Resistance to War, Occupation, and Empire

On Sunday, August 8, Ward Churchill was the keynote speaker at the 15th annual Under the Volcano: Festival of Art and Social Change, Celebrating Peoples Resistance to War, Occupation and Empire, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Siyo, oseeju. Hello my relatives, it’s good to see you here. And isn’t here a beautiful place, and isn’t this a beautiful day? It is my honour to be here in this corner of illegally occupied America along with you. Before I go into what is it I have to say, I have to bring you greetings from the elders of the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, my people, and from the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement of which I am a part, and from Gwarth-ee-Lass, otherwise known as Leonard Peltier, who today as I speak to you continues to sit in a cage at the federal maximum security prison at Leavenworth, Kansas; not for anything anyone including even his prosecutor at any point in the past twenty years has been prepared to say that they actually believe he did. But rather as a symbol of the arbitrary ability of the federal government of the United States to repress the legitimate aspirations to liberation of indigenous peoples within its claimed boundaries. And there’s a difference between a claim and a reality, and that difference is why Leonard is there.

The difference between that claim and that reality is why I say that this is illegally occupied land. British Columbia was never ceded by the indigenous people who own it; it is still their land. It is burdened under the oppressive weight of colonial laws. But we’re all here to oppose a vast variety of things. We’re to embrace one another, we’re to embrace this day, we’re to embrace this festival, but we embrace in opposition, we embrace in opposition to imperialism. We embrace in opposition to racism; we embrace in opposition to ageism, and classism and sexism. We’ve got lots of ‘isms’ and they’re accompanied by ‘ologies’ and we’re opposing the lot. And we do it in a random fashion, don’t we? Each of us has our own little pet project, our own little organization, and we run off and that’s the most important thing in the world and we don’t understand the nature of our opposition, to what it is we oppose. So let’s see if we can get a little clarification on the table here about how this process works.

Because its all coming under a rubric of what they now call globalization, and globalization is a word that’s trotted around like it was new, like the reinvention of the wheel, like that was something new, different, novel, and unique, that needs to be understood in terms exclusive to itself. And I want to break this down two ways. It reminds me of something I was taught by an elder who was very important to me, on the Pine Ridge reservation back about 20-25 years ago. Well, a while longer than that.It was told to me by a person by the name of Matthew King. That was the formal given name, he signed the paperwork, and the government brought out “Noble Red Man” So if you run across Noble Red Man in official documents some time that’s Matthew speaking to you there.

That was back at the time I was working in AIM security, and as we were ‘want to do,’ when we weren’t securing anything we would stop in to see how the old people were doing, to see if there was anything they needed, if there was anything that we could do for them. Well, we stopped off one day at Matthew’s house. He said he didn’t need anything in particular, but ‘why don’t we sit down and have a cup of coffee with him and visit a while,’ which we did. And he said, “you know, I admire you boys, I admire your courage and I admire your dedication. There’s a lot of things I admire, but you all are just spinning your wheels.” And we were kind of shocked by that, kind of confused, because he was very supportive of the American Indian Movement. So we asked him what he meant, ‘what do you mean, Uncle?” He said, “well, you’ve got all this fire and all this energy and you’re spending all this time fighting against that which is to try to create something different, but, its just true that you don’t know where you’re going, and the reason you don’t know where you’re going is that you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where our people have been, you don’t know your history.”

“And you can liken it to a trip that you might take across these plains out here where there’s not a tree, there’s not a hill, it’s just flat it looks like the top of a pool table. Every once in a while you’ll come across a landmark.” He said “the way you know where you are at any given moment is you look back over your shoulder at the last of those landmarks you’ve passed and that can orient you in space, to where it is you need to go, which direction you have to take to get there.” He said, “the journey you’re on is the same way. If you don’t look back over your shoulder to where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are. And if you don’t know where you are, you can’t possibly get to wherever it is that you think you want to go.” So you’ve got to know your history, you’ve got to know how the present came to be if you’re going to understand the present, and you have to understand that present, see it clearly and see it accurately, if you’re going to be able to chart a course to the alternative that you want to create.

Now I know that everybody here is not a Native person. I can look out and I can see that there are different traditions here, so let me say the same thing through another tradition. And as they told you I’m a University professor so let me try sounding like one for a moment here, all right? I’m going to trot out a big gun name now.Foucault. Oh yeah, now I’m getting resonance. Fou-cault, we can make that as an incantation perhaps. Well, there’s a lot of things that Foucault had to say that are of various and varying degrees of interest, but the one that interests me in this particular connection right now is the notion that he had of history and how it works. And he wasn’t a ‘dialectical materialist.’ He didn’t have this grand narrative notion; he wasn ‘t even a proper post- modernist.

Basically, he ripped off Freddy Nietzsche and he took his notion of historical genealogy. He said you don’t need a grand narrative of history; you don’t need to know the cosmic forces that propel the universe in particular directions. All you need to do is understand what it is in the present environment, in that moment that you happen to occupy, that you reject, that you oppose, that you cannot live with. And then you trace its genealogy. You go back and figure out what it was that made the immediate moment possible, in its wrongness. And then you go and you look and find what made that predecessor[s] wrongness possible, and you keep tracing it back until you encounter the point in time where what it is that you oppose wasn’t, where things were, in your view, right. Now you have a genealogy just like you have your own genealogy and in understanding the genealogy of what is wrong, you’ve just created yourself a roadmap of what it is that has to be corrected to make it right.To make it right.

In other words, you have come to understand the present in terms of its past, and in that understanding you can see it clearly for what it is, and in seeing it clearly you can devise the nature, the content, of the course you need to chart to get to where it is you want to go. Two different traditions, two different articulations, they are both saying the same thing. We can talk to one another on that basis. And if we oppose globalization and all that it signifies, we have to understand what it is that makes it possible. And what it is that makes it possible, because do not misunderstand the nature of the beast, it’s locus is right here on Turtle Island, it is right here in North America. We can fight it in the hinterland, we can profess solidarity with people in opposition to its ravages ‘out there somewhere’ all we want, but we’re fighting symptoms rather than causes. The belly of the beast is where we are.

The projection of power that’s masked under the rubric of globalization is impossible without the consolidation of mega-States in North America on top of Native people. If you want to understand the genealogy of that, well you could really trace it back a long way. You could trace it back to 800 AD with the coronation of Charlemagne [800 A.D.], as the Holy Roman Emperor. Its creation is the result of that of the internal colonial construction and becomes known as Europe, and Europe in [terms of] power projection is responsible for what is that has happened here. But we don’t have to take it back that far. We can take it back to about the time a lost Italian seaman washed up on the shore in the Caribbean half a world away from where he thought he was, and has been known in this society as a great navigator ever since [1492]. You understand the nature of historical distortion, well there’s a prime example.

And on the basis of that mistaken landfall, was unleashed a process of conquest and colonization unparalleled in the history of humanity. Every indigenous people of this hemisphere – but we will concern ourselves for the moment only with Turtle Island because those to the South, even the States to the South, are not engaged in the globalization process; they are not its locus, the locus is here as I said – so you’ve got 500, 600 indigenous nations each of which was ultimately – how did they put it in their euphemistic, self-congratulatory language: discovered? Well, I’m “discovering” each and every one of you today because I’ve never encountered any of you before; I guess maybe next I need to “explore” you despite the fact that you probably know yourselves very well, and don’t require exploration. Nonetheless, having explored you I guess I’m going to “settle” you, are I not? Yeah, right, every single indigenous nation was ‘discovered’, was ‘explored’, was ‘settled’, that is to say conquered and pacified, subjugated and colonized.

Every square inch of terra firma of Turtle Island that purportedly forms this corporate structure, the geographical integrity, the territorial integrity of these mega-States is land that was taken directly from Native people. That consolidation of an internal colonial empire is what it is that makes the outward power projection known as globalization possible now. Of course, it is in itself a part of an earlier phase of globalization. We used to call globalization by its proper name: we called it imperialism. We called it imperialism and we fashioned ourselves to be anti- imperialists, and we took that as a priority, a basic formative aspect of our consciousness.

So what I’m suggesting to you right now is that in order to combat in an effective fashion this process that now goes under the name of globalization we have consciously to restore our understanding of the necessity of being – as a first priority – anti-imperialist. But we need to be anti-imperialists who have learned from the past mistakes of anti-imperialism, and that is: you don’t find the symptoms when you are approximate to the cause. If you want to stop globalization you have to stop it where it lives. You do not purport to be a revolutionary in the context of an internal colonial construction. To be a revolutionary is to overthrow the existing apparatus of the State and replace it with yourselves. If you do that you perpetuate the problem. The State is contingent on its existence both in the United States and in Canada, upon the perpetual colonization, subjugation, subordination, exploitation, expropriation, of Indigenous peoples, it will continue to be illegally occupied territory until the principles of anti-imperialism are applied here not only analytically, but forcefully. The decolonisation of North America is the absolutely essential ingredient in halting the process of globalization and making it impossible ever to resuscitate it again. See it clearly for what it is, and understand the implications.

All of my adult life, I’ve been an activist. I’ve been an activist full time one way or another. Every aspect of what I do is [connected] to that central task, and that central task of activism is to clarify and organize around the clarification. In the course of that activist adulthood, I have encountered and agreed with and participated in movements that aspired to certain slogans. When I started out it was “U.S. out of Vietnam,” and then that was changed and it became “U.S. out of Indochina,” and then it became “U.S. out of Southern Africa,” and it was “U.S. out of the Caribbean and Central America,” and then it became “U.S. out of the Persian Gulf.” I agreed with every one of those, but ultimately there’s only one way that any of them will be possible and that is: US out of North America, U.S. off the planet, and take Canada with you when you go!

That creates the basis for that future alternative. That understanding and that understanding alone will create that basis. Every square inch of terra firma that is removed from the corpus of either of these mega-States, and understand when we’re in Canada we are only on the Northern provinces of the United States Empire. This is the tail wagged by the dog in Washington, D.C. and never be confused about that. Ultimately, it matters not whether the end structure of Canadian proclaimed soil or US proclaimed soil, every square inch that is returned to Native control, to Native sovereign control, is one inch less they have of consolidated territory to base their power projection upon. Ultimately, if that process was complete, they would have no basis, either materially in terms of territory or materially in terms of resources, in order to conduct themselves in the world elsewhere the way they do now. And in the process they would not be able to conduct themselves here.

You say that this is privileging Native rights, perhaps, beyond that of others? You say I am opposed to sexism as a first priority; you say I am opposed to ageism as a first priority; you say I am opposed to classism; I am a good Marxist, dialectical materialist; I am opposed to something else as being prior in importance to native rights? In the restoration of territory though Native rights, you place things back under Native governance in accordance with the Native tradition, and we were not ageist, we were not sexist, we were not classist, none of these ‘isms ‘ or ‘ologies’ pertained. In defeating one you defeat the other and that cannot be said by reversing the order and priority of things. First Nations, first priority, first always, that has to be the rule if we are going to understand the beast and ultimately defeat it.

That said, we are going right to the nerve centre of what makes the thing function and it will not stop functioning painlessly; it will resist. There is not a petition campaign that you can construct that is going to cause the power and the status quo to dissipate. There is not a legal action that you can take; you can’t go into the court of the conqueror and have the conqueror announce the conquest to be illegitimate and to be repealed; you cannot vote in an alternative, you cannot hold a prayer vigil, you cannot burn the right scented candle at the prayer vigil, you cannot have the right folk song, you cannot have the right fashion statement, you cannot adopt a different diet, build a better bike path. You have to say it squarely: the fact that this power this force, this entity, this monstrosity called the State maintains itself by physical force, and can be countered only in terms that it itself dictates and therefore understands. That’s a deep breath time; that’s a real deep breath time.

It will not be a painless process, but, hey, newsflash: it’s not a process that is painless now. If you feel a relative absence of pain, that is testimony only to your position of privilege within the Statist structure. Those who are on the receiving end, whether they are in Iraq, they are in Palestine, they are in Haiti, they are in American Indian reserves inside the United States, whether they are in the migrant stream or the inner city, those who are ‘othered’ and of colour, in particular but poor people more generally, know the difference between the painlessness of acquiescence on the one hand and the painfulness of maintaining the existing order on the other. Ultimately, there is no alternative that has found itself in reform; there is only an alternative that founds itself – not in that fanciful word of revolution – but in the devolution, that is to say the dismantlement of Empire from the inside out.

And to sum that up and cap that off, I want to borrow a couple of chops from a band that spread that particular word sometime back, gone out of existence because they didn’t think they were political enough, but I think probably a few of you nonetheless remember Rage Against the Machine. When asked where and when to do that, said “What better place than here, what better time than now, let’s get to it.”


*Ward Churchill is a Professor of American Indian Studies and Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado/Boulder. A member of the leadership council of Colorado AIM, he is a past national spokesperson for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. His latest book is “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” available through AK Press, where several of his spoken word CD’s can be found.

Leave a comment