I Am Indigenist

[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published September 20, 2000.]



The growth of ethnic consciousness and the consequent mobilization of Indian communities in the Western hemisphere since the early 1960s have been welcomed neither by government forces nor by opposition parties and revolutionary movements. The "Indian Question" has been an almost forbidden subject of debate throughout the entire political spectrum, although racism, discrimination and exploitation are roundly denounced on all sides.

—Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz


Indians of the Americas


Very often in my writings and lectures, I have identified myself as being "indigenist" in outlook. By this, I mean that I am one who not only takes the rights of indigenous peoples as the highest priority of my political life, but who draws upon the traditions—the bodies of knowledge and corresponding codes of value—evolved over many thousands of years by native peoples the world over. This is the basis upon which I not only advance critiques of, but conceptualize alternatives to the present social, political, economic, and philosophical status quo. In turn, this gives shape not only to the sorts of goals and objectives I pursue, but the kinds of strategy and tactics I advocate, the variety of struggles I tend to support, the nature of the alliances I am inclined to enter into, and so on. 


Let me say, before I go any further, that I am hardly unique or alone in adopting this perspective. It is a complex of ideas, sentiments, and understandings which motivates the whole of the American Indian Movement, broadly defined, here in North America. This is true whether you call it AIM, or Indians of All Tribes (as was done during the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz), the Warriors Society (as was the case with the Mohawk rebellion at Oka in 1990), Women of All Red Nations, or whatever.1  It is the spirit of resistance that shapes the struggles of traditional Indian people on the land, whether the struggle is down at Big Mountain, in the Black Hills, or up at James Bay, in the Nevada desert or out along the Columbia River in what is now called Washington State.2 In the sense that I use the term, indigenism is also, I think, the outlook that guided our great leaders of the past: King Philip and Pontiac, Tecumseh and Creek Mary and Osceola, Black Hawk, Nancy Ward and Satanta, Lone Wolf and Red Cloud, Satank and Quannah Parker, Left Hand and Crazy Horse, Dull Knife and Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Roman Nose and Captain Jack, Louis Ríel and Poundmaker and Geronimo, Cochise and Mangus, Victorio, Chief Seattle, and on and on.3


In my view, those, Indian and non-Indian alike, who do not recognize these names and what they represent have no sense of the true history—the reality—of North America. They have no sense of where they’ve come from or where they are and thus can have no genuine sense of who or what they are. By not looking at where they’ve come from, they cannot know where they are going or where it is they should go. It follows that they cannot understand what it is they are to do, how to do it, or why. In their confusion, they identify with the wrong people, the wrong things, the wrong tradition. They therefore inevitably pursue the wrong goals and objectives, putting last things first and often forgetting the first things altogether, perpetuating the very structures of oppression and degradation they think they oppose. Obviously, if things are to be changed for the better in this world, then this particular problem must itself be changed as a matter of first priority.


In any event, all of this is not to say that I think I am one of the significant people I have named, or the host of others, equally worthy, who’ve gone unnamed. I have no "New Age" conception of myself as the reincarnation of someone who has come before. But it is to say that I take these

ancestors as my inspiration, as the only historical examples of proper attitude and comportment on this continent, this place, this land on which I live and of which I am a part. I embrace them as my heritage, my role models, the standard by which I must measure myself. I try always to be worthy of the battles they fought, the sacrifices they made. For the record, I have always found myself wanting in this regard, but I subscribe to the notion that one is obligated to speak the truth, even if one cannot live up to or fully practice it. As Chief Dan George once put it, I "endeavor to persevere," and I suppose this is a circumstance which is shared more-or-less equally by everyone presently involved in what I refer to as "indigenism."


Others whose writings and speeches and actions may be familiar, and who fit the definition of indigenist—or "Fourth Worlder," as we are sometimes called—include Winona LaDuke and John Trudell, Simon Ortiz, Russell Means and Leonard Peltier, Glenn Morris and Leslie Silko, Jimmie Durham, John Mohawk and Oren Lyons, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, Ingrid Washinawatok and Dagmar Thorpe. There are scholars and attorneys like Vine Deloria, Don Grinde, Pam Colorado, Sharon Venne, George Tinker, Bob Thomas, Jack Forbes, Rob Williams and Hank Adams. There are poets like Wendy Rose, Adrian Louis, Dian Million, Chrystos, Elizabeth Woody and Barnie Bush.


There are also many grassroots warriors in the contemporary world, people like the Dann sisters, Bernard Ominayak, Art Montour and Buddy Lamont, Madonna Thunderhawk, Anna Mae Aquash, Kenny Kane and Joe Stuntz, Minnie Garrow and Bobby Garcia, Dallas Thundershield, Phyllis Young, Andrea Smith and Richard Oaks, Margo Thunderbird, Tina Trudell and Roque Duenas. And, of course, there are the elders, those who have given, and continue to give, continuity and direction to indigenist expression; I am referring to people like Chief Fools Crow and Matthew King, Henry Crow Dog and Grampa David Sohappy, David Monongye and Janet McCloud and Thomas Banyacya, Roberta Blackgoat and Katherine Smith and Pauline Whitesinger, Marie Leggo and Phillip Deer and Ellen Moves Camp, Raymond Yowell and Nellie Red Owl.4


Like the historical figures I mentioned earlier, these are names representing positions, struggles, and aspirations which should be well-known to every socially-conscious person in North America. They embody the absolute antithesis of the order represented by the "Four Georges"—George Washington, George Custer, George Patton and George Bush—emblemizing the sweep of "American" history as it is conventionally taught in that system of indoctrination the United States passes off as "education." They also stand as the negation of that long stream of "Vichy Indians"5 spawned and deemed "respectable" by the process of predation, colonialism, and genocide the Four Georges signify.


The names I have listed cannot be associated with the legacy of the "Hang Around the Fort" Indians, broken, disempowered, and intimidated by their conquerors, or with the sellouts who undermined the integrity of their own cultures, appointed by the United States to sign away their peoples’ homelands in exchange for trinkets, sugar, and alcohol. They are not the figurative descendants of those who participated in the assassination of people like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and who filled the ranks of the colonial police to enforce an illegitimate and alien order against their own. They are not among those who have queued up to roster the régimes installed by the U.S. to administer Indian Country from the 1930s onward, the craven puppets who to this day cling to and promote the "lawful authority" of federal force as a means of protecting their positions of petty privilege, imagined prestige, and often their very identities as native people. No, indigenists and indigenism have nothing to do with the sorts of Quisling impulses driving the Ross Swimmers, Dickie Wilsons, Webster Two Hawks, Peter McDonalds, Vernon Bellecourts and David Bradleys of this world.6


Instead, indigenism offers an antidote, a vision of how things might be that is based in how things have been since time immemorial, and how things must be once again if the human species, and perhaps the planet itself, is to survive much longer. Predicated on a synthesis of the wisdom attained over thousands of years by indigenous, landbased peoples around the globe—the Fourth World or, as Winona LaDuke puts it, "The Host World upon which the first, second and third worlds all sit at the present time"—indigenism stands in diametrical opposition to the totality of what might be termed "Eurocentric business as usual."7