Tactical Alliances

Corvin Russell

Dear UTA,

I found myself agreeing with almost everything Andrea Smith said in her interview in UTA 10. Smith’s answers were thoughtful, analytical, with an eye to concrete strategy; she dealt with many of the questions that preoccupy me in my own activist work.

The question of broader alliances surfaces some of the fundamental differences that exist in left circles today, especially differences in orientation to mass politics and organization. Mao summarized the extremes of left opportunism and right opportunism as “all struggle and no alliance” on the one hand, and “all alliance and no struggle” on the other, and this is still a useful way of summarizing some of the differences and the strategic extremes to be avoided. How can one be engaged in a project of fundamental social transformation without thinking about how the views of most people in the “95 percent not on the top of social hierarchies” change and develop, how we relate to them, and what our own limits might be?

Tactical alliances are all, by their nature, “unlikely” to some degree. Entering into alliances explicitly understood as such requires us to think deeply and clearly about our strategic goals, and about how our tactics serve them. Alliances require us to exercise discipline to avoid co-optation. This implies a certain level of collective self-knowledge. It means thinking beyond ourselves and our ideological cliques to where other people are at. Smith’s example of the spear-fishing struggle in Wisconsin suggests that it also requires something deeper – a generosity of spirit and a willingness to think about the longer-term relationships that social transformation requires us to build. This sounds flaky but it actually produces a very concrete and educational political practice, one that leads us to think about tactics in political and strategic terms, rather than the fairly sterile and simplistic moral frames that much movement discussion of tactics has been mired in lately.

The particular question of the relation between the Left and indigenous struggles, and the relation between class struggle and anti-colonial indigenous struggle, is fundamental, and in my experience, also fraught. I agree with Smith that in indigenous sovereignty struggles there is often a lack of analysis of how capitalism works to bind everyone in its logic, and how we all need to struggle against it if any of us is to be free of it. The specific forms of colonialism most indigenous people are struggling against, and the apparatus of the Canadian colonial state today, are driven by capitalism and its needs. There is truth to the view that locates the problem in European values and worldview, but often these are foregrounded with no attention paid to the structural problems that make a purely subjective solution to colonialism unlikely. On the other hand, in the Canadian context, to struggle against the colonial apparatus of assimilation, dispossession, and appropriation is to struggle against the central engine of Canadian capitalism. To that extent, land-based struggles, especially those rooted in a strong sense of indigenous ecology, spiritualism, and traditional economies, are inherently anti-capitalist.

However, it cannot be said that the Left and the various existing expressions of class struggle are inherently anti-colonial, although many on the left assume this to be the case. There remains a strong tendency to assimilate and subordinate the logic of colonialism to the narrative of capitalism. The other elements of indigenous anti-colonial struggle are politely and paternalistically tolerated. This self-certainty on the Left often exists despite an astonishing and comprehensive ignorance about the specific character and history of colonialism in Canada.

I agree with Smith that the prevailing problem on the Left is not an over-valorization of “tradition” or notions of “authenticity.” This is clear in how the left as a whole allocates its time and energy to indigenous struggles. Leftists are far more likely to show up at the barricades than an indigenous language class, pow-wow, sweat, or around the drum, even when they are invited. Part of this might be a consciousness of the problematic of appropriation, but frankly, my sense is also that most people are just not interested in relating to or supporting this aspect of the struggle. No one doing Quebec solidarity work would be so casual about the importance of engaging with the language and culture. And it’s not that indigenous anti-colonial activists aren’t constantly underlining the importance of language, culture, and spirituality to indigenous struggles.

The bias of the Left also comes up in how we choose who we work with and who we choose to represent indigenous struggles. There are many capable indigenous activists and organizers, but very few of them would identify as Left– in fact, quite commonly, leadership of indigenous struggles explicitly distance themselves from “leftism,” and argue against interpretations of their struggle in terms of the left-right political spectrum. Yet they have a deep analysis of colonialism and specific knowledge rooted in experience and struggle. But the Left tends to choose, disproportionately, representatives of indigenous struggles from among a small handful of indigenous activists who are ideologically close to us. In some cases, these people are not even organically connected to on-the-ground frontline struggles; instead, their primary political base is in non-native activist circles.

Smith points to how indigenous traditionalists relate to Christians as one aspect of this problem, but this question confronts non-native allies as well. Many of the more isolated northern and mid-northern communities, which are the most “traditional” in terms of material forms of life and relationships to the land, also happen to be very Christian. The idea that they are not “traditional” according to some uniform canon of traditionality, or that they have a predetermined process to go through to get to where they are supposed to be going, is pretty arrogant, and often comes out of a failure to engage with those people directly. There are many examples of people, like the Omushkego elder Louis Bird, who are Christian and who have preserved their “traditional” stories, the knowledge of plants, medicines, and hunting grounds, and crucially, their language. If this were not so, there would be no way to account for how the traditional stories continue to be transmitted in very Christian communities that don’t have a single sweat lodge or drum circle. (Of course, there are also many communities, for example in Treaty 3, where Christianity did not take strong root, and where much of this other knowledge continues to be transmitted). This shows that the relationship between Christianity and tradition can be more complex than dismissive attitudes give it credit for.

I found Smith’s brief discussion of tradition immensely rich with insight and careful thought, and Lee Maracle’s brilliant question– “Is tradition an Indian tradition?”– the most compact summary of the issue imaginable. I agree with Smith that the relation to the land has to be centred. Some people respond that “we all have a relation to the land,” and this is true, but vacuously so; the differences are important. We need to be clear about those differences. The question of tradition and the relation to the land intersect importantly with the divide between urban and rural indigenous struggles, a question that challenges many non-native supporters in their work. Why is it that non-native solidarity activists have such weak ties to urban indigenous struggles? In my experience, urban indigenous anti-colonial struggles tend to take cultural, artistic, and spiritual forms, which are precisely the forms that the left and solidarity activists tend not to engage with. In the work that we have been doing in Toronto, with indigenous Sovereignty Week and the June 24 mobilizing, as well as the work that Defenders of the Land has been doing across Canada, we have always tried to recognize and respect the different roles and capacities that rural and urban indigenous and non-indigenous people have to play in building a broad anti-colonial and indigenous rights movement. The differences are important, but we all have a role to play.

In solidarity,

Corvin Russell