Fall 2007 - Volume 10 Number 4
|Reviews||Indigenous People and the Modern State
Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira, 2005
The process of North American continental integration is ongoing and much approved by the major political parties in Canada and the United States and by the ruling party in Mexico. The process is military, economic, political and broadly cultural especially in the dominantly English-speaking countries to the north. Corporate interests primarily pushed for the formalization of “free trade” in the form of the North American Free Trade Agreement and, spooked by the anti-terrorist hype following the events of 11 September, 2001, politicians have sped ahead with a so-called Security and Prosperity Partnership.
The agenda is driven by military and commercial-industrial interests. Some lip service is paid to labour, the environment and social programs, but the reality is that everything from wages to natural resources to health care is seen exclusively through the prism of cross-border security and business profits. At stake is the right of the “military-industrial-governmental complex” to determine how the population of the three North American states will be controlled and exploited and how the natural environment will be manipulated for the short-term gain of giant multinational enterprises.
Much opposition to NAFTA (for few people are even vaguely aware of the far more intrusive SPP) is still alive. It is put front and centre by singular organizations such as the Zapatista rebels in Mexico. It is also mentioned from time to time by political candidates temporarily out of power in Canada and the United States. At the time of writing, all three countries are governed by right-wing ideologues but the “conservative” hegemony may not be long-lived. Nevertheless, continental integration seems unlikely to be checked in the foreseeable future. NAFTA, after all, is largely supported by all presidential candidates in the USA and by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in Canada. If, moreover, the transparently partisan “leak” of an alleged conversation between one of Barach Obama’s functionaries and a highly placed Canadian official is at all true, there is little that people (whether in Ohio or Ontario) can expect in the way of change from Liberal-Democrat, Conservative-Republican leaders.
It would do us all good, therefore, to examine North American relations from a different perspective. Amid all the chatter about Middle Eastern Conflict, impending or existing economic downturns, garden variety scandals, multicultural misunderstandings and the plethora of issues (and non-issues) that are regularly featured in the print and broadcast media, some important viewpoints are being systematically ignored.
One of these is the point of view of aboriginal peoples. Not only are the perceptions and problems experienced by Native North Americans intrinsically important; they also have the power to illuminate the issues that are taken to be important by more recent immigrants to this continent.
Champagne, Torjesen and Steiner have produced a remarkable anthology that addresses not only increasingly cozy international arrangements among military, police, commercial and manufacturing interests, but also the even more fundamental relationships between citizens and the state. Acknowledging, of course, that there is tremendous cultural, social and historical diversity among Native Peoples from the Arctic to Mesoamerica, Indigenous Peoples and the Modern State speaks to common concerns that Native Peoples share and that have, were we to think seriously about it, tremendously important implications of all North Americans. The volume is a record of a conference held at Claremont College in California in 2002. Unlike most academic conferences, the papers presented are of a uniformly high quality. What is more, they are actually about something of importance and the focus is never lost.
The anthology is sensibly divided into three parts, each with a dominant theme and a number of contributions highlighting specific aspects of the general subject matter. The contributors, with the assistance of a non-participant moderator, then provide a useful discussion and summary of their panels which reinforce the principal ideas and arguments in a very helpful way.
The book begins with the essential point that cultural identity among aboriginal peoples is enormously pluralistic. The geography that sustains cultures varies from the Arctic tundra to tropical rain forests. The history of the peoples includes relations with Europeans that vary from benign indifference to genocide. Internally, economic, political and religious traditions present a multiplicity of social formations that rival or exceed the variety of cultures evident in premodern Europe, Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, the complexity and variety of aboriginal societies are muted by a single common experiencecontact with European colonialism and the sustained effort to conquer or otherwise take control of native lands and people. Some aboriginal communities have been extinguished. Some have largely assimilated. Some remain in an eerie middle range where indigenous culture is being eagerly defended on the one hand, and corrupted on the other. Few Native peoples have escaped the influence of the outsiders and few have flourished as a consequence of contact. In all cases, the cultural identity of indigenous communities is mediated by the instrument of the modern state.
Next, the question of legal and structural barriers to economic and social development among First Nations peoples is brought under scrutiny. Of special interest is employment equity. On an individual basis, it is common to report discrimination and personal devaluation, the erection of job ghettoes and the denial of entrepreneurial opportunity. On a community level, a “dismal” record of achievement is evident where bureaucratic oversight is exercised from outside, and often from far away. Here, however, are also indicators of success. Where possible, we are assured, “successful Indian tribes exercise de facto sovereignty over themselves and their resources by establishing effective institutions that match their culture, set a strategic direction, and take concrete action in the achievement of their goals.” What is set out is a model of internal nation-building to overcome the legacy of internal colonialism. The door is thus opened to the possibility of creative dialogue in which Native North Americans can collaborate on strategies not only among themselves, but with aboriginals elsewhere. Of course, the continuing domination through legal means and through chicanery on the part of the modern nation-states continues to plague development, but the contributors make clear not only what those inhibitions are but allude to means to overcome them.
Finally, the issues of globalization in general and North American integration are explicitly discussed in a series of specific contexts. The particular topics range from intellectual property rights to indigenous therapies to the national mobilization of indigenous women in political movements that go “beyond Zapatismo.” As interesting as each contribution is, the prevailing subtheme is even more engaging. Patricia McCormack puts it well we she urges people to “work around projects.” Plans, programs and discourses that attempt to confront late capitalism on a global scale, she reckons, will fail. Small, focused efforts to remedy concrete injustices or to redeem particular values have a chance of success. Building on these particular triumphs creates an atmosphere of achievement and forms the basis for coalitions and collectivities.
Especially revealing and worthy of much further exploration is the discussion of discourse itself. For many years, especially in Canada, the courts have provided a major forum for conflict resolution between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples. Unexpectedly for some, a number of decisions have advanced the cause of First Nations peoples. Likewise, the inclusion of an admittedly unclear definition of aboriginal rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has provided a measure of hope for social justice. Recent political initiatives, of course, have lowered expectations. For instance, the federal government of Stephen Harper has maintained an anti-treaty posture and wrecked the Kelowna Accord, negotiated by the previous Liberal government as a first step toward socio-economic equity for aboriginal peoples. Even in the event of positive initiatives and efforts to redress ancient grievances, Champagne and his colleagues advocate a distinctively aboriginal approach to inequality, one that keeps up the pressure through the imposed institutions of Eurocentric law and government, but that urges the adoption of strategies that permit native organization in distinctively native ways.
A good case can be made for the objection that refashioning the approach to political and economic struggle is self-defeatingly romantic and that only playing the white man’s game is a strategy likely to win concessions from the plutocrats and their representatives in Ottawa, Washington and Mexico City.
That is as may be, but there is a deeper realism in the commitment to mobilizing native cultures and framing both discussion and practical action in native terms that is compelling. This may be lost on the likes of Stephen Harper and his “braintrust” including Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary who have displayed a systematic lack of interest in coming to terms with Canada’s native population. Soon, however, a more sensible set of policies must come into play. Otherwise, as Terry Nelson, chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River First Nation explained: Canada has 48,000 km of rail lines and 80,000 km of oil and gas pipelines that criss-cross native lands. He estimates as well that about 60 First Nations are as well armed as the Mohawk Warriors at the time of the Oka standoff in 1990. That is not a threat, but merely an observation. It is an observation that implies some urgency, however, and the contributions contained in Indigenous Peoples and the Modern State show clearly that innovative and imaginative ideas are available and no shortage of imaginative people with the wit and the will to act upon them. Says Nelson: “We can knock $200 billion off the Canadian GDP with a national blockade.” It is probably vainglorious to boast that such a tactic could be employed with the intent of giving Canadians “a taste of what life is like for the country’s Aboriginals, who rank 63rd on the United Nations’ Human Development Index57 spots lower than the rest of the population.” Nelson adds: “We’re not Arabs in a cave 5,000 miles away. We’re right in the heart of the world’s largest economy.”
Whether motivated by a sense of justice or merely enlightened self-interest, the thought displayed at the Claremont Conference is worthy of study and consideration. It is confident. It is clear. And it is being taken seriously by Native peoples who are working out their own theories and practice. Creative engagement with existing governments can not be allowed to fail again and again without end.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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