BTL 2022

Pathways to an Ethic of Struggle

Indigenous Politics

My discovery of what colonization really is took a long time in coming. It took a long time because you can’t understand the impact of these powerful forces of disconnection upon our people until you work within this system and try to make change. That’s the reason why this understanding is the sum of my own political experience, my lived experience. But it took a really intense effort over the past ten or twelve years to come to an intellectual understanding of it, and really to find a way to articulate it.

Lack of Self-Government?

In my first book, I wrote that the problem was a lack of self-government. Back then, that’s the way the problem of colonization was defined. It’s still the dominant discourse in Native communities.

But from the personal perspective of a person from Kahnawake and a person who has travelled and talked to a lot of Native people who still have a commitment to our ancestors’ objectives and to the values and principles of living like an indigenous person in a modern era what I found was this: Self-government isn’t enough. In fact, it is a kind of Trojan horse for capitalism, consumerism, individualism.

Taiaiake in the early 1980s as a young US Marine infantryman.

Having said that, in my view there’s just as much justification here as anywhere in the world for raging violence. The crimes against us are just as huge. If we were undisciplined, if we were so de-cultured as to not have any connection to the values of our ancestors, and if we didn’t have the spirit that keeps us grounded in who we are, we might have waged a violent campaign to seek our liberation. But our people haven’t done that.

In other parts of the world, they have. And it’s an option up here for those not into wearing a suit and starting a casino, or not into wearing a suit and entering law school, or not into being a professor or a writer. There’s a segment in every society that is drawn to the more action-oriented approach. But here, again, there’s the question of means and ends. Using violence as a means of struggling against violence means you’ve constructed a personality, a political culture, a society that’s dominated by the use of coercion and violence at the cultural level and at the state level. This is as inconsistent with the teachings and values of our ancestors as the other pathways are.

Nonetheless, I believe struggle is a necessity, in whatever way each of us chooses to struggle against the forces that keep us from experiencing the freedom that is our right, in our own homelands.

Original Peoples and Newcomers

“When it comes to confronting our imperial realities some of us want to reform colonial law and policy, to dull that monster’s teeth so that we can’t be ripped apart so easily. Some of us believe in reconciliation, forgetting that the monster has a genocidal appetite, a taste for our blood and would sooner tear us apart than lick our hands. I think that the only thing that has changed since our ancestors first declared war on the invaders is that some of us have lost heart against history and against those that would submit to it. I am with the warriors who want to beat the beast into bloody submission and teach it to behave.”

That’s a quote from my book, Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. For me, then, a true warrior is a person, male or female, Native or non-Native, from any time in history, any segment of society, who has managed to find that place inside themselves that has integrity, that has managed to generate power and confidence, and then to emanate that power and that confidence and to dedicate themselves to the betterment of their people and to the advancement of the fundamental values of unity, and freedom and justice and all of these things that all of our cultures share as end objectives.

How do we carry that forward? It does not matter if one is a warrior standing on a barricade, a language instructor, a person involved in an Aboriginal organization, trying to bring health and healing to their people, a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a writer, a magazine publisher: How do we take that warrior ethic and to put it into practice?

We’re living in a country that is defined in a colonial relationship between the newcomer peoples and the peoples who are the original peoples of this land. And we can’t get to a solution that means anything in the long term without addressing that in a fundamental way. White people stole their land and haven’t given it back yet. White society has yet to acknowledge the initial crimes that were committed against our people. There is a fundamental injustice in the relationship between Native and non-Native people in this country.

It sounds like a direct challenge to non-Native people. It sounds like a challenge to say, “You are all responsible for the problems because you are the colonizer. You are the colonizer, you stole our land.” Well, yes, that’s the fundamental premise. But it’s also a challenge. It’s a challenge for our people, as well, to think of themselves as being in a colonial relationship, to think of themselves as having a responsibility to confront that primary injustice rather than the symptoms. It’s a challenge: to move beyond constructing a politics, and a set of organizations that deal with one or another of the surface levels of the problem, and instead to get at the fundamentals.

And so, it’s a challenge all the way around. It’s a challenge for non-Native people to accept the relationship for what it is, and it’s a challenge for Native people to accept the responsibility and the onus of action to actually address the fundamentals, as well.

This is not about pointing fingers. It’s about looking at colonization as being inside of us instead of outside of us. We must recognize that colonization is there all around us; our world is structured by history. In our thinking and acting each one of us is making a choice based on whether or not we are committed to undermining history, undermining colonialism, whether we are cooperating with it in a sort of complicit-but-not-active way, or whether we’ve taken an active role in perpetuating it and further entrenching it.

It is time for our people to live again and to make a living commitment to meaningful change in our lives and to transforming society by recreating our existences, regenerating our cultures and surging against the forces that keep us bound to our colonial past. This is a path of struggle that has been laid out by our elders and our ancestors. It’s our turn, now.

This article is a transcription of an address given by Taiaiake Alfred at the Vancouver Public Library on December 7, 2005. It was recorded by the Necessary Voices Society and is available for download at

This article appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indian Country).


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