Wasase: A Strategy of Contention, or a Study in Confusion?
WASASE: A Strategy of Contention, or a Study in Confusion?
Analysis of ‘Wasase’ Movement
Wasase is both a book and a movement headed by University of Victoria professor Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk from Kahnawake. The book was published in 2005, and the first official gatherings of Wasase (the movement) began in 2006, comprised largely of Indigenous university students drawn to Taiaiake’s philosophy. Due to its academic orientation, many warriors & grassroots organizers remain unexposed to the movement’s philosophy and/or fail to fully grasp its intentions and methods. This does not mean, however, that [n]either the book, the movement, or Taiaiake himself is not without influence.
The availability of the book, and Taiaiake’s public profile as an academic, have meant that certain aspects of his work have indeed permeated our ranks. Furthermore, the activities & statements of Wasase may be given more legitimacy & consideration due simply to the aura of respectability attached to Taiaiake. As will become clear, this is more likely to be a source of confusion than clarity. This is especially so as Taiaiake attempts to promote his strategy over & above others.
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, and why Taiaiake’s theory is the solution to our problems. Taiaiake, it becomes clear, believes his vision & strategy are more authentically Indigenous in spirit & nature than all others. Through Wasase, Indigenous peoples will be transformed and revitalized to successfully make non-violent social change.
Countering the ‘Violent Insurgents’
Much of Taiaiake’s initial effort in Wasase is spent denouncing ‘violent insurgents,’ whom he apparently sees as his main political rivals (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)
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 there is widespread feelings of anger & hostility 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 answer for this as well: armed resistance is a futile strategy that has never been successful, one that has only lead to ‘frustration & failure’, and 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 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).
Anyone who’s done any research on India’s struggle for independence knows that Ghandi’s non-violent campaign was but one part of a mass movement that also involved widespread armed resistance, massacres, bombings, riots, etc. At times, Gandhi’s non-violence campaigns themselves caused massive unrest, riots and armed attacks on government soldiers, police and Europeans. He himself cancelled non-violent campaigns due to such anti-colonial rebellions while condemning the people’s use of violent forms of resistance. He was surprised by the people’s level of hatred & ill-will to the colonial regime, and convinced they needed more indoctrination to pacifist beliefs. Gandhi’s movement itself was promoted by the British & business interests in India as an alternative to anti-colonial rebellion (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… “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.”(see http://archives.econ.utah/archives/pen-1/1997m11.a/msg00039….)
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 ‘messiah’ of the poor is itself a subject of debate. So much for Ghandi and his example of ‘non-violent’ resistance.
Wasase ‘Warriorism’ & Guerrilla Insurgency
Just in case the reader is still inclined to support the ‘violent insurgents’, Taiaiake throws in a little psychological evaluation, stating that it is ‘clearly a gendered concept rooted in machismo and valorizations of violence… (which explains why there is such a mocking distaste for this approach among females)’ (p. 58).
Ironically, two of his main subjects for interviews on ‘warriorism’ are James Ward & David Dennis, former members of the now-disbanded West Coast Warrior Society (WCWS), a group that was renowned for its drunken partying & debauchery. When the WCWS first formed as a security force within the Native Youth Movement (Cheam 1999), it was mostly women in the group that had a ‘mocking distaste’ for the group’s machismo and valorization of violence Taiaiake so easily ascribes to others. Yet, Taiaiake promotes them as models of Wasase ‘warriorism’. The WCWS & the more recently formed Warrior Alliance (neither of which appear to have had many, if any, female members) are clearly examples of the physical self-defense that Taiaiake uses to prop up his strategy of ‘resistance’. Yet, police repression of the WCWS, including raids & arrests of members (although minor), show the ability of the state to easily counter any incipient armed defense force. These warriors’ rejection of the strategy of guerrilla warfare, and especially its emphasis on clandestine organizing, was clearly shown in July 2005 when both Dennis & Ward were arrested in Vancouver while making a ‘legal’ purchase of weapons & ammunition. Whether one describes an armed group as ‘violent insurgents’ or a ‘warrior society’ or a ‘self-defense force’ makes no difference to the state’s security apparatus. This is perhaps one of the greatest dangers of Taiaiake’s convoluted ‘strategy’: he denounces violence as a form of resistance, but acknowledges the necessity for armed self-defense against state repression. But how are a people to organize & commit to armed self-defense (from which any genuine defense must arise), when their movement & ideology are based on non-violence (and especially when so much of Taiaiake’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. Furthermore, as the WWS example shows, attempting to portray an armed defensive force as somehow legitimate (as opposed to the ‘violent insurgents’) doesn’t protect it from state repression, but instead makes it all the more vulnerable. 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… In Vietnam above all, and also in China, armed self-defense of the peasants, organized in militias, has played an important role as the foundation stone of the structure of the armed forces of liberation—but self-defense extended to zones already militarily liberated… in no way did it bring autonomous zones into being” (Revolution in the Revolution?, p. 30). 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 repression, and not any capacity for armed (or even non-violent) resistance that existed in either Kanehsatake or Kanawake. We can see how, by 1995, new methods were employed by police to counter Indigenous resistance, both armed & unarmed, at Gustafsen Lake & Ipperwash. At Gustafsen Lake, the armed self-defense carried out was nearly over-run & massacred by heavily armed police. The strategy of the guerrilla seeks to overcome the superior forces of our enemy by, as noted above, choosing the time & place of combat, for example, or by using surprise and secrecy, mobility & maneuver, etc. The guerrilla thus enables a resistance movement to have some armed (or militant) capacity with which to intervene & influence events, even when not able to directly defend a population.
Mao Tse-Tung, a leader in the Chinese revolutionary struggle, who both popularized and developed the strategy of guerrilla warfare, stated: “When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strikes him when he is weary; pursues him when he withdraws. In guerrilla strategy, the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted, and annihilated” (War in the Shadows, p. 257, quotes ‘On Guerrilla Warfare’). What Taiaiake dismisses as ‘offensive violence’ is actually a form of armed defense: “The protection of the population depends on the progressive destruction of the enemy’s military potential. It is relative to the overall balance of forces: the populace will be completely safe when the opposing forces are completely defeated” (Revolution in the Revolution?, p.41).
It should be noted that the “progressive destruction of the enemy’s military potential” is not just a question of military action (in the context of an insurgency). There are many ways this potential can be reduced that are not based on lethal attacks by armed guerrillas, such as cutting off infrastructure to prevent troop movements (i.e., highways, rail lines, sea & air ports, etc.), destroying communications & supplies, etc., all of which can be carried out by unarmed saboteurs and/or mass direct action (including blockades).
Mao was very clear on the offensive nature of guerrilla warfare: “[T]he operations of a guerrilla unit should consist in offensive warfare” (On Guerrilla Warfare, quoted in War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, p. 258). An example of how the offensive nature of guerrilla warfare contributed to the defense of a population is seen in Mao’s guerrilla campaign in Northern China, August, 1940. Over the previous year, Japanese occupation forces had carried out large-scale construction work, building hundreds of miles of new roads & railways, with armed forts along rail lines and roads. Deep, wide trenches & high walls were also built alongside roads & rail lines. This was part of a plan by the Japanese to literally divide and break up base areas of the Communist guerrillas (areas where they had support and were established). They also carried out scorched earth policies, destroying crops to deny food to both the population & the guerrillas. Mao’s response was a massive guerrilla operation entitled the Hundred Regiments Offensive, beginning in August 1940. Over a period of 3 months, according to a US intelligence report, “Guerrillas made hundreds of cuts in rail lines; derailed trains, blew up small bridges & viaducts, attacked & burned stations; destroyed switches, water towers, and signal control equipment, and other wise seriously damaged and temporarily disorganized the railway system in North China. As a substantial dividend, Japanese garrison forces necessarily concentrating on counter-guerrilla operations and major restoration projects, were unable to get into the countryside to confiscate the autumn harvest.” (War in the Shadows, p. 261).
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. 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’s idea of armed self-defense appears less as a strategy of resistance than an effort to draw in genuine warriors, 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. This is what Mao, who had real experience in not only leading a resistance movement but achieving victory over enormous odds against both the Chinese ruling class & Japanese imperial army, had to say about the simple-soldier syndrome: “There are some militarists who say: ‘We are not interested in politics but only in the profession of arms.’ It is vital that these simple-minded militarists be made to realize the relationship that exists between politics & military affairs… Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if people & their sympathy, co-operation, & assistance cannot be gained… because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation” (War in the Shadows, p. 255, quotes Mao’s ‘On Guerrilla Warfare’).
Although our movement is not engaged in armed resistance, we can see that it does indeed form a part of our strategy, as do other forms of struggle such as sabotage, direct action, riots and civil disobedience. Although we may characterize our current level of struggle as a ‘low-intensity conflict’, there is no denying that violence is a part of it. People are assaulted, beaten, shot & killed. Despite the imbalance of power between our people and those of the colonial state, we must find the means to resist the ongoing destruction of land, environment, & community. At the same time, we must prepare for an uncertain future that holds the potential for even greater crises & conflict. For these reasons, even though we are not engaged in armed resistance under current social conditions, the strategy of the guerrilla (based on asymmetrical warfare) is more relevant to our movement than the philosophy of Gandhi (based on mass civil disobedience).
Wasase’s View of Global Resistance
Taiaiake’s analysis of the international dynamics of anti-colonial resistance are nearly as simplistic as his views on violence: “revolutionary struggles using direct armed confrontation have failed to stop capitalism’s expansion” (p. 50). Here, Taiaiake attempts to use anti-colonial resistance, mostly from the post-WW2 period, as proof of the failure of armed rebellion. He dismisses the examples of Cuba & Vietnam as exceptions, and points to an alleged failure of anti-colonial struggles to “produce long-term or generally successful resistances” (p. 51). Never mind that Vietnam dealt a stunning blow to US imperialism, from which it has yet to fully recover (i.e., the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’), or that many movements in Africa, the Middle-East, & Asia succeeded in forcing out foreign invaders & occupiers and raising the standards of living for their people (in some cases, far more so than Taiaiake’s example of Gandhi). Taiaiake’s dismissal of these struggles as ultimately failures is all the more ironic considering that he uses a quote from Che Guevera (whom he describes as embodying the revolutionary spirit of ‘hatred & violence’) on the strategy of anti-imperialism: “We must bear in mind that imperialism is a world system…it must be defeated in a world confrontation. The strategic end of this struggle should be the destruction of imperialism. Our share, the responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world, is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capitals, raw materials—instruments of domination—arms and all kinds of articles…”
Taiaiake then states: “The question for us today is: What kind of ‘world confrontation’ is necessary to bring about not the Gueverian military ‘defeat’ (which has proven impossible to achieve) but the transformation of imperialism?” (P. 51). Typically vague, Taiaiake doesn’t say what he means by ‘transformation’, and neglects the real point of Che’s statement: the global imperialist system is based on extracting cheap raw materials & labour from the oppressed nations of Africa, Asia & S. America. By fighting against this system, by denying them easy access to such resources, the imperialist nations are weakened. The ‘world confrontation’ Taiaiake searches for but cannot see is unfolding before his very eyes, in the many resistance movements now fighting around the world (the same one’s he describes as failures, although much later he concedes that these struggles were successful, but that “Things are different now,” p. 234). Che’s strategy was– and is– not unique. One of the first to articulate this was Mao, who conceived of protracted people’s war on both national as well as international levels. In Mao’s strategy at a national level, the insurgents fight for and take control of the rural areas, cutting off the urban centers & weakening them, before the final offensive to seize them.
Mao saw the cities as the centers of political, economic & military power for the imperialists. Similarly, on a global level, the oppressed nations form the rural areas (or periphery), which are fought for and liberated, in this way ‘cutting off’ the imperialist centers (the ‘cities’). One need not be a Maoist or a Gueverist to see the logic in this strategy.
Although he dismisses the anti-colonial revolts following WW2 as ultimately counter-productive, there is no doubt that these struggles, even though exploited as ‘proxy wars’ between the US & USSR, weakened the colonial powers. They contributed, in many ways, to the present crises facing the global system. Their inability to defeat imperialism, something Taiaiake uses as proof of their failure, is part of a process that is still underway and which also requires the development of real resistance within the imperialist centers themselves. While he acknowledges the globalized system we are all now a part of, Taiaiake seems unable to understand the relationship between ‘local’ struggles (i.e., Cuba & Vietnam) and their impacts on not only the global system, but our own struggles. The 1960′s-70′s period of resistance in N. America, for example, was directly influenced by struggles such as Cuba & Vietnam. Without the Viet Cong, there may well have been no American Indian Movement.
And what about the growing potential for global ecological, economic, & military crises we are now faced with, crises that will drastically change the social conditions we find ourselves in today? Taiaiake has nothing at all to say about these, even though they will have enormous effects on our people & resistance movements, and are factors that any real liberation struggle must take into account in determining strategy. The potential for systemic collapse, greater social conflict and state repression, all of which will alter the conditions under which we fight, appear to be non-issues. Wasase proceeds as if nothing will change until we adopt Taiaiake’s views.
Even more ironically, perhaps, Taiaiake holds up the Zapatistas as an example of “rebellions of indigenous truth against capitalism” (p. 59), whatever that is, without once noting that the Zapatista’s are an Indigenous insurgent movement. The EZLN is, in fact, a guerrilla army (but apparently one that Taiaiake approves of, simply re-labeling it an ‘Indigenous resurgence’). Although the Zapatistas are unique as an Indigenous insurgent movement, there is no denying that they established themselves as a political-military force through violent, armed resistance—a capacity they maintain to this day.
A Confusing & Convoluted Strategy
Taiaiake’s attempt to promote direct action seems poorly thought out, almost as if he didn’t understand what direct action means. In his attack against the ‘violent insurgents’, Taiaiake portrays them as being possessed by an impotent rage that cannot even find a suitable target at which to strike (due to the decentralized nature of colonial & capitalist power in society); militants “punching the air.” Then he offers this: “The target of direct action must be the most immediate danger and cause of our collective stress: the racism that is still rampant in Settler society” (p. 61).
Racism? And how do we take direct action against racism, a belief system deeply imbedded in settler society? What targets are there to take action against? Taiaiake offers no suggestions. And is racism really the greatest and most immediate danger? What about capitalist development that directly threatens land, environment, people, culture, as well as the survival of future generations? What about direct action campaigns against corporations, or violence against women & children, or drug dealers?
Taiaiake 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 approaches only serves to disarm our people, who need to strengthen their fighting spirit, not dampen it. 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 (a Native ‘mahatma’?), the result can only be confusion.
Towards the end of the book, Taiaiake finally offers up a concrete example of what he envisions an Indigenous ‘resurgence’ to look like, derived largely from his reading of Gandhi it would appear: “[A] widespread movement & intensive, coordinated collective action by Onkwehonwe to reoccupy their lands and reassert their rights & freedoms” (p. 267). The question, he asks, is whether the government will respond with violence to counter such a mass action. His answer? No, because the “settler public as a whole would reject the use of state violence…because of the social chaos it would quickly… produce” (p. 268).
Although such a mass movement would be a major accomplishment, it should be borne in mind that ‘mass’ is a relative term. In a country with a population of some 30 million, and Natives comprising some 2 million, how massive & widespread could such actions be across the country, for example in remote northern communities? Perhaps such a movement would be more successful if it carried out mass sabotage of infrastructure, but this doesn’t appear to be part of Taiaiake’s plan (his views on sabotage are not clear: is it violent or non-violent to destroy property?). In any case, what exactly does Taiaiake hope to achieve through such an action? That the Canadian state will capitulate? It will certainly move to contain and co-opt such a movement, but in the end do such actions really lead to liberation when all the institutions of state power & industry remain intact? Even Taiaiake’s example of mass non-cooperation by Indians in India seems impractical for our situation, seeing as Natives are such a small percent of the population. How much impact would it have if Natives withdrew their labour from the Canadian economy, stopped going to schools, or courts, or somehow boycotted manufactured goods? Or stopped paying taxes (hahaha)? And who’s to say that, as social conflict increases, as economic & ecological crises intensify, that more settlers will not become even more vulnerable to state propaganda & counter-insurgency efforts against Native ‘terrorists’? We can see how, in settler communities surrounding Native conflicts, there is an increase in racist & vigilante attacks, and frequently a call for police/military intervention to stop any inconveniences caused by Natives “asserting their rights & freedoms” (i.e., Oka, Burnt Church, Six Nations, etc.). Basing a strategy of resistance on the level of support or sympathy from settlers, even while we seek to strengthen these factors in order to divide our adversary, is a dangerous & naïve gamble to make in an anti-colonial liberation struggle.
Then there’s Taiaiake’s ideas on how such a movement should be organized, with a small professional staff of “highly skilled & qualified leaders”, with a large number of supporters indirectly involved, an “impersonal network… that relies mainly on electronic forms of communication…” (p. 208).
While this may sound smart, there’s little that’s grassroots or designed to strengthen community self-organization in such a model. Instead, it only replicates the structures & centralization of power that Taiaiake so consistently criticizes throughout the book. Although the use of electronic communications may now be common, it seems contrary to Indigenous ways to not see the value in real human interaction as the basis of any movement. Our movement, for example, has always been primarily based on families & communities; today, these remain as the main sources of Indigenous resistance.
Despite these harsh criticisms of Wasase and its approach to resistance, it is not to say that Taiaiake doesn’t have many good points to make. His analysis of the Indian Act system, the promotion of assimilation & capitalist values by band councils, and the nature of settler society, for example, are good solid critiques. The interviews that form a large part of the book, with Native students, artists, warriors, activists, etc., are intelligent & insightful.
Like Wasase, however, 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, whose strength is enlightening people as to the oppressed conditions under which we live, but whose weakness is in promoting a contradictory & confusing strategy.
Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action & Freedom, By Taiaiake Alfred, Broadview Press, Ontario, Canada 2005.
Revolution in the Revolution? By Regis Debray, Grove Press, New York 1967.
War in the Shadows, the Guerrilla in History: 2,000 Years of the Guerrilla at War, By Robert B. Asprey, William Morrow & Co., New York 1994.
A two volume set on history of guerrilla warfare.
On Guerrilla Warfare, By Mao Tse-Tung. A classic on guerrilla warfare written by Mao, widely available as a book or on internet.
Guerrilla Warfare By Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera. Another classic on guerrilla warfare, also available as a book or on internet.
India & the Raj: 1919-1947; Glory, Shame and Bondage, By Suniti Kumar Ghosh. Out of print book, available on internet. (see