Truth, Reconciliation, and Anti-Colonialism

The following comment  is forthcoming in Re-Storying Indian Residential Schools in Times of Reconciliation in Canada, (Eds) Capitaine, B.; Vanthuyne, K., Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press.

“… colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today” Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963:210).

Fanon was writing about the critical relevance of a resurgent national culture in the context of revolutionary struggles for political independence from colonialism in Africa. Despite having been written more than 60 years ago these words speak with prescience and immediacy here today, in Canada. Indigenous peoples have been engaged in a permanent struggle for autonomy practically since the first settlers arrived on our shores. The struggle has waxed and waned. Over the course of the twentieth century the colonists appeared to take the upper hand. However, a renewed and resurgent Indigenism is reverberating throughout Canada. From the decentered politics of Idle No More to legal victories and government apologies history is being re-storied as Indigenous peoples compel settlers to take note.

Our history can no longer be ignored. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) findings were stark: Canada committed cultural genocide through the systemic support of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) over the course of more than one century. These schools took children from their homes, maltreated them, abused them, and did all of that under a cultural framework of white supremacy and a political framework of colonialism. As Fanon notes in regard to Africa, colonialism is an active process by which a people’s sense of self, of one’s sense of dignity, one’s very sense of self-worth is deliberately and directly diminished and attacked: “The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality” (1963:211). There is no other way to comprehend the objectives, processes, and outcomes of Canada’s IRS system.

The findings from the TRC provide the empirical evidence of the depravity of Canada’s colonialism: “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide” (TRC 2015:1). Central to the displacement of Indigenous peoples from our lands was the programme of silencing us; and the attempt to take away our memory and knowledge of our land, of our history, and of our possibility to enact jurisdiction over these same things. The residential schools played their part in trying to reconstruct memories, histories, and stories that prioritized the assumed racial superiority of the colonizing elite. Fortunately the policy was not as successful as its architects may have hoped.

This volume resonates with Fanon’s call to pay attention to the role of culture, history, and Indigenous intellectuals. The editors deploy the idea of “re-storying,” a process that questions the imposition of colonial narratives. This notion places the emphasis upon the active work of confronting colonial narratives. While there are problems inherent to re-storying (if the practice remains locked in the arcane world of letters), the contributors to this volume offer up the possibilities of a future beyond re-storying. There is a call to act embedded at the heart of this volume. Here too we find an echo of Fanon’s description of the Indigenous intellectual’s path toward joining in the liberation struggle.

Fanon, in discussing the role of intellectuals in the struggle for political liberation outlines three phases through which the native intellectual must pass. I would suggest that the non-Indigenous fellow traveler intellectuals might well find themselves in a similar trajectory. Fanon’s phases are: (1) “the period of unqualified assimilation. . . . [Here] the native intellectual gives proof that he is assimilated to the culture of the occupying power” (1963:222); (2) the period during which the intellectual “decides to recognize what he is. … But since the native is not a part of his people, since he only has exterior relations with his people, he is content to recall their life only. Past happenings of the bygone days of childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of borrowed estheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies” (1963:222), and; (3) Finally, in “the fighting phase, the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people. Instead of according the people’s lethargy an honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people” (1963: 222-23). Fanon cautions the Indigenous intellectual that “it is not enough to try and get back to the people in that past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question (1963:227).

This volume is located somewhere between Fanon’s phase two and phase three. There are aspects of the chapters that reveal a self-awareness of one’s place in the colonial moment (for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors). Some of the chapters are clearly placed in the fighting phase linking experience, history, and an articulation of a possibility to finally reconcile the colonial state to the Indigenous Nations (rather than the reverse). This constitutes a call to action that echoes Fanon but is rooted in our current Canadian context.

This call to action has a long history within anthropology as well. Kathleen Gough, then a professor at Simon Fraser University, exhorted her colleagues in the late 1960s to join with the liberation struggles of her day as allies in struggle (1968). For non-Indigenous intellectuals Gough’s call and Fanon’s analysis remain relevant and pressing. It is important to understand the intellectual currents of the contemporary struggle, to see the importance of re-storying and rejecting the colonial narrative. The papers in this volume all achieve this end. But that in and of itself is not enough. We must also take action.

“The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis of hope” (Fanon 1963:232). This volume draws from the past and goes beyond the disempowering stories of victimhood. In the artful, poignant, and perceptive analysis presented there is a modicum of hope. To ensure we do not squander the possibility we must all transform the ivory tower and join with the Indigenous struggle for liberation and autonomy.


References Cited

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth: The Handbook for the Black Revolution that is Changing the Shape of the World. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Gough, Katleen. 1968. “Anthropology and Imperialism.” Monthly Review. 19(11, April):12-27.


Indigenous Rights, Title, and Sovereignty: is there a place for anthropologists?

I had the pleasure of participating in a plenary session of the CASCA 2015 annual meetings in Quebec City (May 13-16, 2015). Organized by Natacha Gagné & Sabrina Doyon (U. Laval), the session invited each participant to consider our (as anthropologists’) view of, and role, in politics. What follows below is an edited version of my speaking notes.

Additional context and background to this presentation can be found in two papers I have written:  Oil, Energy, and Anthropological Collaboration, and Standing on the Shore with Sabaan.  The first dissects the history of anthropological/Indigenous collaboration on the northwest coast.  The second examines the idea that anthropologists and anthropology must invert the gaze and stop using Indigenous peoples as data and our societies as laboratories.


When I began my journey into anthropology I used to say that while Anthropology was the methodology, Marxism was the discipline. For those trained in classic extra-parliamentary politics (and some Foucauldians) you will understand the multiple meanings. As I was professionalized I became beguiled by the idea of anthropology as discipline. Today, having shed many things, I have returned to the idea of anthropology as method.

I should also caution you that I have, to a large extent, left behind the study of anthropological subjects for the study of anthropologists. So, I suspect that as natives you [the audience] will find my generalizations, abstractions, and theorizing, disconcerting. You may only recognize figments of your selves in my words. As an Indigenous scholar I can appreciate your imminent surprise and disquiet. Yet, in your own words you hold power, you cherish ways of giving voice to the unvoiced.

So, here we go: I shall speak.

There are two public images of anthropology in North America:

One put forward by Florida Governor Rick Scott  (it’s a waste of time and money) and another promoted by New Age style populists who, like white knights to the rescue, race to save the hordes of endangered peoples, places, and languages.

Rick Scott understands the anthropological problem personally. His own daughter was a major. I can appreciate the father’s sense of anguish that one’s child will go down a rabbit hole of missed opportunities and wasted studies. Maybe he also watched the TV show “Community” and happened to catch that wonderful parody of an anth prof by Betty White. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you track it down: it’s worth it.

Scott’s point was that while a nice pastime, Anthropology doesn’t create jobs or build the economy. Anthropologists, understandably, reared up and said oh yes we do! And in so doing totally missed the point; we don’t actually build the neo-liberal economy or support the growth industry. We build something different. The response was predictable. The AAA’s letter to Scott summed it all up: “Perhaps you are unaware,” chided the AAA president Prof Dominguex, “ anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.”

Wow. That should set the governor in his place.

That answer, which was mirrored by YouTube videos, Tumblr pages, blogs, commentaries, across the US spilling over a bit into Canada as well, really did little to change the mind of Governor Scott.

Scott is not alone in this attitude. I can count among my extended family a great army of folks who share versions of  Governor Scott’s viewpoint. Even among the guild of anthropologists there is an underlying insecurity. Maybe, we worry,  there is no real value to the discipline: hence the many exhortations to make it count and to assert that one’s work is in fact making a difference.

Let’s not forget the other side of the public coin of imagination: the new age defenders who are valiantly selling coffee table books while saving the worlds languages, peoples, and special places. Whereas the Rick Scotts of the world focus on anthropology’s deficits (materially and figuratively), the new agers celebrate cultural diversity and their unique ability to translate this wonder of human diversity for the common man and woman.

“Renowned anthropologist’s first lecture earns applause and praise” begins the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of a recent appointment to UBC’s department of anthropology. “African voodoo, Haitian zombies, shamanic healing and a live demonstration of paralytic blow darts are all par for the course in [this]s first-year anthropology class.”

This is a kind of anthropology that captures public perception just as strongly as the Rick Scott version. It’s not that this type of anthropology builds the economy (at least not a wider public economy). This anthropology plays on populist and colonialist ideas of the noble savage, the wonder at the exotic, and the desire to possess the experience of difference.

Both public images of anthropology are partially correct. Perhaps guild members don’t like this representation, but a lot of mainstream anthropology is essentially locked within obscure debates (nothing in principle wrong with that) impenetrable to wider publics. The guild has deserted the main stage to the curators of cross-cultural exoticism. Charming crusaders stand on the stage in front of images of Indigenous peoples selling the masses an image of anthropology that makes the mainstream of the guild cringe.

That said I want to make clear that I do find value in a theoretically informed, content rich anthropology irrespective of whether it does anything practical or not. There is a place for an intellectual pursuit not constrained by the real politic of capitalism and related political struggles. I appreciate that my critique of theory rich anthropology can rankle. I also know that from time to time I also indulge in the delight of theory for theory sake. Today’s presentation, however,  is about the idea of a useful anthropology; anthropology that might make a difference.

Outside the mainstream of theorists and performers are a few of us whose membership in the guild harkens back to an earlier moment when we may well have used labels like science, objectives, and rigorous methodology in place of reflection, entanglement, or complicate.

We are a strange small corps of Canadian anthropologists who work preparing expert opinions and traditional use studies with and on behalf of First Nations in their struggle to defend their rights and title under Canadian law (I have for a moment excluded those working for the private sector proponents). Our work deploys ideas of thorough empirical content driven research. The ultimate audience for our work is the court.

The anthropological guild’s contemporary models and theories are unhelpful in this endeavor, potentially even antagonistic to FN rights & title. It doesn’t help securing Aboriginal Rights and Title if one’s model of culture is rooted in ideas of entanglement, hybridity, creolization, etc. Like it or lump it practitioners are working in a landscape of certitudes, objective facts, real data. All of which has serious real world implications for the communities concerned. So we have an obligation to think very carefully about what we have been asked (even told) to do. This is not simply a matter of one’s personal career; these reports are tiny pieces in a social drama that will affect the life outcome of many.

So, is there a space in this landscape for an autonomous academic research path?

The current context in work with Indigenous communities raises a question about the possibility of autonomous academic research. This is not to say there are no academics doing research: there are. This is not to say that each academic project is tied to a corporate or Indigenous agenda: it is not. This does say that most projects—archaeological, sociocultural, biological—are embedded in a compromised position, and as university researchers we need to be honest about this. Raymond Williams spoke about how social productions are aligned to particular structures of power. He described how social products (which we can understand as research, reports, and publications) are necessarily aligned to the dominant social order. As producers of these works either we find ourselves unconsciously accepting our social location within the fields of power or we take a position of self-conscious alignment.

I would suggest that a good number of academic researchers have abdicated their own responsibility to self-consciously acknowledge their positionality by hiding behind a veil of collaborative, community-based research. In so doing they forge alliances with “their” community, ignore research that contradicts their own community’s outlook, but then consider their work autonomous and objectively located above the fray of the corporate-counterpoint conflicts. That is, they act as though their own work is objective and somehow located outside of real contemporary struggles and conflicts. We can see this in a persistent academic orthodoxy that has emerged on the North Coast.

Finding a way out of such situations is difficult. I know. I personally have to deal with similar pressures in my own work on the North Coast. It’s not that people try to compel conclusions directly—they don’t—but one does know what it is they hope for. It takes a certain resolve to stand up in front of a room of hereditary leaders and offer a report that may not be to their liking. However, to be an effective resource and a true collaborative partner one must be willing to be honest and direct.

I suspect that my social location as Tsimshian, with real roots in the North Coast, gives me a perspective that provides guidance to my academic training. My academic training also provides guidance and context to my Tsimshian perspectives. This hybridized social location simultaneously positions me as outsider and insider. I am in this sense able to equivocate between perspectives. It is not always a comfortable position. It does, however, provide a vantage point to see that others, without social ties in the Tsimshain world, worry they are vulnerable to exclusion and desperately want to find their place on a team. Thus they blind themselves to their own engagement in the production of stories that masquerade as objectivist academic publications.

Many years ago Del Jones critiqued the naiveté of the outsiders coming to do “research for the community.” But who was the community? How did the outsider choose between factions within the community? Did the outsider even understand that such factions exist? How do these choices (made unwittingly or otherwise) shape the outsider’s alliances with other researchers? One of the inopportune lessons taken from the radical critique of anthropology is that all research must be for the community, even when the researcher has no understanding of whom or what might in fact constitute “the community.”

Academic research in decolonizing contexts will necessarily be embedded in current and historical conflicts and struggles. Claiming that one community has authorized a project does not negate the possibility that another community is opposed to the same project. Even within a particular community, the existence of factions and divisions will productively suggest the real possibility that “the community” is itself a figment of the researcher’s imagination. Ultimately, the obligation rests with the academic researcher to acknowledge and identify the ways in which one’s own work is embedded and aligned with local and larger social forces. To ignore that and to imply that one’s work is simply a matter of evidence and testing reveals a kind of intellectual bankruptcy.

Increasingly Anglo-Canadian anthropology is practiced by a guild that is more and more controlled by people dislocated from the places they work, by the performers of exotica, and by the corporate managers who have taken hold of our universities.

As a discipline anthropology has no agency, no unifying mission, no manifest destiny to be the universal comparative science.  As method, as part of a social tool kit, anthropology does has a place within the landscape of Indigenous North America. For the moment anthropologists need to set aside any naive belief in a capacity to conduct autonomous research or that they build local capacity through their own research. The value of anthropology is as method operating under the discipline of Indigenous peoples.





A Statement on the US Police State

A version of the following statement was approved on Friday by the section assembly of the American Anthropological Association. As the President of one of the sections (Society for the Anthropology of Work) I participated in the discussions and urged the assembly to pass the statement. Personally, I found some issues with the wording of the statement, but was in full agreement with the intend, the importance, and the timeliness of the resolution. What follows is my personal revision of the statement. 

As a professional Canadian anthropologist I share the outrage expressed by my U.S. colleagues over the failure of the Ferguson and Staten Island grad juries to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the dismissal of the case against the officer who killed 7 year old Aiyanna Jones.  In the hundred days since the killing of Michael Brown, U.S. police forces have also killed 12 year old Tamar Rice, Ezell Ford, Darien Hunt, Aura Rain Rosser, Tanisha Anderso, Roshad McIntosh, Akai Gurley, Vonderitt Myers, and Rumain Brisbon, among others. These incidents reflect a blatant disregard for the value and dignity of their lives and the communities in which they live.  These events are representative of a broader U.S. history of systematic anti-black violence, dating back to enslavement, lynch laws, and the prison-industrial complex that affects black Latino, and Indigenous children, men, women, and gender queer people.

As a member of an academic discipline that rose on the backs of research conducted on and about my people, Indigenous North Americans, I understand the roots of state violence.  While U.S.  ideologies hold that we are all equal under the law, this has never been the case, and in fact inequality has been structured into the justice system from the start and is currently escalating in the U.S. via the militarization of local police forces.

To this end the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association is called upon to:

  • make a formal statement condemning these activities and structural conditions.
  • create a task force on police brutality and extra-judicial violence; and
  • call on the U.S. Justice Department to review the use of force by police and to make a commitment to working for the eradication of racism and racialized state violence.

Charles R Menzies