On Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Colonial Holidays & the Myths We Celebrate

This was written last year. Hence the 2019 dates referenced. It’s a part of something longer that I wrote and finished last year. It’s also written with the canadian instance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in mind, however the same arguments around the neutralization of Native struggle and the colonial processes of “reconciliation” and “recognition” apply just as much to the U.S. and other places which celebrate some form of IPD in October, which is why I am sharing it today.

Words are trapped in the corporeal imagos that captivate the subject, they become marked by a colonial ideology of the referent: the petrification of speech and language, dream and desire, by which the colonized express the jouissance that discourse forms.

– David Marriot, Whither Fanon?: Studies in the Blackness of Being

As I sit here at this keyboard, mulling my thoughts on what exactly it means to be Native, and the how and why of the roles our damage narratives play within the domain of capitalist/colonialist academia, it is a warm, clear June day. To be specific, it is what this country, Canada, has recently decided is to be called “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”. This is my second one, 2019, but so far today, at quarter to 2 in the afternoon I have not attended any of the multiple events that are being held across this slowly growing necropolis of a southern Ontario city. To be quite honest, I do not really care to, and I am asking myself the same question I did in 2018: what the fuck is the point of this?

Crude, yes, I know, but it sums up my feelings on this day. What exactly is the point of Indigenous Peoples’ Day? To paraphrase the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas, I might ask: what is Indigenous Peoples’ Day to Indigenous people?

I have to admit that I am pretty credulous to the socio-political content of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I am, for better or worse, a U.S. citizen and direct, immediate blood kin to an “american” Indian nation. I have also been involved in some manner of left-wing politics, specifically what one might euphemistically call ‘far-left’ or ‘hard left’ politics more or less since I was 19 years old, when I first joined the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party USA. I do not adhere really to that sort of politics of any more, though not because I have abandoned “the cause,” but because I have given-up on those sorts of organizations. Still, those things, and my ties to an american political scene, even without being a resident of that country, taught me many moons ago that if there was to be something we were going to call ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’, then it should be on or around October 12th, to mark the first day proper of the invasion that began in 1492 and changed the course of not only our collective historical development as a myriad of Native North American nations, but also the course of global history. Indeed, across much of the so-called ‘Americas’ October 12th, which the americans call Columbus Day, is marked in some way as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Canada does not have Columbus Day, as any resident of this country should know. It has what I still call most of the time canadian Thanksgiving. So, while for much of the rest of this hemisphere Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or whatever its regional or national variant may be called, is a direct disruption or inversion of the Colombian legacy of invasion-based sociological catastrophe, it would not quite have the same effect in this country. Or at least that is the argument that has at times been tossed back at me when I have attempted to make the point that I believe that Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be in October, rather than midsummer.

Of course, in the United States Thanksgiving has also often been marked by Native people as a day of mourning, set aside to remember the true history of the slaughter of my Algonkian kin in New England that is now nightmarishly (from a Native point of view) rendered as a moment when we and the invader sat down for a hearty home-cooked meal to celebrate friendship, brotherhood etc. Yes, canadian Thanksgiving does not come quite as replete with direct violent colonial history as its five-weeks-later american cousin, but still. Thanks-taking, as many folks I know call it, is the same nevertheless. While the canadian long weekend may be more rooted in older european harvest festivals, it is still perhaps one of this country’s three major days used to mark its national narrative, alongside Canada Day and Remembrance Day.

And that brings me around to the point of why I have always felt it is so much stronger to have Indigenous Peoples’ Day on or around October 12th: it is a day in which Native people can gather, in whatever way they might imagine to, and undermine a pillar of the settler-colonial narrative of this country. Indigenous Peoples’ Day as it stands in this country does not, in my opinion, do this even remotely. It is proximal to Canada Day, being a mere ten days before it, and many Native people I do know locally have chosen in the past couple of years to remove themselves from participation in officially sanctioned Canada Day events in order to give their times and energy to Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, but it is not like Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day that subversively coincides with the exact timing of Canada Day.

In fact, it is my opinion, somewhat cynically informed by trying to survive the post-apocalypse of settler colonialism for the better part of my adult life, that the June date for holding Indigenous Peoples’ Day seems to be a cynical plot to celebrate the day in such a way precisely so that it does not happen to undermine one of Canada’s major settler-colonial narrative chapter markers. I cannot prove that of course. It is just my jaded Native opinion on the day.

However, I also feel that by holding Indigenous Peoples’ Day on a different day than essentially the rest of the continent, we also sever ourselves from the celebration of continent-wide survival and resistance of Native peoples to five centuries of invasion, genocide and so much more. And that to me is important. Perhaps it is my old Marxist inklings towards internationalism, but it is certainly also because to me as a Native person, the imaginary settler-colonial border, whether the Medicine Line or the Rio Grande, is just that: an illusory line drawn in the sand by a set of invasive colonial powers across lands they seized in the most insidiously legal and illegal ways. But by virtue of their being illusory that does not mean that they have no less force in our daily lives, even today in 2019. The U.S.-Canada border directly divides our peoples from one another, even when many of us were close kin before the coming of Canada or the United States and the borders that separate their nominally differentiated settler-colonial fiefdoms of stolen land.

As Native people concerned with our own liberation, I find quite often that there is an effectively standardized recognition of this, of the artificiality and illusory nature of the colonial border. Indeed, our activist and organizational history has long demonstrated this in terms of actual praxis. Natives from both sides of the U.S. and Canada showed up for Wounded Knee, Oka and Standing Rock. I know many Native people who got in cars, pickups, minivans, and buses or even walked to Standing Rock. Our resistance against the expansion of the Black Snake across our lands is inherently trans-border in its methodological and praxiological implementations and theorizations.

Beyond that, in our everyday lives, many of us demonstrate that border between these two halves of the northern bloc means little to us. Many times, over the past few years have I been in conversation with an Anishinaabe person in this country and they have remarked, upon hearing of my Menomineeness that they have travelled to our reservation in Wisconsin either for ceremony or for the pow wow. Of course, this does not surprise me, we are old kin, and we are close with several of the Anishinaabe communities in Wisconsin. The point is that for ceremony or the pow wow trail, the border means little.

Yet having Indigenous Peoples’ Day on June 21st actually, in my thoughts, breaks with that ancient tradition. Rather than standing with our kin across the United States and so-called Latin America, by having Indigenous Peoples’ Day on this day we corral ourselves to Canada and restrict ourselves to these borders. Intentionally or not it shirks our internationalist duties to Native people’s south of the Medicine Line. It cannot even domestically function to undermine one of this country’s chief narrative artefacts celebrated as holidays.

Holidays and the Signification Regime of the Settler

More than that though is that Indigenous Peoples’ Day, specifically the formalized, official Indigenous Peoples’ Day and associated gatherings, circle dances, drumming, film showings, concerts etc. that happen on this university campus, or are sanctioned to happen by the city’s political and civil societal apparatuses to happen elsewhere in town, are always taken up under what has become so much the watchword for Native-Settler relations in this country over the past half-decade or so: reconciliation. And this again returns us to my question: what the fuck is that?

What is reconciliation? Discursively, reconciliation is an outgrowth of recognition frameworks, which Juris et de jure emerged in this country following the 1982 constitution and its inclusion of discourse that claimed to have “recognized and affirmed” so-called Aboriginal Rights, and before them a series of other governmental and legal outcomes in the 1970s, in particular the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Calder et al. v. Attorney-General of British Columbia, in 1973, and the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement of 1975.

In this vein, I agree with Mark Antaki and Coel Kirkby (2009) that canadian State recognition of Native peoples is actually a practice and policy of settler-colonial State lethality. At its most basic level reconciliation is a discursive ruse, an ideological feint that promises the reconciliation of setters and Native people in Canada, but without real movement on any policy or issue of import. Reconciliation is never about returning land, ending extractive industrial ecocide, stopping the never-ending assault on Native women, girls, and two-spirit people, or about anything really.

As far as Indigenous Peoples’ Day is reconciliation transmogrified into a semi-holiday, it is one that instead evokes a pure liberal, humanist multiculturalism that promises to “celebrate Indigenous people’s contributions to Canada.” What are we even saying here when we talk about both Native and settler peoples gathering across this country to celebrate Native peoples’ contributions to it? And how deeply trapped we must be within the ideological machinery of settler coloniality to see the spread of a recuperated and neutralized Indigenous Peoples’ Day treated as the (partial) fulfillment of the long history of Native resistance to colonialism, as if there is a direct lineage from Freddy Krueger and the other warriors at Oka in 1990 to the present day of University Presidents, Corporate CEOs, and Mayors declaring their support for an empty not-even-holiday flanked by liberal and social-democratic Native politicians, wannabe politicians, and community “leaders.”

There is something especially pernicious about that very kind of image.  It is, at its heart, “an insidious conciliatory process of decolonial recuperation” in which genuine “decolonial aspirations are stunted with liberal cosmetology” and where “nothing concrete is done to address historical and ongoing anti-Indigenous brutality” (Indigenous Action Media 2017:3). Salute the flag, because now that flag recognizes Native contributions to its making. Salute the flag because now, when you look at the red and white colour scheme of the canadian Maple Leaf you can see the unity of Native and Settler peoples. Who needs the symbolism of the Two-Row Wampum when the flag of a newly reconciled/reconciling and indigenized/indigenizing Canada will suit just fine? You can even fly your Anishinaabeg, Rotinonshón:ni, Mi’kmaq, Dené, Inuit, Métis, Blackfoot, Cree, Salish, or Haida flag, so long as you remember that the red and white of the Maple Leaf goes first. The Maple Leaf always comes first.

I am reminded here of Roland Barthes’ examination of a cover of Paris-Match magazine which featured on its cover a young, Black, colonial soldier saluting the French flag. He says of this:

On the cover, a young [Black person] in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [Black person] in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier (2013:115).

I think that in many ways this is the precise design of Canada’s iteration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and indeed, well-beyond the superficial, legal borders of Canada, the intention of all formalized, institutionalized, and neutralized instances of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Here we celebrate that Canada is a liberal-democratic, humanist, multicultural society. We celebrate that Canada has moved on from its settler-colonial past, or at the very least it is sorry for the wrongs it committed and is working towards rectification and accountability. We celebrate that today in Canada, this society is no a place for racists and racism. In other words, to borrow from the work by Barthes from which the above quote is taken, we work to create mythologies. Specifically, here colonial-national mythologies. We mythologize about Canada’s past, we mythologize about the current aims and policies of the Canadian government, and mythologize about the projection of Canada into the future.

Figure 1: The Cover of Paris-March Discussed by Barthes. Source: Rowland Barthes: Mythologies, Jeanne Willette (2013)

This collective mythmaking, in which settlers and Natives join together to “reconcile” and to “celebrate Indigenous people’s contributions to Canada,” is a collective ideo-political practice of historical evisceration. It splits open history and guts it of its actual content, renders it meaningless, an empty signifier which can be transposed onto a new signified. It appropriates colonial-national history across multiple planes. Of course, as should be expected, this mythologizing smothers over that the biggest contribution that Native people have provided to this corporate entity we now call Canada is the land which the settler appropriated, a process euphemized away from its fullness as an act of colonial brigandage by way of discursive recourse to the legalized apparatus of Crown Relations and Treaty-Making. That initial act of materialist dispossession—undeniably real in the violence it did, and continues to, inflict upon Native peoples, lands, and other-than human kin—is in turn appropriated by the myth-making apparatus of the settler-colonial State, re-shaped and re-signified as part of Native people’s contributions to Canada.

Indeed, reconciliation of this order inherently relies on invasion and settlement being a mere onto-historical event—or series of onto-historical events—unjust, violent, and perhaps even cruel, but nonetheless something that happened, and which might have troubling and lingering echoes in ‘our’ (who is this collective?) society, but which is not happening today, and most certainly is not something that should, or even could, be undone in any kind of meaningful way. And why would Canada choose to recognize that? I am not so deluded about the promises of liberal, humanist, multiculturalism and the parliamentary democracy of an imperialist genocide-state to believe that Canada, or the United States, would ever seriously move in any direction that would undermine its own coherence and existence. In fact, that is why I do not even particularly care about voting in said democratic process.

Figure 2: Dancers and Attendees Stand for Pow Wow Flag Entrance. Visible are U.S. federal & armed forces flags, as well as the flag of Canada. Source: 2019 White Earth Pow Wow & Celebration, Crazy Crow Trading Post (2019).

Contra the core beliefs of the liberal, humanist, multicultural project, settler colonialism is not merely a legacy from some dark national past; it is something that is ongoing right now, right here, and which affects Native peoples towards shorter lifespans, often Third World living conditions, greater rates of interpersonal violence and risks of exposure to violence from both regular and irregular forces of the colonial State (whether police, or everyday settler taking police action into their hands), drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, deteriorated mental health, broken families, water on reserves that is undrinkable if not at times actually flammable, and all manner of other negative sociological markers. What is reconciliation to us then when the final report of the inquiry into the horrific rates of violence against Native women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, which was released during this writing, specifically, clearly and unflinchingly states that these cultural, sociological, and criminological phenomena in this country “amount to nothing less than the deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide” against these of our kin (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2019:5)?

What does reconciliation mean when this country’s Prime Minister one day declares a climate emergency only to seemingly turn right around and approve one of the primary arms of the Black Snake within these borders, one which the domestic armed wing of the settler-colonial State was sent in to enforce the construction of mere months ago? The Black Snake still sinks its poisonous fangs into our peoples, lands and other-than-human kin, and Indian Country more than ever feels as though it has been cast into the zone of national sacrifice.

What does reconciliation mean when our lands, and quite often our very lives, remain stolen? What is reconciliation when Native lives very much so remain what Mignolo refers to as “dispensable and bare lives” in the political-economic agenda of modernity (2009); lamentable yet not grievable, killable but not mournable.  How can we even begin this conversation when it feels like everything that has been inflicted upon us, from Mayflower to modern, Indian Wars to the Millennial Scoop, has never ended and where an end does not appear to be in sight. In short, coming to survey this situation through the lens of my own life, it seems rather a lot like what my nekōqsemaw would call ‘colonial bullshit.’ In essence then reconciliation seems to have little to do with any kind of meaningful practice of decolonization, as much as that word is increasingly metaphorically deployed in everyday discourse, and more to do with ideologically shoring up the foundations of the colonial regime by ensuring that they are not challenged by any kind of emergent Native decolonial militancy.

As Indigenous Action Media writes, regarding the transmutation of Columbus Day into a neutralized vision of Indigenous Peoples’ Day south the border:

Aside from psychic solace, if the state dismantles these statues and proclaims Indigenous Peoples’ Days, what do we actually achieve if the structures and systems rooted in colonial violence remain intact? Is it merely political posturing or window dressing to diminish liberatory agitations? Our senses are heightened as most re-brandings of Columbus Day into IPD appear to whitewash ongoing colonial legacies (2017:2).

Indigenous Peoples’ Day functions within this context. It is a superficial demonstration and celebration of “Indigenous people’s contributions to Canada” and seems to have more in common with a kind of country-wide pow wow than with anything else. It is a day where Native people gather to sing, dance, drum, sell their “traditional” cultural crafts, paint chalk murals and share elder teachings more often it seems for the enlightenment of curious white onlookers than for any kind of real benefit for us who are the collectivity we call Native peoples. It is non-invasive, unobtrusive and most certainly does not function to undermine the ongoing political and narrative fact of settler colonialism.

It does not seek, so it seems to me, to reconcile the white settler population, with the continued survivance, resistance and quest for genuine freedom for Native peoples. No, most certainly not. Rather, again to follow Antaki and Kirkby (2009), this discursive ruse is one in which reconciliation is something that is inflicted upon Native peoples in order to reconcile us to ongoing invasion and crown sovereignty, and the inherent foreclosure that has of any kind of decolonial future for Native peoples, in which we will be able to say that we have become decolonized, because so long as the northern bloc persists in its existence that cannot ever be.

In that way, the ideological purposes of a formalized, and this always-already neutralized, Indigenous Peoples’ Day lays itself bare. And in that, in my ways, it is a specific day that seems to contain within it a microcosm of so much of how Canada, as well as the United States and other settler-states, ideologically function. Again, as Indigenous Action Media write:

We’re all for removing colonial symbols and nationalistic myths, so long as structures such as colonialism and racism go along with them. Problem is, they are not. These edicts are readily embraced by their advocates [NB: advocates which include many liberal Native representatives] as “steps in the right direction” for Indigenous interests, yet—as we’ll assert here—only serve to calcify colonial rule (2017:3).

The Coherence of Settler Colonialism

In this narrative aside about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, brought on by the day of this writing, I mention a point that is salient for my quest to uncover the Nativophagic qualities of the imaginarium of late capitalist/colonialist storytelling when it comes to the telling of our damage narratives.  And that is the point I made that settler-colonial nation-states always need to enact a programmatic regime of national forgetting. Forget Natives. Forget the land. Forget the past, kill it even if you must, to paraphrase a certain Star Wars character.  Settler colonialism must engender such regimes of forgetting, which lay at cross-purposes with their nominal commitment to liberal, humanist, multicultural policies of reconciliation, because to remember, really remember, risks a ruptural event within the discursive and symbolic setting of the current colonial order of things. Towards that, forgetting rather than remembering must always be the order of the day. And more to the point, when remembering does happen, because the bounds of settler-colonial space-time can longer contain its ghosts, and the spirits of the dead must be let loose to roam free, the regime of forgetting must always be there to remind you that what you are seeing is not actually of the present-now, but of the distant-then.

So, to begin to articulate this something-of-first-piece-of-an-answer to our question of the consumption of Native damage narratives, I want to briefly zoom out from the level of the auto-ethnographic and auto/biographic and return to the level of the structural and the national.  By doing this I hope to link my thoughts on this question of why—why are these narratives of damage so readily consumed?—to thoughts that have already been articulated at the macro-level concerning the necessity of Native dispossession and death (not only in the physical sense, but also in the sense of culture, politics, sovereignty and territoriality) and the stability and futurity of the settler-state in the post-frontier period.

It is well established within the canon of current-day Settler Colonial Studies and Native Studies that, at a structural level, “invasion is a structure, not an event” and that settler colonialism is a project that “destroys to replace” (Wolfe 2006:388).  However beyond this, or rather as a consequence because of this, the fact of the continuing structuring nature of settler-colonial invasion, which is taken as a given throughout my writing in this dissertation, has necessitated an entire cultural industry and civil society focused on the constant assertion of invasion as merely an onto-historical event, locking it, and the Native sovereignties and territorialities that it smothered and erased, consistently in the realm of the past.

This is necessary for the ongoing instantiation and cohesion of settler society.  The late theorist of Settler Colonial Studies Patrick Wolfe makes the following argument in his text Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race:

Thus the salient question to arise from the territorial dispossession of Native peoples is not that of whether or not it happened, since there can be no doubting that.  Rather, it is the question of the subsequent career of Native ownership, which mere dispossession does not compromise.  The question in other words, is one of strategy analysis: How do settler societies deal with autonomous systems of ownership that are not susceptible to forcible seizure?  This question acquires particular urgency in the context of settler society’s need to establish a rule of law with sufficient legitimacy to secure a viable level of consent to a recently promulgated set of social norms among an ever-aggregating and often diversely recruited immigrant populace. For their own internal purposes, there, quite apart from international consideration, settler societies seek to neutralize the extraneous sovereignties that conquered Natives continue to instantiate.  … So far as conquest remains incomplete, the settler state rests—or, more to the point, fails to rest—on incomplete foundations.  For the settler state, therefore, the struggle to neutralise Indigenous externality is a struggle for its own integrity (2016:35-37).

I agree with Wolfe.  However, while his focus here is broadly on the questions of the continuance of Native sovereignty and territoriality in the ongoing face of the institutional and structural elements of settler invasion, what is essential in this argument that I want to draw out for my purposes here is that the continued existence of Native people poses a fundamental existential quandary for the settler-state and its own claims to sovereignty and territoriality. While the juridical order of the settler-state was created exceptionally (Agamben 2017; Schmitt 2006) through the homicidal, genocidal, and dispossessing violence of the frontier period, even once the frontier is cleared and its borders closed, the continued existence of the Native, as the Native, casts into doubt the legitimacy of the current settler-colonial order and its political claims.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the writings of the Osage theologian George E. Tinker.  He writes in American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, arguing against the reduction of Native struggles purely to class analysis and class struggle:

Our oppression and the resulting poverty are not primarily due to any class analysis at all.  Rather, they are rooted in the economic need of the colonizer to quiet our claims to the land and to mute our moral judgement on the United States’ long history of violence and conquest in north America [emphasis mine] (2008:23).

In Tinker, as with Wolfe, the fundamental issue at hand here is the need of the settler-colonial State to silence the continued existence of Native nations.  For both of them, the central pressing question is that of the settler-state’s ability to continually instantiate itself as legitimate through concretizing its own grammar of sovereignty and territoriality.  This by necessity equates with the development of a political order that must silence any other competing claim to sovereignty or territoriality within the geographic and physical mapping of the northern bloc.  Especially when such competing sovereignties and territorialities are not only alternative, but prior, as Wolfe notes (2016:15).

One can see this at play vis-à-vis competing imperial and colonial interests within the European world in the instance of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States asserted the entirety of the so-called western hemisphere as its corporate domain, locking out, or attempting to, the competing claims to access from the imperial powers of the Old World. More keenly, however, it is the persistence of alternative and prior Native claims to sovereignty and territoriality, along with the long struggle for Black liberation and abolition, that present the most internal and pressing threats to the political order of the northern bloc.  While this is certainly not the case in balancing the abacus of military force (or lack thereof) when compared to the rivalry between the dual settler-states of the north bloc and the European old world, or even the emergent inter-imperialist rivalry with the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China (a rivalry that in my most pessimistic and apocalyptic of nightmares, as I am sure for many others, seems to be inching this world ever further away from the post-World War II order of inter-imperialist cooperation and towards a renewal of direct inter-imperialist conflict), the prior, yet also continuously alternative, sovereignties and territories of the multitude of Native nations engulfed within the corpus of the northern bloc are those competing political orders which are most deeply tied to the symbolic ordering of settler power.

Native existence rests at the intersections of political economy and the juridical order of things, to which Tinker also adds a moral direction (no doubt due to his training and vocation as a decolonizing Lutheran theologian), and to which I would add the condition that it is also essentially psychic and existential, reaching into the symbolic order of settler coloniality. That is, it relates more fundamentally to the ability, or rather the drive, of the settler-state to cohere its own being psychically.  In the reigning épistémè of the settler colony, so long as the Native persists, given the unstable terrain that that persistence always-already generates, the State and civil society will always be at an ideological, ontological, symbolic, and libidinal impasse with regards to how it will mediate and concretize its ongoing existence qua itself.

Bibliography

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—. 2016. Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso.