At one time most people referred to the Original Peoples of the western hemisphere as Indians, as though they were all a common ethnic group. In the Arctic they were called Eskimos. The Original Peoples, however, knew, and still know, themselves as Inuit, Innu, Haudenosaunee, Beothuk, Nuu-chah-nulth, Inka, Mapuche, etc. They all became known as Indians because Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Caribbean, likely the Bahamas, but he reckoned that he was in India. As a consequence, he called the Lucayan people Indians, and everyone else in the western hemisphere were called Indians by the Europeans, even after they realized it was not India. Over time the Original Peoples began to refer to themselves as Indians and the Indigenous names became Christianized in the ways of the White people. Such is the force of colonization and the matrix of assimilation.
Nowadays, informed people realize the foolishness of considering the multiplicity of nations as a unitary people.
In Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog the Lakota Elder says:
Some Indians decided they would rather be called Native Americans. But some say that’s no more real than Indians, because, to some of us, this isn’t even America. Someone was lost and thought they landed somewhere else. It’s like if someone took over this country, now, and called it, say, Greenland, and then they said that those of us who were already here are going to be called Native Green landers. And they said they were doing this out of respect. Would you feel respected? That’s what we put up with every day-people calling us a bunch of names that aren’t even real and aren’t even in our language. We had our identities taken from us the minute Columbus arrived in our land.1
Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, and J. Anthony Long wrote, “Indians [sic] resent and object to what they perceive as academic paternalism and an assimilationist bias in much of literature on Indian issues and policies.”2
They decried the 1876 Indian Act in Canada as having subverted “traditional political institutions” of Original Peoples “by provisions in the act that deliberately encouraged individual property rights and landholding of reserve lands.”3
The Indian Act imposed a top-down electoral system that militated against the traditional Indigenous system of consensus. The outcome was “band councils [that] functioned as agents of the federal government in a model of colonial indirect rule rather than as representatives responsible for their own people.”4
It has been an attempt to undermine sovereignty and nationhood (something never surrendered or conquered) by fobbing First Nations off on provincial governments while trying to municipalize reserves. The authors argue that First Nation rights pre-date Canadian confederation; therefore, Canadian government rule over natives is seen as illegitimate.
“[S]elf-government is seen by Indians as necessary to preserve their philosophical uniqueness” … “They do not want merely a European-Western model of government that is run by Indians; rather, they want a government that will restore their relationship and natural environment rather than try to assimilate them into the dominant society.”5
Recently the head of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, was forced out, and this brought again to the fore the dynamic between resistance to assimilation and assimilation and collaboration. For an Indigenous perspective on what this means, I interviewed Gord Hill, author of The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book (see review) and The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book. Gord Hill is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation in the Pacific Northwest.
Kim Petersen: I asked to interview you because of a news release by Idle No More entitled “Shawn Atleo Forced Out as National Chief by Indignation of First Nations Peoples, as Opposition Builds Against Rushed, Assimilationist First Nations Education Act.” Basically the news release communicated that Atleo, who was supposed to be a representative for First Nation peoples was a collaborationist with the Harper regime. How do you respond to the news release?
Gord Hill: The INM statement is not a new revelation, as grassroots Indigenous people have been saying the same thing for over thirty years in regards to the AFN and the Indian Act band councils in general. The band councils were imposed by the federal government, rely on the government for funding and legitimacy, and were established in order to control and further assimilate Indigenous peoples.
KP: Many in the Indigenous resistance, for example, warrior Dacajeweiah (Splitting the Sky) and Elder Kahn-Tineta Horn, consider the Assembly of First Nations a collaborationist institution. If so, then, is it any wonder that Atleo would allegedly act as a collaborator with a colonial institution?
GH: The colonial institutions, such as the AFN and its provincial counterparts, as well as the band council system overall, are designed to be collaborator organizations that carry out federal government policies.
KP: I have read that you also are skeptical to Idle No More. Could you elaborate on how you currently view Idle No More?
GH: Overall I think INM was a positive experience as it mobilized thousands of Natives across the country, even if it was brief. Many Natives were talking about colonialism and decolonization, so in that way it raised people’s consciousness. On the other hand, it was manipulated and to some extent integrated with the Indian Act chiefs and councils, who have their own agenda that conflicts with that of genuine grassroots peoples. So in that way it helped to further legitimize the band councils. In addition, because of the controlling and authoritarian approach of the “official” founders of INM, the movement was blunted and unable to expand beyond simply opposing Bill C-45. The “official” founders, coming from middle-class professional backgrounds, were reformist and opposed to any radical actions such as the blockades that began occurring. Flowing from their reformist strategy was an emphasis on “peaceful” protests, pacifism, and the “flash mob” round dances in malls. So while we took one step forward with the INM mobilizations, we also took two steps back in that pacifism and “peaceful rallies” was widely promoted on a national level. This is in contrast to decades of grassroots Indigenous resistance that has used militant actions such as blockades and even armed resistance. I’m glad that the INM mobilization occurred, but I’m also glad that it had a relatively short life and hopefully those that were mobilized will learn and grow from this experience.
KP: There is a circumstance that confronts many non-Indigenous supporters of Indigenous rights: namely that Indigenous peoples appear sometimes to be in conflict. For example, and this is of course well known to yourself, in “BC” the salmon has been central to the lifeways of many First Nations. Yet scientific studies warn that wild salmon appear imperilled by the presence of salmon-farming operations in open water. The Kwicksutaineuk/Ah-Kwa-Mish First Nation have taken to the colonial Supreme Court of Canada to protect the wild salmon. Salmon-farming advocates, however, point to other First Nations, for example, the Ahousaht First Nation carrying out salmon farming. Another current example is the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would transport Tar Sands oil across northern BC to the coast. Enbridge is confident more than half of the First Nations will come onside. If so, that would see a split among First Nations. When First Nations appear at odds with each other – where one group appears to have embraced the White man’s ways over traditional ways – can you explain what underlies such apparent First Nation disunity?
GH: There are many factors that affect Indigenous unity. Some communities or nations have a strongly entrenched collaborator regime, some have been affected by colonization more than others (for example, some areas have been effectively Christianized due to the work of individual priests), while others have a strong culture of resistance that persists to this day. In some cases, communities may have been so devastated by colonialism and industrial development that they can no longer sustain themselves traditionally and therefore turn to industry.
In any case, Indigenous people were never a homogenous unified group. This can be seen in the initial reception given to European traders and explorers: some communities welcomed them, fed them and helped guide them, while others sought to destroy them.
- See “What We’re Called – Indian? or….” [↩]
- Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, and J. Anthony Long (Eds.) Pathways to Self-Determinism: Canadian Indians and the Canadian State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985): ix. [↩]
- Bear et al., xii. [↩]
- Bear et al., xiii. [↩]
- Bear et al., xvi. [↩]