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Newly emerging geographies

Indigenous-settler relations and responsibility
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I do not know of anywhere else in history where a group of people have had to fight so hard just to be responsible. Monture-Agnus in Smith, 2013: 6

Due, perhaps, to settlers’ unquestioned right to land Canada, they often neglect to position themselves within the socio-political and legal realm of treaties. Settlers’ omission from the ‘Indian Land Question’ – whether addressed through title, treaty negotiation, or treaty obligation – is one consequence of an underlying inequitable and stagnated relationship that exists between Indigenous and settler populations. This relationship is neither neutral nor incidental, but socially constructed and culturally reproduced – it is enacted on and with land and depends, in part, on settlers’ historical amnesia. A discourse of ‘responsibility’ is emerging with increasing prevalence in Canada in both realms of both treaty obligation (Asch, 2014) and sites of Indigenous resurgence (Corntassel, 2012); ‘responsibility’ has long been at the centre of Indigenous resistances to colonialism and capitalism.

Cultural understandings of responsibility differ greatly. Reinforced by ontological relations to land and to one another, culturally embedded Indigenous notions of ‘responsibility’ often diverge from models of state-citizenship – a model of responsibility that has dominated European conceptualizations.

From her way of knowing as a Mohawk woman, the late Patricia Monture-Agnus saw responsibility as innately tied to sovereignty, whereas sovereignty constituted a relation with, not over, territory. Responsibility for Monture-Agnus involved balancing duties inherited through both her distinct role in community but also as a professor of law.

Nuu-chah-nulth (Toquaht) legal scholar Johnny Mack’s understanding of responsibility similarly echoes Monture-Agnus’. Mack discusses responsibility as relational, even when critiquing imperial systems: “We also have a responsibility to ensure that the institutions we act within and through are themselves embedded in principles of Respect [eesok]” (Mack, 2007: 24). Providing this insight prior to his critique of the land claim process, Mack’s concept of responsibility is intimately embedded in eesok, a worldview and principle at the core of Nuu-chah-nulth way of knowing (see Atleo, 2004).

Taiaiake Alfred, a member of the Mohawak Nation from Kahnawake, sees responsibility as something barred by colonialism. Alfred observes how “Cultural dislocation has led to despair” whereas, “The real deprivation is the erosion of an ethic of universal respect and responsibility that used to be the hallmark of indigenous societies” (Alfred, 2009: 43).

Moving from responsibility from a culturally embedded role, to a critique of structures that inhibit responsibility demonstrates how the rhetoric of responsibility in settler colonial contexts can be problematic, even incongruent, as state structures in part block access to and relations with territory. Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel highlights this point professing “That a state-centered rights discourse has limits in terms of addressing questions of Indigenous recovery and community resurgence; a responsibility-based ethic grounded in relationships to homelands and community knows no limits” (Corntassel, 2012: 93).

Responsibility in a settler colonial context is often framed as an assumed ethic, frequently juxtaposed to paralyzing feelings of settler/white guilt – remorse generated for historical and ongoing colonial injustices that disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples. Underlying, or perhaps overlaying, this guilt are feelings of helplessness when viewed within state structures. Here the state is seen as naturalized, inevitable, and concrete. For those who do identify the role that colonialism has played in their location on and to land in Canada – to ‘home’ – the result can be painful, alienating, isolating, and confusing (Day, 2010; see also hooks, 1994). These unsettling affects have the potential to foster critical reflexivity and thinking – to catalyze change – in addition to demonstrating the formative stages of transformation. It is in this light, whether viewed to counteract feelings of helplessness or to mobilize words into action, ‘responsibility’, specifically settler responsibility, is permeating activist spheres. However best intended, responsibility can be difficult to navigate given ongoing differences and imbalances between people.

“Responsibility” Noxolo et al write, “Is an ethical disposition that offers a way of taking account of inequalities and confronting power in a profoundly postcolonial world” (2011: 419); they continue warning that in post-colonial contexts, “It is precisely because of these power differences that it is worth considering not only the possibilities of transcending these power differentials but also the problems associated with doing so” (2011: 419-420).

Within the settler colonial context of Canada, responsibility risks reproducing similar effects. When positioned as binary to guilt – as a reactive race to innocence rather than thoughtful engagement with inequalities of power (Fellows & Razack, 1997) – and especially when done against the backdrop of the nation-state (Snelgrove et al., 2014), settler best intentions may actually perpetuate colonial relations.

Geographer Doreen Massey notes the intricacies and place-based nature of responsibility that arguably hold true in the Canadian context. According to Massey, understanding responsibility includes an introspective politics of identity that takes into account the relational nature of space, including connections to histories in the construction of place and relationality itself (Massey, 2004). Geographies of responsibility should instead be viewed, Massey contends, as highly provisional and always within the context – the histories, identities, and relationalities – of all parties involved. Indeed, Noxolo et al., when discussing unsettling responsibility in post-colonial contexts, aptly suggest this provisional approach as well, stating to deny these specifics (re)produces “An agency-less underprivileged other” when what is needed is a move “Towards a more nuanced and power-conscious analysis” (2012: 418).

Although it is here argued that to transform Indigenous-settler relations effectively settlers must engage with their own culturally hegemonic, socially inscribed unknowing of colonial processes (Regan, 2010) – a process that Corntassel sees as moving from rights to responsibilities (Corntassel, 2012: 92-93) – the need for a critical, unsettled understanding of geographies of responsibility is necessary to ensure paternalistic structures are not (re)produced.


Alfred, G. T. (2009). Colonialism and state dependency. Journal de La Santé Autochtone, 5(2), 42–60.

Asch, M. (2014). On being here to stay: Treaties and Aboriginal rights in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Atleo, U. (2004). Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth worldview. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Corntassel, J. (2012). Re-envisioning resurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 86–101.

Coulthard, G. (2014). Red skin, white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Day, R. (2010). Angry Indians, settler guilt, and the challenges of decolonization and resurgence. In L. Simpson & K. Ladner (Eds.), This is an honour song: Twenty years since the blockades (pp. 261–270). Winnipeg, MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Fellows, M. L., & Razack, S. (1997). The race to innocence: Confronting hierarchical relations among women. Gender, Race and Justice, 1, 335–352.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

Mack, J. (2007). Thickening totems and thinning imperialism (Masters thesis). University of Victoria, Victoria, BC. Retrieved from

Massey, D. (2004). Geographies of responsibility. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86(1), 5–18.

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the Settler within: Indian Residential Schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Smith, A. (2013). The Indigenous dream – a world without an “America.” In A. M. Isasi-Díaz, M. McClintock Fulkerson, & R. Carbine (Eds.), Theological perspectives for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Public intellectuals in the twenty-first centure (pp. 3–12). New York, NY: Pulgrave MacMillan.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R. K., & Corntassel, J. (2014). Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(2), 1–32.

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