Indigenous Resistance is Relational NOT Reactionary

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In the Same Vein of Resistance

Dishinit Sakeh is the name my Asu (Grandmother) has called me since I was a small girl due to the facial feature attributes I inherited from my Father’s family. In the Dane Zaa language Dishinit Sakeh means “Cree Woman” and it defines my mixed heritage but also springs from the language of the worldview I am most firmly rooted in. I am of a Dane Zaa, Cree, and mixed European descent. However, I strongly identify with my Dane Zaa teachings and ways of being and knowing as my ties with my maternal family and Asu have always been bound tight. I have spent many hours listening to the stories of my Asu, stories that are attached to the slopes of mountains and various moving bodies of water within the ever changing territory she grew up within. I grew up primarily in the urban centre of Fort St. John which is located four hours south of my community Prophet River First Nation, which embodies the reserve land allotted to us by the Federal Government of Canada and in no way contains the invisible and once shifting, territorial borders. Lawrence (2015) states that “[a]dopting a positioned perspective is to write our histories; to tell the silenced stories, the unrecorded perspectives of our foremothers and forefathers, historical revisionism is critical because full personhood is itself defined in part by one’s authority to tell one’s own story” (p.329). My Great Great Grandfather, Chief Makenecha (Bigfoot) was the last signatory to Treaty 8 in 1911 and was a part of the motion of resistance in the late 1890s when over seventy miners and settler’s wagons were pushed off the Peace River Valley cliffs in protest of encroachment by white settlers (Ridington & Ridington, 2013). I approach my research from the same vein of resistance

My involvement with Indigenous resistance and decolonization efforts in public spheres has only spanned a short eight years. However, I could argue that I have been engaged in such determinations on a personal level since birth. I have come to know poverty, racism, addiction, and variations of violence have characterized my life. After I had embarked on my healing journey I had come to know the beauty, wisdom, resiliency, and strength that Indigenous ways of being and knowing embodies. I firmly hold the worldview that the water and the land are alive as they have given me teachings, held my prayers, and provided me healing. Being present on the land base while holding the knowledge that it is the same land that my ancestors traversed, aided me in conquering a lifelong addiction to alcohol and finding the stability to rebuild my life. The struggles from which I arise have only compounded my desire and sharpened my focus so that I may create trailways of freedom for those who come after me.

I have participated in micro-level efforts of Indigenous resistance through facilitating workshops for Indigenous youth and communities aimed at raising consciousness as well as taking part in and/or organizing cultural gatherings. I have worked alongside individuals and organized fund raisers, protested, embarked on a cross country caravan, and engaged in holding front lines at a land defense camp within the territory. I have also created art in the form of written poetry and poetry videos to highlight violence against Indigenous women as well as violence against Indigenous lands. I have learned how to foster alliances with various groups of people as well as work in collaboration with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International. In spite of the various levels of engagement and resistance against the mega hydroelectric project Site C that has taken place it is still currently being constructed.

I am coming to know that one of the hardest things to do within these active spheres of resistance, is to hold onto optimism. White (2016), one of the main organizers behind the Occupy movement, offers a reframing of resistance that examines protests as a long term progression towards change, stating that many overestimate the potential for change in the short run. My personal interest in this paper is to not only generate hope as I continue to actively engage in spheres of resistance but also so that I can come to understand the vital features of Indigenous resistance. In this paper I will examine the micro political aspects of Indigenous resistance in order to reveal how to effectively cultivate epistemic and cognitive liberation which will work to support overarching goals of Indigenous rights and freedoms.


Did you weep that day?

When the Fathers of Confederation

Claimed you, named you something other than what you were

Told you what you were meant to be

Took ownership of you for good

Finally put the nail in the coffin.

1763 Proclamation, 1491 Discovery, ultimate victim of Manifest Destiny

I bet you were tired

I   bet   you   were   tired

  • Helen Knott, (poetry excerpt)

Resistance is Relational not Reactionary

Indigenous resistance to oppressive colonialist efforts takes various shapes and forms, happens at both grassroots and structural levels, and occurs globally in Indigenous territories. However, Nativdad (2014) stresses the importance of not seeing resistance solely as reactionary but rather as relational as it can limit discourse to the dispute without contextualizing it by its socio-cultural historical background. Angela Y Davis (2016) speaks about contextualization in relation to the Black Lives Matter Movement stating that instead of approaching violent events as singular and separable acts, there must be a “consciousness of the structural character of state violence into the movements that spontaneously arise” (p.15-16). Therefor resistance and the colonial undertakings they rise to oppose, must acknowledge the intersecting lines of present and historical oppression (Nativdad, 2014). Davis (2016) states that broadening these movements beyond singular events and situating them within macro-political structures and struggles will “extricate ourselves from narrow identitarian thinking”, ultimately allowing for more progressive people to adopt struggles as their own (p.27). I engage in this research with this in mind, understanding that as Amilcar Cabral had said, “national liberation and social revolution are not exportable commodities” (Cabral, 1966). Every act of resistance will have its own situated consciousness. Thus, I will not focus on providing historical backgrounds on the various resistances within this research, but rather piecemeal aspects found in previous studies that can provide a broad overarching insights that would then have to be modified and contextualized accordingly.

In contrast to the aforementioned relationality of resistance, the settler colonial state can also work to reduce resistance events to reactionary events. For example, in January 2016 the Premier of British Columbia Christy Clark publicly criticized opposition to various proposed resource development projects calling them the “Forces of No” and by stating the following:

There are people who just say no to everything, and heaven knows there are plenty of those in British Columbia,” said Clark. “But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you should be a quitter.” (Meissner, 2016, para 5)

Clark went on to specifically criticize “a coalition of First Nations, environmentalists and Opposition New Democrats who signed a declaration demanding a protection zone near a proposed multi-billion-dollar LNG project at Lelu Island near Prince Rupert” (Meissner, 2016, para 6). Clark described the groups resistance as being fearful of change and it is these types of public statements given by public officials (and others) that serve to decontextualize resistance efforts. By creating an overarching category, such as the “the forces of No”, it removes each project from its situated context where it also is connected to Indigenous socio-cultural history and diminishes it to a single reactionary “no”. These political actions depersonalize resistance efforts, making them less relatable to the general public as well as deepens already present political and racial dichotomies. Thus it is imperative that movements work at clearly situating themselves while simultaneously escaping narrow thinking to increase relatability. For example, I have learned how to talk about Site C from an Indigenous rights perspective but also can speak to it at an agricultural and economic base while discussing the historical impacts of previous dams on Indigenous populations and water contamination.

Settler Colonialism

In order to understand Indigenous resistance efforts one must understand what colonial and imperialist agendas are composed of. Tuck (2012) categorizes colonialist efforts as either external or internal, both of which have garnered Indigenous responses of resistance. Tuck (2012) defines external colonialism as the dispossession of Indigenous landscapes through expropriation of “animals, plants and human beings, extracting them in order to transport them to – and build the wealth, the privilege, or feed the appetites of – the colonizers….[Which] often requires a subset of activities properly called military colonialism” (p.4). Internal colonialism involves the creation and routinization of governing structures and modes of control ranging from education to the creation of prisons, and even further to policies and regulations surrounding land ‘development’ (Tuck, 2012). Settler colonialism demands land acquisition and control but also because it interferes with Indigenous relationship to land which, as Tuck (2012) states, “represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence…. [that] is reasserted each day of occupation” (p.5). Kuokkanen (2008) broadens this thought in regards to Indigenous peoples from the localized settler state to include economic globalization which “is not merely a question of marginalization but it represents a multifaceted attack on the very foundation of their existence” (p.216). External colonialism is no longer restricted to serving localized, regional, or national interests, but have become global and liberalized through promotion and financing by international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other banking institutions (Sawyer & Gomez, 2014). The range and depth of issues facing Indigenous peoples globally requires a calibrated, organized and simultaneous response on micro and macro political levels.

The Long Journey Ahead

Long before movements of Indigenous resistance surface to public spheres and make contentious headlines in news articles they begin at the community level (Smith, 2012). Public protests and forms of direct action are events that Smith (2012) argues need to be seen alongside “the range of initiatives and cultural revitalization projects which have been advanced” (p.113). Ahenakew et al. (2014) list the forms which these initiatives might emerge as, according to community desires and visions, in the following:

Speaking truth to power; revitalizing traditional practices in their original places of emergence; creating alternative educational spaces for the affirmation of Indigenous identities; integrating traditional practices in on-Indigenous institutions; working against the pathologization of communities by focusing on community strengths; creating therapeutic spaces of support for those aspiring for social mobility; putting Western tools at the service of Indigenous communities; asserting social and economic sovereignty; defending knowledge and identity from appropriation; protecting sacred places; empowering young people; and enacting Indigenous wisdom in environmental and social activism. (p.218)

The efforts that are exerted outside of the public eye that commit to nation-building, identity formation, healing, and growth are the micro-political efforts of Indigenous resistance. Zanotti (2013) engaged in studying resistance amongst the women of the Kayapo tribe in the Amazonia of Brazil and stated that “the less visible practices of resistance are not meaningfully separable from the overt expressions, but rather they may form the language, structures, and meanings that make the grand gestures possible” (p.348). Zanotti (2013) states that communities should not be reduced to a solely biophysical reality but should be viewed as “a politically charged live space” (p.349). Furthermore the findings are that the opportunity for human agency in regards to everyday contexts that may seem unrelated to resistance in fact form the very basic foundation for it, such as being able to negotiate and impact basic health services in community or haggling for the transportation of goods (Zanotti, 2013).

Past these initial spaces where one can achieve self-advocacy at a fundamental level, there are other methods of micro-political engagement employed by Kayapo women such as speech performances, ritual wailing, and scolding (Zanotti, 2013). Zanotti (2013) argues that these varied elements and pathways of agency work together in order for larger acts of resistance to take place such as the act of Tuire, a Kayapo woman, whom “in the midst of a protest…. confronted a Brazilian official with her machete …. during the height of a collective demonstration against the proposed development of a hydro dam” (p.345). However, Zanotti (2013) does not speak of the epistemological and ontological foundations of the Kayapo women but often ways of being and knowing inform and necessitate resistance. For example, during the Wounded Knee trails the defendants “defined and defended themselves in terms of their traditional oral creation stories and not some statute or local decree…. [but]from their own community epistemology and cosmology” (Sayer as cited by Nativdad, 2014, p.244). Thus when Nativdad (2014) discussed how resistance is relational, a dual meaning could be applied to indicate that Indigenous resistance is rooted in the belief of relationality or “all my relations”.

There is a need for many initiatives that aim to build sovereignty and sharpen the mind but there is a necessity for the grounding in culture and connection to land. Taiaiake Alfred (2009) discusses this beautifully in the following:

Somewhere along the journey from the past to the future, we forgot that our goal was to reconnect with our lands and to preserve our harmonious cultures and respectful ways of life… Before we start rebuilding ourselves and achieve meaningful change in the areas of law and government, of economics and development, we must start to remember one important thing” our communities are made up of people” (p.31).

There are many ways fostering this connection is addressed from individual, family, community, and nation levels. McGregor (2013) discusses the “Mother Earth Water Walks” that were initiated by Anishinabe women in 2003 where the women have committed to walking the perimeter of every Great Lake at the rate of one a year. The walks were enacted to raise awareness surrounding the sacred relationship between and waters, especially women and water (McGregor, 2013).   McGregor (2013) stated that the water walks went further and acted as a “call to consciousness” for current generations to remember and uphold the reciprocal relationship and responsibility to water (p.74). Acts like these are connected to, and are a part of, Indigenous resistance yet are more than resistance as they come from a place of love and are rooted in Indigenous ways of being and knowing in the world. These types of grassroots initiatives serve multiple purposes as they are made public acts to draw attention but also serve to honour relationships with the water, land, and animal beings as well as call the people back to these necessary relationships.

It is in the Indigenous epistemological and ontological approach to the world that Ahenakew et al. (2014) argue, lay the possibilities of the future. Ahenakew et al. (2014) state that a blended approach moving forward is necessary, one that recognizes “the gifts, but also the unsustainable nature of the dominant system, its institutions and ways of being, may be necessary for us to identify why ancestral existential approaches might offer [k]new thinking” (p.221). Various efforts directed at Indigenous sovereignty and resistance are acknowledge by Ahenakew et al. (2014) as necessary but place an even weight, if not more, on metaphysical possibilities in the following passage:

“What we do argue is that they need to be complemented by other forms of thinking generated by other forms of being that have been part of our ancestral heritage and that may have an important role in establishing radically new possibilities for hospicing a system in crisis and midwifering something new in the future. We are not arguing for a return to a romanticized past, but for a careful and informed strategic weaving of the present into other possible futures….for being and knowing differently that we have inherited and that are currently overshadowed by political struggles” (p.223).

Focusing on epistemic freedom, Nativdad (2014) discusses how if liberation is found yet individuals still lays on colonial epistemic foundations, than “freed” groups will likely recreate and perpetuate structures of oppression as it will limit their ability to creatively reimagine social organizing practices.

In addition to seeking epistemic freedom, is the necessary to simultaneously focus on the liberation of the mind and preparing it to view the world through a critical lens so that it can aptly see resistance as relational. Fanon (1963) states the following which demonstrates the need for the liberation of the mind:

In capitalistic societies, education, whether secular or religious, the teaching of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary integrity of workers decorated after 50 years of loyal and faithful service, the fostering of love for harmony and wisdom, this aesthetic forms of respect for the status quo, instill in the exploited a mood of submission and inhibition which considerably eases the task of the agents of law and order (p.4).

Thus, minds of the oppressed are prepared to serve, obey, and accept. It is a conditioning which Nativdad (2014) refers to as a “naturalization process and the constant normalizing of oppression [resulting in] the colonial mindset” (p.243). Actions that are geared towards ‘breaking the chains of the mind’ vary in their manifestation. For example in the 1950s and 1960s Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre director, developed the Theatre of the Oppressed that created space for individuals to learn about a topic related to oppression and then produce a theatrical work that demonstrated what they learned (Yellow Bird, 2005). During this same time period Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Educator, developed and delivered literacy programs to the oppressed peoples of Brazil that included politically charged words, concepts, and discussions that required critical analysis (Yellow Bird, 2005). I believe that there is power in both approaches, as art will grasp another’s mind and heart in the same way that learning through papers and discussions will grasp someone else’s.

Thus far, the discussions in this paper have all been focused on the larger and minute aspects of micro political attributes and manifestations of Indigenous resistance as it is what sustains and carry resistance efforts forward. White (2016) employs the use of the Greek word Kairos which is “a word for a destined opportune moment”, describing that in absence of this “we rush to action, relying on well-worn activist tactics inherited from previous social protests” (p.65). In search of understanding what Kairos might look like in present day, Taiaiake Alfred (2009) describes three factors that have historically contributed to the success of anticolonial wars and he outlines them here:

The defeat of colonialism has always been essentially political and caused by a few key factors being made into realities by the indigenous people: the continuing organizational strength of indigenous people as distinct from any battlefield or other tactical successes or failures; the growth and maintenance of the support of the people; the imposition of what eventually become unbearable costs on the colonial government and economic systems; internal divisions in Settler society; spiritual and financial weariness among the Settlers overtime; and attacks on the position and power of co-opted comprador politicians who work with the colonial regime to ensure, or to participate directly in their people’s own oppression. (p.61)

In waiting for the “right moment” there demands the necessary work of enhancing and continuing the micro political activities of Indigenous resistance. However, events of grassroots Indigenous direct action in the form of protests and land re-occupation/defense camps that may not meet their intended outcome, should not be seen as a lost cause. Morden (2015) discusses how the Oka crisis had the effect of “galvanizing the community and generating new commitment to contentious action” alongside launching a “cognitive liberation” (p.262-263). Direct action re-energizes the nations as well as sparks their Indigenous imaginations to see a world of possibilities. Direct action is a form of a reminder that resistance has always been present, is never dormant, and always being calibrated at grassroots and structural levels. Change and the growth of movements has been identified as a long term process by many, if not all, of the scholars mentioned within this research.

Looking Ahead

In regards to the micro political climate of Indigenous resistance, I have made the following observations and noted the opportunities for exploration and creation. My search for practical pathways is aimed at efforts that be implemented at a community based level, thereby bringing “resistance” and “decolonization” out of the hands of the academics and leaders within structural systems, and bringing it back to the people. Fanon (1963) stated that “We must not cultivate the spirit of the exceptional or look for the hero, another form of leader. We must elevate the people, expand their minds, equip them, differentiate them, and humanize them” (p.137).” With Fanon’ words in mind, I see the necessity to combine both epistemic and cognitive freedom efforts into a community/nation level land based “freedom camp”. The land based camp would focus on re-establishing Indigenous ways of knowing and being as well as providing various workshops that combine art and experiential learning to build critical analytical skills and an awareness of situated Indigenous resistance. I believe that these should happen first for Indigenous communities and then once a foundation has been created, it should be open for Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people alike as there has been a resounding of the necessity of epistemological shifts not just of our own, but of those we share this earth with. This will allow for escaping the “narrow identitarian thinking” that Davis (2016) spoke of and provide opportunities for reimagining that Ahenakew et al. (2014) discussed.

On another level, in relation to fostering epistemic and cognitive liberation, I see the need to provide avenues for self-advocacy and input within community governing structures. I believe that community’s structural avenues of participation can be analyzed and pathways for meaningful participation can be created. Human agency, and that belief in the power of that agency, must be fostered at a young age and is crucial. Emirbayer & Goodwin (1996) state that “agency is precisely that analytical element that revivifies, modifies, and sometimes challenges transpersonal networks in the course of empirical social action”. Every day agency was resounded in Zanotti’s (2012) findings amongst the Kayapo because it is the small actions that pave the way for great ones. The power must lay with the people.

My future thesis work will focus on the experience of violence against Indigenous lands and Indigenous women in its epistemic and physical forms while looking at avenues for participation in decision making and uncovering how to contribute to ‘the raising of voices’ within the traditional territory to which I belong. The research here has contributed to the latter and will inform the structure for my search for solutions moving forward.



Ahenakew, C., de Oliveira Andreotti, V., Cooper, G., & Hireme, H. (2014). De- provincializing Indigenous resistance. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 60(3), 216-231.

Alfred, T., (2005). Wasase: Indigenous pathways of action and freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cabral, A. (1966). The weapon of theory. Address to Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Havana, Cuba.

Davis, A.Y. (2016). Freedom is a constant struggle. Haymarket Books: Chicago.

Emirbayer, M. & Goodwin, J., (1996). Symbols, position, objects: Toward a new theory of revolutions and collective actions. In History & Theory, 35(3), 358.

Fanon, F., (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.

Horowitz, L. S. (2009). Environmental violence and crises of legitimacy in New Caledonia. Political Geography, 28(4), 248-258. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2009.07.001

McGregor, D. (2013). Indigenous women, water justice and zaagidowin (love). Canadian Women Studies. 30(2,3), 71-18.

Meissner, D. (2016, Jan. 16). B.C. premier Christy Clark strikes back at lng opponents. Retrieved from:

Morden, M. (2015). Right and resistance: Norms, interests and Indigenous direct action in Canada. Ethnopolitics, 14 (3), 256 – 276.

Natividad, N. D. (2014). Third World feminism and the reimagining of resistance by indigenous communities. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 10(3), 232-247.

Sawyer,S. & Gomez T.E. (2014). Transnational governmentality in the context of resource extraction. In The politics of resource extraction: Indigenous peoples, multinational corporations, and the state. New York: Palgrave & McMillan.

Tuck, E., & Yang, W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. In Decolonization: Indigeneity,  Education & Society. 1 (1), 1-40.

White, M. (2016). The end of protest: a new playbook for revolution. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Yellow Bird, M. (2005). Tribal critical thinking centers. In Wilson, A. C., & Yellow, B. M., For indigenous eyes only: A decolonization handbook. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Zanotti, L. (2012). Resistance and the politics of negotiation: women, place, and space among the Kayapo in Amazonia, Brazil. Gender, Pace & Culture. 20 (3), 346 – 362.


POST SCRIPT DISCLAIMER: this was a paper for one of my Masters level classes and I am not claiming it’s actually high grade quality. haha.



  1. Excellent Posting agree with everything you say and Practice Keep up the struggle keep on Fighting these are your rights which have been stolen by Colonialists and Imperialists. Indigenous peoples all over the World have to fight for what rightfully belongs to them. In the era of Trump reaction and threats of Global war your post is so heart warming.

  2. Pingback: Art History blog

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