Indigenism, Anarchism, and the State

An Interview with Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill is one of the most outspoken activists and scholars in North America and a leading commentator on indigenous issues. Churchill’s many books include Marxism and Native Americans; Fantasies of the Master Race; Struggle for the Land; The COINTELPRO Papers; Genocide, Ecocide, and Colonization; Pacifism as Pathology; and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas.

In his lectures and published works, Churchill explores the themes of genocide in the Americas, racism, historical and legal (re)interpretation of conquest and colonization, environmental destruction of Indian lands, government repression of political movements, literary and cinematic criticism, and indigenist alternatives to the status quo.

Churchill has recently come under attack for views expressed in the article Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, written in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. An important part of the future of US academic freedom in the coming years will likely be determined by the outcome of the ongoing attempts to strip Ward Churchill of his academic position at Colorado University in Boulder. Two members of Autonomy & Solidarity sat down with Ward Churchill in Toronto in November of 2003 to do this interview. It was transcribed by Clarissa Lassaline and edited by Tom Keefer, Dave Mitchell, and Valerie Zink.

Upping The Anti: We want to start off by asking you about your thoughts on the anti-globalization movement which, in terms of anti-capitalist struggles, has been one of the most significant developments in the past decade. This movement has also been criticized in the US context, as being largely made up of white middle class kids running around “summit hopping”. What’s your take?

Ward Churchill: I think the anti-globalization movement, for lack of a better term, is a very positive development in the sense that it re-infuses the opposition with a sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and vibrancy. The downside is that it’s a counter analytical movement in that it thinks it’s something new. We used to call it “anti-imperialism,” just straight up. The idea that “globalization” is something new, rather than a continuation of dynamics that are at least 500 years deep, is misleading. That needs to be understood.

UTA: In your book Struggle For The Land, there’s an essay called “I Am Indigenous.” Can you elaborate a bit on the politics and genealogy of indigenism?

WC: Perhaps I can by way of your introduction of yourselves. You know, you say you’re post-Leninists. Fine. But why are you something that goes beyond Leninism, rather than something that isn’t?

UTA: It’s a reflection of the roots of where our political grouping came from.

WC: But you top that off by describing yourselves as revolutionaries, and I’m saying “why?” Do you aspire to overthrow the presiding order in the Canadian state so that you can reorganize the state in a more constructive fashion? Then you’re a revolutionary. Do you want to see the Canadian state here when you’re done in some form or another? If not, then you’re a “devolutionary” and you might want to call it by its right name.

UTA: So would you say that no anarchists could call themselves revolutionaries?

WC: If they do, they’re deluding themselves. They’re not understanding themselves or the tradition that they’re espousing in proper terms because, for starters, anarchists are explicitly anti-statist. And the object of a revolution is to change the regime of power in a given state structure. So I think “revolutionary” is a misnomer.

UTA: One of the issues with devolution is that, at least potentially, it represents an attempt to go back to some kind of ideal way the world once was. But we can’t just roll back the clock of history.

WC: No, of course not. But again we’re into this implicitly Marxist progression, and anarchists aren’t especially progressive. In fact, you get a physical fight from some of them for using that term, because they consider it an insult. And I think properly so. There’s no immutable law of history. The structures, however, aren’t immutable either, and they can be devolved.

One conflation of terms that really bothers me a lot, which still seems to be plaguing the discourse, is the conflation of the term “nation” and the term “state.” You have this entity out there called “the United Nations.” It really should have been called “the United States,” because to be eligible even for admission to the Assembly you have to be organized in that centralized, arbitrary structure. No “nations” as such are even eligible for admission to the United Nations. “The United States” was a name already taken, however, and this was very useful in obfuscating the reality.

But the upshot of that is that you’ve got a whole lot of anarchists running around thinking they’re anti-nationalist, that nationality, nationalism in all forms, is necessarily some sort of an evil to be combated, when that’s exactly what they’re trying to create. You’ve got four or five thousand nations on the planet; you’ve got two hundred states. They’re using “anti-nationalist” as a code word for being anti-statist. With indigenous peoples, nationality is an affirmative ideal, and it hasn’t got any similarity at all to state structures.

You may have nations that are also states, but you’ve got most nations rejecting statism. So you can make an argument, as I have, that the assertion of sovereignty on the part of indigenous nations is an explicitly anti-statist ideal, and the basis of commonality with people who define themselves as anarchists. We’ve got to deal with our own bases of confusion in order to be able to interact with one another in a respectful and constructive way.

UTA: Are there correlations between your indigenous perspective and anarchism? Many people might make the argument that, in fact, indigenism is an ancestor to anarchism, and not vice versa.

WC: Well, that is precisely my argument. The two are not interchangeable, point for point, but they have far more in common than they have dividing them, if each is properly understood. And part of the task here is to make them properly understood. If you look at green anarchy, for better or worse, you’re going to find all kinds of references to commonalities with indigenous peoples on every basis, from social organisation to environmental perspective. It will take some time, but you can make that conceptual bridge between indigenism and anarchism, and it’s understood.

I would see the main distinction, on this continent, as being a detachment from base. Indigenous peoples are grounded, quite literally. There’s a relationship to the land that has evolved over thousands of years, and that’s completely denied to the people from the settler culture who self-describe as anarchists. With that distinction made, however, we’ve got all kinds of principles in common, aspirations in common, perspectives in common, and we need to build upon those in order to develop a respectful set of relations that allow us to act in unity against that common oppressor that we share.

UTA: After the Seattle actions, you were part of the debate around the whole question of “diversity of tactics.” Do you see the Black Bloc as being an interesting or relevant political phenomenon?

WC: It’s not that I think that breaking the windows of Starbucks is somehow going to bring the system crashing to its knees, or that they even had a conception of what they were actually up against. Clinton deployed Delta Force for that one in case things really did start to get serious. I mean that’s as serious as it gets in terms of repressive capacity in the United States. These are the surgical assassination units, and they were deployed in Seattle.

But if you’re going to go up against that, or if you’re actually going to do serious damage to the structure of things, it isn’t going to happen in some sort of a frontal confrontation with whatever deployment of force the state makes. So it is symbolic, in the sense that it’s educational and kind of empowering. But if you’re going to engage with that force, you’re not going to simply wake up one morning, take a pill along with your glass of water and go out prepared to do it. You have to build the consciousness, you have to build the psychology, you have to build the experiential base, and you have to build the theoretical base, and that happens step by step by step. Maybe the thing that happened in Seattle was a sort of, “let’s get out of the chat rooms and see if we can’t actually make a physical confrontation.” There hasn’t been anything significant along those lines for 25, 30 years in the US.

Now, on the level of street confrontation, what can we deduce from that experience? Well, maybe a first lesson would be: if you actually want to engage in street confrontations as part of a further building trajectory, you might want to ditch the uniforms and stop self-identifying as somebody the police want to neutralize immediately. Unmask yourself, put on a phony beard, or a clean shave. Mask yourself in another way. Just this level of tactical evolution, they’ve refused. And this is part of what leads some people to purport that the Black Bloc is more of a fashion statement than it is a serious political tendency. I’m not convinced of that, but people are clinging to their signs and symbols at a very basic level, in a way that precludes taking the action further. You get these cataclysmic statements of what is necessary, and yet they won’t even ditch the funny little signifier of their identity as a Black Bloccer.

UTA: Is there a correlation between the militant tactics and direct confrontation against the state proposed by the Black Bloc, and the ways in which the Weather Underground evolved from the Days of Rage in Chicago? Do you see a similar kind of progression? What are the lessons to be learned from how those movements failed in the 60s?

WC: The Weather Underground is another thing that I will completely defend. Of the spectrum of responses mounted by the white left at the time, Weather was the most valid response of all, which does not mean that it actually had a viable strategy. But the response pattern was entirely legitimate. But ultimately, they got boxed into symbolic actions, and that is explicitly the case now as well.

Brian Flanagan and Mark Rudd, who are in this new film about the Weathermen, are saying “you know, we made a conscious decision to do only property actions,” which was not the original impulse and not the original understanding. It was a sort of wounded response to having three people killed in the Greenwich townhouse explosion. Well, in human terms I understand that these were their friends and all that, but if you are actually serious about engaging in an armed struggle and plan on testing the capacity of the United States, you have to anticipate that you’re going to incur casualties. And three is hardly an insurmountable toll that’s been taken. So again, you had middle class kids who were posturing as something else, and legitimately wanted to be something else and tried to transcend their origins. But they couldn’t do it in and of themselves, and they didn’t really have an interactive relationship with other movements, organizations, or people coming from a different experiential background and temper. They were a sort of bourgeois response. So you’re saying you’re going to do one thing, but actually you’re unprepared to do it. I can understand that, but I don’t accept that as being a model.

I’m more encouraged by the fact that people are looking seriously at the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and such, despite the valid critique that there was a certain Stalinist content to the organization. And that raises the question of how exactly, without getting into a centralized, arbitrarily disciplined organization, you mount a clandestine struggle. That’s a serious question. How do you go about it? It’s not laissez-faire, it’s not everybody do your own thing. It can’t be, or you’re dead. But the BLA and other such organizations were willing to sustain casualties in a serious way over a protracted period. And they were ultimately burnt out because they had no basis for recruiting additional members from some broader context or mass movement to replace the casualties, and that’s a lesson to be learned and addressed as well.

Weather presented a certain example, but not a model. From that example you can extrapolate the next model, say, the BLA or the Puerto Rican Independence movement. You can analyze and understand where it was that they went wrong, address those issues, and build a more viable model now. But you can’t do that based on knee jerk reactions and notions of personal purity, which is my critique of pacifism. You’re probably familiar with that critique, and the people who will be reading this are probably reasonably familiar with it as well.

But pacifism is not the only dimension that this would apply to, anarchists in general have this zealous notion of the purity of the political. They are dismissive of anybody who defines themselves as being part of a national liberation movement, without examining that movement in any coherent way. When someone sits down and talks with them about it, well then their objections evaporate. But they won’t abandon the purity of whatever the particular posture is that they’re occupying long enough to become effective.

That’s the problem with the refusal to abandon the mask and the black T-shirts in a certain context too. The Black Bloc is more interested in the affirmation of identity than they are in actually accomplishing their goals and objectives. These are transient things, I would hope. I don’t see them as being a basis to dismiss or discard the impulse at all. I see the impulse as being primarily a positive impulse, and you need to take to its logical set of conclusions. The Black Bloc is the preoccupation of anarchism. Their willingness to physically engage the state at a certain level, as well as to engage in discussions that interrogate their own sets of precepts, are both encouraging signs.

UTA: It’s clear that the Canadian and US governments have expressed serious concerns about the anti-globalization movement and the radical wing within it. You’ve written extensively on the repression of radical movements in the 60s and 70s, and specifically about COINTELPRO. Can you talk about some of the key lessons that radicals today should keep in mind?

WC: You have to be a thinking movement. We can outthink these guys in certain respects. Part of that is never underestimating what it is that they’re capable of, and never underestimating our capacity to come up with a situational response to them. In what used to be called counter-intelligence, now it’s called counter-terrorism, you have guys who devote their entire careers to this. They have an aptitude, a flare for it. And by the time they retire they get really goddamn good at it. In a certain sense, their work is based on perceiving what in the immediacy of a situation might be best, based on their experience, to accomplish a desired result. You could say that it’s more intuitive than codified, and our response has to be the same. We have to develop bodies of expertise based on experience in dealing with these things, not just reading the books, and understand that we can’t come up with a formula or a recipe of what it is that will work. We have to use common sense and critical understandings of how counter-intelligence processes have worked in the past, and to the best of our ability, obtain information on what they have in place now.

I mentioned the Delta Force earlier. There’s actually a protocol that allows the President the discretion to suspend the Posse Comitas act and to utilize particular forces within the US military for the maintenance of civil order. They go to the very highest shelf, the “special” of the Special Forces. All the Delta Force does is train for and execute missions to take out strategic targets among oppositional groups, wherever they happen to be. They were in Seattle in case they were necessary to eliminate the leadership, as defined by the intelligence sources of the US, of the people who shut down the World Trade Conference. They’ve also been introduced to control prison riots. They were deployed at Waco, which ought to tell you something, and they were deployed at Ruby Ridge. This needs to be absorbed into our collective understanding of what we’re up against and to shape the nature of our response patterns accordingly.

I think that this takes care of the idea that we’re going to do this by candlelight vigils, moral arguments, petition drives and electoral politics: all of these can be useful in terms of organizing our own communities, but it’s going to have absolutely no effect on the structure of power. We’re going to have to go to bare knuckles and understand the mechanics of power, and how it ultimately maintains itself – obfuscation, mystification, and by keeping people confused and divided. If people don’t stay divided they’re going to ratchet it up to the next increment, which includes false incarcerations and all the rest of that. And ultimately you’re going to be dealing with the US military’s Delta Force. Those are the terms of engagement.

I run through all of that because by and large, even among the self-described most militant sectors, there’s not really a recognition of what it means. They consider themselves to be imbued with certain sets of options based upon varying degrees of social privilege, as if those are going to continue to apply if they actually become a serious threat to the status quo.

Now based on that consciousness, you can begin to develop techniques that apply to the given situations, and there is no recipe for that either. Maybe it’s affinity groups in some places but it’s really contingent on the situation. For example, in some cases Black Blockers say that they’re going to organize based on long term friendships and interaction with people who they know are not infiltrators because they hooked up together when, in all probability, they were too young to have been recruited by the FBI. And they’ve evolved as an insular, self-contained little group ever since. It’s certainly hard for intelligence agencies to penetrate groups like that.

The national structure of the American Indian Movement was penetrated pretty successfully, because you had people drawn together in an organization from a whole variety of locations to function as a sort of a governing council. That was a really bad model. Where we were impenetrable was actually on the ground with the action end of the organization, because these were all family units. The Means family, the Robidoux-Peltier family and their cousins were all related and had grown up together. Well, how exactly do you plant somebody in the middle of that? You don’t.

So I would say that affinity groups, however they are to be defined, might be the situational response in a given context. There are others. The thing that is most critically important is to thoroughly understand the techniques that are used by counter-intelligence, usually at the lower levels, and not do the job for them. That means not gratuitously calling people ‘cops’ in order to resolve political disagreements, which has been an endemic practice on the left. Often intelligence agencies don’t even need to insert provocateurs because they can rely on the activists to do it to themselves. Maybe they stimulate it a few times; they plant a few documents, they do whatever they do. The rule of thumb should be: if it acts like a cop and talks like a cop, maybe you treat it like a cop. But you don’t call it one. You don’t feed into that. If somebody is destabilizing and threatening and they’re compromising the integrity or the security of the group, you simply eliminate that person by putting them outside the group. You don’t make a public show of it, and you don’t put out wanted posters unless you actually have concrete evidence that this is a police operative or infiltrator.

See, we put ourselves in such a compromised position from internal dynamics and bad practices that all they have to do is take this tottering structure, push it, and give it some momentum. At the level that we’re organizing now, bad practice is our worst enemy, not the police state. There isn’t anybody that I know of who is actually mounting a clandestine operation to try to challenge the authority of the state at this point. We’re in a building period, and how we build is contingent, in a large part, on the internalization of these lessons.

UTA: In the US in the 1960s, some people on the radical left saw that the elements that were moving first into struggle, the actual radical forces that could overthrow the system, were the movements that had the least to loose and the most to gain from such struggles: the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, etc. But how can we achieve the destruction of state power without the conscious, active support of the majority of the people, including significant sections of the white settler population?

WC: You can’t win so long as the bulk of the population is actively in some fashion or another deployed against you. But that doesn’t mean that the bulk of the population ultimately has to actively join you either.

I think this is where the Weathermen misunderstood what the dynamic was at the time. They thought people were much more actively committed to physical engagement with the state than ultimately proved to be the case. In retrospect, it’s clear that they weren’t. The Weathermen thought they saw a parade and tried to position themselves to lead it. They were going to be the vanguard. What’s new? We’ve got three hundred white guys who decided they had their finger on the pulse of history, so they were going to jump in front. They said they were acting in solidarity, but they were defining themselves as a vanguard. The white guy is going to lead the Revolution. They just misdiagnosed the conditions that might precipitate revolution, and ended up isolating themselves.

This would also apply to the BLA, although they had far stronger base in the community than the Weatherman ultimately turned out to have. The significance of the role of the armed struggle was profoundly misunderstood at that particular juncture by virtually all of the actors. They believed that the armed struggle was going to be the catalyst in bringing about a comprehensive transformation of society. And that wasn’t the case at all. What led them to this false conclusion was a withdrawal of consent on the part of increasingly massive numbers of people. You really had a significant proportion of the population that was rejecting, in substantial part, the thrust of US policy. They weren’t going to go to war with it, they were just not going to contribute to it. That’s the key.

You don’t have to have the preponderance of the population engaged in some sort of a final campaign to bring down the government. What you do need is the ability to cause an increasing number of people to withdraw consent from some key sectors that keep the system functioning. And if an appreciable number of those people are going into more active forms of resistance and are supportive, at least to the extent that they won’t give you up to the cops and that maybe they will make a contribution, be it monetarily, or by providing you sanctuary, I think that’s attainable over the long haul. You have to have a much greater weight in order to take the structure intact and then rearrange its organization, than you need to have it begin to unravel and collapse, and that’s actually the aspiration that I hold.

You also have to create counter-models that people can look at, that they can be attracted to: ‘Oh yeah, there is another way of doing this and maybe I’d be more comfortable in that context. I don’t know for sure because I haven’t lived in it, but it looks like something I might like to explore.’ That leads to withdrawal, and creates doubt as to the inevitability of state structures and that’s what you’re trying to create.

Not that you’re going to supplant the structure of the state with co-ops, or little land occupations, collectives and so forth. In the 1970s in particular, there was this whole notion that you could simply create a society that you want within the shell of the old one, and eventually the old one will wither away. Well that ain’t going to happen either. You’re going to reach a certain threshold and then the state will begin to actively repress you and try to crush you.

The Black Panthers’ breakfast for children program, their community clinics, alternative educational institutions, job placement programs, housing initiatives, and all the rest, when viewed as a package in and of themselves may seem like a very liberal agenda. But it was framed in terms of a very coherent program of self-determination, of self-sufficiency, that sought to remove those service delivery sectors of responsibility from the state, and to place them in the hands of the community.

You don’t see a lot of that happening these days. For most people in the anarchist community who organize in their little collectives and get together and eat their bean sprouts and shit – it’s only for themselves, at the present time. If you want to talk to factory workers, you need to connect with them where they are, not where you think they should be. You need to get over your prohibition on ashtrays. You keep asking me why nobody shows up, except you, when you organize an event – there’s the answer. I’ve answered the question about 15 times. You may have ideas, you may have counter models and they might be constructive, but if people – coming from the bowling alley or something – have to spend 15 minutes reading your fucking signs about what they can or can’t do in exchange for the privilege of entering your sacred premises, they’re going to go bowling instead. Get over your bicycles and go down and bend a wrench with a gear head for a while. Do what he’s fucking doing. Maybe he’ll learn how to talk to you and vice versa.

But that’s like shedding the black uniforms. It’s a real psychological barrier to some anarchists, because they’ve got the solution to the world’s problems somehow in code form in their minds. They posit an implicit demand that people are supposed to acknowledge the superiority of their vision as the price of admission. So get the fuck off the university campus and down into a union hall. Put ashtrays on the goddamn tables. Make some babysitting services available. And try to package it in a set of terms that can appeal to the people you’re trying to reach. Call it spin if you will, call it packaging, call it Madison Avenue – but how you pedal it, how you try to reach people, is really important. They’re probably not about to put safety pins in their eyelids and all the rest of that shit. I understand why you’re doing it, and I’m not objecting: it’s just that you’ve got to realize that there are some other people out there you need to reach if you’re going to be successful, who don’t feel that way. And you need to respect that. Because you’re ultimately demanding that they respect you. That’s a reciprocal proposition.