“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.” (Le Guin, 1974: 1)
After hearing a critical critique of the comprehensive land claims policy in Canada by an Indigenous anti-colonial activist scholar, a student in the classroom asked one, seemingly obvious question; a question so obvious that it took the room by surprise: “Why don’t [Indigenous people] take up arm[s] if that is what is being offered to them in land claims?” The ‘that’ which was in reference was fee simple land for extinguished title, diminished rights, and an absurd process for excusing debt paid for negotiation with the Federal government, to the federal government, to name only a few.
No doubt juggling to paraphrase decades of debate on Fanonian (1963, 1967) pursuits for freedom through direct action, violence and the subaltern, colonizer and the colonized, the speaker pointed to colonial policies that have driven a wedge between Indigenous communities in Canada – the divide and conquer tactic that has been employed militarily for centuries. At that moment, however, the response was almost less important than the question. For the past hour the class of 60 plus students had just heard something that the majority of the population in the state of will never hear. Why should they have to? Perhaps of further mention, the students in the class actively put themselves in the position to hear such a critique – to disrupt their unquestioned settler status, whether they knew it at that time or not, through taking part in a conversation with their normative lives in the settler colonial state. In no way said to somehow praise the students for taking a class for credit in a colonial institution and with full recognition that the example given here is indeed simplistic since it does not engage with settler subjectivities or lived experiences, this does not excuse the fact that the air in the room was solemn; heavy; confused; perhaps even angry – whatever it was, it was not passive, indifferent, or imperceptive.
When one tries to hold space for conversations about Indigenous-settler relations, land claims, land disputes, colonialism, and, by extension, capitalism, a similar pattern is revealed. That pattern is nothingness, a blank page held within a book of fables and historical erasure – (his)tory; most of the book’s contents are redacted. How can you talk about an empty page? How can you hold space for something that is not recognizable to many; to most? Although a seemingly simplistic analogy, and one riddled with loop holes I am sure, the point remains: How can you have a conversation about the complexities of Indigenous-settler relations to and on land, and their expression (or extinguishment) through law, or any other means for that matter, when the fundamental basis for this conversation has never occurred amongst settlers at large? Why should it have? It is not like their rights are at risk of being extinguished, right?
Scholars, activists, and everyday folks alike who are thinking through pluralisms often grapple with this question – it has emerged in many of my conversations in classrooms, coffee shops, organizing spaces, dog parks, any place of convergence. How it is navigated, both the often-impromptu conversation and the topic itself, is, undoubtedly, context dependent. There is a fine line here, or at least I have found, between engaging people in conversation or having the gates of protectionism come crashing down; a gate to become a wall, to become solidified like stone that’s hard enough to ignore the storm – the rumbling need for social and systemic change. That which is being protected is colonial histories, colonial stories, colonial processes, and colonial presents. When one starts kicking around the wall, or indeed inquiring about what it is made of, it becomes less concrete, less stable, less legitimate; a reason to start dismantling the seemingly solid structure may even be revealed amidst the rubble at its low.
Although pages on Indigenous-settler histories may be blank for those who have benefited from the story – for settlers who have never had to question their physical and social positioning – experience has shown that nearly everyone has an opinion, even an informed opinion, on Indigenous-settler relations today. Indeed, everyone should have an opinion. An issue, however, arises when the pages before and after these opinions are blank or full of fables – myths constructed by the state that subvert Indigenous nationhood and invisibilize settlers’ roles in colonial projects. The opportunity to talk about this omission, to start drawing lines on the pages, may begin a process of deconstruction through construction; that is, through inspecting how settler-societies have come to benefit from the creation of institutional, racist, violent walls. No matter how entrenched these walls are, how deep they are dug into society and into ourselves, the point remains that one must have the tools to dismantle a structure of mortar, of brick, or of stone. After all, it is the nature of walls to be decisive of movement and divisive of peoples. You have to look over the wall to know what is on the other side; for “like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on” (Le Guin, 1974).
Although the metaphor, or actuality, of ‘walls’ have been used in many contexts to discuss systemic and social division, I express my gratitude to Sara Ahmed for writing and speaking on this topic. A portion of Sara’s writing can be found at: http://feministkilljoys.com/
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Le Guin, U. (1974). The dispossessed. The Anarchist Library. Retrieved from http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-dispossessed
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