Indigenous Resistance as Re-occupation of Land at the Forefront of Climate Justice

Protest against Trans Mountain pipeline in BC.

I write as a settler on this land. I am not speaking on behalf of Aboriginal people but rather as an unconditional ally to their struggles. I will specifically address Indigenous resistance in the form of re-occupation of Turtle Island and in particular of so-called Canada. Re-occupation of the land is a kind of resistance and decolonization to dismantle settler relations to the land as commodity or as property. It is a form of what Nishnaabeg Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls Indigenous resurgence that is based on restoring Indigenous relationships with the land and how to treat the land in a reciprocal and profoundly respectful way: “It refuses dispossession of both Indigenous bodies and land as the focal point of resurgent thinking and action…. It calls for… radical resurgent organizing as direct action… against the dispossessive forces of capitalism, heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. These are actions that engage in generative refusal of… state control… and they embody an Indigenous alternative.”1 As I understand it this alternative implies both the return of the land to Aboriginal people (and thus the dismantling of settler colonialism) coupled with the literal social, political and economic overthrow of the settler, capitalist state that has wreaked havoc on the planet. More on the tactic of re-occupation shortly. But first, some context on how settler colonialism and ecocide go hand in hand is in order.

Ecocide or the annihilation of the planet and our very life support system is also an industrial genocide of Indigenous peoples symptomatic of what many scholars have called the cancerous diseases of capitalism and settler colonialism. They are both predicated on infinite expansion and growth, the reduction of earth to a lifeless commodity, the mindset of land as frontiers of conquest and the obliteration of what Naomi Klein calls sacrificial zones and people standing on their way. Under capitalism “the expansion of commodity frontiers fosters conditions of social and environmental degradation and conflict.” The commodification process inherent in capitalism begun with the sugar complex in the fifteenth century, spurred early colonialism, and continues to operate in settler colonialism and land grabs through mining and fossil fuel industries and corporate interests: “[f]urther expansion is possible as long as there remains un-commodified land, products, and relations. Here land should be seen the equivalent to the space to grow food or to extract minerals, or the sea for oil or gas exploration.”2 Although today the process of commodification has been exported from the European colonial empires to its colonies and it is rampant globally under the new neo-liberal world order it was initiated within Europe with the uprooting of European peasants, their loss of traditional forms of subsistence, their disconnection from the soil and natural environment, the subsequent flow of products from the countryside to the big urban centers and the degradation and toxification of the places of extraction and consumption. The rise of wage labour accompanied the commodification of land and labour while the “dispossession of subsistence farmers and herders from common land resulted in the proletarianization of rural populations, who flooded to urban centers in search of work…Those still in possession of land generally became indebted, fostering instability and overexploitation by capitalists. This process led to declining productivity, driving the frontier further in search of fresh supplies of labour and land.”3

The story of commodity frontiers and capitalist expansion is more or less similar around the globe. Capitalism goes hand in hand with settler colonialism and both are based on the principles of expansion and commodity frontier as well as the “doctrine of discovery” or in the words of some commentators “the doctrine of Native genocide.” As land is being exhausted in one place, “new” land needs to be “discovered” and thus occupied. And as social and environmental effects of extraction of resources increases, the quantity, quality and availability of resources decrease. Consider for instance that the expansion and the commodity frontier have now moved to a new whole other level in which the oil industry is after increasingly difficult oil to extract that requires large amounts of water, produces more waste and pollution and particularly affects the well being of Indigenous communities as is the case of extraction of dirty oil in the tar sands of Alberta in Canada.

Settler states such as Canada are founded on colonial narratives about the land as sites of conquest, as hard-won property, as real estate, as conquered territory and thus as an agentless object of domination. In contrast, Indigenous people understand the land and the earth as a living entity with its own agency, its own “personality.” Emma Battell Lowman et al. write that this is precisely why “it is often difficult for many settlers to understand why Indigenous struggles about the land are not about holding private property title to land in Canada and fair payment for land appropriated by the state or having equal rights under the law.”4 For many Indigenous people the water, the air, the living things such as plants and animals, the rocks and earth have thoughts of their own and are relatives of the people that depend on them for their own survival. Kyle White explains this relationship as a sort of kinship of humans and non-human others. It entails: interdependence with the land, and between humans and non-humans in the ecosystem; responsibility to care for the environment and the land in which human communities act as caretakers and stewards of the land; reciprocity and mutuality between the human and the non-human (natural world). White maintains that: “Indigenous ecology is an ecological system of interacting humans and non-human beings (animals, plants) and entities (spiritual, inanimate), and landscapes (climate regions, boreal zones) for the continuity of life that is based on “consent.” Notice here the gendered language implicit in the issue of consent. In this Indigenous ecological worldview the earth has agency for its ecosystems are not to be dominated but respected and asked for their consent to continue to sustain human and non-human communities alike. In turn, we are to protect her by taking care of her the way we would take care of our own kin or our mothers.

Settlement is not only a colonial but also a patriarchal project that seeks the very violation of the earth, the land and of Indigenous peoples. This is a point that Blackfoot/Sami filmmaker, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers has made abundantly clear in her short film, Bloodland, in which the earth is depicted as an Indigenous woman violated and ravaged by the oil and fossil fuel industries. It is not coincidental that all extractivist projects in Indigenous territories are accompanied by gendered based violence against Indigenous women particularly through the construction of man camps that house the industry’s workers and are notorious for preying on the Aboriginal women and girls living in nearby communities and reserves. It is also important to see the violence on the land/earth within the context of the phenomenon of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada, an issue of epidemic proportions and (very much analogous to a similar problem in the U.S). As a recent inquiry termed this epidemic sexualized genocide aiming at removing Indigenous women from this land it is ironic that mainstream conservative, white male, settler politicians in Canada debated the merit of the term genocide to refer to this violence. This resembles the way the fossil fuel industry and Canadian economic elites continue to be tone deaf to Indigenous communities’s refusals to give consent to extractivist projects in their territories, who see these projects as forms of industrial genocide of land and people.

The cultural basis of settler relationships with the land and the earth is that they are anthropocentric and rooted in the idea that humans are an exceptional species, unique in creation and as such the land must render benefits to human communities and the earth must serve human interests rather than having inherent value of its own. Human and settler interests supersede those of Indigenous communities, their land or those of non-human others. Indigenous peoples are understood not as sovereign people with their own sacred relationship to the land, their own governance and sovereign policies but as an impediment to the mindset of the commodity frontier and the rampant exploitation of the land and its so called resources. This is why the Canadian government always fails to consult in a meaningful way with Indigenous peoples when it undertakes development or extractivist projects. Canada as a settler state practices the logic of commodity frontier (i.e as land is exhausted, “new” land must be found, occupied and exploited), and ultimately reserves and exercises the right to simply ignore any Indigenous claims to land if it is in its so-called national or economic interests. Canada uses its colonial law and its institutions to legitimize its settler and capitalist impulse of land grabs, and harm Indigenous communities by displacing them and giving way to the settler state. Often this process unfolds into the violent deployment of the military and police to accomplish the expulsion of Indigenous communities, which, in turn, are criminalized and framed as standing in the way of Canada’s national or economic interests. Both federal and provincial state bodies often pit so-called law-abiding citizens against Indigenous peoples in this land by constructing settlers as the proverbial hard-working white settler and family folk, who just want good paying jobs to feed their families. In contrast, Indigenous people are seen as irrationally obstructing economic growth and a hindrance to the prosperity of law-abiding Canadians.

Examples of this abound. In British Columbia, the federal government just purchased with tax payer money the defunct Trans Mountain pipeline despite the fact that at least a hundred BC First Nations have not consented to its approval and have mounted countless legal challenges in courts. Even BC premier, John Horgan, who during the election campaign had promised that he was not going to approve this pipeline is currently fighting in court the Squamish nation: “defending the Trans Mountain pipeline approval…[The BC government’s] conduct flies in the face of their commitment to use every tool in the toolbox to defend our coast, increasing the chance this risky project goes ahead. It also breaks their promise to take reconciliation with First Nations seriously.” And all this happens in a province that is unceded and unsurrendered to the colonial state.

The most glaring example of this form of ecological devastation coupled with settler colonialism is the recent militarized invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory. The Unist’ot’en Camp is a homestead maintained for ten years now by members of the Unist’ot’en house group, which is part of another Wet’suwet’en clan on adjacent territory. The Unist’ot’en have been using the tactic of re-occupation of their land and have already defeated multiple pipeline projects. On December 14 a court injunction ruled in favour of a gas company called Coastal GasLink to begin construction on the Wet’suwet’en unsurrendered territories despite the fact that neither the Crown, nor Canadian courts and its colonial institutions such as the RCMP have any jurisdiction on Wet’suwet’en land governed under the leadership of their hereditary chiefs. The violent invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory, the arrests of defenders and eviction from their land by the industry and by colonial forces dressed in army fatigues and carrying military rifles were acts reminiscent of numerous murderous, settler colonial removals of Indigenous peoples and genocidal expulsions of the past. As the colonial police assailed their territory the Wet’suwet’en resisted on ground refusing entry to colonial authorities that were bullying them on behalf of the gas industry. Freda Huson, spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en speaking on the occasion of this invasion clearly links it to unlawful trespassing with the intent to displace Indigenous people and plunder their home/land: “We’re in the right. We’re not doing anything wrong. This is my home. This is my land. They want to break down my door.”

These violent acts happened under the auspices of the provincial government that has approved the GasLink project and the federal government of Canada, which among meaningless and empty words about reconciling with Aboriginal people have utterly failed to implement Article 10 of the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP), which states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands and territories.”

Let there be no mistake: as the latest attempt at dispossession of Indigenous people from their land clearly indicates settler colonialism, or what some might call resource colonialism, is on going as is fierce resistance to it. Although the Wet’suwet’en have decided to de-escalate the violent attempts of the provincial authorities to invade their land by allowing company workers to do pre-construction work in their territories they still remain firm in re-occupying their land and resisting against the pipeline. Re-occupation means that they do not give their consent to its construction. This is not over: “The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have by absolutely no means agreed to let the Coastal GasLink pipeline tear through our traditional territories.”

Re-occupation as it has been playing out in the Unist’ot’en case is much more than a blockade and resistance against the fossil fuel and gas industries. The Unist’ot’en have built a camp with a healing center” and become a space where Wet’suwet’en and others come to reconstruct and nurture land-based relationships” Their re-occupation of land is similar to other re-occupations by “Indigenous peoples at Standing Rock, at Oka, at Gustafsen Lake” or by the Secwepemc, whose fierce women-led Tiny House Warriors have been building tiny houses and placing them on the path of Trans Mountain pipeline to block it from crossing unceded Secwepemc territory. In this way, through re-occupation these communities also assert their law and jurisdiction over their land. Indeed, re-occupation also serves as a form of re-indigenizing Canada because ultimately it implies the resurgence of Indigenous sovereignty and law and the dismantling of colonial institutions and structures. It aims at consolidating Indigenous governance based on responsibilities to, and taking care of the land that sustains both human and non-human communities and as such it is a return to land-centric or ecocentric “economy” that in White’s terms strives for “the continuance of all life.”

This is why re-occupation as a form of resistance is profoundly unsettling (pun intended) to economic elites and to settler states. It moves beyond the demands of mainstream environmentalism that works within the terms provided by settler states and capital. Mainstream environmentalism often avoids colliding head on with the state by gearing itself toward reforms such economic or environmental policies (taxes, corporate regulation, timber or fishing quotas, optimal rates of resource extraction and so on). In contrast, Indigenous people who re-occupy their land have anti-reformist, anti-state and anti-corporate positions and do not call themselves environmentalists but rather use terms that refer to themselves as defenders of their home (which for the settler, capitalist state is nothing but a commodity frontier); or they recognize themselves as protectors of the water, the coast, the river, the forest (etc). Some Indigenous re-occupation movements are also radical in the sense that they are not after so-called sustainable development or green technologies (wind, solar power etc), or hydroelectric dams (see the Treaty 8 First Nations opposition to site C dam in BC) but favour scaling down and returning to land, what some may call deep ecology.

As Leanne Simpson puts it when Indigenous people re-occupy their land they do so with an anti-capitalist mindset because they do not re-occupy resources: “’Capital’ in our [Nishnaabeg] reality isn’t capital. We have no such thing as capital. We have relatives. We have clans. We have treaty partners. We do not have resources or capital. Resources and capital, in fact, are fundamental mistakes within Nishnaabeg thought… and… come with serious consequences… the collapse of local ecosystems, the loss of prairies and wild rice, the loss of salmon, caribou, the loss of our weather.”1 Re-occupation then is not an environmentalist tactic in the strict sense of environmentalism. Although many people mount a tremendous resistance to environmental injustices and even die defending the environment, Indigenous people and “[p]oor people do not always think and behave as environmentalists…. The environmentalism of the poor arises from the fact that the world economy is based on fossil fuels and other exhaustible resources, going to the ends of the earth to get them, disrupting and polluting both pristine nature and human livelihoods, encountering resistance by poor and Indigenous peoples who are often led by women [as is the case of the women-led Tiny House Warriors movement]. Poor and Indigenous peoples sometimes [may] appeal for economic compensation but more often they appeal to other languages such human rights, Indigenous territorial rights, human livelihoods, and the sacredness of endangered mountains and rivers.”5 They even appeal to their own oral stories that describe how human greed and the drive for accumulation can desecrate the land and undermine the balance between the human community and the environment that sustains it. (See, for instance, the Nishnaabeg story of Nanabush, who “engages in a host of exploitative and extractivist practices at the expense of plants, animals, or the Nishnaabeg, and this results in his demise.” Simpson 2017). These stories function as what Carolyn Merchant (2005) calls “ethical or normative constraints” that prohibit the community from exploiting its landbase or from treating the land as a commodity frontier.

Indeed, I believe that if there is any chance to avert the pending collapse of the planet driven by unfettered capitalism in consorting with settler colonialism, this chance lies in Indigenous re-occupation of their land. It lies in how we as settlers and by extension the state can relinquish claims to unceded land and work outside colonial state institutions and along Indigenous peoples in their efforts to take back their territories and reclaim their sovereignty. This process requires us that we learn from Indigenous knowledge and practices in their wisdom of land stewardship. Ultimately, these practices are based on an ethics of radical empathy and care for the earth. Radical empathy toward the earth means that we learn to relate to her as our kin (indeed as our sacred mother) rather than as a lifeless trove of so-called infinite resources. At the same time we need a widespread cultural transformation that remodels our society based on this kind of ethics: we need to start telling ourselves new cultural stories that take their cues from those of Indigenous peoples and culturally constrain us from pillaging the earth. These tales must not be about frontiers of conquest or the uniqueness of our species or man-made constructs such as the economy, the market, the state, (etc), which are irrelevant to the physics of material reality and inconsequential from the point of view of the biosphere. In effect, in a dead planet there can be neither economy, nor market nor state.

These tales must be imbued with profound humility ensuing from the incontrovertible fact that in the large scheme of things the earth does not need us: we need Her.

  1. Simpson, L.B. (2017). “Kwe as Resurgent Method.” “Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism.” As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [] []
  2. Conde, M. And Walter, M. (2015). “Commodity Frontiers.” In D’Alisa, G et al (eds). Degrowth: A Vocabulary For a New Era. New York and London: Routledge. []
  3. Conde and Walter, 72. []
  4. Battell Lowman, E. et al. (2015). Settler Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Fernwood Publishing. []
  5. Martinez-Alier, J. (2015). “Currents of Environmentalism.” In D’Alisa, G et al (eds). Degrowth: A Vocabulary For a New Era. New York and London: Routledge. []
Litsa Chatzivasileiou is a sessional instructor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia and teaches critical race, Indigenous, diaspora and gender studies. Read other articles by Litsa.