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Decolonization and 'Occupy Wall Street'

Journaist Robert Desjarlait addresses the debate in Indian country over the the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest has become a matter of debate in Indian country. Some have chosen to be included under the slogan "We Are The 99%"; others, like me, have not. Many of those who support OWS have come up with their own slogan: "Decolonize Wall Street." But I simply don’t believe that the indigenous nations on Turtle Island are a part of that 99% equation, let alone that the OWS movement is about decolonization.

One protester, Brendan Burke, said: "Everyone has this problem. White, black. Rich or poor. Where you live. Everyone has a financial inequity oppressing them."

I assume from his statement that Burke only sees things in white and black. Apparently he is color blind when it comes to red and brown.

As far as financial inequity is concerned, we, the red and the brown peoples of the Americas, have suffered financial inequity ever since the oppressors first invaded our shores. Socio-economic inequity began with the subjugation of our lands through treaties. Annuity payments were late and never the amount negotiated under the treaty. Supplies and food rations that were part of annuity payments were often appropriated by Indian agents and resold for higher prices.

The tragedy at Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag (Sandy Lake) exemplifies the socio-economic inequity of annuity payments. In the fall of 1850, nineteen Anishinaabeg bands from Wisconsin journeyed to Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag for annual annuity payments and supplies. The annuity payments and supplies were late and the people had to wait until early December before they received limited sums of money and available supplies. Trying to survive on spoiled and inadequate government rations while waiting for the annuities, 150 Anishinaabeg people died from dysentery and measles at Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag. Two-hundred and fifty more, mostly women, children and elders, died on their way back home to Wisconsin. This is but one example of the economic inequity that has been part of the indigenous experience in the United States.

OWS organizers have repeatedly stated the inspiration for their protest is the Arab Spring movement. If this is the case, one may ask how did the indigenous peoples of the Middle East fare from the Arab Spring?

In September 2011, Daniel Gabriel, the SUA Human Rights and UN NGO Director, stated: “While the media focuses all its energy on the Palestinian search for Statehood and the ‘Arab Spring’, it is the reduced indigenous populations of the Middle East who continue to lose out. Time and time again, the world demands justice, democracy and freedom in the Middle East, but it fails in its obligation to demand the same for the minority groups like the Arameans. Today we barely survive in our homeland. But tomorrow we may silently vanish from existence.”

If Arab Spring didn’t flourish for indigenous peoples in the Middle East, how can we expect it to flourish here? If the indigenous peoples in the Middle East are barely surviving in their homelands, can we expect the Arab Spring inspired movement on Wall Street to lessen the oppression in our homelands? Will the actions on Wall Street abate our youth crisis, our teen suicide rate, our domestic and sexual abuse, or our alcohol and substance abuse in Indian Country? Will it heal our broken families and communities? Will Wall Street stop the rape and plunder of Mother Earth by the mining, oil and energy interests? Will it halt the ecocide, ethnocide, linguicide, and genocide of the indigenous peoples in North America? If Gabriel’s words offer any insight, then our historical trauma will not lessen but increase. It will increase in the present generation to the Seventh Generation—and beyond.

Then there is the matter of decolonization. The question is: the decolonization of what, of whom? How can decolonization be a part of the process if the occupiers are occupying occupied land?

The dominance of a white majority involved with the OWS movement explains why decolonization isn’t included in the proposed list of demands issued on September 3. The list of demands includes

  • Separate Investment Banking from Commercial Banks;
  • Use Congressional authority to prosecute the Wall Street criminals responsible for 2008 crisis;
  • Cap the ability of corporations to contribute to political campaigns;
  • Congress pass the Buffett Rule, i.e., fair taxation of the rich and corporations;
  • Revamping Securities and Exchange Commission;
  • Pass effective law to limit the influence of lobbyists;
  • Pass law prohibiting former regulators to join corporations later. 

Where in this proposed list of demands is there anything remotely connected to decolonization? At its core, OWS is about corporate greed, financial accountability, and economic inequity. It’s about a change in the system, although, as Gabriel points out, an Arab Spring doesn’t bring change to the voices of the indigenous. If change is the basic tenant of the OWS movement, then this change should not be the exclusion of indigenous populations in the United States, rather, change should be inclusive.

The OWS movement is, at the present time, about money. The core message seems to be that corporate America and the wealthy need to share the profits. But the question is: How are those profits made? The profits of the wealthy are made through the industries they own. These industries fuel and generate profits. And they create jobs and programs.

The mining, oil, and energy industries generate enormous profits. Those profits come at a cost to Indian country, to say nothing of the environment in general. The new Indian Wars are about the opposition to ecocidal legislative policies and industries that endanger our homelands and our Mother Earth. Part of the struggle is trying to rise above the marginalization that began with colonization and continues through the corporate policies of the mining, oil, and energy industries.

According to Belinda Morris, ”Marginalization is as much a result of colonialism as it is corporatism. One is social, the other economic. From the indigenous standpoint ... the struggle does not and cannot exist in a vacuum, it must not allow itself to be subsumed by a movement that, to date, has shown little—if any—recognition of it, let alone respect for it.”

As evidenced by their proposed list of demands, the OWS movement has no intentions of recognizing indigenous concerns or demarginalizing indigenous peoples in the United States. And that’s because the mindset of the majority of occupiers is an intergenerational extension of a colonized mindset. In her Foreword to The New Resource Wars, Winona LaDuke provides insight into the colonized mindset. Regarding “Industrial society, or as some call it, ‘settler society,’” LaDuke writes:

“In industrial society, ‘man’s dominion over nature,’ has preempted the perception of Natural Law as central. Linear concepts of ‘progress’ dominate this worldview. From this perception of ‘progress’ as an essential component of societal development comes the perception of the natural world as a wilderness. This, of course, is the philosophical underpinning of colonialism and ‘conquest.’”

This way of thinking is also present in scientific systems of thought like ‘Darwinism,’ as well as in social interpretations of human behavior such as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ with its belief in some god-ordained right of some humans to dominate the earth. These concepts are central to the ... present state of relations between native and settler in North America and elsewhere.”

The “settler society” that LaDuke refers to isn’t from the historical past. It is present in non-indigenous society today. It is the mentality of this “settler society” permeating the mindset of the OWS movement. Their demands aren’t about decolonization. Rather, their demands are about wanting a share of the profits, profits that come from the rape and plunder of the earth and our indigenous homelands.

This isn’t to say that the OWS movement lacks merit. Economic inequities, corporate greed, the mortgage crisis, the unequal distribution of wealth are legitimate concerns. But those concerns have nothing to do with decolonization no environmental justice. As such, the 99% slogan is not inclusive of the myriad of environmental problems that plague both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the United States.

Wendy Makoons Geniusz writes: “Because of the colonization process, many of us no longer see the strength of our indigenous knowledge. Our minds have been colonized along with our land, resources, people. For us Anishinaabeg, the decolonization of gikendaasowin (Anishinaabe knowledge) is also part of the decolonization of ourselves.”

Geniusz points out that biskaabiiyang means to “to return to ourselves, to decolonize ourselves.”

For many of us, biskaabiiyang is a lifelong process. It is a journey to heal our traumatized inner spirit of the historical past and the historical present. For many of us, our involvement in the struggles that our communities and our homelands face is a part of that healing journey. From this prism, the Occupy movement can be viewed as recognizing the national trauma endured under Corporate America. But it isn’t about the biskaabiiyang of the American people. Rather, it’s about the collusion of corporations and the government to keep us under the yoke of economic inequity and the public’s demand for reformation of a corrupt capitalist system that has infested the world under the umbrella of globalization. And it is the reformation of this system that has led to the present movement of people on the streets of America.

However, should any kind of reformation occur, indigenous peoples will undoubtedly continue to be marginalized and their natural resources exploited. And, as before, we will continue our struggles in the shadows of democracy.

We will need to do this lest we silently vanish from existence.

Robert Desjarlait is from the Red Lake Ojibwe Reservation. He is a free-lance journalist and has been published on issues regarding Indian country. He is a co-founder of Protect Our Manoomin, an Anishinaabe grassroots organization battling against copper mining in northern Minnesota.