Writer Taiaiake Alfred urges freedom from colonial thinking
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Problems in the Native community require uniquely Native
solutions, said cutting-edge American Indian scholar Taiaiake Alfred at a
recent Syracuse University lecture.
Alfred, a Mohawk who teaches in the Indigenous Governance Program at the
University of Victoria, British Columbia, discussed the contents of his new
book, "Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom" -- namely, ways
in which Natives can learn to live and think as Onkwehonkwe, original
people. The book, he said, is based on the experiences of Natives who have
accomplished this goal.
"It is time for our people to live again," the book begins. It goes on to
detail a journey away from the effects of the white invasion of the
Americas, which Alfred sees as the source of most major problems in Indian
"The journey is a living commitment to meaningful change in our lives by
... regenerating our cultures, and struggling against the forces that keep
us bound to our colonial past," Alfred wrote.
Colonial values have become ingrained in the Indian community, he said,
addressing a packed room at the Syracuse University College of Law. These
values, which run contrary to traditional Native beliefs, have caused
longstanding problems of the community, the body and the spirit.
"The most damaging aspect of colonization was the way it was premised on a
relationship of white domination and Indian subordination," said Scott
Lyons, a Native scholar and creative writing professor at Syracuse
University who attended Alfred's lecture.
This colonial notion of Indian inferiority was drilled into Native
communities throughout history, Lyons added. The policy of allotment, for
example -- privatizing and parceling out tribal land to individuals -- was
designed to create capitalistic values in the Indian community. Capitalism,
and the dependency on the non-Native world that necessarily accompanies it,
still dominates Indian life today.
For this reason, Alfred said, Natives have discovered that the legal and
legislative battles won by their communities over the last few decades are
what he called "hollow victories." Tribal courts and indigenous
governments, for instance, have arisen, and many Natives communities have
won independence from the United States or Canada. Too often, however,
these institutions resemble those of the colonizers. No real change can
come from the halls, desks and courts of such institutions.
"When it comes down to surviving or not surviving, none of these laws are
going to matter," said Regina Jones, an Oneida and the program coordinator
for Syracuse's Office of Multicultural Affairs, who also attended the
lecture. "What we really need is a society that doesn't depend on
Recalling his first two books, Alfred traced the evolution of Indian
resistance to colonial problems over the last few decades. Native scholars
and activists soon realized that legal victories were "very dangerous,"
leading to more dependency on white ways of thinking.
Alfred added that the academic world of Native studies is not immune to the
pitfalls of a colonial way of thinking. He sees that sometimes "being an
intellectual" can overshadow truly traditional Native point of view.
"There's a [Native] perspective ... a way of thinking that is oftentimes
lost in academia," he said.
Alfred's ideas are innovative in the academic world, said Lyons, but not in
traditional Native thinking.
In "Wasase," Alfred advocated a personal commitment to escaping colonialism
in daily life, from returning to traditional ways of eating to relearning
"It's an effort on the part of every individual to carry the weight of
living as an Onkwehonkwe," he said, adding that this is not an easy task.
Of the 13 Onkwehonkwe interviewed in "Wasase," all cited the difficulties
of living a life rooted in traditional values. One of the hardest to
overcome, Alfred said, is the bias of the outside world.
The psychology of colonized peoples has been explored in academic circles
by writers like Frantz Fanon, who famously analyzed the deforming effects
of colonization, but the way in which Alfred presented it is relatively
new. Alfred suggested that the rerooting of Natives in their traditional
values can and must be the source of inspiration for Native government.
Creating effective institutions without this traditional knowledge is
"It's putting the cart before the horse," he said.
The way of the warrior, he said, is what inspires this individual struggle,
and the word Wasase captures the spirit of this movement. Wasase is the
name of an ancient Mohawk warrior's ritual, the Thunder Dance, which
represents unity, strength and commitment to action.
"I'm talking about reviving the true spirit of being a warrior," he said.
This means facing bias and intolerance head-on. Only by facing bias and
economic problems the way that warriors once faced battles, on a deeply
personal level, will real progress be made, Alfred said.
"Change happens one warrior at a time."