When we talk about colonization, we tend to think of brutally stolen land, racism, broken treaties, boarding schools. Those things happened. Those well-known things shaped the relationship between Indigenous people and the settler society on this continent. But what was the deeper and lasting impact of those things on nations of Indigenous people? Alienation, separation, disconnection.
Colonization is disconnection from the land, from ourselves, and from our culture. The felt manifestation of this disconnection is the alienation that we feel as a result of being caught between two worlds, not being able to live authentic lives. That is why it’s absolutely necessary to continually remind ourselves: It is all about the land.
To decolonize, we need to reclaim the sacred spaces of our traditional territories. Rename those spaces to sever the emotional and intellectual ties of colonially imposed names and restore the full histories and ancient significances embedded in Indigenous languages. Reoccupy to create a sense of community and purpose and to regenerate our traditional cultural practices. Find a way to give our younger generations access to the lands and waters that are their birthright. Restoring this connection is the crucial task of our survival.
Our ancestors didn’t fight and die for American or Canadian citizenship. They didn’t fight and die in wars against people who came to take their land and steal their children in order to be just like everybody else. They fought to live fully as Mohawks and Gitxsan and Salish. But when the wars were over, they suffered generations of genocide. Who are we to turn our backs on the vision of nationhood that our ancestors endured so much to preserve?
It’s not easy to be continually in a position of struggle. Resistance is psychologically and physically exhausting. You are always up against something, fighting against intrusion, pushing back against all kinds of violence. Being in a position of resistance for so long has made it a part of our collective personality, our cultures. We define ourselves as being in resistance mode. And in doing so, we have neglected who we are.
The recent recognition of this problem has led to the idea of Indigenous resurgence.
Resurgence builds on the idea of resistance and deepens the understanding of decolonization. It is a way of thinking and being and practicing politics that roots resistance in the spirit, knowledge, and laws of our ancestors. It links pushing back against oppression to cultural restoration and healing practices at the individual, social, and national levels.
This is not to say that straight-up resistance is no longer necessary, or even that there’s no value in moderate efforts at reconciliation or action on any point along the political spectrum. But it is not enough to just reform or push back. We also need to focus on the core of our existence, maintaining the fire of our nations and our families. It’s our language, our ceremony, our relationship to each other. It’s our bonds of communities, the things we do together. It’s the trust that we have. Maintaining that fire and keeping that fire strong is the most important thing we need to do to continue to exist as Onkwehonwe, Indigenous peoples.
This kind of existence is rooted in place, particular territories defined by unique webs of relation between plants and animals and spirits and people. These unique spiritual and social environments are our homelands, and our deep connection to them defines us. This is why return of our lands and the restoration of our relationship to those lands are critical.
Let’s begin to relate to our homelands in the way that our ancestors did, and re-experience that, reinvigorate it, regenerate that culture. The things that we experience as wrong in our communities, the gaps that we feel, the wrong we do to each other, all come from not having that relationship to our homelands, or not being able to because of contamination, pollution, displacement. We must focus on reconnection.
The idea of Indigenous resurgence is resonating with young people. Secwepemc women are not just suing pipeline companies, but they are building houses and living in the forest, in the way of pipelines. Wet’suwet’en women are creating networks of support for parents who want to educate their children in traditional culture. People all over the continent are starting language nests, they are confronting misogyny in our institutions, they are reviving traditional body arts.
They are doing these things outside of formal structures because they understand how colonialism infuses all of our institutions. They know that working in resistance mode or in legal battles or in bureaucracies to reconcile our collective survival within the colonial system is futile. Even if you negotiated a legal settlement or self-government agreement addressing an illegality or breach of treaty obligation on the part of the settler society, how does that fundamentally affect the lives of your people? Are your children or your grandchildren going to have a healthier and happier life or a more Indigenous life because of some monetary compensation or increased scope of authority for a tribal government? Not likely, not unless that money or that authority is used to help the people re-root themselves in the land.
The new generation of Indigenous activists have an understanding that is strongly connected to the original vision of our ancestors in their struggle for survival. The generation of people defining our struggle today through movements like ones that are opposing pipelines or trying to achieve justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women understands that decolonization is not something that happens in a courtroom or boardroom or even a classroom. Decolonization means restoring culture and presence on the land—and revitalizing our way of being on the land—and using the strength that we achieve in doing that to confront the forces that seek to oppress and harm our people.
Too, there is a role in Indigenous resurgence for non-Indigenous people. They can play a part in the decolonization of this land simply by disassociating themselves from the privileges that are built into being part of the settler society, softening the stifling grip mainstream society has on Indigenous existences. Forgoing the need to be right, to be in charge, and to possess. Embracing the discomfort of the unsettled existence of an ally committed to the strength and well-being of Indigenous nations.
Just as with the Indigenous people who are defining resurgence through their unscripted creative contention and generative acts of love for the land, there is no template or menu for allyship. For all of us, Indigenous and settler alike, there is only self-questioning and embracing this commitment: Listen to the voices of our Indigenous ancestors channeled through the young people of our nations, learn from Indigenous culture how to walk differently, and love the land as best you can.