Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Settlers, Oppressed Nations, Indigenous Peoples

A friend recently wrote me, asking me “after how many years/generations do new settlers become Indigenous to a land? So, for example, are the Boers descendants today in S. Africa, African?”

It’s a question i’ve had a number of conversations about, not because i’ve any kind of special standing on the issue, but i think because it’s a question undergirding a lot of ways things are talked about on the radical left and in anticolonial movements. Over the past years i have come to the conclusion that like so many other questions, there are multiple valid answers, and the point is not to fixate on one correct one, but rather to map out the consequences of the various possible positions. As our needs change, the frameworks that will be of most use for us will change. We can make words and frameworks mean whatever we want, but we cannot make the consequences of doing so whatever we want. That’s my starting point.

In radical left, liberal, and academic usage, “Indigenous” has replaced “aboriginal” in terms of meaning the people who were originally here. Which means you never become Indigenous merely by living some place (or your ancestors having lived in the place) for a long time. It is a matter of having been the ones there at the point that the cataclysmic event of euro-colonialism took place; in that sense, the fact of the unique world-historic tragedy of eurocolonialism is implicit in the framework itself. This meaning of the term i think is useful as it reveals certain political (and legal) questions specific to the peoples who were here and were colonized or who resisted and have continued to resist colonization from that turning point to the present, and because it recognizes that event as the epoch-defining catastrophe that it is.

But in terms of revolutionary left political strategy, i find the framework “colonized” and “suffering national oppression” to have a wider scope of application, and to be more generally germane. They don’t replace or “trump” the framework of Indigeneity, but they relate more directly to the social contradictions that drive society forward. National oppression in particular relates directly and neatly to class, in a way that Indigeneity does not necessarily do.1

Again, to be clear, national oppression doesn’t “trump” indigeneity, and this is not a matter of downgrading the strategic and ethical weight of Indigenous struggles. But these struggles are also struggles against national oppression, and it is that which in fact is normally the characteristic which best defines their relationship to capitalism-imperialism.

In this regard, i should also point out that the framework that is gaining ground, of indigeneity existing in a dichotomy with “settlers”, i find less useful than the use of the word “settlers” found in J. Sakai’s book by that name, i.e. limited to those who formed and continue to constitute the oppressor nations in the settler-colonies. Current usage includes non-Indigenous oppressed nationalities within settler-colonial states; this can lead to political errors. So although descendants of Africans, or Puerto Ricans, or Chicanos, may not be Indigenous, the framework i normally find most useful does not include them as settlers.

As to the related question of immigrants from other colonized nations, and whether they are best viewed as “settlers”, i think that is a question that will be determined by future developments “on the ground” as they say. These are people who almost always are coming to the imperialist countries in the hopes of enjoying a better standard of living than the world average, certainly better than the situation they leave behind. Yet racism is worsening in these same imperialist countries, becoming more prevalent even as its outside appearance may change, pushing people of color into more precarious situations, working similarly to exclude newcomers who do not share First World national privilege. Globally, most of these immigrants will remain excluded from whitelife, as will their descendants, while a minority (perhaps a large minority?) will be integrated within it. The latter group may be best categorized as “settlers”, though probably with qualifications (indeed, the same could be said for those from oppressed nations who have assimilated in to the global middle class). The former group, however, will become part of a multiethnic (though basically “people of color”) working class or lumpen collectivity which depending on the context, may or may not make sense to qualify as “settler”.

These are just my thoughts, in response to a friend’s question — but it is a question i have discussed with a number of people over the years, so it is something folks seem to think about. The thing i would stress, and not only around this question, is what i said at the beginning: these are best not viewed as questions with one correct answer, but rather as social phenomenon that can be understood using a variety of frameworks, each of which will have inescapable consequences in terms of both theory and practice. The aim should be to understand those consequences and factor them in to the decision as to which framework to adopt in a given situation.

  1. Indigeneity does relate directly to class as in the overwhelming majority of Indigenous peoples, the world over, suffer greater poverty and all the hardships that come from being excluded from economic wealth and oppressed by capitalism and even subject to genocide. But it does not relate neatly, as large numbers of people from other oppressed nations also share these same conditions.

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