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Red Skin, White Masks

New book by Glen Coulthard explores the kinder, gentler colonialism of the Canadian state

by Ted Rutland

Red Skin, White Masks
Red Skin, White Masks

In the last ten years, Glen Coulthard had become an essential voice on contemporary settler colonialism and Indigenous resurgence on Turtle Island. A member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and professor at the University of British Columbia, Coulthard’s interventions have appeared in both academic and activist venues, and he seems just as comfortable discussing political theory in the pages of an academic journal as he does addressing questions of anti-colonial strategy in blog entries, magazine articles, and interviews. His recently published book, Red Skin, White Masks, carries the intellectual breadth and political urgency of his earlier interventions into the richer, more sustained exploration that a book-length discussion enables. The result is powerful, captivating, and unsettling in various ways – a book that thinks deeply so that we might act radically.

The book opens with a patient and compelling reformulation of Marxist theory, particularly the famous “primitive accumulation” thesis that is supposed to explain the historic transition from feudal to capitalist modes of production. For Marx, this transition was one of violence, blood, and fire, as noncapitalist producers and communities were dispossessed of their land-based forms of production and subsistence in order to create the two major preconditions of capitalist society: the private ownership of once-communal land and resources, and the existence of a class of workers with no other source of survival than continually selling their labour for a wage.  

Coulthard finds this to be a relatively accurate description of the logic of contemporary settler colonialism, though he maintains that certain amendments to the thesis need to be made. Whereas Marx saw primitive accumulation as a one-time historical event, Coulthard sees it as an enduring process or structure that continues to dispossess and proletarianize Indigenous populations into the present. Whereas Marx proposed (at least in his early work) that the dissolution of precapitalist forms of life would ultimately enable the creation of a substantially better, post-feudal and post-capitalist society, Coulthard insists on the enduring value of the Indigenous land-based forms of life that primitive accumulation seeks to eliminate. Whereas, finally, Marx saw primitive accumulation as an essentially violent process, Coulthard argues that it has tended to occur, in the post-1960s period, less through overt violence and coercion than through “the asymmetrical exchange of mediated forms of state recognition and accommodation” (p. 15). The latter strategy Coulthard calls, for short, “the colonial politics of recognition,” and its dissection and rejection are the overarching aims of Red Skin, White Masks.

One of the problems with the colonial politics of recognition is that it does not necessarily seem to be “colonial politics” at all. Emerging in the aftermath of the 1969 Federal “White Paper” debate, the strategy includes a wide range of policies and practices that seek to bring Indigenous claims to nationhood and self-determination into the enduring structure of settler state sovereignty. Practically speaking, the strategy typically entails an official recognition of Indigenous identity and culture, as well as the transfer of (limited) control over land, resources, and political decision making from the settler state to Indigenous communities. When contrasted with the state’s prior approach to Indigenous people – a centuries-long campaign of forced exclusion and assimilation that, as Coulthard puts it, aimed to eliminate Indigenous people “if not physically, then as cultural, political, and legal peoples distinguishable from the rest of Canadian society” (p. 4) – the politics of recognition might seem to be non-colonial, even modestly anti-colonial, in its orientation.

And yet, Coulthard argues, this strategy continues to encase Indigenous political demands and forms of life within narrow and ultimately fatal boundaries. Indigenous nations are “recognized” as such; they are depicted as equivalent or homologous to the Canadian nation, and settler state consultations with Indigenous communities are often described as a symmetrical “nation to nation” dialogue. Time after time, however, Indigenous people have been denied the expansive forms of authority and jurisdiction afforded to the Canadian nation and state, even within territories officially recognized as theirs. Indigenous rights and identities are recognized, Coulthard concludes, only to the extent that this leaves intact the settler state’s exclusive and superordinate control over natural resources, economic development, environmental protection, infrastructure, immigration – in short, the entire “legal, political, and economic framework of the colonial relationship itself” (p. 41). The ruse of recognition is thus its assurance that Indigenous political and cultural demands can be accommodated and sustained within the structure of settler sovereignty that has historically rendered them unviable.

Coulthard’s analysis of the colonial politics of recognition moves patiently and incisively through a series of significant political decisions, court cases, and political theories. The work of Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser, and Seyla Benhabib is discussed at length. This work’s role in shoring up settler colonialism through progressive theorizing that nevertheless positions Indigenous people as another “nation” or “culture” to be governed by the settler state is persuasively demonstrated. The project of Canadian-Indigenous “reconciliation,” the cornerstone of Canadian aboriginal policy making since the mid-1990s, is similarly dissected. To be produced, Coulthard argues, reconciliation requires that colonial violence be located firmly in the past, an “event” that endures into the present only as trauma or repercussions, and therefore forecloses attention to the ongoing dispossession and subjugation of Indigenous people in Canada.

Particularly impressive, to me, is Coulthard’s analysis of the Dene’s political response to intensified resource extraction efforts in Denehdeh (also known as the Northwest Territories) in the 1970s. The response was facilitated by the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (IB-NWT), a coalition of sixteen NWT Dene communities formed in 1969. In 1976, in the midst of a state-led consultation regarding the potential construction of a territory-spanning gas pipeline, the IB-NWT released a powerful – and frankly beautiful – plan for the territory’s future. The plan, known as the “Agreement in Principle between the Dene Nation and Her Majesty the Queen,” called on the federal government to uphold the Dene’s right to self-determination in Denehdeh, including the practice of Dene languages and customs, as well as full political jurisdiction over various policy domains controlled by the federal and territorial governments.

Afforded these powers, the Dene would not simply prohibit the construction of the proposed pipeline, but also introduce an entirely different political economy in the North: political institutions would be founded on traditional principles of popular sovereignty and consensus decision making; the “externally initiated economy” of corporate resource extraction would be disbanded; and a new economy based on renewable resource activities like hunting and fishing, as well as community scale and cooperatively run industries, would be developed. While the restoration of Dene sovereignty was essential to the plan, the IB-NWT later made clear that all residents of Denehdeh, Indigenous and settler, would be welcome to stay in the territory and participate as equals in the new society. Predictably, the “Agreement” was rejected by the federal government. What followed was a drawn out (12-14 year) negotiation process, during which Dene demands were gradually watered down and many Dene leaders began to speak of self-determination in the scaled-back terms of cultural rights and ownership of particular tracts of land. Evident in this process, Coulthard argues, is both the impossibly narrow terrain of state-afforded “recognition,” as well as the “psycho-affective” dynamic through which colonized subjects begin to adopt the forms of thought, speech, and desire that further their own domination.

Coulthard’s guide through much of the book is the Martinican theorist and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon. It is Fanon that allows Coulthard to dissect the hierarchical structure of so-called “recognition” in colonial contexts, as well as positively describe Indigenous self-affirmation and self-recognition – what Coulthard calls “resurgent recognition” – as a more viable alternative. And yet, Coulthard ultimately finds cause to move away from Fanon in certain respects. Fanon’s affirmation of Indigenous cultural practices, Coulthard explains, is wedded to a dialectical model in which these practices, essential to the early stages of anti-colonial struggle, must eventually be transcended. Pushing back against this aspect of Fanon’s thought opens up a clearing in which Coulthard can affirm the enduring value of Indigenous conceptions of social and ecological accountability, the re-establishment of which he argues is essential to Indigenous, and non-Indigenous, survival on this planet. The alternative to the colonial politics of recognition, for Coulthard, is thus a resurgent movement of self-recognition infused by a dynamic, “grounded” form of ethics: a conception of human and nonhuman relationships that stresses mutual obligation, reciprocity, and collective well-being.

The artful and persuasive theoretical work of Red Skin, White Masks ultimately subtends a series of clearly articulated political positions, including “five theses” on Indigenous resurgence and decolonization that are presented in the book’s final pages. The five theses express the essence of Coulthard’s thinking on political tactics (he supports direct action), capitalism (it “must die”), heteropatriarchy (it underpins settler colonialism and must be countered within anti-colonial movements), the nation-state (‘nuff said), and the city (it is a necessary site of anti-colonial struggle). For readers more familiar with Coulthard’s activist writing than with his political theorizing, the five theses are likely to be the most appreciated part of the book, and it is certainly possible to skip to the end and enjoy them. To do so, however, would be to grasp at conclusions without the carefully constructed and remarkably accessible analysis that supports them, and thus to miss an opportunity to have one’s thinking and being shaken, unsettled, and remade by an exceptional work of political history, analysis, and theory. The book deserves to be read in its entirety. There are very few books more essential to the struggle for an ecological, socially just, and decolonized future on Turtle Island than Red Skin, White Masks.

 


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Ted (Ted Rutland)
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