Nationhood is a Verb

When settlers discuss the concept of Indigenous nationhood, the term ‘capacity’ often comes up, as in Indigenous peoples lack it.

There might be some recognition that we governed ourselves before contact, though rarely is any respect or understanding shown of those socio-political orders, but the opinion of the majority of Canadians is that we cannot govern ourselves today because we lack the capacity to do so.

The proof usually given to support this assertion is that we are not currently governing ourselves as nations, according to settler definitions of nationhood. To which I reply, of course we aren’t! Canada is attempting to govern us via colonial agents who aggressively interfere with our traditional socio-political orders, continuing to displace those orders with foreign structures dressed up in pseudo-Indigenous lingo.

What settlers seem to be expecting is that Indigenous nationhood will arise out of ‘succeeding’ through a Canadian model of governance, which will then prove that we have earned the right to ‘experiment’ with our traditional models. Predictably, there is the underlying message that we won’t ever really make it to that point, either because we will fail at the outset, or we will succeed at the first step and then recognise that the Canadian model is indeed the best for all of us.

The word capacity refers to the maximum amount that something can contain. Thus, according to many settlers, our spaces of nationhood are not full enough to function properly.

What exactly is lacking? Well all manner of stereotypes could be discussed at this point, but what it all really boils down to is that we do not govern ourselves as Canadians do, according to settler values. Few politicians will state it directly, but the fact remains that we will be seen as having capacity only when we have become fully assimilated as Canadians. At that point, all the resistance to our desires for autonomy and to be fully self-governing will melt away because they will no longer be ‘necessary.’ We will have become our own colonisers.

Although I disagree that Indigenous peoples lack the capacity to exercise Indigenous nationhood under the current colonial circumstances, I do not believe that our spaces of nationhood are full enough to function properly. And, unsurprisingly, my ideas about what belongs in those spaces differ considerably from settler expectations.

To me, Indigenous resurgence means filling Indigenous spaces with the exercise of our socio-political orders from the smallest individual unit to the largest communal grouping. These spaces will not become full with things, but with actions.

Resurgence means building capacity in the most authentic sense: beginning with the individual and spreading out to encompass all of our peoples within a web of interrelated relationships. It is the work of generations, and short-term advances that sacrifice these relationships for economic gain often leak out of our spaces of nationhood. I do not believe that our spaces must be completely filled before we are able to engage in Indigenous nationhood. In fact, unless we engage in action, we will never have hope of filling them. Nationhood is not a final destination it is a process of strengthening relationships—and claiming space.

All our actions today flow from the actions of those who have come before. We are not the starting point of resurgence. We exist stretched along a hoop, joined both to the past and to the future. Resurgence is renewal; it has always existed.

State violence has reached into our spaces of nationhood and scooped out tens of thousands of our children, scooped out hundreds of thousands of our tongues, scooped out millions of square kilometres of our lands and claimed all of it for Canada. Despite this, state violence has not managed to empty our spaces, much less destroy them outright. State violence has not completely stopped us from exercising Indigenous nationhood within our families, communities or territories. It has merely interfered with our ability to act. This interference is what reduces our capacity. The more we exercise our nationhood, the more capacity we have to act, renew, and resurge as nations.

To me, resurgence means we are committing ourselves to work that will provide foundations on which future generations can continue to build. To be honest, only this view prevents me from succumbing to despair. Only this view reminds me of the love that binds us to our ancestors and to our descendants.

Knowing that this work is generations in the doing does not diminish the energies required. We have a short period of time individually to make our actions count, to raise and support healthy families, to regrow our tongues, to relearn the contours of our lands.

For me, the most important actions we can take to resurge involve rebuilding and strengthening our relationships to the land, and to one another through our languages. Language and land can provide us with the guidance we need to restore all our relationships, to build capacity, to exercise Indigenous nationhood. Perhaps that sounds simple and trite, yet it is anything but. We struggle with profound disconnection and with state violence that has only grown hungrier while at the same time becoming more cleverly disguised.

Our resurgent actions are the only counter to the continuing interference of state violence.

This can be frightening, because it suggests that even our smallest actions are a threat to colonial domination and the suppression of Indigenous nationhood. So let’s turn that around and celebrate it: Even our smallest actions are a threat to colonial domination and suppression of Indigenous nationhood!

êkosi pitamâ


Originally published on the Indigenous Nationhood Movement website at on November 14, 2013.

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Categories: Culture, Decolonisation, First Nations, Indigenous law, Inuit, Law, Métis

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25 Responses to Nationhood is a Verb

  1. V Continental Indigenous Summit Abya Yala, La Maria Piendamo, Cuaca [Colombia] November 10-16, 2013 – SOUNDCLOUD: Interview with Nikki Tulley, Dineh – Navajo Nation and Marie-Eve Drouin Gagne, Canada

  2. S-kw'etu'? says:

    One of the largest hurdles we face is attempting to communicate with closed minded governments and people who look at us as inferior life forms or adopt the attitude that we are but trained or trainable chimps who could never understand. People who fail to understand themselves, or their own culture much less anyone else’s yet maintain that they know best. I often wonder if any children of any nation are being properly educated on our territories in this great modern new age of enlightenment.

    • parentassets says:

      I, sukhy dhiilon a teacher in Delta Bc.. am among the many– many teachers who are beginning to teach..beyond the ” text book” about the great culture of First nations. For example, this morning we discussed how ” using Dip nets” was a good way to fish as not all fish was caught some were left to go to the river to lay eggs for the future—..

      Students were curious to know why the European settlers did not adapt to the Aboriginal culture rather ” sent ” them to ” Reserves”. It is sad face=== of a young child..when he .she hears that children were taken away from their families..

      sorry for the typos..

      please keep sending me your words of wisdom

      We are all one

      • S-kw'etu'? says:

        ?úl-nú-msh-chálap Sukhy Dhiilon, this means thank you in one of the Salishan languages, we used to be multilingual people once but now have lost many words and there are very few fluent speakers left. ?úl-nú-msh-chálap for sharing your words and offering hope to all the children because that is the key to turning things around and re-creating healthy societies on the territories our ancestors refused to cede to the colonial usurpers.

        Also it is fully heartening to learn that you have gone beyond the text books, books like money are tools that have to be used carefully and not relied upon to fix the problems we have created.

        You are right we are all one, the us and them was created by the colonials and we all know their reasons for doing so but I do not want to waste any energy on them or that anymore.

        I was born assimilated, but did not accept and cannot accept Canadian culture because it requires me to despise myself and my heritage. I refuse and don’t believe anyone should be condemned for simply being born. No one should be punished based upon their race or sex or age.

        My Mom told me when I was very young something very, very important and that was that she had no favourites. she loved and cared for us all equally, she did this for all people, that is our way and that is something assimilation has not taken from many of us. This is something I would like to share with you because you are a teacher and equality is a very important lesson to instill into the young mind. Life is a journey Sukhy, if we are fortunate we all get to experience all of it, of being young with an open hungry mind, of being a powerful youth with no limits, of being an adult with limits and greater responsibilities and of being an elder who may require more help but also with so much experience and acquired knowledge to share. The key to life is living it and appreciating it fully no matter which stage you are in and we should be able to appreciate and exist with everyone around us and not have to suffer any type of bigotry or degraded especially for factors which are beyond our ability to change. Don’t pick favourites, appreciate them all for who they are, help them learn to appreciate themselves as equals so they will learn to work together because that will do so much in fixing the problems that have been created and re-establishing the communities my ancestors developed for all the upcoming generations to enjoy. No one is better than anyone else and all of life’s journey is a gift that is supposed to be enjoyed by everyone.

      • rurhie says:

        Thank you for going out of the box to teach our children. You are doing a very honorable job.

  3. Coty Savard says:

    As always, I am blown away by the wisdom of your words. This was extremely powerful, “State violence has reached into our spaces of nationhood and scooped out tens of thousands of our children, scooped out hundreds of thousands of our tongues, scooped out millions of square kilometres of our lands and claimed all of it for Canada. Despite this, state violence has not managed to empty our spaces, much less destroy them outright. State violence has not completely stopped us from exercising Indigenous nationhood within our families, communities or territories. It has merely interfered with our ability to act. This interference is what reduces our capacity. The more we exercise our nationhood, the more capacity we have to act, renew, and resurge as nations.”

  4. Theresa Lizotte…I so like the views you share here….have you heard of the Metis federation of Canada ? Its on FB, the web page is…..I think you will like it .

  5. c says:

    So true and so well written. Thank you

  6. Phil Caskanette says:

    Never have I read so many words with so little meaning. Not once did you say how your system of nationhood works, or how it is different from the one being “forced” on you. All you did was berate “colonial” governance, which by the way hasn’t been the case for 100 years or so. Synopsis – the white man is bad and stupid and the reason for all our problems. Try explaining yourselves better and maybe you’ll find they aren’t as stupid as you think.

    • You have utterly missed the point then. Indigenous peoples are as diverse as the landscape, and our individual socio-political orders reflect this diversity. If you want specifics, seek them out instead of waiting to be spoofed and convinced. There is plenty of information our there pertaining to specific Indigenous socio-political orders.

      Further, these words are not for you, they are for us. Your opinions on the matter are irrelevant. It is not up to you or other settlers to decide whether we’ve explained ourselves well enough for you to give us permission to exercise self-determination…and that point was laid out clearly in this article.

      It is laughable, and predictable, that you would claim colonial governance ended ‘100 years ago or so’. Ah yes, that fabled magical moment when the Canadian government stopped being a settler colonial government, and became legitimate. Hilarious.

  7. I subscribe to your writing due to the intelligence and sensitivity that you normally display. But I must say I am getting very upset by the constant use of the term “settler” that is finding widespread currency amongst the supporters of the aboriginal cause as it applies to all who are not of aboriginal descent. As far as I’m concerned it is the “N-word” and am deeply offended that it is used indiscriminately for a people who were born here and may have roots for as many as 20 generations.

    The current nation of Canada is a legitimate entity that is recognised by the United Nations and the World. We are not “occupiers” of a land that doesn’t belong to us. Mankind has been migrating across the face of the Earth for more than 60,000 years if the science of genetic anthropology is correct. We have crossed paths with other groups of humans many, many times, often with incredibly violent results. It is in our nature and a deep part of who we are as a species.

    This being said, we are more than brute beasts. We have made treaties with the indigenous peoples of Canada and we have been less than honourable in our dealings with them. A dark stain upon us, we of European ancestry, as a people.

    Over time as I have considered and read more it has become ever more clear to me that a new constitution needs to be created for our nation. One that doesn’t treat the peoples of Turtle Island as wards of the state, or of a conquered subject peoples, but as full partners the founding of this great enterprise known as Canada.

    • The current nation of Canada exists in great part on unceded Indigenous territories, and is a settler colonial state. To claim that settler colonialism is an inherent human trait that cannot be avoided, critiqued or denounced, is ridiculous and not founded in any fact whatsoever. We are not all fated to expand and claim the territories of others while rapaciously exploiting the natural resources for our benefit only. That is a choice that societies make, consciously.

      To then compare the term ‘settler’ to the ‘n-word’ is to engage in a deeper intellectual dishonesty. In no way is the term ‘settler’ rooted in centuries of enslavement ‘evolved’ into systemic and institutionalised racism. Not only are you denying the privilege inherent in being of European settler origin on these lands, you are attempting to claim that you face an oppression equal to that felt by the descendants of slaves? Are you seriously willing to make that claim? I think that a little reflection would cause you to change your mind in this regard.

      You might personally feel offended that you have been given a label, and this unique situation for you might chafe but it does not compare to the legislated and case law shaped labels imposed upon those of non-European decent and identity. Not in any way. Labels for us have an actual, direct impact on our lives. The term ‘settler’ merely makes you uncomfortable.

      You have explained why this makes you uncomfortable at least, which means you’ve thought about it a bit more deeply than some. It makes you uncomfortable because it suggests to you that your presence here may be less than wholly legitimate. I do in fact want you to think about that. Whether you have lived here for 20 generations (impossible by the way, that would put your first ancestor here back in the early 1400s and settlement did not really begin until the 1600s in Canada) or you arrived last week, the underlying issue of legitimacy is a live one. It does not, however, need to be a frightening one.

      The deliberate settlement of lands in order to claim ownership of them, was a specific tactic used to exert control over the Americas. That tactic was legitimised by the Romanus Pontifex, a Papal Bull which was one of three issued in the 1450s to give European explorers the legal right to claim ownership over any lands occupied by non-Christians. This is called the Doctrine of Discovery, and although it has been rejected in this century by Canadian courts as a legitimate method of gaining ownership of lands, it was nonetheless an important legal instrument for centuries. Under one system of law. Obviously this law was not universal and conflicted with the laws of many other societies.

      What has been increasingly recognised is that merely giving out free land to entice settlers to come and physically occupy lands, does not in fact extinguish the rights of the people who were already there. The Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear that thousands of kilometres of land in Canada do not actually belong to Canada, because they were never willingly given up.

      When that fact was explicitly acknowledged in 1997, no one was rounded up, branded a ‘settler’ and sent on their merry way back to Europe. Nor is anyone seriously advocating that this be done now. The fact is, the people living on these lands, all of them, are probably here to stay. That does not mean, however, that we need to ignore the fact that Canada simply does not own all the lands it exercises sovereignty over. Quite the opposite. If we are going to continue to live together in some semblance of peace, these issues absolutely MUST be confronted and dealt with in a way that serves us all.

      Settler is a useful term for this discourse. Settlers are people whose ancestors were agents of settlement as a method of claiming ownership to land here. Canadian law itself acknowledges that this tactic is not legitimate, and that land could not merely be taken up…it had to be the subject of treaty and ceded to Canada. Settlers also brought and imposed their political and legal systems. Canada has not been as quick to admit the illegitimacy of this, but inroads are being made.

      Further waves of immigration to Canada have occurred, bringing people here who are not of European decent and who were not agents of settlement and who did not impose their political and legal systems, but instead were made subject to them. Increasingly however, these people are also being absorbed into ongoing settlement tactics which continue to attempt to erode Indigenous rights to the land.

      Feeling offended does nothing, means nothing, solves nothing. Not only is it disingenuous to claim that the term is oppressive, there is the implicit suggestion that you should not be labelled because labels are inherently harmful. This ignores the way in which labels are currently being used against other groups, and demands the privileged status of being the only group to be ‘normal’ and ‘unlabelled’. That power dynamic absolutely must be questioned.

      So if you are made uncomfortable by the term, then it is doing what it is supposed to do. Getting you to think about a situation that is all too easy to ignore, even among those who claim to champion the rights of Indigenous peoples.

      • Thank you for your informative response.

        While I appreciate the explanation of the use of the term “settler” in the cooler environment of academia and social discourse, and do accept the usage and meaning you ascribe to it, there is no getting around the fact that it has the effect of delegitimizing the presence of a large number of peoples here in North America.

        I would also like to add that no where did I state that the history of this nation couldn’t be “critiqued or denounced”. There is quite a bit of our history that I find repugnant as well, even though a am a beneficiary to it. The state of oppression now facing many indigenous people in Canada is a direct result of the descendants of European ancestry’s failure to honour the commitments we had freely entered into. That can and must be corrected, the treaties must be renewed in good faith and a new Canadian nation brought forth in justice and mutual respect.

        You can’t do that by calling the people you wish to deal with names that they take offence to, nor can you do that by minimising their reactions to words that they find objectionable to.

        Insult, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

        Thank you once again for your writings and I look forward to your next article.

        • I think that if you assume that the kinds of drives that create settler colonialism are inherent and universal, then we have to in a way accept the results as unavoidable (therefore legitimate in some way). This is why I said that taking that view impedes the denouncing of it.

          The problem with the idea that people should stop using the term ‘settler’ because it offends some people, is that it once again takes away the power of Indigenous peoples to name their oppression, and the beneficiaries of that oppression. When we are denied language to express the fact that you are not us, how are we to speak of this difference? Are we supposed to tiptoe around the fact that the Canadian state has a plethora of terms and definitions for us and yet we are constantly being told that it is wrong of us to use names for non-Indigenous peoples?

          This is not a new request you are making, whether you know it or not. Where I come from, we refer to settlers in our language as moniyawak. Many people to whom this label apply object to the term and consider it racist and insulting. We are not the only Indigenous people who have been told that our words for settlers are hurtful and rude and should not be used. No doubt the term settler will be replaced with another, and we will be told yet again that this new term is unacceptable. What terms would be acceptable? Are we allowed to name settlers at all, or is the very fact of naming an insult?

          If people want to be our allies, and want to reconsider their positions as the beneficiaries of oppression, then their commitment cannot be predicated on whether they feel respected by us 100% of the time. To ask for that is to ignore that massive power imbalance still at play, which places settler concerns and views above the concerns and views of everyone else. To be perfectly blunt, we should not be expected to have to care if settlers feel offended by the term, or if they feel their concerns are being minimised when we continue to use the term. We have to have language to use to speak of these things, and that language cannot be dictated to us.

          No one who actually believes in restructuring a more just relationship in these lands, and who works towards that should be getting hung up this term. It is not inherently insulting, it does not tie into wider structures of oppressive power over you, and it does not define you in any way. Your actions do that. The same cannot be said of terms that are historically derogatory, and which do tie into wider structures of oppressive power.

          So on this we may have to agree to disagree. I think questioning the legitimacy of settlers as agents of settler colonialism is absolutely key to this entire discussion.

          • Otipemisiwak says:

            …meanwhile, moniyawak settlers everywhere proudly proclaim themselves ‘Canadians’ (a direct etymological bastardization of the Kanien’kéha term ‘Kanatiens’, which literally means ‘they sit in our village’). #irony

  8. deen says:

    Just found this on cbc this morning.What boggles the mind is that no lawyers seem to be fighting the government in light of this issue.How can any nation
    allow its children to be constantly stolen and killed or left to die under the guise of child protection.What are the real numbers of these child /baby deaths??Please take time to listen to the progam.Just click the link.
    Seems to me this is just the tip of the ice berg?


  9. deen says:

    Here the settler Michael Bradley tells the truth about his people.Now lets bring a few whites to the witness stand.Lets start with Mr Michael Bradley.
    Louis Farrakhan.The time and what must be done.
    “You may ask: “What makes people like that? What drives people like that, this ‘frustration’ and ‘disappointment’ that our desires were not realized?” There is a writer named Michael Bradley, who, in his book titled The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man’s Racism, Sexism And Aggression (1991 Kayode Pub. paperback edition), raises questions about his own White race: “Why are we like this?”
    When speaking of the “the aggressive and destructive acts of The Caucasians,” Mr. Bradley writes on page 13: “[Precisely because we realize ourselves to be unstable,] much effort has been expended in attempts to make sense out of our own apparently senseless behaviour.” And on page 28, he writes: “I will propose in this essay that the white race possesses an atypical level of aggression.”
    What is the definition of “atypical”? It’s an adjective that means “unusual, untypical, uncommon, unconventional, unorthodox, irregular, abnormal, anomalous, aberrant, and deviant.” On page 14, Mr. Bradley states: “It is in the sphere of ‘abnormal’ violence that we Caucasoids excel among races. … Intellectual violence is statistically rare among other races. Intellectual violence is typical of Caucasoids. Our wars of religion, our Inquisition, our philosophical conflicts have no parallel among yellow, red, brown or Black men. … It is this kind of violence that makes our history appear senseless to other men, and senseless and baffling even to ourselves.”
    When Mr. Bradley suggests that “scarcity of resources” and “survival of day-to-day cave life” is what caused Caucasians to become so aggressive, he states on page 26: “The Caucasoids, uniquely among the races of Mankind, evolved in a glacial”—or “cold”—“environment. There is an increasing body of scientific data suggesting that this group of men did develop in a narrow zone of life between fire and ice…between the cave fires and the savage cold”.

    • I am very, very hesitant to ascribe to any theory which tries to oversimplify things like this. ‘White’ is as much a racial construct as anything else, and has historically excluded many who are now included. Trying to understand the whys of historic patterns is fine, but when we delve into racial essentialism we’re ascribing to a deeply problematic analysis based in some of the worst psuedo-science in existence.

  10. Bruce Weaver says:

    Another thoughtful article, for which I offer thanks. It makes me wonder about the movement of Mohawks from New York to Ontario, particularly Deseronto. There was a displacement that was abetted by the Govt. and it was contemporary with the UEL movements into the St. Lawrence River regions around Cornwall. How do we understand these movements in light of your comments? Thanks Bruce

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