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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Indigenous anarchy 

BY Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash Mar 16, 2024

I received my copy of No Spiritual Surrender: Indigenous Anarchy in the Defense of the Sacred by Klee Benally around the same time as the Oppenheimer-dominated Oscars ceremony. I learned about Benally a while ago through his activism against radioactive waste from nuclear bomb testing in Diné (Navajo) territory that still poisons his people and his land to this day.

Benally’s life-long work for Indigenous rights is polarizing, even among Native communities. Radical movements and beliefs are often subject to mockery under the pretext that they are unfeasible. However, people with condescending attitudes towards radicals often fail to prove the moral superiority of so-called liberal democracy and its settler-state understandings of it.

Anarchism gets a bad rep in our collective imagination, as it is often associated with chaos and violence. As a political philosophy it does score valid points in questioning the justification of hierarchy, government and the coercion needed to enforce those structures. 

If we criticize anarchist theories for their perceived violence, we must recognize that the imperialist and capitalist systems forcibly imposed on Indigenous peoples are inherently violent. Canada is a G7 country for the wealth gained from the theft and mass extraction of natural resources. To exploit that natural wealth, it engages in the assimilation and criminalization of Indigenous peoples – some call it genocide – and the exploitation of labour.

In No Spiritual Surrender, Benally argues that Indigenous peoples historically had a diverse range of social and political structures prior to a relatively recent colonization. He explains that our traditional systems often rest on a deep understanding of cycles acquired from generations of respect for the land – instead of violence against it. 

“We know the land and the land knows us,” he writes. “Who we are and where we are mean the same thing.”

Benally also references the accountability mechanisms we had to deal with wrongdoings within our communities before the existence of police forces. In the Canadian context, where law-enforcement agencies were created to enforce the colonial policies of the federal government, it’s a legitimate argument. 

We have a long track record of fighting authoritarian regimes. Fun fact: by going through the entire registry of the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, I found a few Indigenous volunteers who fought against fascism.

Benally’s book is the result of his involvement in many sacred land-struggle campaigns. He concludes that they led to mixed and failed results because they largely relied on the legal parameters of the United States rather than direct action and civil disobedience. Historically, people secured strong gains through the disturbance and total rejection of oppressive systems rather than working within them. 

The ideas that Benally brings forward might be harsh to many, but so are the violent deaths of millions of Indigenous people since 1492 because of colonial strategies and policies. After all, Jean-Jacques Dessalines didn’t free Haiti by trying to befriend and convince Saint-Domingue slaveowners of his humanity. He did so by “koupe tet, boule kay” (meaning “cut off the head, burn down the house”).

Benally and anarchists ask fundamental questions: Who should define and enforce the concept of safety? Are the ones at the top of a forced vertical hierarchy the best authority in terms of morals, conduct and ethics? Therefore, I don’t think their philosophy should not be deemed inferior to other theories like neo-liberalism. 

Ironically, a few months after Benally’s passing on Dec. 31, 2023, Oppenheimer won seven Oscars even though the script contains one vague line about the Diné who were forcibly removed from their land by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s team then ultimately killed by the radioactive waste that still contaminates their land. 

Perhaps, we should look at Benally’s beliefs as a plea for Indigenous dignity rather than a utopia.

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is Cree from Waswanipi, and is the Nation’s newest columnist. She is an activist and writer who also has a regular column in Montreal’s French Metro Newspaper.