Review of Wasase

Book Review by Zig Zag

Wasase; indigenous pathways of action & freedom
By Taiaiake Alfred
Broadview Press, Ontario, Canada 2005

Whenever I hear or read Taiaiake’s thoughts on Native peoples & our struggles, I think of a quote by the Chinese word-lord and all-around wise-guy, Lao Tzu: “The wise leader knows that the true nature of events cannot be captured in words. So why pretend? Confusing jargon is one sure sign of a leader who does not know how things happen.”

Reading Wasase I found not only confusing jargon, the result I assume of Taiaiake’s academic background as a University of Victoria professor, but also contradictory ideas about resistance movements & liberation struggles. Despite this, after reading the book, I had a much better understanding of Taiaiake’s philosophy and intent.

The book is a sort of ‘warrior manifesto’ that attempts to define Native people’s realities & why our struggles for self-determination have thus far failed. Through Wasase, which is both a book and an attempt to establish a movement (with Taiaiake as its intellectual head), Indigenous peoples will be transformed and revitalized to successfully make non-violent social change.

Kanehsatake 2004: masked Mohawk Warriors stand guard after forcing out tribal police.

Countering the ‘Violent Insurgents’

Much of Taiaiake’s initial effort is spent denouncing ‘violent insurgents,’ whom he apparently sees as his main political rivals within the Indigenous movement (although they’re never named, aside from a brief & superficial reference to Ward Churchill). For Taiaiake, in fact, the choice between violent armed resistance and non-violent means “is the most important decision the next generation of Onkwehonwe will collectively make” (p. 21, Onkwehonwe is a Mohawk word meaning ‘original person’, or native).

Taiaiake is very clear that these two forms of struggle are “unique disciplines that require commitments that rule out overlapping allegiances between the two approaches. They are diverging and distinctive ways of making change…” (p. 21).

But is this really true? In fact, resistance movements by their nature utilize the entire spectrum of conflict, from passive non-violent forms to armed actions. When an entire people are mobilized into struggle, everyone participates & contributes in whatever way they can, whether it’s passing on information, not co-operating with government officials, or firing a rifle. Nelson Mandela, a former resistance fighter in the African National Congress in S. Africa (which had an armed guerrilla force), stated in a Time magazine article on Gandhi that,

“Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”
(Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior”, Time, January 2000)

The problem with Taiaiake’s attempt to set up a clear division between the ‘violent insurgents’ (bad) and non-violence (good) is that when it comes to resistance

movements, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Consider his descriptions & comparison of armed resistance vs. non-violent action:

“This is the political formula of the strategy of armed resistance: facing a situation of untenable politics, Onkwehonwe could conceivably move toward practicing a punishing kind of aggression, a raging resistance invoking hostile & irredentist negative political visions seeking to engender and escalate the conflict so as to eventually demoralize the Settler society and defeat the colonial state. Contrast this with the strategic vision of non-violent contention: Onkwehonwe face the untenable politics and unacceptable conditions in their communities and confront the situation with determined yet restrained action, coherent and creative contention supplemented with a positive political vision based on re-establishing respect for the original covenants and ancient treaties that reflect the founding principles of the Onkwehonwe-Settler relationship.” (p. 21)

Oka 1990: a 77-day armed standoff between Mohawk Warriors and Canadian police and military forces.

From where does Taiaiake conjure up this ‘strategy of armed resistance’? We’re never told who these proponents of armed resistance are, nor is there any source material to back up Taiaiake’s descriptions. Nevertheless, Taiaiake’s bias is clearly evident in his choice of words. Those who advocate armed resistance are ‘punishing’, ‘raging’, ‘hostile’, and ‘negative’, while the non-violent strategists are ‘determined yet restrained’, ‘coherent’, ‘creative’ and ‘positive’. He uses moralistic & judgmental terms (without providing real examples) even though later on he states “non-violent action coupled with a capacity for physical self-defense is a strategic choice, not a moral choice” (p. 52).

Regarding this strategic choice, Taiaiake states:
“Are we ready to kill & die for the cause of self-determination? If the answer is no—and I believe most Onkwehonwe would say no—then our strategy & tactics must be shaped instead to reflect the level of conflict tolerance and willingness to engage in direct action that actually exists among our people” (p. 51).

While it is true that our methods must reflect levels of conflict our people are capable & willing to engage in, it is also true that most of our people are colonized and, to greater & lesser extents, assimilated. The very thought that social change is necessary is, as a result, weakened. Taiaiake himself alludes to this:

“[T]here is no cultural base for mass action, nor is there any crucial mass of strong people to support actions and strategy that have any hope of challenging state power… This must change if we are to survive” (p. 59).
Later, Taiaiake adds: “There are no movements for change among indigenous peoples generally because the sad fact is that there are hardly any more warriors…” (p. 82).

According to Taiaiake, then, there is no support for any form of armed resistance, and yet at the same time no ‘cultural base for mass action’ and “hardly anymore warriors.” His solution appears to be to distance himself as much as possible from any hint of ‘violent resistance’ in order to build up support for non-violent mass action as the only viable strategy.

On the other hand, he observes that feelings of anger & hostility are common among Native youth that lead to support for violent forms of action. In fact, he describes it as being a “very strong force” in Native communities (p.58).

So then there is support for armed resistance, even widespread support. But Taiaiake has an array of answers to counter this sentiment: armed resistance is a futile strategy that has never been successful, one that has only lead to “frustration & failure”, and that is not based on ‘authentic’ Indigenous ways of life.

Thus, his efforts to divide the resistance movement along the lines of ‘violence vs. non-violence’ is the first step in establishing support for his vision of mass action. In order to do this, he must both discredit ‘violent resistance’ and at the same time legitimize ‘non-violence’ as a superior strategy for change.

The Myth of Gandhi & Non-Violence

According to Taiaiake, “non-violent resistance… has been historically widespread and effective against all types of repressive regimes” (p. 52).
Despite such a sweeping endorsement of non-violent resistance, he offers no example other than Gandhi, which he promotes as “The middle path between raging violence and complacency… The Indian mass movement against British colonization was not passive, but militantly pacifist, and it actively confronted power in a strategic, creative & tactically diverse manner without using violence… the basic Gandhian approach is a solid conceptual foundation for Onkwehonewe resurgences” (p. 55).

Gandhi giving a speech.

Although not widely acknowledged, Ghandi’s non-violent campaign was but one part of a mass movement that also involved widespread armed resistance, massacres, bombings, riots, etc., not to mention the massive destruction inflicted on Britain during the course of World War 2. Gandhi’s movement itself was promoted by the British & business interests in India as an alternative to armed anti-colonial resistance (just as the US government promoted Martin Luther King over Malcolm X).

In response to a recent effort by US-based ‘aid’ agencies to promote the movie Gandhi as well as its message of nonviolent struggle among Palestinians (the Gandhi Project), Ali Abunimah (editor of the Electronic Intifida), wrote in The Myth of Gandhi and the Palestinian Reality:

“While one can admire Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent principles, one can hardly point to the Indian experience as a demonstration of their usefulness in overthrowing a colonial regime. Indeed, Gandhi’s concepts of satyagraha, or soul power, and ahimsa, or nonviolent struggle, played an important role during the Indian independence struggle, however the anti-colonial period in India was also marked by extreme violence, both between the British & Indians and between different Indian communal groups. Anti-colonial Indians committed a wide variety of terrorist acts; the British government was responsible for numerous massacres and other atrocities; and communal violence before, during, and after independence claimed the lives of millions of people. One simply cannot argue that Indian independence was achieved in a nonviolent context.”

Other critics of the ‘Gandhi myth’ assert that he may have been an asset, if not an agent, for the British crown, used to suppress & control anti-colonial resistance. In India & the Raj: 1919-1947; Glory, Shame and Bondage, Suniti Kumar Ghosh describes Gandhi’s non-violence as,

“an ideal weapon with which to [weaken] the anti-imperialist spirit of the people. Gandhi himself declared that his satyagraha technique was intended to combat revolutionary violence. It may be borne in mind that this prophet of non-violence, though violently opposed to the use of violence by the people in the struggle against British imperialism, actively supported, whether in S. Africa, London or India, the most violent wars launched by the British masters and, towards the close of his life, was in favour of war between India & Pakistan and approved or suggested the march of troops into Junagadh, Kashmir and Hyderabad…

Gandhi meeting with Lord Montbatten in 1947 just prior to Independence.

“British imperialism recognized him as the national leader. Like General Smuts, many Viceroys including Willingdon regarded him as an asset. In combating the militant forces of anti-colonial… struggle, the British ruling classes counted on his help and he never failed them… The Indian business elite hailed him: his message of non-violence, his satyagraha, his faith in the raj, his political aspirations, his abhorrence of class struggle… his determination to preserve the status quo, his ‘constructive programme’ intended to thwart revolutionary action—all these and more convinced them that in the troubled times ahead, he was their best friend.”

What did Gandhi’s movement achieve in the end? Was it any more successful than other revolutionary struggles that Taiaiake so casually dismisses as being ultimately counter-productive? Not really; India remains dominated by Western imperialism and wracked by extreme poverty, state violence, and social conflict. Gandhi’s stellar reputation as a saintly saviour of the poor is itself a subject of debate. So much for Ghandi and his example of ‘non-violent’ resistance.

A Confusing & Contradictory Strategy

Perhaps one of the greatest dangers of Taiaiake’s convoluted strategy is that he denounces violence as a form of resistance, yet acknowledges the necessity for armed self-defense against state repression. But how are a people to organize & commit to armed self-defense, when their movement & ideology are based on non-violence (and especially when so much of Wasase’s arguments against using violence are morally based)? Taiaiake both disarms the people with his diatribes against ‘violent insurgents’, and then at the same time seeks to arm a small, elite defensive force. This idea of ‘armed self-defense’ deserves closer scrutiny.

It is generally acknowledged as foolish for a small, lightly armed force to directly confront a larger, more powerful enemy. Yet, this is the only thing Taiaiake’s ‘armed self-defense’ strategy can do, in fact it’s only purpose. Regis Debray, in his book Revolution in the Revolution?, criticized the strategy of ‘armed self-defense’ on these grounds:

“[T]he community practicing self-defense is denied any initiative. There is no choice of the site of combat, no benefits of mobility, maneuver, or surprise. Since the zone of self-defense is already exposed, it will be the object of an encircling action and a carefully prepared attack by the enemy at the moment of his own choosing” (Revolution in the Revolution?, p. 30).

Zapatista Indigenous warriors on patrol in Chiapas.

Quoting a Vietnamese directive to its guerrilla fighters:
“Allowing oneself to be attacked or limiting oneself to passive defense is to place oneself in the position of being unable to protect the population and to expose one’s own forces to attrition. On the other hand, to seek for ways to attack the enemy is to put him on the permanent defensive, to exhaust him and prevent him from expanding his activities, to wrest the initiative from him, and to impede his search operations…” (Revolution in the Revolution?, quoted on p. 45).

Although Taiaiake offers Oka 1990 as an example of armed self-defense, in reality it was the threat of an Indigenous uprising across the country (an insurgency) that limited lethal state repression, and not any capacity for armed (or even non-violent) resistance that existed in either Kanehsatake or Khanawake (excluding the initial July 11 fire-fight, in which one police officer was shot & killed).

A major flaw in Taiaiake’s analysis appears to be his limited understanding of what an insurgency is. Taiaiake’s portrayal of insurgents as armed killers randomly carrying out acts of ‘terror’ (or fantasizing about it) not only mimics state propaganda, it is also simplistic.

Six Nations, April 20, 2006: burning barricades in response to police raid on blockade, during which police were forced back by hundreds of Six Nations members.

An insurgency is not just a guerrilla force, but a resistance movement comprised of many diverse people & groups. Consequently, there are many diverse tactics & strategies used, both non-violent and violent. In fact, military action is only one small part of an insurgency, which combines political, economic, psychological and cultural aspects as part of an overall resistance (even military counter-insurgency experts grasp this basic understanding of the nature of insurgencies). The degree to which armed force is used depends on many variables, including social conditions, terrain, enemy actions, and its acceptance as a necessary & viable strategy by the population.

Taiaiake, it seems, wants to appear as both a respectable, rational, reformist type, as well as a warrior revolutionary. Compare his comments on restoring ancient treaties as the key to “peaceful co-existence” (quoted above, from p. 21) to this militant-sounding outburst:

“[S]ome of us want to reform colonial law and policy, to dull that monster’s teeth so that we can’t be ripped apart so easily. Some of us believe in reconciliation, forgetting that the monster has a genocidal appetite… I think that the only thing that has changed since our ancestors first declared war on the invaders is that some of us have lost heart. Against history and against those who would submit to it, I am with the warriors who want to beat the beast into bloody submission… “ (p. 37)

Yet, just shortly before this, Taiaiake cautions “And, of course, violence begets violence. The implication of an approach to making change using armed force to attack institutions and the structure of power is an ensuing culture of violence that is, in its very existence, the negation of the ideal of peaceful coexistence at the heart of Onkwehonwe philosophies” (p. 23).

Then, later, we find Taiaiake retreat from even using ‘violent language’. Instead of using the word enemy, Taiaiake offers the word adversary, which “implies that we have the objective of transformation driven by compassion achieved through teaching generating relations of love” (p. 202).

Such nonsensical statements only serve to disarm our people, who need their fighting spirit strengthened, not dampened. As a resistance movement, we use a language of combat & conflict because it more accurately reflects the nature of our struggle and the attitude we need to fight. While it may appeal to Taiaiake’s groupies that he appears as both a ‘bad-ass’ warrior and a sensitive, compassionate soul, the result can only be confusion.

Taiaiake Alfred in an for his university program.

At the same time as he attempts to dampen our warrior spirit, Taiaiake tries to draw in genuine warriors by exploiting what I term the ‘Simple-Soldier Syndrome’: warriors who want to be seen as doing their duty of defending their people, without the burden of analysis as to how the struggle is to be carried out. Taiaiake is convenient to these warrior-types as he appears to have the intellectual capacity & analysis that legitimizes their simple-soldier approach. But this is an illusion.

Like Wasase, Taiaiake is a paradox: although he preaches a psuedo-revolutionary and militant ideology, the best strategy he can offer is Ghandi’s reformist (even collaborator) movement based on civil disobedience. While he promotes direct action, what actions has he participated in? If Gandhi at least led by example, what is Taiaiake doing besides promoting a confusing and convoluted strategy for “non-violent” social change? My overall conclusion: Taiaiake is an academic anti-warrior posing as a warrior.

Posted on February 10, 2011, in Decolonization, Documents, Review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Whoa! I’m seeing him in a new light. As a former ‘ Taiaiake groupie ‘ this is kind of a big deal for me. Very interesting, to say the least.
    I read and loved his manifesto 2nd ed., and numerous articles, papers, etc. though I never read Wasase and don’t think I will haha

  2. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating
    it but, I’d like to shoot you an email.

    I’ve got some suggestions for your blog you might be interested in hearing.

    Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it expand over time.

  3. There many Warriors that are alive and well -The Bear Clan for one; is inherently ingrained in them – the need to protect and enforce! There are many descendants of Warriors in the modernized view … The older warriors that are now 60,70,80, etc and the ones who have passed on. They have left guiding directions and values, morals for their offspring to follow …. I used to think that this guy who wrote this book was some sort of warrior. However, (I can’t recall right now) I seen s.t. where this guy was apart of the discussion and he was like pro-European view … I don’t care for him. The type of person that must be watched carefully!

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