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The Algonquin of Barriere Lake’s political struggle is not exceptional. But what makes it extraordinary is that the most oppressive tactics of colonization have been exercised upon the small community in a way that radically condenses a long history of physical and technocratic violence in Canada against First Nations. What is particularly extraordinary to narrate as an author is how this violence provides a finely etched picture of the ways the state has bent and shaped around the stubborn, unrelenting temerity of the Algonquins to protect life on their territory.
As Audra Simpson poignantly summarizes, Grounded Authority seeks to contribute an account of jurisdiction as fundamental to “underwriting… the concept of authority” in settler colonial states. My interest in this subject is not just theoretical; it is preoccupied with questions of political economy and the dynamics of investment in places with insecure land tenure regimes, like Canada, where state sovereignty is claimed, but jurisdiction cannot be exercised on the ground—where Canada’s laws have no effective authority in the face of Indigenous legal and political orders. I argue that this is not a conflict over sovereignty, rather over whose laws govern in this territory. Based on an ontology of care, it is Barriere Lake’s kinship with life on the territory that sustains what Winona Laduke calls “continuous rebirth”—the principle governing Indigenous knowledge and land management in the Anishinaabe world. I compare these responsibilities of care to the state and private resource management regime that operates at multiple scales and across a vast range of institutions on Barriere Lake’s territory, naming it jurisdiction based on an ontology of supply. It takes what it needs to reproduce capitalism and leaves the rest to die.
In my response to this wonderful review forum, I want to pick up on invitations to address my approach to exposing colonization as a diagnostic of Indigenous resistance. Simpson comments that the book’s methodology is a “tremendous contribution to not only Indigenous studies for its documentary effort and also its recalibrations around sovereignty and authority but also about ethnography and history done in deep accountability to Indigenous lives, lands and histories.” Though there was consensus on the level of commitment to accountability shown in the book, there remained lingering questions about power. The other reviewers raised the question about whether any research strategy, in Sharlene Mollett’s words, “can erase the blunt condition of settler coloniality, even when communities agree to work with scholars on/with research projects and even if scholars give ‘voice’ to indigenous platforms.” She continues, “A coloniality of power is reinforced by the very fact that scholars from the global north conducting research in indigenous communities of the global south follows a colonial history of conquest, extraction and European (violent) settlement.” Likewise, Michelle Daigle questions the amount of detail in which internal conflicts in the community are described, contemplating whether she would have revealed the same about her own community or others. She asks, “As scholars, how do we balance the need to make colonial dispossession and violence visible without putting the people that raise us up to do this work in precarious positions?” This relationship between violence and research is critical and must be addressed.
My research took a form of ethnography that included community-based fieldwork, in conjunction with archival and policy research, and other kinds of multi-sited fieldwork. This embedded methodology raised by reviewers in this forum has also been the overwhelming focus for most students at book talks as they struggle to fix their positionality into a safe place from which to enter Indigenous communities to do ethical, politically relevant, and grounded research. As Daigle and Mollett both raise, there is no place where power stands outside of these relations, especially as an outsider parsing out the narrative of a story that is not directly your own.
On this question, I have done much reflection since I wrote Grounded Authority. Partially this reflection is in response to the fact that there are people at Barriere Lake who do not endorse the version of events I narrate in my book and who did not have an opportunity to tell and therefore publish their side of the story. I always understood the importance of these differences; my partiality is delineated in the opening pages of the book. I did not set out to write a history that could accommodate all the interpretations of the political struggle within the Barriere Lake band. Rather, Grounded Authority was meant to be a forensic accounting of colonial state violence and its failures to dispossess. These failures, however, could only be understood within the context of how Barriere Lakers are governed by their sacred constitution. Therefore, it was necessary to engage with Barriere Lake’s legal and political system in relation to the state’s attempts to undermine their inherent jurisdiction.
This internal ordering is difficult to convey without spending a lot of time on the territory, especially with knowledge holders, and members of the customary council, selected by elders under the community’s Mitchikanibikok Anishinaabe Onakinakewin—their sacred law. Barriere Lake’s customary form of governance is based on oral tradition and was not codified until the late 1990s. This created an opportunity for the Department of Indian Affairs to pry apart the community by sowing divisions through the customary selection practice. These internal conflicts in the community became a central organizing force for state interventions and therefore I document them in some detail in the book. I was invested in showing “receipts” for these divide-and-conquer tactics, bringing to bear documents manipulated by the state to justify intervention. But these receipts also reveal the identities of opposing groups and individuals in the community. Now I wonder if it would have been possible to tell this story without the same attention to citational practice. I wonder whether this would have made a difference to those who dispute my account. I think these disclosures hurt people and I carry responsibility for the pain that I caused. Though this may not always be the right deciding factor: without the evidence mobilized, would the arguments still stand?
As Michelle Daigle points out, these are sticky problems that may be best not to air in public. Her provocation to “further dialogue on relational accountabilities” is critical in this regard. Non-Indigenous activists refer frequently and perhaps blithely to their ethical stance of “taking direction” from Indigenous communities, posited as an antidote to rushing forward with a savior complex and making decisions on behalf of communities. But I shy away from this language. Not because I do not “take direction” from Indigenous peoples, but because Indigenous peoples, like all people, have vastly different opinions on everything. If you “take direction” from one group in a community, but another disagrees with the course of action, are you not simultaneously “taking” and ignoring direction? A broader context of accountability and solidarity must be first articulated to make sense of these decisions.
In my case, the resource co-management regime the community negotiated—that the federal and provincial governments ultimately refused to implement—was a step forward towards community self-determination. Though I’m anti-capitalist, the sustainable yield approach to forestry that the Algonquins adopted balanced their need for managing the continuous rebirth of the territory while also supporting their material needs for food, shelter, infrastructure, cultural programming, education, and all of the other critical gaps they sought to fill with revenue-sharing built into the agreement. I suppose there is always the chance that I was driven by ideology; a common-sense picture of leadership or economy that conformed to an unconscious expectation. But at the time, I believed this was the will of the majority of the community and I was willing to take responsibility for this decision in the context of contradictory “direction.”
Likewise, many Indigenous people assured me thorough reporting was the right approach to take because it most fully accounted for what happened; the responsibility for the actions they undertook belonged to those community members, not to me for recounting them. I trusted my own relationships to guide this direction. Russell Diabo, who has been like a father to me, introduced me to the families I ended up working with most closely. And I built trust with the people I worked with who wanted to see their story told. But all along the way, there were signs of problems. Our solidarity group was criticized and condemned by some members of Barriere Lake, and counter-solidarity groups sprang up, who also opposed our analysis and actions. We stayed silent against these attacks, which mostly accused us of spreading lies about a resource co-management agreement negotiated by the band for the territory. Since the time the agreement began to fall apart, wildly inaccurate misinformation has circulated on its terms and process. As a solidarity group, we did not publicly defend ourselves against these accusations because this was not our fight. Instead, we supported any opportunity to provide assistance to the Algonquins to address their differences directly, for example, by fundraising to enable travel throughout the territory between groups.
However, since we had inadvertently and by inference inserted ourselves into this dispute, it would be impossible to deny our disagreement with the other “side.” So how can this situation be navigated ethically? Our position was to refuse to engage in public discourse because our power in terms of platform access, financial resources, white supremacy and education could weigh in our favour against them. Ultimately, our responsibilities were towards the families we worked with and they directed us to stay out of the internal debates. We know, of course, that our interventions still had impacts even if we were not directly involved in disagreements—an issue the reception to my book only amplified.
As a member of the solidarity group and an author of this book, I stand in the gray zone of both supporting Algonquin self-determination—by documenting the struggle for the groundbreaking “Trilateral Agreement”—and implicitly refuting the assertions of jurisdiction by another group in the community, who reject the model of self-determination I support. So, when students ask me how to do community-based fieldwork ethically, I pause. The starting point is of course whom you form relationships with and how you come to do that. Does the community already have in place local research protocols to follow and gatekeepers with whom you must negotiate the terms of your research? In my case, I went through an intensive local research protocol process, worked with the customary government system, which reformed multiple times in the midst of contested and competing customary leadership forums, lost judicial recognition in settler courts, and was ultimately deposed by the federal government. Within this context of constant warfare, the answer then is probably more accurately: carefully, one foot in front of the other, one decision at a time.
So, I say to students: there is no place you can stand outside of colonialism. You may be forced to make difficult decisions that will have imperfect solutions. Are you committed to navigating with as much kindness, humility, generosity, and intelligence as possible through these complex issues? The alternative is to turn inward, to stop seeking direction from Indigenous peoples, to revert to the solipsism of a shallow identity politics or the cointel-pro-like projects of studying solidarity movements. The “punching up” studies of surveillance and institutional ethnography are another possible course for research on colonization, but the dryness of these studies that lack critical Indigenous voices and stories can also feel totally misdirected.
On the other hand, doing research with Indigenous communities is not everyone’s “right” just because they are academics. There are scholars who are jerks and reactionaries, who are irresponsible and disrespectful, and the gatekeepers in communities will likely and hopefully recognize the lack of self-awareness, reflection, commitment and knowledge in these academics and refuse to let them in. I’ve certainly seen this unfold many times.
There is more to do, though, I think for those invested in social justice and anti-colonial futures. As Dawnis Kennedy, Anishinaabe legal scholar, asked me when I sat down to do my work: “Why has your spirit chosen this story to tell?” She believes Indigenous stories are everyone’s to learn from. These are critical times for non-Indigenous peoples to listen, to read, to attend events, to contribute what they can to movements for Indigenous self-determination and to come clean about their own commitments. The explosion of new books in Indigenous Studies and the appetite and opportunities for scholars to learn directly from Indigenous peoples theorizing their lives is growing. Though the role of non-Indigenous academics within this field of literature feels undetermined at the moment, all I know is that the books I am drawn to are those that struggle with these fundamental questions. That don’t attempt to stand outside or take a safe position; that are not tone-deaf to critiques of expropriation and authorship, but seek to find a path forward into research that builds the bridges of understanding stronger between struggles, rather than to give up altogether for fear of fucking up.