Glen Sean Coulthard received his PhD at the University of Victoria and is an associate professor in the First Nation and Indigenous Studies Program and Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Canada. He has written articles and a book and co-edited a volume on First Nation political theory and social and political movements as well as on recognition and sovereignty.
I chose to interview Dr. Glen Coulthard because I attended a panel discussion on Indigenous resistance and activism where he read a portion of the book he is currently completing (that he mentions in answer to question 5). His (2014) Red Skin, White Masks was a source in my honors thesis. I have been interested in some specific aspects of that book and how it relates to my thesis as well as his perspective on capitalism and the role of radical political models, such as communism and anarchism, in indigenous political thought and practice and as approaches for gaining more rights. I wanted to learn more about these topics, as well as how his perspective as an indigenous person in Canada compares to challenges facing indigenous people in the United States.
Einsiedel: Many indigenous nations in the United States have been seeking greater political autonomy by working to become less dependent on federal funding. They have typically done so by aligning with corporations to generate profits necessary to fund projects in their communities. You consider indigenous life to be firmly and fundamentally anti-capitalist. Is there a way for tribes in the United States to disengage from both the federal government and deeply rooted capitalism and to survive? Are Canadian tribes also working within the capitalist system in pursuit of greater political autonomy? If so, how and what are the implications?
Coulthard: There are a range of economic strategies that Indigenous peoples engage in to mitigate economic dependency. I focus on those struggles that challenge capitalism because of its inherently colonial character – i.e., its drive to unlimited expansion and accumulation. Most Indigenous communities, however, are forced to adopt economic planning that facilitates this model of development because of settler-colonial capital’s ultimate dependency on the land as a resource base. Under such a system Indigenous peoples’ stubborn attachments to land become a major threat to accumulation. This is when we see the state resort to violence as a means of ensuring capital’s access to land, like at Standing Rock.
Einsiedel: Do you think that federally recognized or federally unrecognized tribes in the United States have a better chance of achieving meaningful self-recognition and independence? How do you compare the relationship between state recognition and self-recognition of tribes in Canada with those in the United States?
Coulthard: While there are significant differences between the two states, there are also similarities. Both economies, for example, are increasingly dependent on their land-resource base as a means of accumulating capital, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the state itself, and for the purposes of ongoing settlement. In other words, at their cores, both states are colonial entities. This will always structurally determine any recognition-based approach that is negotiated through these very powerful institutions. This is why I am much more interested in forms of Indigenous protest and organizing that does not take recognition to be its end game. I’m interested, to paraphrase Audra Simpson’s critically important work, in struggles that refuse recognition as a means of creating something else.
Einsiedel: You write and speak about the necessity of solidarity among tribes in combating the settler colonial state. How can tribes who have to scramble and compete for resources and funding from the federal government work toward unification and solidarity?
Coulthard: This is part of the problem with recognition when it’s mediated by and distributed through the colonial-state. It is divisive by design. It also subtly imposes forms of territoriality (strictly demarcated nations that claim control over a land-base and population) on Indigenous nations that resemble the colonial state more than they do nations in the traditional sense. This is not decolonization.
Einsiedel: Could a world where indigenous tribes have their own independent nations with self-determined laws, borders, and citizenship requirements exist within the territory of countries like the United States and Canada? If so, how?
Coulthard: I don’t think so. The type of transformation you are speaking of cannot coexist with a settler-state. Decolonization will transform these entities beyond all recognition. There will cease to be a “Canada” or “United States.” It is difficult to even imagine what this might look like. This is why our artists are so important. It is through their cultural production that we get glimpses of other worlds.
Einsiedel: Do you think that there are non-Native allies of indigenous communities? If so, do you believe they can play a role in helping indigenous communities in the fight for indigenous rights and political freedoms? What advice do you have for non-Native scholars and future scholars who are interested in writing about and working with indigenous communities in their efforts for political sovereignty and cultural heritage protection?
Coulthard: Demographically speaking, non-Indigenous ally-ship is critical. Indigenous peoples are too numerically small within these states to decolonize completely on our own. I also think we need to keep thinking and acting internationally as well. Indigenous nationalism has always been simultaneously international in scope. The new book I am currently writing looks at this history of radical Indigenous internationalism, especially as it was articulated in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, Red Power activists drew similarities between their movements and those of the Third World: Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, Neyerere’s Tanzania, etc. They even travelled to and collaborated with these nations, sharing ideas and material resources along the way. I also think Indigenous peoples and other communities of color need to be able to forge stronger alliances, which we started to see happening again at Standing Rock with the strong contingent of Black Lives Matter support. This is critically important and exciting.
Einsiedel: What main goals do you have for the future of indigenous communities in Canada and the United States? What is the best path to achieve these goals?
Coulthard: Land-based direct action gets the goods. We need more people and more allies willing to put themselves between the land and the corporations and states that want to devour them of their worth. This has always produced the most significant political changes and I don’t see why that is still not the case today.
Hannah Einsiedel is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut as a dual anthropology and political science major. Hannah completed her senior honors thesis on Native American political rights and acts of anarchism among tribes in the United States. She plans to pursue a PhD in anthropology with the hopes of working as an advocate for the preservation of natural, historic, and indigenous landmarks as well as working toward decolonization of museums and increasing representation of indigenous art and artifacts in art and history museums. Her areas of interest include colonial history and studies, decolonization efforts, alternative political philosophy among Native American tribes, anthropology/archaeology and historic preservation.