Notes on Responsibility

Notes on Responsibility

A call to action and a heed of warning
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October 11, 2014
What good is it to analyze settler colonialism if that analysis does not shed light on sites of contradiction and weakness, the conditions for its reproduction, or the spaces and practices of resistance to it? What is the purpose of deploying ‘settler’ without attention to its utility, to what it alludes to or eludes from? What good is solidarity if it cannot attend to the literal (and stolen) ground on which people stand and come together upon?
–Snelgrove, Dhamoon, & Corntassel, 2014: 27

In the most recent issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, Snelgrove, Dhamoon & Corntassel (2014) candidly discuss their thoughts on the intricacies and fallacies involved with current theorizations of settler colonialism – settler colonialism being a structural form of colonialism that implants settlers on Indigenous territories, necessitating the ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoples from their land with the end goal of, as Patrick Wolfe states, ‘eliminating the Native’ (Wolfe, 2006).

Settler colonialism is intricately tied to the pillars of white-hetero-patriarchy, among them the capitalistic need for continued access to natural resources (see also Smith, 2010). These characteristics of settler colonialism – as complex, as multifaceted, as intricately intersecting – contribute to Snelgrove, Dhamoon, & Corntassel’s cautioning acts of solidarity, including self-identifying as a settler (see also Sloan Morgan, 2014).

This cautioning comes in light of tendencies for oppressive and colonially-inscribed relationships to be (re)produced in Indigenous-settler alliances and struggles on Indigenous lands. An example of such reproduction is provided through settler self-identity as ‘settler’, in spaces of mutually agreed upon politicization – in other words, among others who are like-minded in their politicized beliefs.

As verbalized by Dhamoon “[settler self-identification] can become a kind of mantra if we don’t explain why we are making these statements. The term can be paralyzing for some non-Indigenous people who are absorbed by guilt, or it can mobilize action” (p. 14). Key here is for action to come along with words, for the performance of settler self-identification to be replaced with an actualized positioning and thoughtful response; to provide support when necessary for those in struggle for lands, in defense of lands, and in the face of systemic oppression.

Within shape-shifting colonial contexts (see Alfred & Corntassel, 2005), responses to and the form of these roles will change. Discourses surrounding settler ‘responsibilities’ have emerged in response to the hard-to-beg-down nature of response to settler colonialism and the subjective nature of positionality; heeded by Snelgrove, Dhamoon, and Corntassel “how you situate yourself and your level of awareness about colonial occupations of Indigenous homelands brings new responsibilities to the forefront [of settler colonialism]” (p. 4).

Responsibility is fragile. It is fragile because it is dependent upon its being as inherently limited. It is fragile because the need for responsibility, at least in this case, implies an injustice, implies a complexity, and, after a certain point, denies the inability for inaction. Bell hooks (1994) discusses the pain that one can feel when they enter into a process of conscientialization: “the process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action. Action is fundamental because it is the process of changing the reality” (Freire Institute, 2014). Pain is felt because there is no unlearning. Looking at and around one’s reality can be transformed into looking past the rose coloured glasses that ignorance (in the cultural hegemonic, not necessarily individual, sense) can afford – the privilege to be ignorant, if you will. In settler colonial contexts, this often involves settlers recognizing their role as colonizers, not as good or bad colonizers, but as colonizers none-the-less.

With this comes understanding oneself as implicated in processes of colonialism and thus, Indigenous dispossession, capitalism, hetero-patriarchy – thick and complex problems that make guilt and ignorance seem almost welcome to those of the status quo. ‘Almost welcome’ is here an understatement. It is the actual fact that guilt and/or ignorance are indeed rampant because, in part, of the thick and complex nature that adjoins conscientialization in settler colonial contexts. It is also because of this that responsibility so often becomes stunted in settler guilt, but also part in parcel why it is fragile. In this light, responsibility will mean different things – there is no one form of responsibility in responsiveness, no one mold of how to shape responsiveness. Responsibility implies keeping spaces for dialogue and action open, for relationality to be constructed and maintained through reconstruction.

Relationships in any form are hard to maintain, to operate within an anti-oppressive manner because power, in its many forms, is not absent from any relational dynamic. When there is a genuine desire to operate in a responsible manner, however, power can be addressed and communicated. It can be identified, brought to the fore, mutually agreed upon, and then placed – not shelved. This act of identifying power is too fragile. And demands the constant need for reflection, action, and reflection – the upkeep of perhaps any and all relationships.

There is a definite danger to centering discussions of Indigenous struggles for land onto pseudo-psychological sessions for settler subjectivity (see Snelgrove, Dhamoon, & Corntassel, 2014: 17-27; also see Barker, 2012). There is also, however, a risk, and perhaps even an opportunity that may be missed, if settlers are not encouraged to locate themselves – socially and physically – in the broader struggle for Indigenous repossession. Settler colonialism after all inherently implies capitalism, of which inequality is necessarily involved, exploitation of people, labour, and all non-human beings. It intersects most environmental and social movements based upon equity and justice. Struggles for land and against all forms of oppression in settler colonial contexts involve Indigenous and settlers alike.


Alfred, T., & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgence against contemporary colonialism. Government and Opposition, 40(4), 597–614.

Barker, A. J. (2012). Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples, Settler Colonialism and the Occupy Movements in North America. Social Movement Studies, 11(3-4), 327–334. doi:10.1080/14742837.2012.708922

Freire Institute. (2014). Concepts used by Paulo Freire. Retrieved from

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

Sloan Morgan, V. (2014). Intervention – “Empty words on occupied lands?: Positionality, settler colonialism, and the politics of recognition.” Antipode Foundation. Retrieved from

Smith, A. (2010). Indigeneity, Settler colonialism, white supremacy. Global Dialogue, 12(2).

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.

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387–409. doi:10.1080/14623520601056240

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