“Whose Land?”: Performative Practice and the Analytics of Territory

I originally wrote a form of this piece back in October of 2016.  In 2019, I included a modified and updated form of it as part of a longer preface to my now completed and defended PhD dissertation entitled A Prolegomena on Language and Territory.  It is actually shorter than the original, as I modified it to be a more general criticism of left-wing settler praxis, while the original form contained specific criticisms.  I think this shortening makes for a more concise and, perhaps contradictorily, sharper piece. I am now currently in the process of redrafting it again for another use, and it is for those reasons that I am posting that modified form of it here.

Property in the forms of leases, jurisdiction, fee simple, and numerous other ways of prescribing land have had a profound material impact on indigenous people—at times it has been a matter of life and death.

Mishuana Goeman (2008).

Nishnaabeg intelligence has been violently under attack since the beginning days of colonialism through processes that remove Indigenous peoples from our homelands, whether those processes are residential and other forms of state run schools, outright dispossession, the destruction of land through resource extraction and environmental contamination, imposed poverty, or heteropatriarchal and colonial gendered violence. Our peoples have always resisted this destruction by engaging in Nishnaabewin, whenever and wherever they could.

Leanne Simpson (2014).

During the autumn of 2016, in October, I attended a conference held at St. Paul’s University College, an affiliate of the University of Waterloo entitled Decolonizing Education/Integrating Knowledges.  At the time I was undertaking doctoral studies at the university, slowly (re)discovering my general distaste for academia as an instutionalized form of knowledge segregation and, quite often, knowledge decontextualization.  More so, it is no longer possible to see the university as anything other than what Derrida once referred to as the Universitas: that “onto-encyclopedic universitas inseparable from a certain concept of the State; Cousin: “University is the State,” and “public power brought to bear on the instruction of the young” (2002:125). The university cannot be other than such because of its central role as the pinnacle stage of education—more properly, a system of colonial mastery (Singh 2018) and of accreditation, both of granting and of being granted—in settler colonialism and the governmentality regime proper to such. Following the chain of thought from Gramsci to Althusser to Foucault to Deleuze, hegemonic society to flourish in all its cisheteropatriarchal, settler-colonial, antiblack, ecocidal and capitalist totality it requires such strong ideological and disciplinary institutions to shore itself up. Indeed, following Deleuze it could be said that we are always-already within the universitas, and, indeed, we can never leave (1992).

Thus, while perhaps superficially disheatening and disappointing, it comes as no real shock that the university (whether the University of Waterloo as particular instance, or speaking of the university as a generality) as both technê of the settler-colonial, antiblack, cishteropatriarchal, ecocidal, capitalist state, as well as state-itself, is inarguably one of the principle vehicles for what Eve Tuck might think of as the metaphorization of decolonization (2012). Decolonization, once forced through the signification machinery of the university, loses its specific force and content. Rendered alongside distinctly state and liberal-bourgeois notions of indigenization and reconciliation, decolonization becomes yet another word to be added to the glossary of academic double-speak, deployable at-will whenever the institution needs to clothe itself in the appearance of progressive thinking. Specifically taken together alongside these other two terms, with their inherent meaning of structural re-adjustment and assimilation into the settler totality, all three words become replicable and exchangeable with each other, able to be substituted for one another in the colonial bureaucrat’s thesaurus, and at once meaning both everything and nothing at all.

And thus we arrive at the 2016 Decolonizing Education/Integrating Knowledges conference. The event was one of many that both already had taken place, and would take place after, at universities, colleges and other institutions across Canada as part of a broader array of so-called ‘Truth and Reconciliation Response Projects.’ These were events that had begun to take place across Canada over the course of the preceding year, as a largely liberal institutional response, often times quite forced, to the release in the autumn of 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report on the residential school programme that had operated for over a century as one of the chief modalities of canadian settler colonialism’s basic eliminatory drive; that is to “through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada” (TRC Final Report 2015: 1).

The stark truths of the Final Report, and more so its 94 “Calls to Action,” despite its prefacing of the genocidal machine of the residential with the modifier “cultural,” has forced universities, and everything else from community organizations to municipal governments to nominally adopt policies in line with the Calls. Often these take for the form of the above mentioned regimes of indigenization and reconciliation, though the growth in prefacing such practices with a denatured deployment of “decolonization” has now reached a point where everything is being “decolonized” without even the slightest modicum of anything decolonial being afoot. Everywhere now there are talking circles, “blanket exercises,” workshops, conferences, and institutional programmes taking place, giving the veneer of a Canada attempting to deal with its past, and more often than not emerging as a praxis of educating the settlers about the genocides that they committed.

As an aside, it does not escape my notice that while the 2015 Final Report on the residential school system has had the effect of animating such institutional and community-driven practices and events five years on (with some such institutions seemingly only in the beginning stages of doing so) the more recent 2019 Final Report of the National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit/queer people has recieved no such large scale attention. Much like the report on the residential schools, the MMIWGTSQ inquiry has labelled the epidemic of violence against our mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, kokums, nieces, friends, partners, co-workers, and, quite simply, just Native women, girls and two-spirit/queer people with no need of a prefix, a genocide, this time with no modifier of cultural attached to it. While there are, no doubt, multiple reasons for this (such as its requirement to reckon with both the violences of canadian settler colonialism and cisheteropatriarchy), a major one is almost certainly the temporality of the issue.

Put simply, the residential schools have ended. The crisis of violence against Native women, girls, and two-spirit/queer people has not. It is significantly easier for a liberal-bourgeois state such as Canada, with its claims to the inheritances of enlightenment humanism in the forms of civil and human rights, to claim a desire to make amends for things past; it is much harder to do so when the ongoing animating economies (political, libidinal, sign) are ones of abandonment (Povinelli 2011) and ongoing structural violence. Indeed the degree to which Canada signifies the now-ended residential school programme, and to a much lessor extent the 60s Scoop, as the moment and the instance of this country’s genocidal relationship with Native peoples—and in the process stuffing into the broom closet the violences of the MMIWGTSQ epidemic, ongoing formal and informal state murder and state-sanctioned murder of Native youth (as in the cases of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine), the rendering of both reserves and the urban terrain as death zones (Belcourt 2017), the continued sterilization of Native women and apprehension of Native children from their parents and placement into the state “care” system, and direct deployment of militarized force against communities such as Wet’suwet’en, Gidimt’en, and Unist’ot’en—reveals the cynical lie the animates any and all state apologies and institutional claims of a desire to seek an end to the overwhelming violence that we face from every angle.

The Importance of the Analytic of Territory

It has become something of a well-worn point in the current juncture to follow the hybrid Marxist-Foucauldian theorizing of the late Patrick Wolfe in understanding settler colonialism as a “distinct social, cultural and historical formation with ongoing political effects” (Edmonds & Carey 2013). There is a certain potency to Wolfe’s work, and to his maxim that settler colonialism is a land-intensive programme that seeks to destroy, through its logic of elimination, Native life, Native nationhood, Native sovereignty, and Native territoriality so that it may be replaced by the invading political order of the settler, and to allow the latter to eventually indigenize itself to the territory (2006). Setting aside for a moment the way in which the reception of Wolfe and others’ work, despite their best intentions, has been received outside of settler colonial studies has often degraded the actual theoretical output of Native theorists, through the subsumption of Native theoretical output under that of settler colonial studies, and thus the elevation of non-Native voices over our own (Barker 2017; King 2019), what is key, and the reason that much of Native studies have adopted Wolfe’s maxims, is the placement of territoriality and territorial dispossession at the centre of a framework for understanding the settler colonization of Native peoples, and the resultant genocidal oppression of Native peoples.

The geopolitical and epistemological centrality to land, in its varied discursive forms, is indisputably part of our understanding not only of the world-as-is, but of the world that we wish to be. The reasons for this are multi-layered. As Mishuana Goeman suggests:

Land is a word with much currency often utilized by Native American, First Nations, Pacific Islanders, and Aboriginal scholars to invoke responsibility, rights, sovereignty, and belonging. … “Land” is a salient term and concept that can weave people together around common understandings and experiences. Land within Indigenous Studies carries a currency beyond a mere reflection of physical landscape or specific location, commonly referred to as the “geographers” concept of space (2008: 23).

This is echoed by Joanne Barker, who notes that, between the colonizer and colonized in the northern bloc, “the epistemological difference that Indigenous land makes in Indigenous governance and society is its designation of responsibilities, not rights,” responsibilities that include “ceremonies of reciprocity to specific places, hunting and fishing practices, water access and use, and the terms of human and nonhuman relations” (2018: 21). Because of this, the persistence of Indigenous claims to territory and sovereignty, importantly just as prior claims, but as ongoing, living, and alternative ones (Wolfe 2016; Robinson 2020), represent a complex set of ongoing existential and ontological challenges to the functioning and internal sense of self-legitimation for the settler. As Leanne Simpson puts it quite simply, Native territorialities and relationalities to land place Native people “face-to-face with settler colonial authority, surveillance and violence because, in practice, it places Indigenous bodies between settlers and their money (2014: 19).

On the reverse, land and territory is also important to understand because, as Goeman again suggests, the ways in which “processes of colonialism and neo-colonialism resulted in abstracting land as part of making nations that are recognized by the liberal settler nation-states” (2008: 23). Settler colonialism, reflecting on Wolfe’s theorization, is as essentially a spatial experience as it is an eliminatory one; whereas “the [Native] body experiences its relationship to he land” the settler-colonial nation-state “abstracts this experience through the language of the state,” (Goeman 2008: 28) via enlightenment entanglements of land, labour, property, and the modern human subject of Man (King 2019; Wynter 2003; Robinson 2020). In resisting the settler-colonial nation-states politics of recognition (Coulthard 2014; Simpson 2014) it is essential to hold this in mind when we consider today when we speak of things such as the long-simmering conflict over Native authenticity which often, in large part, can revolve around questions of reserve/reservation-based Nativeness and the urban Native experience. This is because this dispute over authenticity in many ways reifies fundamentally colonial paradigms of Nativeness and territoriality.  While the land beneath the concrete avenues and steel canopies of the city remains always Native land, many reserves and reservations, singled out in this discourse as privileged sites of authentic Native experience and identity formation, were formed essentially as zones of containment, often times little more prison camps, and often requirement permission from local colonial bureaucrats in order to leave (Goeman 2008: 28).

The privileging of the reserve and the reservation as the prototypical site of Nativeness, rigidly attached to a propetarian regime, in both debates of Native authenticity and debates over formal recognition from the settler-colonial nation-state, thus is many ways essentially redeploys a carceral logic.  Again, as Goeman writes, “Colonial constructions of the reservation pictured the reservation system as a panoptic space from which to watch the restless Native, ration resources, and discipline bodies,” and “historicizes the process of land theft to loss of personal freedom through incarceration” (2008: 28). Appended to modernist/colonialist discourses of race, miscegenation, and hybridization the carceral dimension of recognition politics seeks to remake Native political orders as assimilable into that of the settler (Kauanui 2007: 149-150).  This troubles notions of Native nationalism which seek, intentionally or not, to replicate these rhetorics, whether as part of a politics of recognition or a politics of decolonization. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui notes, speaking of Native Hawaiian nationalism, notes that:

Despite the disavowal of colonialism by kingdom nationalists, it is precisely Western European and U.S. settler colonialism that creates both the conditions for kingdom nationalism to articulate itself in the modern Western terms of nation, manhood, law, developmental temporality, and historicism and the settings within which that form of nationalism may inadvertently obscure its own reproduction of settler colonial logics in relation to its representation of indigeneity (2018: 8).

Importantly, embedded in this, is also an implicit critique and corrective to the theorizing around indigeneity, territoriality, and sovereignty found in the works of scholars such as Frank Wilderson (2010) who see the Native “grammar of suffering” as dividing into two modalities: genocide and the (loss of) sovereignty and territory. For theorists such as Wilderson, the genocide modality of Native oppression becomes key to rescuing any kind of liberatory politic for the Native because while genocide is unable to reconciled within the order of the settler, the question of (the loss of) sovereignty is one which fundamentally articulates with the settler’s epistemological and ontological systems.  As I have discussed elsewhere (2020) however, such a theorization relies on layered misunderstanding of Native territoriality and sovereignty.  On one hand, it becomes lost in and takes for granted the signification regime of the settler, by assuming that the sovereignty that was lost was possessed of the same inner meaning as that of the settler, a contention that does not hold through a historical, juridical, or cultural analysis of either order (Barker 2005; Rifkin 2009; Wolfe 2012), including the alchemy of settler coloniality which renders the Native not only not sovereign in the present moment, but as never having been sovereign to begin with. This is of course the basis of the myth of terra nullius, or empty land (Moreton-Robinson 2015; Wolfe 2016).  On the other hand, it fails to recognize or consider how, as Kauanui describes, the kinds of contemporary Native nationalisms which are able to engage in either an international or regionally specific (in the sense of located geopolitically within the northern bloc) politics of recognition are precisely those for whom the terms of emergence, subsistence, and articulation are always-already codified by the political machinery and political philosophies of the settler and the broader legacies of modernity/coloniality.

To carry this corrective further: under settler-colonial regimes dispossession (of territoriality) and sovereignty is always-already elimination (understood to both subsume genocide and be expansive beyond it).  The current theoretical tendency of some theorists to attempt to distinguish these two into different modalities of violence, though often usually recognizing some sort of interrelation or link between them, such that one can be given primacy over the other in some mode analysis, theoretical production, or call to political action, assumes on a basic epistemological and ontological level that these two things can be distinguished from one another in the first place, when really they cannot.  Thinking through older semiotic ways of considering things synchronically, as hanging together temporally, any attempt to define either dispossession or elimination without immediate reflexive reference to the other is, on its face, impossible, or at the very least can only lead to ultimately nonsensical theoretical outcomes.  Additionally, the relationship between the two of them and settler futurity is inherently antagonistic.  Whiteness as settlerness, as a kind of pathological possessiveness (Moreton-Robinson 2015), can only project itself onto the field of the present through the continual structural enactment of dispossession-elimination/elimination-dispossession, and through dispossession not only as a rigid territorial fixity, but as also containing within it modes of deracination and desecration (Nichols 2020). There can be no reconciliation between the settler and the Native, whatever that may mean in practice beyond the horizon of the present, so long as the Native is subject to elimination and dispossession.

Ultimately this is why it is important to not only assert, but to maintain, the central importance of the analytic of territory.

The Acknowledgement of Territory

But let us return now to the point of this article. The Decolonizing Education/Integrating Knowledges conference that I attended, while emerging from a largely liberal institutional context, and perhaps in-spite of those origins, nevertheless saw some really incredible keynote speakers, and a number of quite inspirational and informative Circle Workshops on diverse topics. While, as I said, these kinds of events and programmes largely emerge out of Canada’s cynical drive to signify itself as a progressive haven that, it would be a simplification to ignore that many Native people have taken the initiative to use these moments to assert their voice, their desires, and their dreams. And at this conference, perhaps because its being held within a university, much of it was helmed by Native youth acting as more than just mouth pieces for state politics and institutional programming.

One of those circles which has stuck with me, and been the source of much reflection and meditation, was on the subject and practice of territorial acknowledgements in both the public and educational spheres.  In light of my dissertation writing reaching the end of its long, dark tunnel and having recently transitioned into contractual lecturer work in Indigenous Studies, sociology, and political science, I have been reflecting upon them once again.

The practice of territorial acknowledgement is, in my opinion, relatively self-explanatory: it is the practice of prefacing one’s work, writings, talks etc. with a recognition of the land upon which one stands, and in particular of the original people from whom it was seized by the expansion of empire.  For example, on the syllabuses for the courses I have thus far taught I have placed the following at the top of the first page:

We acknowledge that this course takes place upon the Dish With One Spoon Territory: the traditional lands of the Attiwonderon Nation, Anishinaabeg Three Fires Confederacy & Mississauga, and Rotinonshón:ni Six Nations Confederacy.  The University of Waterloo and St. Paul’s University College is situated within Block 2 of the Haldimand Tract, land promised to the Six Nations to the British Empire in 1784, which includes six miles on each side of the Grand River from mouth to source.

However, my thoughts on, and relationship to, the practice are not uncomplicated.  It is some of these complications that I wish to briefly unpack here.

I must admit that for much of the time I have lived in this region I did not engage in this practice at all.  Initially, this was because when I first relocated to southwest Ontario it was most common to see people only recognizing the theft of the Haldimand Tract from the Rotinonshón:ni Six Nations Confederacy.  However, the original residents of this territory were the Attiwonderon nation, and so my initial response during these early experiences with the practice, more often than not performed by white settlers, was that it appeared to me rather Rotinonshón:ni-centric.  This is not to say that I thought then, or believe now, that we should not recognize the peoples, territories and struggles of the Rotinonshón:ni, but rather that this quite narrow focus, again primarily enacted by settlers, buried the Attiwonderon, as well as the Anishinaabeg, and their own relationship to the land and territory.

Related to this was the position held by me that is best summarized as: “this is all stolen Native land, and it should all be returned.” However, in those experiences of what I can best label as a kind of Haldimand Tract exclusivity, what often I felt went unsaid was that the issue of stolen Indigenous land in this region was placed entirely within this restricted sense.  In my view, then and now, this narrowing of the plane of dispossession to exclusively the Haldimand Tract is easily a way for settlers to side-step the larger issue that, of course, all of southwest Ontario, the rest of Canada and indeed all the northern bloc are, and were, land dispossessed from Indigenous nations by dint of dishonesty, betrayal and elimination, and that it is all in need of decolonization.

However, as I noted already, my relationship to the practice today is complex.  This can be seen in my own inclusion of a territorial acknowledgement within the text of my course syllabus.  Part of this arose from my learning over the years more about our peoples’ traditional worldviews and how we related to one another as individuals and as distinct, if still at times closely related and allied, nations.  In learning ever more about the traditional and ancient relations between the closely related Ka͞eyes-Mamāceqtawak and Anishinaabeg Niswi-Mishkodewin peoples, I found that for myself it was important for to acknowledge that I live in the territory of the latter.  The Menominee and Anishinaabeg are old kin, friends, and allies.  Situated as my nation has been since the beginning of memory on the western shores of Nanāweyah Kaeqcekam/Ininwewi-Gichigami, we also maintained old ties to the Iroquoian Peoples of the Rotinonshón:ni and Attiwonderon.

Thus, for myself as a Menominee person, activist and scholar, my own practice of territorial acknowledgement is as much about the recognition of these ancient relations of friendship, kinship and alliance between our Menominee, Anishinaabeg, Rotinonshón:ni and Attiwonderon nations as much as it is about recognition of the relatively obvious fact that the land was seized through one means or another during the expansion of white settler sovereign power. We must, and indeed are, and have been, rebuilding and renewing these relations as we struggle together for decolonization, the resurgence of traditional culture and the return of our lands.

Settlers & the Practice of Territorial Acknowledgement

Complexity is the word I have used to describe my relationship to this praxis already, and, while I have moved my own stance on it due to growing relations with other Indigenous peoples and nations, on the other side of this is the growing engagement in the practice by settlers.  As I mentioned, it was largely through the skewed deployment of this practice by white settlers that I first encountered it.  For many years it was a niche practice of certain sectors of the radical anti-capitalist left—it was specifically through interaction with various Marxist and anarchist settlers that I first came to know it—it has however since grown beyond those limited political confines.  Today it is an increasingly common sight to see major canadian universities placing a territorial acknowledgement on their homepages, for business to do so, and for individual class syllabuses, such as my own, to contain one somewhere in their body.  Even at the comparatively conservative and reactionary research institution whose name is on my degrees and my pay stubs, we have seen the university president delivering a territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of new building openings, and at the start of convocations.

Often, however, in terms of opening these sorts of events and sessions, Native students at the University of Waterloo have found themselves receiving the requests to give territorial acknowledgements, perhaps to be paired with some kind of welcome song. Indeed I have taken part in carrying out these requests more than once. While some seem to happily oblige the request of the settler, I myself have always felt discomfort in doing so. Every time I have stood with others in front of a collection of settler students, staff, and/or faculty to “welcome them to the territory,” I have felt as if they are looking right through and past me, anticipating the moment that the motions are complete so that they may begin, or continue, what it is that they are truly there to do. “Why?” is the question that also echoes in my mind. Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why are we entertaining the settlers like this? “There better be an honourarium for this of cash, and not a tobacco tie or branded university kitsch” also often worms its way there in the end. And why should it not? We as Native peoples are constantly asked—asked in such a way that it is clearly an expectation and not a request—to expend our affective labouring capacities to ceremonially perform to satisfy the guilt-ridden gaze of the progressive settler. Why should not we be paid that that?

Why, why, why? All of these whys raises to the surface a further question, which is why we, as the Indigenous people, should have to recognize the territory in the first place, and to perform that recognition for, or in place of, the settler?  What I mean by this is not a question of whether we should be engaging in territorial acknowledgement in the first place, but rather why, in these institutional contexts where we find ourselves being asked to deliver them, is that we are burdened with the expectation of their performance, rather than settlers learning to carry them out on their own? Do people think it is somehow an honour for us to recognize that our lands were dispossessed from us, our connections to each other and our nonhuman kin damaged to the breaking point? In light of the general reconciliation programme of the university and the country-at-large, I cannot help but think, alongside Mark Antaki and Coel Kirkby, that this is a drive not to reconcile settlers to the fact of what was done in order to found their nation, but rather to reconcile Native peoples to continuing settler-colonial occupation, dispossession, and all of the violences that that carries into our everyday lived lives (2009).

And this is why it is important for settler peoples to perform their own recognition of the territory upon which they find themselves—that is, if they truly do strive to be something more, and to engage us meaningfully in the process of decolonization.  I do not believe that as Native peoples, scholars, students, activists, or otherwise, that it is our responsibility to save white people, to educate them, to rid them of own guilt, or to otherwise do this for them.  This was always the point: to give settlers the initial push, so that they can begin to do this practice for themselves, not ask Indigenous people or organizations to do it for them.  I believe it is very much so the responsibility of settler peoples to acknowledge settler colonialism, acknowledge cultural destruction and to acknowledge dispossession of the territory upon which they stand.  Rather than place the burden further upon our shoulders, it is for settlers to save themselves.  Part of this is to speak truth, and the act of territorial acknowledgement is an element of this.

However, in this process of learning and unlearning, it is key to take leadership from Indigenous peoples on it.  As I noted above in discussing why I pulled away from the practice when I first encountered it, it was in part due to the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract specific nature of it at the time.  Again, this was not wrong per se: it was because of the tireless efforts of the people of the Rotinonshón:ni community in and around the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in publicizing their history of struggle that the theft of the Haldimand Tract has been placed into such a prominent position in the regional discourse of the issue. For example, the Anishinaabeg community of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation is practically right next door to the Rotinonshón:ni at Six Nations of the Grand River. The region also contains several other Anishinaabeg communities. This all would have become obvious to settler peoples seeking to acknowledge the territory if they had taken leadership instead of seeking to find their own way. This should not have meant that the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract were the only peoples, territories and struggles to be acknowledged though.  If the settlers who I first encountered writing and speaking territorial acknowledgements had taken the time to listen to the regional Native community, and more specifically to sit and take leadership from them, they would have known this.

This is important because while, as I say, the Rotinonshón:ni and Haldimand Tract specific nature of the territorial acknowledgement when I first arrived here was not bad outright, it was only a half-measure.  And in being a half-measure it effectively erased the presence of Anishinaabeg and Attiwonderon.  In doing this it actually perpetuated settler-colonial dispossessive, physical, and epistemic violence against those nations.

Indeed that it was through encounters with settler anarchists and Marxists that I first came to see and know the practice of territorial acknowledgement, and yet they still, despite representing the most oppositional, radical, and revolutionary currents to emerge from the systems of european philosophy and theory, themselves did not acknowledge, either because they chose not to, or were unable to, hear the voices of other Native nations in the region demonstrates the limited lines of sight for that political milieu.  It has, in fact, been the ugly case that I still, in activist work, encounter settler actors from the far-left who continue to carry out this kind selective acknowledgement.  Though, fortunately, this has become less and less of a regular interaction as the years have pressed on.

The Becoming-Metaphor of Decolonization

However, even as the practice of territorial acknowledgement spreads throughout white civil society and circles of everyday life beyond its initial point of origin in the anticolonial and anticapitalist movements, I feel that we must also always problematize it to some degree in light of ongoing settler colonialism and imperialism.  For example, what does it mean for the president of this university to acknowledge that our campus sits on the traditional territories of the Attiwonderon, Anishinaabeg and Rotinonshón:ni when this same university actively supports Israeli settler colonialism and which, through its massive STEM faculties, both reaps the benefits of, and trains the intellectual and practical foot soldiers for, the wholesale destruction of Native lands and resources? Out of the university arena, we might also ask what good is it for a yoga studio, a long critiqued Mecca of white cultural appropriation and the emptying-out of the ancient spiritual traditions of the peoples of South Asia, to place an acknowledgement on their website that their capitalist private enterprise is situated on stolen Indigenous land? It is difficult to foresee and experience these sorts of institutional practices and not see bulwarks of capitalism, settler colonialism, antiblackness, and cultural imperialism.  I look at them as they acknowledge the territory and I see a movement towards what Tuck and Yang deftly labelled “settler innocence” (2012).

At the individual level, the practice of territorial acknowledgement, in my experience, is also quite often coupled with the practice of what Barnor Hesse refers to as “white confessionalism” (2014).  This is the practice of individual settlers proclaiming their ignorance with regards to the processes and structures of settler colonialism, even as it and the benefits of it are all around them; even as they know Indigenous people used to be more numerous; and even as “good whites” have written about and opposed the evils of their kings and countries since Bartolomé de las Casas, and then saying that they are sorry. While it is no doubt genuine on the part of some, by-in-large it has always come across to me as a practice that is deeply self-congratulatory.  The true cacophonous madness in this confessional practice for us as Indigenous peoples is that we—people who already bear the burden of having managed to survive five centuries of invasion, who carry the inherited trauma, pain and anger over a loss without name, and yet are people who continue to live, to thrive and to struggle for our freedoms against the overwhelming violence of multiple, converging vectors of death that are constantly arrayed against us still—are expected to shoulder these outpourings of settler tears and to reassure them that it is going to be okay.

For myself, jaded I think by far too many years chafing within the institutions of colonialist-capitalist education, I admittedly cannot help but approach these issues with a bad faith epistemology.  To put it relatively simply, I think that settlers know the land is stolen, and that, existentially and phenomenologically, this knowledge compromises their sense of integrity, being, and property.  Thus, as Native peoples, we are made to approach a significant mass of people who either already know, knowingly do not care, or who even directly oppose decolonization, and it is on that plane where the issue and discussion must start.  Acknowledgement of territory and confession of one’s colonial sins do not necessarily lead to an ethic or politic that positions decolonization as justice.  And, as Native people, that is what is needed, not whiter confessionalism.

Related to both practices of acknowledgement and confession is another practice, perhaps less common but increasingly witnessed in the conference and summit circuit, in which in the same breath of their acknowledgement or confession, settlers move to recognize themselves (and other settlers in attendance) as “guests on Native land.”  During the audience participation phase of the circle discussion at the 2016 St. Paul’s conference this point was raised in a question asking the panelists if they ever “welcomed people to the territory.” Not to linger on this too long, but there is a point to be made about this practice and a distinction to be drawn.  Firstly, it is, I would argue that it is qualitatively different when Indigenous people and settlers do this.  Unlike the practice of territorial acknowledgement, I do not believe it is the place of settlers, unrequested, to acknowledge that they are “guests on Native land.” Simply put, guests are invited, and one would need to significantly stretch the definition of invitation to include the history of settler colonialism and violent dispossession that it represents.

Acknowledgement, Decolonization & White Left-Wing Anxiety

During the panel on territorial acknowledgements at the Decolonizing Education/Integrating Knowledges conference, it was mentioned by the Native youth who lead the circle discussion that one of the most common forms of individual and institutional push-back that they have received (and I am sure will continue to receive) against the inclusion of a territorial acknowledgement on course syllabuses, at the opening of conferences or other events, or even on websites takes the form of seemingly innocuous and innocent question: “what does this mean?” I believe that in asking such a question a fundamental settler-colonial anxiety is recognized on part of white professors, students, administrators, businessmen and indeed the broad settler population.  This an anxiety born of either already knowing, or in just coming to know, that Canada can only be born of, and sustained by, ongoing elimination/dispossession.  It is an existential anxiety that in acknowledging the territory means that the land then must be returned to rematriating to Native peoples.

Decolonization is a fear deep at the heart of settler society, and this is manifested in the concurrent push back and resistance to the growing trend of territorial acknowledgement.  At this university, I can say that I know of at least one department with the Faculty of Arts that experienced quite a bit of staff and faculty push back against the practice.  This dread percolates up from the knowledge—settler confessions to the contrary notwithstanding—of what settler colonialism is, and what it continues to entail for Indigenous People.  As Africana existentialist and critical theorist Lewis R. Gordon quite succinctly states it:

The white man looks at the [colonized] and wonders when it will all end, but the white man knows deep down that a just future is one in which he himself no longer exists in virtue of his ceasing to function as the End, or less ambiguously, the telos of Man. European Man dreads, then, as Lenin once put it, what is to be done (1995: 12).

This fear though lives not just in the minds of the white capitalist, or the white imperial educator, or the white civil servant.  Rather this deep fear, in fact truly a form of existential dread, cuts a deep path clear across the entirety of white society.  That this is the case within the mainstream of white settler liberal society should come as no surprise.  Any expectation that hegemonic settler society would ever move towards anything beyond the structural re-adjustment programmatics of indigenization and reconciliation is a hope that is dead on arrival.  However, to return to my earlier concerns with my introduction to the practice of recognizing territory and eliminatory dispossession, what is more interesting, to myself as someone concerned with dreaming a world beyond the necrologies of late capitalism, late colonialism, and late liberalism, as well as to many others who share such a dream, is how this same settler anxiety institutes itself, perhaps most troublingly, within those political-philosophical sectors that most explicitly claim to oppose and resist the current dispensation of power relations in society: the radical anticapitalist left.

In all of my years of involvement within this particular political sector, this is something which has always struck me, but which also long since has lost its shock factor.  Regarding the position of settler anarchists, Marxists, and assorted other “progressives,” many Natives are readily familiar with the insipid and insidious ways in many leftists have come to view decolonization, today represented in the memetic call for “land back,” on a continuum that ranges from antiquated, to something already accounted for in organization programmes and manifestos, to, on the farthest end, something which is actually utterly incompatible with designs to unmake the domination of capital.  On the softer side of things, that which gives of impression of being more open to Native struggles and to the question of settler colonialism, one can read, for example, the work of white american Marxist-Leninist critical pedagogist Curry Stephenson Malott (2017), or the white sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman (2020), all of whom believe that the problems of decolonization are already comfortably confronted, and their resolutions found, within the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sam Marcy, Michael Parenti and others.  Of course, it should be said, their actual engagement with contemporary Native theorizations leaves much to be desired, either directing their energies towards those which can be most easily rejected—for example, the now largely discredited as non-Native, Ward Churchill (1983)—or those which can most easily be recuperated within Marxism-as-already-constituted, such as Glen Coulthard (2014) and Nick Estes (2019).

The other end of the field is perhaps most bizarrely, and strikingly, witnessed in the assertion that decolonization would entail a process of the creation of a mosaic of exclusionary Native ethnostates in North America and that, because of this, decolonization is the cousin of fascism.  This would seem like an out-and-out absurdity if were not for the fact I and many other Natives regularly have this accusation hurled at on us on social media when we try to broach the subject of decolonization, and to discuss the historical and present insufficiency with which the left has considered the problem. This kind of strange knee-jerk reaction is also not the terrain of any one brand of left-wing tendency. While it most commonly comes from those sorts of forces, namely anarchist and left-communists, who associate decolonization movements with nationalism, and nationalism with statism (and from there, with fascism) it is not uncommon to also experience it coming from Leninists of one stripe or another. Regarding the latter, their white anxiety over the meaning of decolonization would appear to override any kind of doctrinal commitment they otherwise espouse to ideas of self-determination.

It of course is understood that neither of these seemingly opposing, but equally dismissive in their approaches, representation of left-wing engagements with decolonization represent political forces who do any kind of land rematriation and land defense solidarity, or other decolonization-oriented work at all. In fact the relationship on the ground between activists can be quite problematic. Malott, for example, who styles himself as an ally of Native people, expends much energy defending and encouraging the politics and practices of the american Party for Socialism and Liberation (2017), an organization which has, due its underhanded forms of organizing and activism, recently been castigated for its attitudes and actions towards Native women (Red Nation Leadership Council 2017). Related to that is the fact that they often have no, or minimal, connection to or relationship with local Indigenous communities, and overall do not understand “decolonization” as anything except an academic or social justice buzz word which has nothing to do with an ethics and politics of actual decolonization.

Ongoing accumulation by dispossession (Pflug-Back and Robinson 2016) is so deeply fundamental to the material basis, and attendant ideological outgrowths, of settler society that a call for even a small fraction of the bare minimum of decolonial justice—the return of what was taken—is interpreted as a clarion call for some kind of white genocide, even by representatives of revolutionary and oppositional anarchist and communist movements (and in this, the fear of white genocide, the circle between the white left and the white right becomes complete).  This deep anxiety informs a sizeable portion, if not an outright majority, of knee jerk First World responses to genuine anticolonial/decolonial ethics, politics, and theory.  This dissonance, between a seeming commitment to decolonization in words through the performative practice of territorial acknowledgement, yet recoiling from it in reality, stems, in my experience, from not taking leadership from Indigenous communities on issues of decolonization, and of assuming and asserting leadership from with-out by Marxist and anarchist formations.  It also stems from how the practices of acknowledgements and settler confession can themselves function as moves to settler innocence.  Both of these aim in fact at the continued reproduction of the material base of settler colonialism, through the defence of settler futurity, even if the ideology espoused is superficially more multicultural, anticapitalist or otherwise opposed to the conservative, reactionary mainstream of settler society.

Against these white anxieties, I offer a different response than that which I often hear or read.  Instead of reconciliation, or rather against the liberal conception of it, and as my own take on what reconciliation must mean (in the literal sense of “to make right”), I say this: yes, of course, we do want  land back, not just as a claim to territory, or a claim to sovereignty, as they may be imagined within the philosophical and theoretical system of the european order of modernity/coloniality, but as our reciprocal relations of kinship, ceremony, obligation, and solidarity. The overturning of centuries of elimination/dispossession is but a small fraction of the bare minimum of decolonial justice.  Our lands, and the complex web of relationalities that they represent, are at the very centre of our beings.  Everything about us arises from the land: our languages, our cultures, our cosmologies, our ceremonies, our kindship structures, our spiritualties.  Everything.  Reconciliation, decolonization, territorial acknowledgement, confession: none of them mean anything without the rematriation of our relational territorialities.

Conclusions: From Territorial Dispossession to Ramatriating Decolonial Praxis

To begin to conclude this article, and to bring it back to its beginning, it has long been a fear of mine that the practice of the territorial acknowledgement, within both the petty bourgeois and bourgeois mainstream institutions of power, as well as manifested within the most ostensibly radical sectors of settler society, is indeed quite often a move to settler innocence and the transformation of decolonization into a mere metaphor.  The past, present, and future demand of us more than just performative practices and liberal talking-points. Turning away from a politics of recognition, from the politics of the settler-colonial nation-state, means also turning towards thinking about the actualization of decolonization, not only as a far off goal, to be met when we cross some as of yet encountered future-historical horizon, and but as an active process of both doing/thinking and thinking/doing (Mignolo & Walsh 2018). Decolonial praxis, as a unity of both the materiality of decolonization embodied in the ending of genocide and the rematriation of territories, as well as decoloniality as an active confrontation and overturning of the colonial matrix of power, including the spheres of colonial knowledge production, requires us to exit the confines of not only the colonial academy, but of colonial conceptions of revolutionary social change, lest they become suffocated under the crushing weight of violence and history.

We must turn away from both the colonial liberal institutionalization and denaturalization of decolonization, as well as the colonial left’s death-grip on the ability to dream the future, because it is that so many of the very same people, organizations and institutions that now engage in the practice of territorial acknowledgement do so without doing anything beyond that to support Indigenous survivance, and more importantly to support Indigenous resurgence. This applies just as much to those social actors who would see canadian and north american society transformed on the basis of a confederation of autonomous libertarian municipalist communes, anarcho-syndicalist industrial collectives or some sort of federated socialist workers’ republic, as much as it does to the bureaucrats, autocrats and plutocrats of settler-colonial capitalism.

I am grateful though, truly, for the work of vibrant Native youth in my community, and those elsewhere, who have pushed this conversation forward, reminding that our future is in our own hands, set by our own terms. It is us for us to make; we cannot wait for the settler to find the energy to move. They have opened space to enable us to discuss the history of colonization and the politics of decolonization where previously precious little existed. I follow them in believing that acknowledging the territory is only the beginning of the conversation, not its end.

From here we must continue to push, to continue to deepen the conversation between not only our own Peoples and Nations, but between ourselves and our allies as well. These movements away from hiding the history of canadian and north american settler colonialism, of our being beaten down by five hundred years of imperialist settler-colonial arrogance and criminality, and instead choosing to acknowledge it, in all of its horror, is most certainly a move in the right direction. So long as we continue to be wary of the pitfalls of transforming decolonization into metaphor, and continue to speak truth to power, we will continue to take steps on our path to rebuilding our relations between ourselves, our nations, our territories, and our human and nonhuman relations.

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