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If Colonialism is a shape-shifter…

I’m boning up on my colonial theory as I write my dissertation, and I’ve been thinking more and more about my own relationship to colonialism(s) and how they manifest in Canada. I’ve written, previously, about my hesitation about using the term ‘settler’ without qualifying, locating, historicizing and complicating its use. My fear is that in applying the term generically in Indigenous-Settler solidarity efforts, we often stop the process there: labelling* (see, for example Smith 2013). And in applying it in such a decontextualised manner, it absolves all involved of making sure we are aware of the histories, relationships and paradoxes upon which that solidarity is built. Also, it fetishizes the act of solidarity, placing it within the relatively narrow public arena of Activism — which has its own complications. In my mind, solidarity is about being a decent human being. Listening to people, laughing, understanding your own tangled roots and connections to processes that dispossess Indigenous peoples across North America. Drinking tea. Telling good jokes (or failing and being teased). It’s not about getting gold stars for how many Indigenous (or people of colour) friends you have. It’s about continuously building positive, healthy, mutually respectful relationships that are cognizant of the broader historical, political and ideological processes that shape what Canada is today.

Decolonisation doesn’t always have to be capital P political. Sometimes, those who you are building solidarity with don’t want to engage in capital P politics because that already consumes 80% of their work day or time within their community. I know sometimes I just want to be silly and tell bad jokes, and it’s exhausting when someone wants to treat every interaction with me as an act of decolonial solidarity. Sometimes by imposing your need for solidarity*, you’re actually colonising spaces where folks have other ways of being political. It doesn’t always have to be about ‘organising’ in the ways we are used to in labour and counter-culture processes. You can engage in the gentle, quiet (but still powerful and effective) politics of the home, the workplace, and how you interact with people within the Indigenous territories you live. In fact, a lot of scholarship shows that the intimate contexts of relationships, marriage, sex and child-rearing are where colonialism reproduces itself the most effectively (i.e.: Stoler 1989). So this is where we have to be extra aware of how our actions affect one another on the intimate, personal level. You probably won’t get praise from other ‘ally’ activists for this kind of quiet work in the private or local sphere of the household, the kitchen table or the workplace lunchroom, but by realising the importance of these intimate, direct engagements, it does help us to enact Donald’s (2009:6) indigenous métissage: “an ethical relationality… [which] does not overlook or invisibilize the particular historical, cultural and social contexts from which a particular person understands and experiences living in the world. It puts these considerations at the forefront of engagements across frontiers of difference.” 

It is important, then, to step away from pre-conceived perceptions of what solidarity looks like, because we need to remember that we’re not fighting one monolithic Colonialism, but the many manifestations of colonialism over time and space. And colonialism exists within spheres that are not always visible to the public, activist eye. There are many colonialisms, which reproduce and legitimise themselves in complex and messy ways. This is because colonialism is a shape-shifter ** (which, to be clear, as I discovered this morning after writing the first draft of this piece, is not a new idea but in fact one explored in other colonial/decolonial works: please see Alfred and Corntassel 2005; Melville 1990; Rippl 1999; Wilkins 2001 for different ways that the metaphor of shapeshifting is treated within the context of decolonisation or ‘post-colonial’ writing).

As Stoler (1989) and others have clearly illustrated, colonialism is not just one ‘thing’, but many interrelated and interdependent processes which serve one purpose: to justify and legitimise the historical and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Where others have come up with their own solutions to these shifting and contradictory manifestations of colonialism, I argue that what is required to combat this shape-shifting as it unfolds in Canada is both a) historical awareness (and for those with the predilection, careful, time-consuming and at times mind-numbing historical work) in order to identify and call out the blurry ways colonialism presents itself. We also need what I call b) Trickster Politics*** which I designate as the opposite of the Politics of boardrooms and academic papers and the protest march: here I refer to the complex, confusing, boundary-bending everyday politics of living, breathing, and relating across Donald’s (2009) ‘frontiers of difference’. Trickster politics are a method for disrupting colonialism by refusing to play by its rules, and are a manner in which to also challenge sometimes overly didactic approaches to decolonisation.

It is not enough to entrench the boundaries that arise from colonial narratives or to obscure their ironies and paradoxes with application of time-less and place-less theory and terms. We must commit to bending these boundaries further in creative and strategic ways: relate across multiple boundaries as they are instated by the government; admit the pluralities that shape our experiences; tell stories honestly and bravely; and shift the forms of existing relationships until they no longer serve to oppress. And, above all, we have to acknowledge that very little of our work currently serves to accurately capture the complexity of the colonial experience, because a) Canada is so vast, b) the Nations and Peoples affected across the country are so numerous, and c) colonialism unfolded over many different decades and periods, creating different colonial moments. Which colonialisms are we conjuring when we talk about settlers and decolonisation? Which allies are we celebrating or denouncing? Which histories are we specifically referring to? These all matter in our efforts to shift current experiences. It is our duty to know these histories, relationships and spaces so that we can effectively address how they impact us today.

The terms of engagement are constantly shifting within colonial rule, thus a fundamental part of decolonising is learning history. Both euro-canadian histories and Indigenous histories. And not just public histories, but the histories of food, sex, love, stories, songs, clothes, animals. Why do you think the Harper government is so keen to destroy archives and libraries? These institutions hold the seemingly innocuous, but incredibly powerful, physical and material documentation to prove the often banal, everyday, shifting ways that colonialism reproduced and legitimised itself in Canada, and continues to do so.

Identifying the need to historicize and localize counter-colonial writing, Nicholas Thomas (1994: ix-x) argued that:

“It is becoming increasingly clear that only localized theories and historically specific accounts can provide much insight into the varied articulations of colonizing and counter-colonial representations and practices. Much writing in the field, however, seems less inclined to localize or historicize analysis, than put Fanon and Lacan (or Derrida) into a blender and take the result to be equally appetizing for premodern and modern; for Asian, African, and American; for metropolitan, settler, indigenous and diasporic subjects. It is striking also that many writers stress, in principle, the localized character of colonial and postcolonial subjectivities, while resisting much engagement with either localities or subjects. I am not saying that Fanon’s interests, or deconstruction, still less ‘theory’ in general are unimportant for the kinds of inquiries and critiques that need to be pursued but that colonialism can only be traced through its plural and particularized expressions.” (emphasis mine)

It is imperative that we resist the urge towards “theorizing globally on the basis of strands in European philosophy” (Thomas 1994: x), and in turn make sure that local stories and experiences are very well understood and represented in our academic and political work. My friend Daniel Morley Johnson has created a Twitter hashtag for all this: #simplercolonial. It’s a way to challenge all of us to engage with the complexity and contradictions of colonialism when we discuss it. We actually do ourselves a disservice by applying place-less, time-less terms and theories to experiences that are intensely historical and of-this-place. Colonialism on the prairies in the 1930s had distinctly different features than colonialism in northern Canada at the same time. It’s important not to erase, conflate or oversimplify the ways that colonialism operates. Instead, we need to embrace radical histories — dedicate ourselves to understanding the hidden and not-so-hidden features of colonialism within every inch of the country over time. And also to be sure we understand the ongoing ways that Indigenous people have confronted, resisted, and transformed colonialism at different historical and geographic junctures (see, for example: Carter 1990; Cruikshank 2005; Piper 2009; Ray 2005[1974]; Tough 1984; Tough 1996; Usher 1971; Wachowich 1998) . It’s dangerous to reduce the colonial encounter to a victim narrative requiring non-Indigenous allies to work in solidarity to ‘save’ anyone, because the fact of the matter is that Indigenous peoples have been redefining the terms of engagement all along (read some James Scott for a comprehensive examination of this resistance in other parts of the world). We need to be able to celebrate the powerful ways Indigenous actors have confronted colonialism, too. The problem is that the State always, always (!), negotiates in bad faith, because it needs to justify its outright theft of lands and its ongoing denial of the wrongs it has committed to reproduce itself. That’s where our efforts need to focus: on identifying, documenting, and drawing light to the operations of that continuous bad faith, and in so doing, working across many fronts to transform the need for colonial states to legitimise their theft of Indigenous lands. Tackle the underlying inconsistency and problem: you cannot reconcile/heal/change a country if the aggressor (in this case, the State and the colonial bodies it employs) refuses to admit there is an injustice. In many ways, colonial States are the ultimate narcissists: everything is about them, and negotiated on their terms. In order to destabilise this narcissistic focus, we need to mobilise all the stories, in their inherent contradictions, complexities and nuance. This is why it is important for our efforts not to stop at labelling the coloniser and the colonised, but to dig deeper and understand what makes up those relationships over time, and how they have adorned themselves and spoken and thought across vast geographical and temporal contexts.

So, use whatever terms and theories you want to describe the Indigenous and non-Indigenous colonial experience. But make sure that you are aware of the intricacies and historical realities of how those relationships and processes manifested in many different ways over time and space. Learn the histories of the the place you are living in or describing. Employ Trickster Politics to disrupt didactic, dogmatic arguments on all sides. Understand when binaries are helpful for decolonisation and when they erase and conflate important stories. Because the great power of colonialism is its ability to shift and change its operations, creating the illusion of discontinuity and disappearance, and outright denial of its very existence, when in fact it continues to thrive.


*Andrea Smith writes about processes of ‘acknowledging privilege’ and how it consumes time/space within anti-violence and anti-racism movements. Make sure you read this: http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/

**when I use the term shape-shifter, I mean that colonialism manifests in ways that sometimes defy our neat ordering of coloniser and colonised within current decolonial theories. This stymies our attempts to identify one singular ‘settler Other’ because the intimate, messy operations across which colonialism reproduces itself are themselves complex and not always visible. In addition to colonialism taking on many forms (as Alfred and Corntassel (2005) have identified), it also can appear in our beds and at our kitchen tables in forms that do not adhere to the frameworks and narratives we are currently using to identify and dismantle it. It can reproduce within spaces we deem to be ‘Indigenous’, and cannot be banished simply by identifying the Settler Other (aggressor) and Indigenous victim. In many cases, the relationships are far more complex, requiring us to be able to not only identify difference, but also be able to acknowledge paradoxes and pluralities. Thus the need for decolonising methodologies that acknowledge this trickster-ish complexity and enable us to work across difference, such as Donald’s Indigenous Métissage. We need works that do not force the Indigenous actor to ‘choose sides’, as Donald (2012) identifies, but instead enable different relational ethics to operate altogether.

***Trickster politics has been defined elsewhere by Coles (2006 547): as “politics that plays one game…in order to, more importantly, enhance another one”. I use a slightly different, locally-specific connotation of it for my work in Canada, by which I mean the politics of disrupting the narcissist state/traumatized nation by refusing to take its self-importance too seriously, and rejecting colonial terms of negotiation in favour of locally and historically informed practices that meet the realities of relationship, narrative and community within specific moments and spaces in Canada.

Alfred, T and Jeff Corntassel. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism, Government and Opposition, 40(4): 597-614.

Carter, Sarah. (1990). Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Coles, Romand. (2006). Of Tensions and Tricksters: GrassrootsDemocracy between Theory and Practice. Perspectives on Politics 4(3): 547-561. 

Cruikshank, Julie. (2005). Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters & Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Donald, Dwayne. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives 2(1): 1-24.

Donald, Dwayne. (2012). Indigenous Métissage: a decolonizing research methodology, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 25(5): 533-555.

Melville, Pauline. (1990). Shape-Shifter: Stories. Pan Picador: London.

Piper, Liza. (2009). The industrial transformation of subarctic Canada. UBC Press: Vancouver.

Ray, Arthur. (2005[1974]). Indians in the Fur Trade. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rippl, Gabrielle. “I Do Not Take Messages from Dead People” — Cultural, linguistic and personal boundaries in Pauline Melville’s Shape-Shifter. Pp 103-112 in Borderlands: Negotiating Boundaries in Post-colonial Writing, Monika Reif-Hülser, editor. Editions Rodopi: Amsterdam.

Scott, James. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stoler, A.L. (1989). ‘Rethinking colonial categories: European communities and the boundaries of rule.’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, 135-156.

Thomas, Nicholas. (1994). Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tough, Frank. (1984).  The establishment of a commercial fishing industry and the demise of native fisheries in Northern Manitoba, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 2: 303-319.

Tough, Frank. (1996). ‘As Their Natural Resources Fail’: Native Peoples and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba, 1870-1930. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Usher, Peter. (1971). The Bankslanders: Economy and Ecology of a Frontier Trapping Community (3 Volumes). Northern Science Research Group, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development: Ottawa.

Wachowich, Nancy. (1998). Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Wilkins, David. (2001). The Manipulation of Indian Status: the Federal Government as Shape-Shifter. Stanford Law and Policy Review 12(2): 223-


2 thoughts on “If Colonialism is a shape-shifter…

  1. Wonderful read! I agree with you wholeheartedly with so many of the issues you raise. This line, in particular, is refreshing to see, “you can engage in the gentle, quiet (but still powerful and effective) politics of the home, the workplace, and how you interact with people within the Indigenous territories you live. In fact, a lot of scholarship shows that the intimate contexts of relationships, marriage, sex and child-rearing are where colonialism reproduces itself the most effectively (i.e.: Stoler 1989). So this is where we have to be extra aware of how our actions affect one another on the intimate, personal level.” I am a new grandmother and find myself constantly thinking about how I interact with her on a day-to-day basis. What am I telling her, what words am I using to communicate with her, what activities is she seeing me doing. What can I do differently as her kokum? What lessons can I learn from having raised her father? How can I imbue a sense of ceremony and spirit into her life everyday? In other words, how can I be the best teacher, mentor and carer that I can for that precious little gift in our lives. I”m not sure if it’s the point I am in my life, but as an activist of 30 years, I find myself wanting to dig deeper into how I can actively avoid, as you have put it, reproducing colonialism in her young life and how I can change the story for/with her. And spending less time in the actual trenches. Anyway…the short response to my long-winded one is Well-done!

    Posted by Sarah Auger Cortez | April 9, 2014, 11:06 am
    • oh, congratulations! While I was writing this, I was certainly thinking of family and the fact that the most influential teachers in my life have been my immediate family and also the stories shared by my family about ancestors who have passed. It makes me think about how I can replicate those positive teachings, and certainly hearing from a new kokum like you reinforces how powerful the roles of mother/grandmother/sister/daughter/son/cousin/aunt/uncle/father are in shaping new ways of enacting resistance and transformation. Thank you for your comment!

      Posted by zotofoto | April 10, 2014, 1:20 am

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