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Taiaiake confronts reconciliation in new book

Courtesy Gerald Taiaiake Alfred

Gerald Taiaike Alfred’s methods and temperament have evolved over the years as his roles have changed, but the spirit of his thinking has been consistent across his career.

At a time when the Canadian government is embracing reconciliation rhetoric, Alfred has compiled two decades of interviews and speeches he has given to make an urgent case for why this approach undermines – rather than reinforces – Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

The resulting book, It’s All About the Land: Collected Talks and Interviews on Indigenous Resurgence, hits store shelves September 12.

“Basically what I’m arguing in this book is that reconciliation is a flawed concept because it’s window dressing on continued colonization,” said Alfred.

“It’s being promoted as a solution to the problem when in fact it’s building on our defeat as nations and convincing many of us that being participants in the colonial project is the best that we can do. I disagree with that, and I think our ancestors disagree with that.”

The goals of reconciliation run contrary to the historic goals of Kanien’kehá:ka and Kahnawa’kehró:non activism, he said, noting this has always been about restoring nationhood, autonomy, freedom, and land.

“Reconciliation doesn’t offer any of that,” he said.

Instead, reconciliation – which he calls “Canadian citizenship with the flavour of Indigeneity to it” – subverts the cultural and political resurgence of Onkwehón:we by accepting the framework of Canadian authority and envisioning First Nations within that, he said.

“It’s not radical in terms of challenging the pillars of what Canada is and the policies of Canada,” he said of reconciliation. “It just advocates making them more open to our participation.”

He said it’s a crucial time, especially with social technologies that help cement a moderate view of the place of Indigenous communities in Canada.

While the material in the book hearkens back to a consistent theme, the tone shifts because his words come from engagements with different kinds of audiences.

“Each section is a slightly different take on it, because I’m trying to persuade a different audience in every interaction that I’ve had.”

Alfred’s editor, Ann Rogers, who is not Indigenous, found her perspective shifting as she wrestled with the text, she said.

“Every time I went back into it, I always came out with something else. It’s like you don’t stand in the same river twice,” Rogers said. “I could tell my own thinking was changing because I was reacting differently. For me it was very transformative.”

The biggest challenge in editing the book was that it was hard to cut anything, she said. “His thinking is very nuanced,” she said.

This is particularly impressive, she said, given that he does not rely on notes when speaking, preferring to engage with audiences “without a net,” in his words.

“I just think there’s so much people have to learn from him,” said Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, activist, and politician who contributed the book’s foreword.

“His message is even more important now because we’re really at risk in this whole phase of reconciliation of just softening everything, watering everything down, and making it look like everything’s OK and just passively assimilate into society,” she said. 

“(Alfred’s) message is ‘don’t do that.’”

For Alfred, the book’s title – It’s All About the Land – was an easy decision.

“That phrase has been in my head since 1992, and it’s been something I’ve been repeating to myself over and over as a professor, giving speeches, and in my own life, personally, too.”

He is concerned the modern Land Back movement can be too focused on social media rather than on-the-ground action.

“What are they actually doing compared to what our uncles and parents and grandparents did in the 70s and 80s? We’re talking about people that uprooted their whole lives to go reoccupy land and defend that with guns,” he said, adding those people went on to start schools, raise families, and defend territory for future generations.

“Compare that to putting out a hashtag – #LandBack – and going to the coffee shop. It’s something we really need to think about in terms of what exactly is a movement.”

He emphasized he is not dismissing online activism, which he sees as necessary. “But I think too much effort is put into that,” he said.

Kahnawa’kehró:non will be able to buy the book at Iron Horse, and a local book launch is planned for Kahnawake on September 18 at 5:30 p.m. at Tóta Ma’s Café.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

This article was originally published in print on Friday, September 1, in issue 32.35 of The Eastern Door.

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Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.