Paddling away from a sinking ship

Paddling away from a sinking ship

Autonomously navigating a colonial logic
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“Two problems emerge when we try and apply the nation-to-nation framework – for example to the 17th-century Haudenosaunee Two-Row wampum treaty – to the power relations we face today. First, they assume a moral equivalency between the colonizer and the colonized that simply doesn’t exist. And second, they assume the legitimacy of the ship – of the state’s economic, legal and political institutions that have destroyed the river and eroded the riverbank. Under such conditions, ‘recognizing’ the legitimacy of the colonial ship’s right of travel is an impossibility and we need to start orienting our struggles toward a different goal.” Coulthard, 2015

The Two-Row Wampum Belt, or Guswentha, depicts two ships travelling down the same river. Although every aspect of the belt has deeply engrained cultural and political meanings – the colour of the beads used, the number of beads, the ceremonies that surrounded the agreement – an extremely simplified interpretation of this covenant is one of mutual respect, including respect for autonomy. Negotiated and exchanged between Dutch and Haudenosaunee peoples in the 17th century in an area that would become known as part of Canada, it outlines an agreement and a relationship. Involved in this relationship was the need for renewal. The agreement was thus renewed in accordance with Haudenosaunee protocols. After all, the agreement applied to Haudenosaunee lands – lands which the Dutch and settlers after them were visitors to. Respect for cultural, political, and economic autonomy, a relationship where neither ship will steer the other or cross the other’s path, where both ships are travelling down two different sides of the same river.

As Coulthard explains above, however, the river as depicted on the Belt is no longer. Processes of colonialism have destroyed the river, eroding its banks to make way for the capitalist freighter – one transporting the state, settlers, and a gross sense of authority. The power differential between these two ships is so great that the relationship originally intended can no longer be implemented in the current environment, on the river as it is now.

Scholars and activists, community leaders, Indigenous and settler alike have all revisited the premise of the Two-Row, pointing to it, as stated above, as an idealized, autonomous relationship. The original intent of this agreement, this treaty that was renewed in the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, was, however, not always only an ideal – it was actualized. Indigenous and settler peoples did exist in a manner that allowed for autonomy to be respected – at least for a time. That time, as Coulthard points out, is no longer. Systems of oppression and domination – capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperial logic, dominant order – transverse one another with such intricacies that the origin of these structures is buried beyond the grasp, or beneath the feet, of many of those now on the settler ship. These colonial logics have become hegemonic, reflecting themselves in the state and economic institutions of settler society.

Ordered in this (white) settler-privileging manner, this colonial logic affords a way of relating to land and to one another that solidifies these values – this ontology. Land, from this ontological perspective, is seen as separate from humans, as a resource from which to extract and a space to deposit discarded goods, as something that can be owned, managed, conserved, and controlled. Humans are seen in a similar light within the state system – they are documented, organized, authorized, and possessed (on many levels, in the patriarchal sense). In light of these capital-based, authoritarian dependent structures in which many of us find ourselves, Indigenous and settler scholars, activists, and land defenders, such as Idle No More, Defenders of the Land, and the Indigenous Nationhood Movement, look increasingly to historic treaties to not only provide guidance for Indigenous-settler relations, but to show that the relationality and colonial logic that is common place today is not natural, not concrete, and indeed has not always been the nature of Indigenous-settler relations.

Moving forward from the now infamous declaration of Chief Justice Antonio Lamar that “We are all here to stay” (Delgamuukw v. BC, 1997; see Asch, 2014), co-existence is more frequently seen as no longer possible with state-centric (capital-based) systems in their current form, such as that outlined in the comprehensive land claims process. In speaking to this process and the power differentials that result, Michael Asch paraphrases Dene Elder George Kurszewski retelling how many Indigenous nations who enter into these modern treaty processes with the state: “Want to build a house with the White Man,” whereas “The treaty is our foundation. The comprehensive claim was to be one of the walls. But all the government wants to do is destroy our house and remake us in their image” (George Kurszewski in Asch, 2014: 132). Re-imagining and re-enacting Indigenous-settler relations settlers involves what many have referred to as settlers’ ‘unsettling’ themselves (Regan, 2010); this process arguably entails moving away from state and capital dependence – nothing less than an entire restructuring of the social, political, and economical landscapes.

Returning to Coulthard’s words above, with the shores of the river eroding it is difficult, if not impossible, to envision sharing the rough waters. The walls of the settler state have damned the river, with capitalist undertows creating the allusion that the ship is moving forward, progressive towards something. When trapped in the choppy water, it is difficult to see the horizon, let alone beyond the confines looming aside and below – one becomes exhausted working to even keep their head above water.

Drawing from over thirty years of analysis of Indigenous-state relations in Canada, Asch, in his most recent treatise the spirit and intent of Treaty 6, concedes: “Returning to the promises we made in the treaties gives us a purchase on where to begin now. Doing so will transform what our constitution frames as Indigenous ‘rights’ into Settler ‘obligations” (Asch, 2014: 149). The principle of sharing the land, of linking, which Asch explicates from his analysis of Treaty 6 testimonials, reveals an agreement not unlike the autonomous-oriented principle of mutual aid, whereby beings live cooperatively to ensure existence, rather than competitively (Kropotkin, 1972).

Although it is integral for Indigenous peoples themselves to redefine what such a relationship could look like, drawing from mutual aid, settlers can begin to envision alternate relations to land and to one another – after all, this relation does not only involve Indigenous-settler relations, but the entire premise that masquerades land as a receptacle for unwanted goods and a bottomless pocket for exploitation. Moving away from dependence on jurisdictional authority and capital-structures, settlers can, in their own specific ways and in accordance to protocols and agreements in specific territories, explore what their treaty obligation – their personal responsibility as a newcomer – entails[1].


[1] Day & Lewis (Day & Lewis, 2013) explore an intersectional take on treaty obligations. Positioning intersectionality as the ‘N-Row’, whereas various aspects of identity transverse on an infinite ‘N’ axis, a radical subjectivity for autonomous Indigenous-settler relations is proposed.


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

Coulthard, G. (2015, January 21). “Land is a relationship”: In conversation with Glen Coulthard on Indigenous nationhood. Retrieved from

Day, R., & Lewis, A. (2013). Radical subjectivity and the N-Row Wampum: A general model for autonomous relations against and beyond the dominant global order? In R. Tafarodi (Ed.), Subjectivity in the twenty-first century: Psychological, sociological, and political perspectives (pp. 169–189). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Delgamuukw v. BC. (1997). 3 SCR 1010. Retrieved from

Kropotkin, P. (1972). Mutual aid: A factor of evolution. New York, NY: New York University Press. Retrieved from

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

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