginal front line of the anti-capitalist struggle, using treaty or aboriginal rights as a significant level to protect their lands and sovereignty.”
Setting aside Kulchyski’s insistence on making his books difficult to read by not capitalizing anything —to “reject the symbols of hierarchy,” he insists— one of the few serious criticisms of Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights is that it meanders randomly between academic critique of UNDRIP, eyewitness ethnography, and his hopes to link Marxist analysis, socialist movements, and Indigenous struggles.
Each of these is ripe soil for its own book, but in a sparse 173 pages Kulchyski fails to weave the narrative together conceptually until the closing chapter.
There, the underlying concept of “bush” is introduced through a beautiful and unexpected poetic meditation. Rural First Nations cultures, he concludes, are “bush cultures,” historically living in relationship to the land through specific cultural practices, traditions and self-governance.
“Bush, unlike wilderness, allows us to think a lived relation to and in this landscape,” he writes. “You can find the bush, even in the Eaton Centre, but first you have to get the mall out of your head.”
As a non-Aboriginal himself (like this reviewer), the lessons of the “bush” are meant for everyone. Our dominant culture has driven the Earth to the brink and continues its slow genocide, thanks to our ongoing, obsessive warpath of “civilization,” “development” and “progress”—which, from the perspective of the bush, are “precisely imperialism.”
It’s in the bush where we find “the ghosts of this country … where the killing took place,” and Kulchyski adds that “no amount of pavement” can cover over the injustices. “Bush” is also a space of resistance and transformation. With movements like Idle No More and Defenders of the Land following the footsteps today of centuries of struggle, Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights reminds us that the wolves, indeed, are howling.
David P. Ball is a freelance journalist resident in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territories. A settler of British ancestry, David has reported about Indigenous rights and politics for over a decade.