Decolonization and the anti-colonial struggles of urban Indigenous kin
Red Braid is an Indigenous sovereigntist organization. We see the rematriation of all lands occupied by the settler colonial nation states of Canada and the United States as the first and most meaningful step towards developing a decolonial, socialist federation in their place.
Our work within Red Braid, as the Indigenous Leadership Council, is to build Indigenous leadership within struggles that often include non-Indigenous communities. In subaltern communities, and particularly in low-income communities that are unhoused and extremely criminalized, state and civil society pressure on the community as a whole can make it difficult for Indigenous people to identify as Indigenous in general, and to name and struggle against settler colonialism in particular. Defending the low-income community as a whole can make it difficult to name and fight against colonial ideas, racism, and anti-Indigenous gender violence within the community.
Our organizing carves out space for low-income Indigenous people to identify and fight colonialism, in order to decolonize the urban Indigenous community, alongside parallel struggle against capitalism. We think of these struggles as Indigenous community defense and home defense struggles.
To be Indigenous and exercise Indigeneity is to defend Indigenous sovereignty, no matter where we are. To struggle for sovereignty is to defend the land, Indigenous homes, lives, communities, and therefore, nationhood.
To be Indigenous means we have not been colonized. We have been here since time immemorial. If colonization defined Indigeneity – or if Indigenous peoples were fully colonized – then that would mean Indigenous peoples had been assimilated into the class structure of capitalist society. Despite hundreds of years of trying, the settler colonial project has not assimilated or eliminated the many nations of Indigenous people.
Indigeneity is not defined by colonial dispossession because Indigenous nations retain relations that have been practiced for thousands of years between members of each nation, and between different nations. Consensual, non-colonial relations between Indigenous nations and non-Indigenous inhabitants of Indigenous territories can be nurtured only by recognizing and practicing these Indigenous national relationships, not by continuing to refuse and repress them.
Indigeneity is kinship. Indigenous relationships are defined by reciprocity, not antagonism. The spirit world is a space of language and interaction between one and another, sidestepping the “self and other” binary that structures European methods of understanding being. Indigenous economies interact with lands as non-human relations, essential to, not oppositional to, human being.
Reciprocity and kinship, including with the spirit world, sets Indigenous laws and ways of being on a different footing than European thought, including Marxism. But the arrival of European power, its thought, property forms, state power structures, and murderous violence, has interrupted Indigenous nationhood, social structures, and economies, transforming Indigenous being forever.
Capitalist property forms are also knowledge systems. Fluid networks between humans and non humans have been disrupted and replaced with private property and extractive economies, which are one way relationships. Likewide, recovering Indigenous ontologies, ways of being, knowledge systems, and relations with eachother and the land, is synonymous with defending the earth. Neither capitalist profit motives nor enlightenment ideals of industrialization present in European-style communism can address the apocalyptic climate crisis.
As nations, Indigenous peoples are outside the regular production and reproduction of capitalism. Every aspect of our lives, nationhood, and community is attacked because our land relations are antagonistic to the capitalist economy. Indigenous nations in Canada and the United States have their lands and communities imprisoned within the borders of the empire, so their relationship to Canada-Euro-American imperialism is different than their relationship to Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. So while individual Indigenous people may be working class or petit bourgeois, Indigenous nationhood, and the struggle for decolonization, is outside and inimical to the settler colonial national projects of Canada and the USA.
The violence of colonialism produced the setting for how we must understand Indigeneity today, against and through the settler colonial reality imposed by Canada and the USA, and by settler majority populations.
If not for settler colonialism, Indigenous peoples would be Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Kwikwetlem, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Gitxsan, Mi’kmaq, and hundreds of other nations. To be “Indigenous” is for these many national identities to share a singular opposition to the external threat of an imperialist power that threatens to separate the people from the land, destroy them, dispossess them, and to displace their land-relations, replacing reciprocity with property.
There is a difference between our claim that Indigenous nations are all united in opposition to settler colonial nation states and the “pan-Indigenous” claims popular during the Red Power movements of the 1970s. Red Braid understands decolonization as a national project that must be carried out by each Indigenous nation on their own terms, on their own lands, in relation to other Indigenous nations around them, through the expression and practice of their own national sovereignty on their own terms. But the common problem faced by each and every one of these nations, so long as they pursue their full sovereign nationhood, including economically, and not a form of assimilated recognition or reconciliation with Canada or the USA, is the settler colonial nation state. Urban Indigenous people, who make up more than half of all Indigenous peoples within the borders of both Canada and the USA, play an important role in this anti-colonial and decolonial project.
Indigenous peoples from territories in the global south, whose lands are within the borders of nation states that are also dominated by Euro-American imperialism, are also displaced into cities and towns on Indigenous lands that are not their own. Indigenous peoples displaced by military and economic pressure from continents of the global south into what George Manuel called the “fourth world” of Canada’s colonial occupation raise possibilities of defining levels of urban Indigeneity as global, and of global anti-colonial alliances. But our discussion here is limited to considering the already complicated problem of relations between Indigenous peoples who share the problem of their nations being directly occupied by the settler colonial nation states of Canada and the United States.
Like all Indigenous people, urban Indigenous people have been dispossessed of their lands and the full exercise of national sovereignty by colonial occupation, but urban Indigenous people have also been displaced from their home territories and therefore cut off from the everyday practice of direct land relations.
But although urban Indigenous people are forced to sell their labour power, it would be muddying, mystifying their ongoing colonial relationship to capitalism, to call them working class. The difference between Indigenous workers and the working class is that an Indigenous worker’s relationship to capitalism is mediated through the broader structure of their legal and national relationship to colonial power.
Neoliberal, financialized capitalism does not have the same imperative to reproduce the labour power of a local working class that national-industrial capitalism once did, but colonialism is worse than indifferent to the reproduction of Indigenous peoples: colonialism is exterminationist.
The Indigenous work of continuing to fight for sovereignty makes urban Indigenous people different than the working class even though they have to work, or have to buy things to eat and pay rent to stay indoors.
Urban Indigenous peoples have an uninterrupted unity with the land, and Canada knows this. Colonial violence targets Indigenous people for destruction regardless of whether we are in the streets of cities or on the land. The genocidal gender violence directed at Indigenous women does not differentiate between whether we are on reserve, on the land, or sleeping unsheltered on the streets. Indigenous people represent the land, unconquered and still living, even in the city.
The colonial system steals the land. So with it, Indigenous people are “stolen.” But urban Indigenous people are fighting to get away from the colonial and capitalist system, to escape from the grasp of the system trying to steal Indigenous people and lands. Destiny Morris, a young Indigenous retail worker and member of ILC, explains that even though she is forced to work a wage labour job within capitalist production, “We are fighting to keep our Indigeneity and for future generations to express more of it.”
Anti-colonial struggle in the city
Anti-colonial struggle is the more straightforward part of this Indigenous national project. Anti-colonial struggle is the opposition to all forms of settler colonial power, anti-Indigenous racism, and imperialist theft of sovereign lands.
Every city and town in Canada and the USA is Indigenous territory. Suffocating the earth under pavement does not erase Indigenous land title. And also, the built form of cities and towns is possible only through the coalescing of Indigenous lands into a single place, as “dead” relations. The stone, crushed and processed into the concrete of Vancouver’s streets, and the iron and lead that pipes waters routed from the aquifers of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations, has been mined in quarries on the unceded lands of the Skwah nation in the Sto:lo territory. The natural gas pumped into the heaters and stove units of each home is stolen from the grounds of Treaty 8 Nations, the Dog River, Fort Nelson, Halfway River, Prophet River, Salteau, and West Moberly First Nations. The lumber used to frame those homes was logged from the lands of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth. Electricity comes, travelling across the lands of innumerable nations, from hydroelectric plants on the lands of the Sekani. The grain for breads and cattle for meat come from farm lands stolen from Cree, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot nations. The coffee that helps us make it through our days is grown on lands stolen from Indigenous people in Latin America and Africa. Settler colonialism and capitalism have already produced each city as a space composed of many Indigenous nations.
There is a strategic advantage to anti-colonial struggles in the city because the city is not only a destination for stolen land wealth; it is also a transfer point on to global markets. Urban Indigenous people organize anti-colonial actions when they blockade rail lines, ports, and highways. Choking off the transfer of stolen Indigenous wealth into capitalist markets is the exercise of the strategic slogan that “the front lines are everywhere.” As a strategy of blocking the theft of Indigenous lands, there is a continuum between the front line of Indigenous nations blockading the passage of a pipeline through Indigenous territory at Standing Rock or Unist’ot’en, and the front line of urban Indigenous people blockading, along with the Squamish and Tsleil Waututh nations whose lands Vancouver occupies, the shipment of bitumen from the port of Vancouver.
Anti-colonial struggle is led by Indigenous nations, who lead and often bear the entire burden of fighting colonial power and extraction, but its character is expansive. Colonialism is a braid in the global process of capitalist production that makes each Indigenous nation’s anti-colonial struggle objectively also anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, a central part of an international struggle against imperialist domination of the world.
Decolonizing the city
Decolonialism is a more complicated problem for urban Indigenous people. Because while anyone, Indigenous or not, can get involved in anti-colonial activity, decolonization is more than refusal, it means the substitution of colonial power for Indigenous sovereignty, of colonial dehumanization for Indigenous self-realization. There appears to be a contradiction here. If Indigenous sovereignty is necessarily national, and not a single pan-Indigenous project, then how can urban Indigenous people, who are not living on their traditional territories and not involved in their own particular national resurgence, decolonize?
It would be a mistake to think of Indigenous nations as fixed, either in cultural time or in population. Indigenous nationhood has never been static or free from outside interruption and influence. Indigenous peoples have always interacted with other nations, exchanging at all levels: culture, trade, and the migration movement of individuals between nations.
The trans-national presence of emissaries from many Indigenous nations in cities and towns presents a challenge for decolonization, and the contributions that these multinational relations can make to decolonial struggle will differ from the contributions made by members of a particular nation, but displaced, urban Indigenous people must make contributions to decolonial worlds through the ways available to them in each circumstance.
Cities and towns are points of resistance that bring Indigenous people together by strategic necessity, and in those interactions, decolonial possibilities arise. In discussions of decolonial relations to Indigenous lands, there is a tendency to centre concerns about white settlers. To centre the relationships between nations of Indigenous peoples, including those displaced to a certain nation’s lands, means approaching these relational problems as an anti-colonial alliance with the possibility of developing decolonial relations. Urban Indigenous people displaced from other territories occupied by Canada or the USA share political understandings of histories facing a common enemy’s singular strategies of domination, and these relations can be organized around contributions to anti-colonial struggle.
The reason that urban Indigenous leadership of anti-colonial struggles can lead to decolonial relationships is because these struggles are theatres for new forms of kinship practices, and therefore relations. Urban Indigenous people continue traditional, national kinship structures, beliefs and spiritual practices when displaced into cities. And we also adapt to urban contexts and to social contexts along with peoples from other Indigenous nations, creating resistant forms of kinship.
The kinship structures of Indigenous families in the Nuu-Chah-Nulth nation, for example, are more of a circle than a triangle. Destiny Morris of the Wolf Clan of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth nation explains, “In our heritage, we lived in longhouses that could fit up to 200 people, whereas the nuclear family is about a mother and a father.”
Agents of British and then Canadian and US American colonialism set out to destroy Indigenous kinship structures with missionaries, the introduction of European patriarchal gender roles and power, organized starvation and immiseration, residential schools, child apprehensions, foster care, homelessness, and criminalization and mass incarceration.
The social service, police, army, and judicial agencies of the Canadian nation state are colonial, and remain exterminationist, targeting Indigenous kinship relations. Generations of land theft and poverty have inflated the numbers of Indigenous people amongst the urban poor and unhoused. Urban Indigenous people have been fed into the jaws of Canada’s disciplinary, punitive, and soft power reformer institutions.
In 2020, thirty percent of men and forty-two percent of women in federal prisons in Canada are Indigenous. Forty percent of people recorded as unhoused in Vancouver identify as Indigenous. And more than fifty percent of children in foster care are Indigenous. A Ministry of Family Development report from 2016 said that 43% of apprehensions of Indigenous children were because the parent was “unable/unwilling to care.” According to MCFD’s own report, only 0.7% of kids were apprehended due to sexual abuse. Indigenous kids are stolen by the state because of the settler colonial impoverishment of Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous people dragged into reformer institutions suffer attacks on their kinship relations. Most homeless shelters are gender segregated and do not allow children. The same goes for “supportive” housing, which is the only form of social housing built in British Columbia. Children are not allowed in the tiny, single rooms of supportive housing, so to get a room off the streets means being institutionalized away from your kids.
Other kinship ties are also broken by these institutions, like street families. Supportive housing usually does not allow guests, and almost always forbids overnight guests. And housing agency interrelationships with police mean that residents are more highly surveilled, policed, and likely to be arrested. Supportive housing, like other Canadian institutions, is designed to maintain Indigenous homelessness and isolation, fracturing kinship relations.
Anti-colonial struggle has decolonial possibilities because urban Indigenous people organizing together as Indigenous people immediately establishes kinship ties. Talking circles create a space for communal healing that treats the trauma any Indigenous person has suffered as a political problem. One person’s feeling of pain and shame can become a problem for all Indigenous people; a problem of colonialism; a problem to fight all together. To unravel something that has been wrapped into your brain by colonizers is to take away something they have tried to do to you.
Taking action together in struggle continues the work of the circle. That’s the difference between bourgeois therapy and a revolutionary talking circle. Therapy is a professional relationship or a confidential process where each person speaking and being witnessed and supported is the goal. The revolutionary talking circle creates collective Indigenous subjectivities that become stronger and more sure through action.
The inheritance of Urban Indigenous power and the role of organization
The Indigenous Leadership Council’s goal is to organize urban Indigenous communities, in order to be able to exercise anti-colonial power and defend our lives against the murderous machinery of settler colonialism, and to contribute towards the total project of decolonization: the dissolution of Canada and the United States as occupying settler colonial nation states, the rematriation of all lands to Indigenous nations, and the creation of a world that contains multitudes, in consensual, cooperative harmony with each other and the non-human world.
In this work, we inherit a tradition of Indigenous resistance against colonialism that has always been the clearest definition of what it means to be Indigenous as we, individuals and nations and displaced urban communities, survive Canada’s genocide. Urban Indigenous people were the leaders of the groups that organized the Red Power movement in the 1970s, we were the ones who organized the Native Youth Movement in the 1990s and RedWire Magazine in the 2000s. We are the ones who fought for decades against the genocide against women in the Downtown Eastside. And whenever nations on the land face down the RCMP, we are the ones who rise up and shut down the streets, the ports, and the rail lines in cities, alongside our relatives.
Indigenous communities have a deep rooted, national consciousness that binds us together, with or without formal organizations. It is the land and the spirit world that coordinates our sustained resistance, which erupts suddenly in brave disruptions and points of resistance. But in between our moments of beautiful resistance, urban Indigenous people can be consumed by the everyday problems of surviving colonial occupation. We are everywhere, but we can be hard to find.
ILC is an Indigenous-focused space first, where Indigenous revolutionaries who are dedicated to fight within the international, braided movement against colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, can learn and teach protocols for our own work, and guide the strategic unity between our autonomous organizing space and non-Indigenous revolutionary fighters both inside and outside Red Braid. We will protect Indigenous spaces for people inside the ILC and in our urban spaces, as we must also for the Wet’suwet’en on their territories.
We also organize to support and advance struggles to defend the land against resource extraction, dispossession, and national domination. We think of these struggles as land defence. Urban Indigenous people are not “allies” in land defence struggles, we are part of land defence because Indigenous people and communities are inseparable from the land. As urban Indigenous people, we can use our tactical advantage in cities and towns to shut down the transit hubs, financial office towers, and city centres that direct resource extraction.
Urban Indigenous people survive a long moment of everyday crisis. Colonial violence against urban Indigenous people is defined by monotony and predictability, not by dramatic events. We know the police will stop us and steal our belongings and harass us and beat us and then arrest us for assault of a police officer. We know the white men at the bus stop will sneer or whisper or yell or follow us. We know that bosses will fire us, landlords will evict us, social workers will apprehend our kids. The Indigenous Leadership Council adds to our long, powerful inheritance of Indigenous resistance, by fighting to understand and fight this urban colonialism together.