Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom by Taiaiake Alfred. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005.
reviewed by Jan Wesselius*
This is a thoughtful and astute book written by a professor in Indigenous Governance Programs at the University of Victoria.
Taiaiake Alfred is from Kahnawáke in the Mohawk Nation and his title Wasáse refers to an ancient war dance ceremony from Mohawk traditions, “a ceremony of unity, strength, and commitment to action.” Remembering the standoff between Mohawk warriors and the Quebec police and Canadian military at Oka in 1990, this title initially causes some disquiet.
But Alfred makes clear from the outset that his intention is to lay out a non-violent theory of resistance. He explains that “the ideal of peaceful coexistence (is) at the heart of Onkwehonwe philosophies.” According to Alfred, wasáse is an ethical and political vision; to be a warrior in these present times is to make “a stand facing danger with courage and integrity.”
Alfred offers a challenge to what he calls the Onkwehonwe or “original people” to find a new way forward through profound spiritual transformation. This challenges assumptions he says are leftovers from racist and colonialist policies. For many who want to be in solidarity with Onkwehonwe, this shakes our assumptions as well:
“The framework of current reformist or reconciling negotiations are about handing us the scraps of history: self-government and jurisdictional authorities for state-created Indian governments within the larger colonial system and subjection of Onkwehonwe to the blunt force of capitalism by integrating them as wage slaves into the mainstream resource-exploitation economy. … Today, self-government and economic development signify the defeat of our peoples’ struggles just as surely as, to our grandparents, residential schools, land dispossession, and police beatings signified the supposed supremacy of white power and the subjugation and humiliation of the first and real peoples of this land.”
The premise of this book is that before First Nations (or Onkwehonwe meaning “original people” to use Alfred’s preferred name) can successfully claim political or economic or legal rights, they must experience a spiritual transformation, a transformation such that they undo the effects of the legacy of colonization and imperialism and develop a way of being in this present world rather than an attempt to return to a (often romanticized) way of life in the past.
He says that “Onkwehonwe are awakening to the need to move from the materialist orientation of our politics and social reality toward a restored spiritual foundation, channelling that spiritual strength and the unity it creates into a power that can affect political and economic relations.” Consequently, Alfred does not dwell on the past injustices and harms done to aboriginal peoples (although neither does he minimize them) nor does he focus on seeking restitution.
What I also appreciate about this book is that Alfred rejects a common dichotomy between either violent revolution or simply fine-tuning the status quo. Rather, he locates the problem as essentially a spiritual problem –of a people having lost their way spiritually through displacement and assimilation – and hence, the solution must be ultimately spiritual too, to get back into right relations with each other, with the natural world, and with the Settler people (Alfred’s name for non-indigenous Canadians).
Having right relations is evidence of being in right relation with the Creator. Alfred calls on First Nations people to remember how to live as Onkwehonwe, to “confront the situation with determined yet restrained action, coherent and creative contention supplemented with a positive political vision based on re-establishing respect for the original covenants and ancient treaties that reflect the founding principles of the Onkwehonwe-Settler relationship.”
The only disappointment I have with this book is that while Alfred freely makes use of analyses and strategies of other traditions (e.g. Buddhism or Taoism), he consistently rejects Christian traditions as a resource for his own purposes (although he does distinguish between the practice of Christianity and the institutionalized Christianity of churches). And he acknowledges that the effects of “indigenized forms of Christianity” have been “complex.”
Given the history of the association between western imperialism/colonization and Christian missionary activity, perhaps such a rejection is inevitable and strategic. However, it impoverishes his own reflections to the extent that Christian traditions are a rich resource for analyzing and resisting oppression. And it reminds me that it is our failing as Christians that we have at times done such a poor job of witnessing to the liberating power of our God.
At the same time, Alfred’s book inspires me to think again about what it means for me as a Canadian to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.