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rocesses and practices of decolonization tend to place a strong emphasis on both their negative (or oppositional) and positive (or affirmational) dimensions. In other words, decolonization usually involves explicit attempts not only to resist and ultimately overcome the colonial relation (comprised by its forms of power, knowledge, and subjectivity), but also to affirm and enact some colonized or otherwise alternative knowledge systems, ways of being, and forms of social and political organization. These two interrelated dimensions of decolonial politics play a significant role in Nick Estes’ remarkable book Our History is the Future. In the short space I have here, I’d like to explore these two dimensions of the book, as well as some questions they raise more generally about decolonial struggles and solidarities. In particular, I’d like to examine the relationship between the chief oppositional moments of anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism in the text, and its primary affirmative moments of Indigenous ethical, political, and spiritual ways of knowing and being, as well as of what Estes calls “the ultimate desire for freedom” (22). Unpacking the relationship between these various moments can, I hope, shed some light on the need to think with and beyond freedom in contemporary decolonial struggles and solidarity-building.
First, a constitutive opposition to both colonialism and capitalism plays an important role in Estes’ text. He is clear that in order to “protect Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will have to unite to turn back the forces destroying the earth—capitalism and colonialism” (14). Because Indigenous existence and ways of being and knowing “exist in opposition to” both capitalism and settler colonialism (16), Estes argues for traditions of Indigenous resistance that are both anti-capitalist and anti-colonial (22). But not only are these oppositions crucial for Indigenous resistances themselves, they are also important for building connections and coalitions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous struggles and movements. The moment of negation of colonialism and capitalism appears to provide diverse and disparate movements with a crucial source of connection and commonality for Estes: “our [Indigenous] past and present struggles are connected…to both past and present international anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements around the world” (23).
Second, Indigenous resistance does not “merely fight against settler colonialism” for Estes, but fights “for Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth” (248, italics in original). This affirmative dimension of struggle is emphasized throughout by Estes, at times affirming distinctive features of ‘Indigenous’ ways of knowing and being in general, and at other times affirming those specifically belonging to the Oceti Sakowin. He emphasizes the importance of Indigenous conceptions and practices of time, place, relationality, and kinship as providing different models of how to relate to other people and to the land, and in particular elaborates upon the concept of Mni Wiconi—water is life—that is so important to the Oceti Sakowin and became a central rallying cry of the #NoDAPL movement. Estes articulates it as being closely tied to the notion of Wotakuye, or “being a good relative” to the water, land, animals, and humans (21).
But for Estes, this fight to practice or actualize Indigenous values, ways of being, and social systems is also tied to what comes across in the text as an even higher good to be affirmed: freedom. “Indigenous resistance,” he writes, “defines freedom not as the absence of settler colonialism, but as the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth” (248). Estes is clear, then, that he is “interested in the kind of tradition of Indigenous resistance that is a radical consciousness, both anti-capitalist and anti-colonial, and is deeply embedded in history and place—one that expresses the ultimate desire for freedom” (22).
At this point let me begin to unpack my line of query. In order to do so, let me return to the idea gestured toward by Estes that the common opposition to, or negation of, colonialism and capitalism can and often does provide a basis for solidarities and coalition-building among diverse movements. These common oppositions are “connecting and inciting to action disparate communities of the exploited and dispossessed” (253). On the one hand, it is undoubtedly the case that subjection to a common oppressor or unjust social structure, and common opposition to it, can be a powerful unifying force among disparate groups. This can and has played a role in bringing many struggles and movements together, often across otherwise deep differences of place, language, history, culture, religion and ethical-political projects. In fact, this phenomenon received quite a bit of attention around the anti- and alter-globalization movements, the Zapatista uprising, and the World Social Forum, and came to be identified with the phrase ‘one No, many Yeses’.
On the other hand, however, we need to be careful not to overstate how much work the negative orientation is capable of doing here. In the absence of a common positive project, a purely negative alignment can surely only be fleeting, highly unstable, and hardly a sufficient basis for sustained common cooperation, let alone for the kind of robust counter-hegemonic project that would be needed to present any kind of challenge to colonialism and capitalism. This difficulty is likely exacerbated when the alignment involves various place-based, colonized, subaltern, or deeply marginalized groups—“disparate communities of the exploited and dispossessed,” in Estes’ words—each of whom may not only be quite different from one another to begin with, but may also be struggling to reclaim, resurge, relearn, and realize their own distinct colonized languages, traditions, and ways of knowing and being. Common opposition can only go so far, especially when the positive orientations involved are quite distinct or divergent.
Because of this, what might appear to be a purely negative consensus very rarely, if ever, is. Insofar as disparate groups can and do build robust and transformative movements together, something more—something thicker, something with significant positive content—is usually (and rather necessarily) going on beyond their common oppositional stance. Often this takes the form of shared struggle for freedom or liberation. On the one hand, this is entirely straightforward and unsurprising: groups that have been subjected to common, interlocking, or similar structures of power and domination will often share many experiences in relation to the operation of those structures; can fairly easily develop a shared understanding of the myriad harms perpetrated by those structures; and will often develop a shared set of positive commitments and practices around overcoming or freeing themselves from the structure(s) of power they face in common, and around building alternatives to it. In other words, positive ethical-political values, principles, and practices—as well as chains of equivalence around them (to use Mouffe and Laclau’s phrase)—can and often are constructed in the process of common struggle against common forces of domination. Groups that are made unfree together, will often struggle together for freedom from the common source of their unfreedom.
But on the other hand, there is a less obvious and straightforward process at play here in building a thicker common project around the struggle(s) for freedom—one that is perhaps also more pernicious and insidious. This has to do with the ways in which a shared vocabulary and set of political commitments among the disparately colonized may themselves derive in part from, and rely to some extent upon, the hegemony of the colonial relation. Put crudely, the disparately colonized are in various ways and for many purposes (including, perversely, for the purpose of resistance itself) compelled to learn and deploy the hegemonic languages, values, and practices of the colonizer and of the hegemonic colonial relation, often becoming (partially) interpellated or integrated by them, and often coming to understand and define themselves (partially) in its terms. The effectiveness (if one can call it that) of the process of hegemonization, which ironically can be furthered through practices of resistance themselves, can then play a role in underpinning and enabling a shared vocabulary, political orientation, and project among the disparately colonized.
This process resonates with the argument presented by numerous scholars, including most recently and comprehensively by Lisa Lowe (2015) in her book The Intimacies of Four Continents, that modern/colonial forms of power have operated both by exalting a notion of human freedom and by simultaneously denying it to those who have been constitutively understood as not fully participating in the human and therefore as not being fully capable of, or eligible for, freedom. This creates fraught but powerful conditions in which the colonized are positioned to resist modern/colonial forms of power by claiming the freedom from which they have been excluded but which also, paradoxically, underpinned their unfreedom in the first place. Modernity/coloniality both universalizes an extensive system of unfreedoms and universalizes the value of, and desire for, freedom upon which that system of unfreedoms was based.
While there are many possible lines of inquiry that can be raised here regarding the complex role and status and conception(s) of freedom in decolonial struggles, at the very least it suggests the need to attend to the ways that freedom has been incorporated into such struggles, and how it functions in our thinking about those struggles. Saba Mahmood puts the challenge as follows:
"The precepts of liberal political philosophy were introduced into non-Western societies (including Muslim societies) through colonial rule and an expanding system of global capitalist power (through institutions of law, governance, trade, and commerce) over the course of two centuries. Liberal presuppositions about politics and society have over time become an intrinsic part of the sensibilities and institutions of these societies and form an important resource for indigenous critiques of Western power and domination throughout the colonial and postcolonial period. It is precisely because many aspects of liberal discourse have become a part of the language of resistance to Western forms of power that I think it is important to attend to its hegemonic qualities, its normative assumptions, and the ways in which it remains peculiarly blind to other kinds of political and social projects and moral-ethical aspirations. …What structures of power and authority, with different kinds of political imaginaries, do different conceptions of the subject presuppose? And what desires, other than freedom, do people live by? (Shaikh, 2007, 149-151)."
To return now, against this backdrop, to Estes: I want to inquire more into the highly privileged role of freedom in the text. As I’ve already outlined, freedom for Estes plays a central role both in politically orienting specific Indigenous struggles, as well as in tying those struggles to one another and to other anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements. But it does not seem that freedom is simply being valued or desired here as a situated good in relation to specific (colonial and capitalist) structures of power and domination, and/or simply as an instrumental precondition for being able to practice other goods or another way of life. Rather, freedom, for Estes, is the “ultimate desire” (22). But what does this mean? Among the various Dakota and Lakota concepts that Estes translates in the book, there is, somewhat curiously, none that he translates directly as ‘freedom’. But why not, and what, if anything, does this reveal?
Similarly, he discusses at some length the significance of the value of “being a good relative”; but what exactly is the relationship between that and freedom? At the very least it is not immediately obvious that ‘being a good relative’ needs to be thought of as closely tied to freedom; in fact, there are lots of ways I can imagine the two values being in tension with one another. So how/why does freedom become the ultimate, or higher order, value in that relationship? In short, how does freedom come to be understood “not as the absence of settler colonialism,” but instead as “the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth” (248)?
At one point in the text, Estes insists that “Indigenous peoples are central subjects of modern world history” (21). One way of thinking about the line of questioning I have posed here is to wonder whether there might be any connection between Estes’ valorization of the ultimate value of, and desire for, freedom, and his assertion, however brief, of the modern subjectivity of Indigenous peoples. A number of decolonial scholars argue that modernity is constitutively paired with coloniality—that coloniality is the constitutive underside of modernity—and therefore pose some difficult questions about whether modern subjectivity is ultimately something to be affirmed or transcended. And in that vein, I am asking whether “the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations” might require thinking and imagining beyond the modern valorization of freedom, even in its anti-capitalist and anti-colonial variants, all the while insisting upon and fighting relentlessly for it in the present.
Shaikh, N. 2007. "Interview with Saba Mahmood." In The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power. New York: Columbia University Press.
Jakeet Singh is an Assistant Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Politics at York University.