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Allies Or Antagonists? Some Questions For Indigenous Nationalism

Like all living human cultures, European peoples are fully part of the 21st century, but that’s not enough for the globalist elites. They’ve decided we can’t be both European and part of the modern world. They insist we abandon the legacies, lands, languages, relations, commitments and complexities that have always rooted and sustained our nations. They insist we stop trying to rebuild what was destroyed, to give up restoring what’s been lost, to let go of what remains. They want us to simply shut up and disappear as distinct peoples with values and perspectives of our own…

I’m sure that sounds like a good opening to an article you’ve read on here, but in truth it’s a lightly tweaked passage from an article called “Settlers with Opinions” by Daniel Heath Justice, an Indigenous writer and activist of Cherokee descent. Here’s the original passage:

Like all living human cultures, Indigenous peoples are fully part of the 21st century, but that’s not enough for Settlers with Opinions. They’ve decided we can’t be both Indigenous and part of the modern world. They insist we abandon the legacies, lands, languages, relations, commitments and complexities that have always rooted and sustained our nations. They insist we stop trying to rebuild what was destroyed, to give up restoring what’s been lost, to let go of what remains. They want us to simply shut up and disappear as distinct peoples with values and perspectives of our own.

Far be it from me to suggest, as if for the first time, that identitarians of all stripes pursue virtually identical political projects—this point has been well made elsewhere and is of course true of most groups with a strong sense of identity and the will to preserve it. What I find particularly frustrating is how this similarity, which should strike most sober thinkers as a point of contact between whites and Indigenous peoples, is vigorously denied by the thinkers and academics who claim to advance Indigenous interests. You may have noticed, for example, that little else of Heath Justice’s article is redeemable. In fact, it’s a vicious anti-white screed directed at average Canadians, his “settlers with opinions,” who are ignorant of their role in his nations’ disappearance and embarrass themselves by trying to deny it:

She [the “Settler with Opinions”] dismisses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a guilt-inducing waste of time and money. She waxes poetic on the “good intentions” of those who empowered this system of child-theft and abuse and rape. She’s not particularly concerned with the horrors that were visited upon little bodies, hearts and minds as long as their souls were saved by their charitable Christian tormentors.

Needless to say, such accusations are deeply unfair. On one hand, this business of the “settler with opinions” is a rhetorical device and caricature that helps the author lay out his grievances, and perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. On the other hand, it’s still a nasty indictment of whites as callous assholes, who have never made up for the crimes of yesteryear (unless, of course, you are, in Justice’s words, one of the “thoughtful professionals who do their research and build meaningful connections,” or among the “curious and committed students in [his] Indigenous Studies classes”).

The endless refrain that not enough has been done, that Canadians, whether the government or the public, are somehow responsible for any and every thing that goes awry in Indigenous communities, and that Justice and other Indigenous activists are forever justified in their disdain for Canada and EuroCanadians, is without a doubt a force that exacerbates, not ameliorates, the racial tensions between these groups, given also that the most serious and oft-repeated charge—that the Canadian government committed genocide in recent years via residential schools and other systemic policies—is overstated: read Andrew Fleming’s deft deconstruction of the genocide canard here, and Thomas Jones’s deft deconstruction of the residential schools canard here. None of that is to say that the Indigenous don’t have it rough, or that there aren’t injustices, now or then. It’s just that those who truly want reconciliation should first agree that bad faith arguments and blanket condemnations are not the way forward.

So why all the bluster, the browbeating, and the bullying? Well, we mustn’t forget that Justice’s animus, like the animus of so many Indigenous activists, is understandable. They are defeated peoples, after all, many of whom harbour a deep resentment of the past and feel as though any admission of progress on the issues that plague them would be a betrayal of their ancestors (I’m reminded of the Japanese holdouts who continued to fight decades after World War II). Justice writes:

Worst of all, [Settlers with Opinions] expect us to turn our backs on generations of principled Indigenous resistance, the immeasurable sacrifices of our ancestors, and the continuing struggles of our nations and extended kin.

So, at the end of the day, Daniel Heath Justice is an Indigenous nationalist who plays a bit dirty (OK, very dirty). The desired outcome of his antagonistic position seems clear: the restoration of a culture and national identity that has nothing to do with Euro-Canada and that rejects the neoliberal pressure on Indigenous communities and other minority groups to join the cosmopolitan subcultures of the West. Thus phrased, Justice’s position begins to look familiar and sensible. But here it’s only a reconstruction—never expressly stated, just bubbling beneath the surface of his scathing rhetoric. I argue that this nationalism is held out of view deliberately; that Justice and others are, wittingly or unwittingly, the victims of an ideology that ultimately serves the neoliberal order.

Daniel Heath Justice is well-known in his community and to critics of indigenous literature as an “Indigenous Literary Nationalist.” His writings, such as Our Fire Survives the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History, promote Cherokee literature and explore what it means to be Cherokee. “Indigenous Literary Nationalism,” Justice writes, “involves a firm commitment to understanding Indigenous literary expressions in part through their relevant Indigenous intellectual, cultural, political, cosmological, and historical contexts” (49).

His nationalism is shared by many Canadian contemporaries, like Thomas King and Lee Maracle, who spend a good deal of energy writing stories about their respective groups in order to distance them from settler culture (i.e., decolonization). “King challenges the view,” says his NSI blurb, “that all Native literature is a reaction to colonialism, rather than an extension of longer Native tradition.” Maracle’s novel Celia’s Song, a work of magic realism in which ancient feuding spirits intervene in the lives of the characters, explores how an Indigenous family that had been injured by another community member restores justice to their community through ritualistic non-Western means. Despite its inevitable criticism of Western influence (the novel’s villain, Amos, a child-abuser, is a native man scarred by the residential school system), the book is about the deep desire of native communities to preside totally over their own affairs, even if that means carrying out their own conceptions of law and order. Answering the question “What do Indians Want” in his book The Inconvenient Indian, King states: “If Native people are to have a future that is of our own making, such a future will be predicated, in large part, on sovereignty.” All nationalists—Indigenous or otherwise—certainly share this view.

At the same time, many of these Indigenous nationalists and their academic allies work hard to downplay the obvious similarities between their desires and the desires of other nationalists throughout history. Niigaan Sinclair believes that these authors engage a benign nationalism, one not based on, in his words, the coercive nation-state model of nationalism (44). Keavy Martin agrees, cautioning that “Literary Nationalism hovers within reach of militarism or at least militancy,” and that nation-state nationalism, with its “totalizing narratives” and “suppression of internal diversity,” is something for Indigenous nationalists to avoid. She offers the Inuit people, because Inuit refers to any of countless roaming tribes who call different parts of the Arctic home, as an example of the kind of “internal diversity” that an all-encompassing nationalism would fail to represent. If nationalism means restoring and championing the legacies and traditions of a culture via artistic and political expression, that’s fine. If it means organizing politically to advance the interests of a homogenous group toward real sovereignty, that’s problematic—a move that could stifle internal diversity.

These challenges from literary critics trap writers like Justice, King, and Maracle into a kind of quasi-nationalism in which there can be no articulation of a clear political objective befitting of a nationalist movement. As Justice explains: “Indigenous nationhood is a concept rooted in community values, histories, and traditions that … asserts a sense of active sociopolitical agency, not simply static separatism from the world and its peoples” (qtd. in Sinclair 44). In other words, what distinguishes Indigenous nationalism from the nationalism of others is a continued involvement with the affairs of other nations:

Indigenous nationhood is more than simple political independence or the exercise of distinctive cultural identity; it is also an understanding of a common social interdependence within the community, the tribal web of kinship rights and [emphasis his] responsibilities that link the People, the land, and the cosmos together in an ongoing and dynamic system of mutually affecting relationships. (Justice, qtd. in Sinclair 44)

With a bit of spiritual sounding prose, whatever semblance of nationalism this literary movement is supposed to have is lost—replaced by a globalist, cosmopolitan conception of all peoples as beholden to and intertwined with one another in an abstract matrix of “rights and responsibilities.” And if Justice’s sovereign nation of Cherokee have rights and duties to its people, other tribes, and other nations, it follows that the great powers continue to have duties to them too.

Although the restoration and promotion of Indigenous art and culture is a credible project, it seems the other half of Indigenous nationalism, the crucial part where First Nations actually assert control over their destinies and vie for independence from state interference, is curiously absent. Critics like Keavy Martin want these movements locked in a state of perpetual conversation about who belongs to them and what their goals should be. “Literary Nationalism,” she writes, “must entertain … dissent; it must celebrate the slippages—the texts and histories that are unruly, that do not fit, and that cause discomfort and healthy disagreement” (Martin 47). Of dissenters, she presumably means agents within the movement who are as suspicious of nationalism as she is.

Maybe she has in mind someone like Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and activist from New Brunswick, who has written a book called Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity. She reveals that, as the daughter of a mixed-race father and non-Indigenous mother, neither she nor her children have Indian status because of the Indian Act’s second generation cut-off rule and the rule that denies status to the offspring of women who married outside the band (her grandmother in her case). Her family is thus excluded from the affairs and practices of her band (Palmater 19). Having grown up in that community, she finds these policies unjust—part of the Indian Act’s original purpose to assimilate Indigenous people. Bands should be allowed to determine their own membership, she argues, lest they gradually disappear as fewer and fewer members and their families qualify for status as they marry out. For Palmater, it’s time for Indigenous bands to look “beyond blood” as the basis of Indigenous identity and promote other things, like one’s commitments and connections to their communities (220).

Palmater’s rationale for reframing Indigenous identity is understandable, but it’s hard to see how it would benefit the Mi’kmaq or any other First Nation. Although there’s no question that the Indian Act, the 1876 legislation that established the protocols for the government’s dealings with native bands, was part and parcel of the original plan to assimilate Indigenous people, in part by committing them to Western conceptions of property, land rights, and institutions (for the first time, chiefs were to be elected to municipal-style governments (Joseph 16)), the hereditarian basis of Indian status is undoubtedly one of the few provisions of the act that actively works to preserve a band’s Indigenous character. If all that should matter vis-à-vis Indian status is that you’re well enough liked by your band, anyone could conceivably qualify. This might be acceptable in some cases; Palmater grew up in a Mi’kmaq community and directly descends from a Mi’kmaq woman, and so I can sympathize with an argument for some kind of partial or honorary status. But she doesn’t make this argument. Instead, she believes it’s all or nothing. The reductio ad absurdum writes itself: her ideal future is a Mi’kmaq community whose members are all about as Indigenous as Elizabeth Warren is. Can this really be what an Indigenous activist wants?

Far too many artists and thinkers within these communities are advancing ideas that ostensibly promote theirs and their people’s interests (broadly speaking) but, upon closer inspection, do nothing of the sort. Heath Justice sounds like someone leading a Literary Nationalist movement as he writes the oral history of the Cherokee and criticizes white society, but catch him in the pages of an academic volume sandwiched between the essays of settler critics and you’ll find someone questioning whether “an unfettered, free-for-all idea of sovereignty can or should be the end goal of [his] nations’ continuity and self-determination,” and insisting that the “best” Literary Nationalists are those willing to challenge the “para-colonialism within” (Justice 51). Similarly, Palmater sounds like someone fighting against the assimilationist programme of the Indian Act, until you realize that her solution just calls for the loose redefinition of “Indian” in order to artificially swell the Mi’kmaq’s numbers.

The consequences of these positions are clear. They’re not strictly about decolonization. They’re not strictly about asserting one’s identity and traditions and fighting for the freedom to practice them. They’re about antagonizing and interfering with the host culture. Heath Justice speaks out of both sides of his mouth, uniting his people against the dominant culture while equivocating on their future and affirming the antinationalist sentiments of the settler scholars. For one so concerned about para-colonialism, what could be more colonial than manipulating the host culture into accommodating one’s quasi-nationalistic goals? Those interested in a full-throated nationalism that aims to preserve a common people whilst respecting others won’t find it here.

Likewise, Palmater’s elastic conception of Indigenous identity also threatens Canada. Not only does it promote a kind of reverse assimilation in which people are encouraged to stake their whole identities on remote ancestries, it incentivizes opportunistic thinking. There are various psychosocial benefits, like attention and pity, that would entice people to seek Indian status. Also, you would pay fewer taxes, receive post-secondary school funding, benefit from treaty annuity payments, and so on. Many people try to pass as Indian for these reasons, and that’s with the law as it is. If Palmater’s conception of identity was the norm, not only would this fraud be far easier to commit, it may not even be criminal. After all, “descent from a single Indian ancestor,” she argues, “can be no more than two generations (or no less than one-quarter blood quantum) in order to be recognized. This determination is arbitrary and has little to do with actual identity, citizenship, or nationhood. This kind of discrimination is based on ideologies about what makes a ‘race’” (Palmater 32). Needless to say, Indian status will be much harder to enforce without race, and the cost of all this on Canadians would be severe.

The Indigenous people of North America (and elsewhere, undoubtedly), must reject these ideas taking root in their communities. They owe it to the survival of their distinctive peoples. And as this country increasingly diversifies, they will have a harder time having their grievances heard, as other groups are much more ethnocentric than Europeans. They will find their way of life far more infringed upon than it is now, and when they assert themselves with full-throated vigour, it will be their own arguments—that sovereignty has been tempered, that identity has been uncoupled from race—that they will hear repeated back to them. Hence, mutually-exclusive identitarian groups that understand the importance of nationalism should learn from one another and resist globalism together.

Works Cited

Joseph, Bob. 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality. Indigenous Relations Press, 2018.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “The Ragged Edges of Literary Nationhood.” Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012, pp. 47–51.

Martin, Keavy. “Renaming A Double-Edged Nationalism.” Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012, pp. 45–47.

Palmater, Pamela D. Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity. Purich, 2011.

Sinclair, Niigaan. “Opening Thoughts: Canadian Indian Literary Nationalism—A Criticism of Our Own?” Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012, pp. 43–45.

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