Decolonization and 'Occupy Wall Street'

Robert Desjarlait

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest has become a matter of debate in Indian country. Some have chosen to be included under the slogan "We Are The 99%"; others, like me, have not. Many of those who support OWS have come up with their own slogan: "Decolonize Wall Street." But I simply don’t believe that the indigenous nations on Turtle Island are a part of that 99% equation, let alone that the OWS movement is about decolonization.

One protester, Brendan Burke, said: "Everyone has this problem. White, black. Rich or poor. Where you live. Everyone has a financial inequity oppressing them."

I assume from his statement that Burke only sees things in white and black. Apparently he is color blind when it comes to red and brown.

As far as financial inequity is concerned, we, the red and the brown peoples of the Americas, have suffered financial inequity ever since the oppressors first invaded our shores. Socio-economic inequity began with the subjugation of our lands through treaties. Annuity payments were late and never the amount negotiated under the treaty. Supplies and food rations that were part of annuity payments were often appropriated by Indian agents and resold for higher prices.

The tragedy at Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag (Sandy Lake) exemplifies the socio-economic inequity of annuity payments. In the fall of 1850, nineteen Anishinaabeg bands from Wisconsin journeyed to Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag for annual annuity payments and supplies. The annuity payments and supplies were late and the people had to wait until early December before they received limited sums of money and available supplies. Trying to survive on spoiled and inadequate government rations while waiting for the annuities, 150 Anishinaabeg people died from dysentery and measles at Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag. Two-hundred and fifty more, mostly women, children and elders, died on their way back home to Wisconsin. This is but one example of the economic inequity that has been part of the indigenous experience in the United States.

OWS organizers have repeatedly stated the inspiration for their protest is the Arab Spring movement. If this is the case, one may ask how did the indigenous peoples of the Middle East fare from the Arab Spring?

In September 2011, Daniel Gabriel, the SUA Human Rights and UN NGO Director, stated: “While the media focuses all its energy on the Palestinian search for Statehood and the ‘Arab Spring’, it is the reduced indigenous populations of the Middle East who continue to lose out. Time and time again, the world demands justice, democracy and freedom in the Middle East, but it fails in its obligation to demand the same for the minority groups like the Arameans. Today we barely survive in our homeland. But tomorrow we may silently vanish from existence.”

If Arab Spring didn’t flourish for indigenous peoples in the Middle East, how can we expect it to flourish here? If the indigenous peoples in the Middle East are barely surviving in their homelands, can we expect the Arab Spring inspired movement on Wall Street to lessen the oppression in our homelands? Will the actions on Wall Street abate our youth crisis, our teen suicide rate, our domestic and sexual abuse, or our alcohol and substance abuse in Indian Country? Will it heal our broken families and communities? Will Wall Street stop the rape and plunder of Mother Earth by the mining, oil and energy interests? Will it halt the ecocide, ethnocide, linguicide, and genocide of the indigenous peoples in North America? If Gabriel’s words offer any insight, then our historical trauma will not lessen but increase. It will increase in the present generation to the Seventh Generation—and beyond.

Then there is the matter of decolonization. The question is: the decolonization of what, of whom? How can decolonization be a part of the process if the occupiers are occupying occupied land?

The dominance of a white majority involved with the OWS movement explains why decolonization isn’t included in the proposed list of demands issued on September 3. The list of demands includes

  • Separate Investment Banking from Commercial Banks;
  • Use Congressional authority to prosecute the Wall Street criminals responsible for 2008 crisis;
  • Cap the ability of corporations to contribute to political campaigns;
  • Congress pass the Buffett Rule, i.e., fair taxation of the rich and corporations;
  • Revamping Securities and Exchange Commission;
  • Pass effective law to limit the influence of lobbyists;
  • Pass law prohibiting former regulators to join corporations later. 

Where in this proposed list of demands is there anything remotely connected to decolonization? At its core, OWS is about corporate greed, financial accountability, and economic inequity. It’s about a change in the system, although, as Gabriel points out, an Arab Spring doesn’t bring change to the voices of the indigenous. If change is the basic tenant of the OWS movement, then this change should not be the exclusion of indigenous populations in the United States, rather, change should be inclusive.

The OWS movement is, at the present time, about money. The core message seems to be that corporate America and the wealthy need to share the profits. But the question is: How are those profits made? The profits of the wealthy are made through the industries they own. These industries fuel and generate profits. And they create jobs and programs.

The mining, oil, and energy industries generate enormous profits. Those profits come at a cost to Indian country, to say nothing of the environment in general. The new Indian Wars are about the opposition to ecocidal legislative policies and industries that endanger our homelands and our Mother Earth. Part of the struggle is trying to rise above the marginalization that began with colonization and continues through the corporate policies of the mining, oil, and energy industries.

According to Belinda Morris, ”Marginalization is as much a result of colonialism as it is corporatism. One is social, the other economic. From the indigenous standpoint ... the struggle does not and cannot exist in a vacuum, it must not allow itself to be subsumed by a movement that, to date, has shown little—if any—recognition of it, let alone respect for it.”

As evidenced by their proposed list of demands, the OWS movement has no intentions of recognizing indigenous concerns or demarginalizing indigenous peoples in the United States. And that’s because the mindset of the majority of occupiers is an intergenerational extension of a colonized mindset. In her Foreword to The New Resource Wars, Winona LaDuke provides insight into the colonized mindset. Regarding “Industrial society, or as some call it, ‘settler society,’” LaDuke writes:

“In industrial society, ‘man’s dominion over nature,’ has preempted the perception of Natural Law as central. Linear concepts of ‘progress’ dominate this worldview. From this perception of ‘progress’ as an essential component of societal development comes the perception of the natural world as a wilderness. This, of course, is the philosophical underpinning of colonialism and ‘conquest.’”

This way of thinking is also present in scientific systems of thought like ‘Darwinism,’ as well as in social interpretations of human behavior such as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ with its belief in some god-ordained right of some humans to dominate the earth. These concepts are central to the ... present state of relations between native and settler in North America and elsewhere.”

The “settler society” that LaDuke refers to isn’t from the historical past. It is present in non-indigenous society today. It is the mentality of this “settler society” permeating the mindset of the OWS movement. Their demands aren’t about decolonization. Rather, their demands are about wanting a share of the profits, profits that come from the rape and plunder of the earth and our indigenous homelands.

This isn’t to say that the OWS movement lacks merit. Economic inequities, corporate greed, the mortgage crisis, the unequal distribution of wealth are legitimate concerns. But those concerns have nothing to do with decolonization no environmental justice. As such, the 99% slogan is not inclusive of the myriad of environmental problems that plague both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the United States.

Wendy Makoons Geniusz writes: “Because of the colonization process, many of us no longer see the strength of our indigenous knowledge. Our minds have been colonized along with our land, resources, people. For us Anishinaabeg, the decolonization of gikendaasowin (Anishinaabe knowledge) is also part of the decolonization of ourselves.”

Geniusz points out that biskaabiiyang means to “to return to ourselves, to decolonize ourselves.”

For many of us, biskaabiiyang is a lifelong process. It is a journey to heal our traumatized inner spirit of the historical past and the historical present. For many of us, our involvement in the struggles that our communities and our homelands face is a part of that healing journey. From this prism, the Occupy movement can be viewed as recognizing the national trauma endured under Corporate America. But it isn’t about the biskaabiiyang of the American people. Rather, it’s about the collusion of corporations and the government to keep us under the yoke of economic inequity and the public’s demand for reformation of a corrupt capitalist system that has infested the world under the umbrella of globalization. And it is the reformation of this system that has led to the present movement of people on the streets of America.

However, should any kind of reformation occur, indigenous peoples will undoubtedly continue to be marginalized and their natural resources exploited. And, as before, we will continue our struggles in the shadows of democracy.

We will need to do this lest we silently vanish from existence.

Robert Desjarlait is from the Red Lake Ojibwe Reservation. He is a free-lance journalist and has been published on issues regarding Indian country. He is a co-founder of Protect Our Manoomin, an Anishinaabe grassroots organization battling against copper mining in northern Minnesota.

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randy's picture
Below is the introduction the OWS mission statement. The issue of respecting the rights, lands and cultures of indigenous people is at the very core of what OWS stands for. There is this global movement that recognizes the forces and practices that is destroying our mother earth and now is the time for Native Americans to step into leadership positions to make the spiritual connection back to our mother earth and all our relations. The "plan" is not clear but long journeys have many unseen turns and we must take one step at a time. At the battle lines between protesters and police we need Native American spiritual leaders to have prayer smoke and lead the way forward toward mutual respect and peace. The people are lacking spiritual focus that truly unites the collective power of spirit and the Native people hold a rare position of genuine trust and moral authority that commands respect. "As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments."
abram's picture
There haven't been any demands from OWS, yet. They have a list of points of unity, but no demands, yet. I would agree with you that OWS is not solely about decolonization. I would not say that it is not about decolonization all together, though. To your questions above, "If the indigenous peoples in the Middle East are barely surviving in their homelands, can we expect the Arab Spring inspired movement on Wall Street to lessen the oppression in our homelands? Will the actions on Wall Street abate our youth crisis, our teen suicide rate, our domestic and sexual abuse, or our alcohol and substance abuse in Indian Country? Will it heal our broken families and communities? Will Wall Street stop the rape and plunder of Mother Earth by the mining, oil and energy interests? Will it halt the ecocide, ethnocide, linguicide, and genocide of the indigenous peoples in North America?" . . . The answer to all the questions is probably, "No", if you're asking if the movement will fully take care of these issues. However, there are certainly many within OWS that are fighting this fight. Is OWS about decolonization? No, it is not. Certainly not as a whole movement. Within the movement, there are certainly people who are about decolonization, though. Maybe OWS will move into more direct and specific demands. I think the most likely outcome will be that groups will form within it that will take up specific demands and objectives. So, right now, it's a good platform for someone to voice their greivances. That includes decolonization. The process is democratic. The way to put decolonization on the list of demands is to propose it. It may not pass, but the process is open for anyone to propose it.
nancee's picture
If American Indians want more awareness from OWS, they should join in some of the many protests and educate the people there. What a wonderful opportunity to approach the open minded and make them aware of the .1 percent. Compare the current lack of interest in Indian Country with the awareness of the late 60s and early 70s when Alcatraz, WK II and occupation of the BIA coincided with student protests against Vietnam, the Black Power movement and other social uprisings. Add your stamp to this nascent movement.
johnbird's picture
I agree, abram. I have not seen a list of demands. I went to Occupy Wall Street for one week and have been participating in the Occupy movement in the city where I live and my sense is that there is no list of demands because they want to keep it broad and open so as not to get pigeonholed. I also agree with you that the Occupy movement is not solely about de-colonization but if you look at what the movement is really about; equity in the distribution system, fairness, justice, freedom, and participatory democracy (these are my observations from my personal experience with the movement)THAT ENTAILS DECOLONIZATION! Recently the Occupy Albuquerque group had this dialogue and invited Indigenous people to speak. They wanted to name the group Decolonize ABQ but the group ultimately settle on (Un)Occupy, which says the same but keeps the tie with the larger nationwide and worldwide movement. The Denver Occupy group unanimously adopted a ten point platform put by the Colorado chapter of AIM. I think to say at this point that the movement is exclusive of the needs of Indigenous people is a premature judgement. The author, I think, is speaking about the way Indigenous issues have largely been ignored by the current systems of power. The Occupy Movement is a direct push back and confrontation with the powers that be. It is NOT attempting to reform the current system, in my opinion. It is building a new one from the ground up. I encourage Indian people to investigate for themselves. Get to know the movement and the processes they are using. It is a very open process but it is a process we must learn. We don't know how to do participatory democracy anymore, even though it is our greatest tradition. We are all relearning together.
johnbird's picture
"indigenous peoples will undoubtedly continue to be marginalized and their natural resources exploited". I find this a very cynical and dis-empowering statement. Cynicism is often a mask for hopelessness and powerlessness. I will never buy into cynicism as a political strategy for Indian people. We have been fed that for long enough, by our leaders of all colors, including many of our red ones. That our struggles are somehow isolated from the larger struggles of humankind is in direct opposition to the spiritual teachings of our cultures, that we are all related, we are all connected. That the pain of one is the pain of all, the honor of one is the honor of all. I choose to cast cynicism, and its accompanying hopelessness and powerlessness aside, and hold the spiritual teachings in my heart and soul as I go forward. "Solidarity does not mean we are the same, it means we are all in the same struggle." I will remain in solidarity with the people of the world involved in the same struggle for justice.