The lands and waters of the Northeast Pacific Rim are a colony. This was not always so. Colonization began in the late 18th century and has continued unabated to the present day, as the centralization of power continues to be concentrated into a disembodied abstraction called Capital. Prior to colonization, power was balanced throughout the many Nations here, each with their own decentralized network of autonomous clans, bands, villages, and families. At that time, the epistemological separation between the Land and the People was contradictory to the cultures here, and it was exactly this division that the colonizers came here to enact in order to replace laws of relationship and reciprocity with resource extraction to feed the growth of Capital. This process has turned living communities into dead commodities through the imposition of a culture of occupation1, and despite the many successful acts of defense and restoration within these watersheds, this ongoing destruction is, overall, in a process of intensification, both locally and globally.
That being said, the realization of the unsustainability of this dominant culture of occupation has occurred to many of us by now, and the hope and fear of systems collapse is beginning to be felt deeply in our hearts and in our bones. In this context, it is good that so many of us are ready and eager to actualize the process of decolonization. But what does that mean for each of us as individuals and communities, and what does this mean for the Land?
It is tempting to reduce colonialism to an economic phenomenon, or conversely, as a primarily social phenomenon, neglecting the spiritual, body/land-based, psychological, political, and intellectual aspects2. As all of these aspects are interwoven in the fabric of colonialism, we can see how any form of reductionist view can become problematic, and developing a passion for both holistic thinking and critical thinking will be most beneficial. Further, in the context of this place whom some of us affectionately call Cascadia, we are facing the entangled complexity of settler colonialism, with its sadistic arrangement of rewards and punishments. The black-and-white age of cowboys and Indians, Irish and Brits, has shape-shifted into a truly backwards modernity. So many of us have been betrayed by our own.
But if we can learn to see past the surface of this fake plastic culture, to see ourselves for whom we truly are, we’ll learn that the old dog of colonialism is certainly up to the same old tricks. There is an unbroken line between the invasion and occupation of yesterday and the globalization and assimilation of today. Yes, our task is multilayered and complex. We mustn’t fool ourselves. And no, this will not be a simple process; in fact we’re in a Royal mess. Yet this desperate moment in time is no accident, and truly connecting with this Land may be the most necessary step towards finding the particular kind of patience we will need in order to see this process through. What Pablo Neruda and others have called a burning patience.
It is unfortunate that so many of our movements towards decolonization at this time are being reduced to arguments about identity politics. Not because knowing who we are and where we come from is unimportant, far from it! But because the Land, this Earth and its bioregions, can so easily be invisibilized through these discussions, it becomes vitally important to contextualize decolonization, grounding our movements in place. This problem of de-contextualization is a product of that same epistemological separation of Land and People that is the trademark of colonialism, yet it tends to frame our view of decolonization if we don’t reject this division outright.
At the same time, we must recognize that this perceived division has real consequences, though it is only a social construct. The civilization we are forced to live in or contend with is also a social construct, though it is as real as a nuclear bomb or the Grand Coulee Dam. Even if we are not Indigenous to the Land where we live, our way of living must be in harmony with the Indigeneity of that place, or the illusions we live by will have very real and devastating consequences. Everyday we observe how the consequences of these illusions are bringing our entire planet to the brink of disaster. Basically, we need to remember that it is not only People who are colonized, but also, in fact primarily, it is the Land who is colonized. For all the depravity of the colonizers towards Indigenous humans, it’s always been the Land that they’re after.3
The bioregional vision here in Cascadia has been a beacon of hope for many years now, standing in sharp contrast to the domination and exploitation we see around us everywhere in our daily lives. The promise of a bioregionalism to guide a wandering humanity back home to the places where we are no longer separate has never been more important that now. However, undoing this separation desperately needs to be done without making mistakes, without erasing any of our stories as unique individuals, communities, and Peoples.
I say this because there is a great risk in following the old bioregionalist prescription of “reinhabitation” without true and actual decolonization, primarily and concurrently. To quote Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Because settler colonialism is built on an entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave, the decolonial desires of white, non-white, immigrant, postcolonial, and oppressed people can similarly be entangled in resettlement, reoccupation, and reinhabitation that actually further settler colonialism4.” Yes, technocratic modernity has alienated most all of us humans from our Mother Earth, and if we don’t reinhabit our bodies and the places where we live, we are in serious trouble. But every place on this Earth has it’s own stories, and is a story that never ended and is not beginning with our “decolonial desires.” So before we can begin to tell new stories, it is imperative that we are familiar with the original stories, and continue to tell them.
For every thread in the fabric of colonialism, there is a story of resistance to be told. For every lie told by the civilizers, there is a truth to be told. For every place that has been decimated through industry and agriculture, there is still possible a good way to live there; and this way is kept alive in the stories of that particular place, the Indigenous Knowledge so viciously and systematically attacked by the colonizers. And each of us as an individual is a living story, connected to place(s) and ancestors, whose stories formed the world we live in today. Our identities are not static. Our stories evolve and our cultures evolve, as Cascadia herself rises in fire and falls into the sea. All of our stories need to be told, and in a way that empowers us in our responsibilities, not as a set of evasions or “settler moves to innocence5.” Telling our stories as our identities moves us beyond the dualism of guilt or innocence, denying neither, while illuminating our responsibilities as individuals and as Peoples in this life. (I reject the guilt-ridden associations of the word “responsibility” and embrace response-ability as the antidote to resignation and disempowerment)
So when we speak of bioregional decolonization, we are pleading that the Land never for an instant be ignored. And that we remember the original stories and refuse to silence any voices, or invalidate any experiences, as we tell and live new ones. In centering the Indigeneity of each place and its original People through everything we do, we can all remember that the Land and the People are never truly separate, for better or worse, and our way of living must reflect this no matter who or where we are. Each place will have different ways through this process of decolonization unique to its own ecology, and we will each have different roles to play, unique to the stories we are living.
- I am in debt to Derrick Jensen for his language here. Also, see his two-volume Endgame (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006) if you are scratching your head in regards to ‘systems collapse.’
- I borrow from the brilliant analysis of Michael Yellow Bird, A Model of the Effects of Colonialism, (Lawrence: University of Kansas Office for the Study of Indigenous Social and Cultural Justice, 1998).
- See Harriet Nahanee (Nuu-Chah-Nulth) quote from K. Annett’s book in Waziyatawin, “The paradox of Indigenous resurgence at the end of empire” p.72, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, Vol.1, No.1, 2012.
- Tuck and Wang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, Vol.1, No.1, 2012.
- Ibid. Please see Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society for these journal articles.
I wrote this essay on March 16, 2013. It is printed in ‘Autonomy Cascadia: A Journal of Bioregional Decolonization‘ which exists in zine format and the web page for the journal is under a long construction where EVENTUALLY all the journal essays will be available. So I am posting this here,now. I am hoping for critical feedback, so I ask the reader to please comment, and tear into it as much as you can. My thoughts on ‘bioregional decolonization’ are evolving faster than I can keep up with it seems! I honestly cherish criticism, and value insights that are not my own. What do you think?
GRMA! – Cathasaigh Ó Corcráin