Interview with Gerald Taiaiake Alfred about Anarchism and Indigenism in North America

The interview was conducted in 2010 for the German book »Von Jakarta bis Johannesburg: Anarchismus weltweit«. This is the original English version.

We will be talking about Indigenous societies in North America in this interview. Now obviously these do not constitute a monolithic bloc, and are very diverse. Can you name some of the most important commonalities and differences that European readers should be aware of?

The basic patterns of relationship, in terms of cultural and spiritual differences and commonalties, flow from Indigenous peoples' close connection to the natural environment and terrains of their existences. So, the peoples that originated from hunting societies in the Borreal forests in the sub-arctic share much, as do those that originally came from the mound building societies of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The same goes for the Inuit in the arctic and the many nations on the northwest coast of the continent west of the Rocky Mountains. There is so much diversity in the traditional cultures developed over millennia that this only provides a basic orientation to the cultural landscape. But it is important to know too that colonialism, and the attempted genocide of all of these peoples has generated a common experience, colonization, and a common language, English, which has created a strong sense of common identity among all Indigenous peoples in North America even with the fact of cultural differences.

Based on this, can you explain the term "Indigenism"?

Indigenism is the ideology of revolutionary change based on a return to Indigenous culture and spirituality, the restoration of Indigenous governance, and the recovery of our lands.

How does Indigenism relate to anarchism? We understand that there have been extensive discussions on this in North America…

I would not say that there are extensive discussions of this notion of a relation between Indigenism and anarchist thought. There are a few people who see the linkages and some who are actively working to build alliances between Indigenous peoples movements and anarchists. The political theorists Richard Day and Glen Coulthard, and myself, have explored the points of connection between these two ideas as system of thought and been involved in their manifestations as political and social movements. I think it is in very much of an exploratory phase at this time.

It seems that the discussions are more prominent in Canada than in the US. Is this perception correct?

I believe this is true. The reason for this is that anarchism has been repressed much more severely in the USA, and because the socialization into "Americanism" is nearly complete, even among Indigenous activists and intellectuals - they have for the most part assimilated the basic tenets of American political ideology, one of which demonizes any form of radical action and especially anarchism.

Are there many Indigenous activists who would consider themselves as "anarchists"? Or is there more of a sense of having "anarchist allies"?

Definitely the latter.

What is the history of Indigenous activists working together with non-indigenous activists? What are the common aims? What are the main challenges and difficulties?

This has really emerged only with the Haudenosaunee land resistance at Six Nations - Caladonia in the last few years. And I think this has come about because of the proximity of the city of Toronto, with the strong presence of anarchist movements in the region, to the Six Nations reserve. The political and intellectual alliances and shared experiences that have resulted from this action have formed the basis of the whole notion of anarcho-indigenism in practice. Other than this, there is the intellectual movement, centered at our university [University of Victoria], to probe the notion of a liberatory practice and ideology that combines anarchist and Indigenous knowledge and experience.

What are the most important ideas, principles, and forms of conduct and action that non-indigenous activists can learn from Indigenous societies?

I believe the most valuable lessons that we have to share with other activists and thinkers are the philosophical and spiritual principles at the core of our traditional cultures: notions of peaceful co-existence, human beings' respectful relationships with other people and with the other elements of the natural environment, regimes of true equality and freedom... all fundamental alternatives to any other idea rooted in the Christian capitalism of the West. As far as conduct and action go, I actually believe that our people have been pacified on the whole, and that we have a lot to learn about confronting state power from anarchists.

Are there many groups in which Indigenous and non-indigenous activists work side by side, or are we rather talking of separate groups supporting each other?

It has proven difficult to sustain a working relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous people in the realm of political action.

What are the mains reasons for these difficulties?

It is because the vast majority of white people are cultured as individualists and cannot accept that they are not in charge and that they will not ever be in charge, and that they do not automatically have a right to speak and impose their views on the situation they find themselves in.

As an Indigenous activist, where do you see the main contributions that non-indigenous activists can make to Indigenous struggles?

I believe that non-indigenous people can make a serious contribution to Indigenous struggles, but that this must be done from the position of an ally. The time is past for white people taking positions of authority or even responsibility in Indigenous movements and organizations. Working to dislodge state power over Indigenous communities and lands, delegitimizing racist and colonial discourses, making amends for colonial dispossession by arranging for the return of lands to Indigenous people... these are all things that white allies are eminently qualified to do and should be doing.

Are you connected to Indigenous activists outside of North America? Do you feel like your struggles have a lot of common with theirs? How can you support one another?

The Indigenous struggle is globalized now. This is partially the effect of our participation in the UN system to advocate for our rights, but also because of increased mobility and the Internet. Our struggle is that of any colonized people, so yes, we do have a lot in common, but as far as supporting one another it remains at the level of information sharing and moral support at this time.

Particularly in Canada, the term "First Nations" is frequently used to describe Indigenous societies. This tends to confuse radical Europeans who consider all references to "nations" as necessarily conservative. Can you shed some light on the Indigenous usage of the term?

Europeans should not transpose their experience with nationhood on others. I myself do not think the term accurately describes our people - only our own languages and words can do that - but it is useful in a sense; it conveys an equality of status in theory between our societies and that of the colonizer. And it reiterates the fact of our prior occupancy of this continent.

Some prominent Indigenous activists in the US make frequent references to the Indigenous "warrior," often in direct connection to militant politics. What does being a "warrior" mean to you?

I have written a book on this subject, "Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom" (UTP Press, 2005). But in short, I believe an Indigenous warrior is someone who is or seeks to be rooted in traditional Indigenous culture, who is accountable to Indigenous communities, and who stands courageously in the face of the threats to our nations' existences.

What is an Indigenous vision for North America? And would this be an anarchist vision too?

There are many Indigenous visions for the future of this continent. I can speak of mine. I seek a return of our people to a place of dignity and strength and in repossession of our homelands, governed by our own laws, and recentered as human beings guided by the Original Teachings of our ancestors about how to live in peace together and in relation to the natural environment. As far as anarchists go, if your philosophy can help you to appreciate the justice of this vision and allow you to live humbly as a guest according to Indigenous North American laws, then you are welcome to my continent of the future!


Gerald Taiaiake Alfred was born at Tiohtiake, Montreal, and grew up in Kahnawake. He is a professor in the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria. For publications, see his personal website.