Occupy Wall Street Stirs Up Radical Ideas in Indian Country

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement may be the most significant social movement in the U.S. since the pre–Iraq War protests in 2002, which saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets in some cities. But OWS has more in common with the activism of the civil rights era than the antiwar protests because it exposes the imbalances of American society, and while Native people are acutely aware of those imbalances, many of them are questioning the terms of the OWS debate—they wonder, for example, what it really means to “occupy” Wall Street, or any place else in America for that matter?

As many Native bloggers and activists have pointed out, Wall Street is already occupied—it was (and is) the territory of the Lenape and other First Nations. That’s why some Native activists see decolonization as a more appropriate framework for any discussion of the current economic crisis. This has been expressed in many ways throughout Indian country. In Albuquerque, the OWS movement based on the campus of the University of New Mexico that had been calling itself “Occupy Burque” voted to adopt a new name: (Un)Occupy Albuquerque, linking corporate greed to the theft of Native land.

In early October, the Albuquerque (un)occupation movement enjoyed vigorous participation by the community, fueled in large part by energetic students skilled in the art of street activism. A blogger on the website DailyKos.com identified only as “evergreen2” noted that New Mexico, which is one of the most diverse states in the nation and is one of only four U.S. states with a majority-minority population—that is, less than 50 percent white—has a “very strong and vocal indigenous population” for whom the term occupy is problematic: “For New Mexico’s indigenous people, Occupy means 500 years of forced occupation of their lands, resources, cultures, power and voices by the imperial powers of both Spain and the United States. A big chunk of the 99 percent has been served pretty well by that arrangement. A smaller chunk hasn’t.”

The message is clear: While the OWS movement decries the corporate state which for decades has politically and economically disenfranchised the bottom 99 percent, there are some stunning differences among those 99-percenters. Alyosha Goldstein, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, argues in a recent article published on Counterpunch.org that the OWS movement would do well to

Indigenous People’s Resistance Day 2011 Poster

remember the messages of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign—that poverty and inequality were directly related to conditions of colonialism, racism and militarism. The coalitions that formed within a diverse spectrum of the poor and people of color coalesced during a six-week encampment in Washington, D.C. that became known as Resurrection City. Goldstein writes that “the disparate circumstances that motivated people to participate in the campaign produced multiple perspectives that could not be adequately expressed in a single set of demands—something that perhaps The New York Times today would deride as a ‘lack of clear messaging.’ But the form of the campaign itself—with its multiple contingents and numerous demands—underscored the irreducibility of its parts to a unified whole.”

The legacies of slavery, war and international trade agreements that favor corporations over people reverberates today in the widespread social displacement and poverty for African Americans, Mexican Americans and the ever-growing numbers of other ethnic minority populations. For them, the American Dream has turned out to be more mythology than reality. And the same is true for American Indians, and has been for more than 500 years now. Any American Dream—real or imagined—built on Indian lands obtained through violence is a constant reminder of the historical reality of colonialism and, from an indigenous perspective, shifts the terms of the OWS debate.

Put another way, perhaps OWS isn’t radical enough. Journalist and best-selling author Christopher Hedges, for example, believes that liberals who once stood for values like civil rights and equality for all have been co-opted by the corporate state “by having refused to question the utopian promises of unfettered capitalism and globalization and by condemning those who did.”

Hedges argued in a column on TruthOut.com that “hope in this age of bankrupt capitalism comes with the return of the language of class conflict and rebellion, language that has been purged from the lexicon of the liberal class, language that defines this new movement. This does not mean we have to agree with Karl Marx, who advocated violence and whose worship of the state as a utopian mechanism led to another form of enslavement of the working class, but we have to learn again to speak in the vocabulary Marx employed.”

Invoking the M word is enough to send most liberals scurrying, but for others it heralds a welcome return to the radical politics of the civil rights era. For Indian country (and arguably all Indigenous Peoples) Marxism can send a mixed and confusing message because of varying interpretations of Marx’s writings. His early work is often criticized as being Eurocentric and espousing a view of the inevitability of the development of the nationalist state, which assumes the necessary (if unfortunate) subjugation of Indigenous Peoples. However, his later work, after he had done an in-depth study of Haudenosaunee societies, reflects his admiration for American Indian cultures and their superiority to the industrialized West. For Marx, capitalism’s biggest threat was its obsession with turning land into private property, a conversion the West accelerated by dispossessing Indians of their lands. Since colonialism paved the way for capitalism to flourish in the New World, a Marxist critique of capitalism can be instructive for Native communities. Pointing out that colonialism made possible the institutions of today’s corrupt capitalist system naturally leads to a talk of decolonization. In the Bay Area, Native activists and intellectuals have seized upon this as part of their campaign to Decolonize Oakland.

But decolonization is not part of the OWS movement, which is why Native people must demand that they are included in this public dialogue now swirling around OWS. Decolonization is inevitably connected with capitalist exploitation, especially when Native lands are at stake. The Keystone XL Pipeline is a recent example of Indigenous Peoples alerting the public at large to problems created by capitalism in the context of colonial domination, and in a way that was significant for everyone concerned. In early November, people in Vancouver, British Columbia, led by First Nations people, marched in a protest against the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine on the Unuk River in Canada. One banner read defend the land—frack capitalism, a reference to the environmental risks posed by the mining practice of fracking. Also in November, a summit of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Hawaii sparked large protests and counter-summit meetings held by Native Hawaiian intellectuals and academics to address the abuses of transnational trade agreements in Pacific Rim and Asian nations and their impacts on indigenous populations. Many Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) raised the issue of U.S.’s illegal annexation of the Hawaiian Islands and demanded that lands be given back.

While it’s unlikely that Hawaii will be returned to the Kanaka Maoli and the Kingdom of Hawaii restored anytime soon, such demands from Indigenous Peoples demonstrate their tenacity and commitment to justice in a capitalist world build on colonial exploitation. If OWS aspires to bring on truly radical change, it should take a cue from Indigenous Peoples and rethink the idea of occupation altogether.

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lapulapu's picture
Submitted by lapulapu on
Excellent article- one of the best pieces I've read from any media outlet about OWS and the massive movement that has arisen. I would like to see more in-depth interviews with the Indigenous community activists who have been speaking out within OWS and Oakland/Bay Area organizing, especially Ohlone folks. Respect.

lemmingeater's picture
Submitted by lemmingeater on
As part of the Occupy Movement, I would like to clarify a few points. It is not true that the First Nations are not included in the Occupy Movement. All but 400 to 500 hundred vermin who run hedge funds and banks are included in the Occupy Movement. Aside from the fact that ours is a very liquid movement, pun intended, and little is set in stone one thing that is set in stone is that we are not occupying land, we are occupying the ability of 400 to 500 hundred vermin who run hedge funds and banks to buy Congress and run our government from there lairs, located on and around Wall St and Broad st, in New York City. Personally, I am proud of my Creek heritage and I do all I can to remind my brothers and sisters in the Movement that we are on occupied land and that First Nations should have first say in how this country is run but, we have to take the ownership away from Wall Street, first and the Elders can sort out the particulars after we've destroyed Wall Street (not a place, a cabal of vermin) In fact, OWS would be a lot closer to our goal with the leadership of Elders willing to come down down and teach us. More of us are willing to learn than you may think. There are many beliefs and ideas represented in the Movement; everything from Marxism to Socialism to Democracy to Anarchy but what is clearly missing are the ideas of the First Nations people. There is a national convention for OWS planned to take place in Philadelphia, July 4th, 2012 and I think the opportunity for the First Nations at such an event is huge.