Wasáse and the Indigenous resurgence

Book Review

Taiaiake Alfred, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005).

Review by Alex Khasnabish, recent graduate of the Ph.D program in Anthropology at McMaster University.

What would a politics of contention rooted in an anarcho-indigenous perspective look like? What would such a political philosophy even mean? In Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) scholar and activist Taiaiake Alfred undertakes the provocative, challenging, and hopeful task of envisioning and articulating just such a politics and in what follows I will attempt to do justice to this vision in a spirit of solidarity and constructive engagement. As Alfred explains, “Wasáse” is a Rotinoshonni (Six Nations) war ritual, the Thunder Dance (2005, 19). In the context in which he uses it, “Wasáse” is a new way of thinking about an Indigenous politics of contention and resurgence. This radically contentious and hopeful spirit is what animates Alfred’s text and his vision of socio-political struggle and possibility.

Wasáse is a challenging and provocative text, its aims are no less than the development of a politics of contention rooted in the regeneration and resurgence of Onkwehonwe (first peoples) existences and the destruction of colonial realities and imperial desires. Before proceeding however one central issue needs to be addressed. Unapologetically, Alfred’s text is directed toward Indigenous peoples and particularly those inhabiting territory now known as Canada and the United States. Alfred’s contentious political vision is directed toward inspiring a radical Onkwehonwe resurgence and as such his words are meant to resonate within Onkwehonwe communities themselves. As a non-Indigenous, academically-trained, relatively privileged person whose political commitments nevertheless express a strong affinity for the kind of radical, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist politics Alfred espouses, approaching this text and engaging with it require accepting that in some ways this work is not primarily meant for me. As Alfred notes in his opening pages, “If non-indigenous readers are capable of listening, they will learn from these shared words, and they will discover that while we are envisioning a new relationship between Onkwehonwe and the land, we are at the same time offering a decolonized alternative to the Settler society by inviting them to share our vision of respect and peaceful coexistence” (ibid., 35). The de-centering of the so often assumed normative subject (white, male, heterosexual) makes this text experientially as well as politically challenging and revelatory – can non-Indigenous but politically sympathetic individuals learn to listen and value radically different perspectives that challenge the very foundations of our contemporary social existences, particularly in the Americas? More importantly, can we find ways to take up Alfred’s offer and move toward building new relationships not premised on colonial histories and domination and not built upon a politics which privileges Euroamerican traditions (often without even acknowledging that there might be other traditions)? The fact that engaging with this text generates these questions in the attentive reader is itself a success I believe.

In terms of his advocacy of a politics of Indigenous resurgence, Alfred notes that the central challenge facing Indigenous peoples today is that of “regaining freedom and becoming self-sufficient by confronting the disconnection and fear at the core of our existences under colonial domination” (ibid., 20). Only after this regeneration and resurgence has occurred can a reshaping of Onkwehonwe-Settler relationships take place. The emphasis that Alfred places upon personal and communal transformation is significant and is not in any way discrete from the anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggle he envisions. Alfred’s political vision for Indigenous contention and resurgence is also explicitly anti-statist, he has nothing but contempt for “Aboriginalism” and other “paths of least resistance” which he sees as the “end game” of assimilation, the “terminological and psychic displacement of authentic indigenous identities, beliefs, and behaviours with one designed by Indian Department bureaucrats, government lawyers, and judges to complete the imperial objective of exterminating Onkwehonwe presences from the social and political landscape” (ibid.,126). Alfred is unapologetically combative in this sense, he sees absolutely no value in strategies of negotiation and collaboration within social and political relations as they are currently constituted, a position that evokes many of the anarchist and anarchist-inspired currents within the contemporary global justice and global anti-capitalist movements. It also resonates with the political philosophy of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico which Alfred sees as being an exemplary manifestation of powerful Indigenous resurgence. The combination of these positions leads Alfred to formulate what he calls a political philosophy of “anarcho-indigenism”, a concept which he unpacks by elaborating on each of these terms: “indigenous, evoking cultural and spiritual rootedness in this land and the Onkwehonwe struggle for justice and freedom, and the political philosophy and movement that is fundamentally anti-institutional, radically democratic, and committed to taking action to force change: anarchism” (ibid., 45).

As with so many debates surrounding issues of radical change today, and particularly in a post-9/11 context, the specter of violence looms ever-present on the margins of Alfred’s politics of contention. To his credit, Alfred does not shy away from engaging this issue. Alfred does not reject violence as an element within a larger social struggle but neither does he valorize it, rather, he situates it within the context of a necessary capacity for “self-defence” which he explains by stating: “I believe there is a need for morally grounded defiance and non-violent agitation combined with the development of a collective capacity for self-defence, so as to generate within the Settler society a reason and incentive to negotiate constructively in the interest of achieving a respectful coexistence” (ibid., 27). Avoiding the dogmatism of pacifism as well as that of those who would advocate a philosophy of social change predicated on the position of “by any means necessary”, Alfred displays a nuanced and pragmatic appreciation of contemporary socio-political dynamics in contexts such as Canada and the United States. The role of violence in Alfred’s political vision addresses the fact that even in “liberal-democratic societies” the violence of the state and elite interests is frequently mobilized against dissident groups while simultaneously acknowledging that these are also places where the logic and fantasy of armed revolution or violent contestation holds very little sway. More significantly, Alfred’s perspective emphasizes the fact that for truly radical social change to occur, there needs to be consistency between ends and means, a position also evocative of anarchist thought.

Throughout his work, Alfred is quite clear that the “enemy” of Indigenous resurgence is not the “White Man” in any kind of racial or essentialized sense but rather the set of cultural and intellectual supports and practices that produce and reproduce colonialism. In this sense, it is the foundations of the colonial mentality and Settler society that must be undercut for radical change to occur. In this context, Alfred argues that “regeneration”, “restitution”, and “resurgence” are key dimensions of Indigenous struggle as opposed to “recovery”, “reconciliation”, and “resistance” (ibid., 151). The distinction between these sets of principles is that while the latter are products of liberal frameworks and fit within existing colonial relations, the former do not, they explicitly challenge the socio-political and cultural bases upon which Indigenous-Settler relations are currently constituted. Within this vision of a politics of contention rooted in Indigenous resurgence, Alfred contends that in order for this politics to be successful it will be necessary to create “crisis” on two fronts: first, to bring about “a disjuncture between the political consciousness of the Settler society and the realities of state power”; and second to engender “a moral conflict between contemporary Settler identities and the forced renewal of the need for the use of explicit colonizing violence” (ibid., 268). Alfred argues that a politics of contention rooted in Indigenous lifeways and committed to challenging the foundations of colonial relations socially, culturally, and politically will bring about precisely such crises. The foundations of this politics of contention and the capacity to defeat colonialism will themselves be found only in “liberation from domination, freedom from fear, a decolonized diet, a warrior ethic, and reconnection to indigenous cultures” (ibid., 282).

The political philosophy of anarcho-indigenism which Alfred presents in Wasáse is a compelling one and intersects significantly with the work of other scholars and activists working to envision and materialize new forms of political action (see for example Callahan 2004a, 2004b; Day 2005; Hardt and Negri 2004, 2000; Holloway 2000; Notes From Nowhere 2003). The kind of anti-state, non-hegemonic politics advocated by Alfred in fact offers fruitful ground upon which to build affinities with a multitude of others seeking to contest neoliberal capitalism, colonialism, and Empire. Drawing on interviews with a variety of Indigenous academics, activists, artists, community leaders, and warriors, Alfred presents his political vision in a form which is engaging, passionate, and rigorously considered. Nevertheless, there are elements to Alfred’s work that remain somewhat unclear and even problematic.

While largely avoiding the trap of essentialized “authentic” identities, Alfred does occasionally seem to posit something resembling this with respect to his vision of Indigenous resurgence. While speaking broadly of “Euroamerican” legacies and traditions, Alfred clearly asserts the superiority of Indigenous traditions over the socio-cultural and political traditions of the West that have brought colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism into being. In itself this is not necessarily a problem, indeed many (including myself) would be in agreement with such an analysis, but in situating his argument at the level of the macro Alfred effectively ignores all that has and is happening below it. While Alfred does acknowledge that Settler society is not homogenous or monolithic, for all intents and purposes his analysis relies on monolithic categories to advance its key points. What this obscures of course are the profound fissures within Settler society itself and while this is not Alfred’s concern in this work it tends to make his political philosophy more polemical and less analytical. Not only does this produce a rather reductive and somewhat essentializing argument, it also does violence to the powerful currents of struggle and alternative-building within Euroamerican history as well. In recent years, many excellent “histories from below” have been produced that focus on the stories of struggle and the desire for liberation on the part of a diversity of people against elite-driven projects of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism (see Federici 2004; Linebaugh 2003; Linebaugh and Rediker 2000; Rediker 2004; Wilson 2003). These works all point to the profoundly violent nature of these exploitative and dehumanizing projects as well as to the fact that this violence was not merely directed outward toward other peoples and places but inward toward rebellious and undesirable subjects within these centres of power as well. Imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism and the associated constructs of “progress”, individualism, patriarchy, racism, and heterosexism (to name only a few) did not crystallize themselves out of thin air, nor did they emerge unproblematically out of a logical and linear historical trajectory. Rather, these projects and constructs have been built out of a protracted, bloody, terror-filled, elite-driven campaign for power and domination. To speak in this context of singular traditions and of unilinear paths of violence is to obscure these vital histories and the possibilities they give rise to.

But it is important to remember in this instance that Alfred’s purpose is to produce a political vision capable of generating Indigenous resurgence and the defeat of colonial and imperial realities, not to dissect the particular histories of colonialism or imperialism. Alfred’s target is not “Western tradition” itself but rather those elements of that tradition that have supported the colonial mentality and which have served as the justification for the genocide directed against Indigenous peoples that continues around the world to this day. Nevertheless, it would seem that his own analysis and argument would have been made all the richer and more provocative had the legacies and traditions which underlie contemporary systems of power and domination been situated within their appropriate context. Despite this, Alfred’s anarcho-indigenous politics is as inspiring as it is provocative and given its intersection with many non-Indigenous anarchist-inspired and autonomist visions of socio-political struggle and possibility perhaps there is hope for radical social change that does not require yet another mythology legitimizing domination or which requires us to wait for some constantly deferred totalizing revolutionary moment. This might be a glimpse of a politics and possibility of resurgence for us all.



Anarchist-Indigenous solidarity at the Six Nations’ barricade


An Anarchist Study of the Rotinonshón:ni Polit


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