89. Jeff Corntassel, “To Be Ungovernable”

by breavman99

corntassel image

(image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0pDCSlFL9g)

In her discussion of the need for Settlers to focus on local struggles rather than faraway ones, Clare Land refers to Cherokee academic and activist Jeff Corntassel’s short essay, “To Be Ungovernable.” It’s getting to be time for me to move on from texts about walking to the texts on my list that address other topics, and so I thought it might be helpful to take a look at Corntassel’s essay, which is helpfully available on his web site, along with many other essays and articles. It’s a rich resource and Corntassel is generous to have made it available. “To Be Ungovernable” has the virtue of brevity, which is both good and bad: good because it gives me a taste of his thinking, and bad because that taste will likely necessitate reading more of his work. This process is never finished; one just runs out of time.

“To Be Ungovernable” begins in 1998, in Ecuador, when that country’s president, Abdalá Bucaram, was overthrown by a movement led by the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), which represents 80 percent of the country’s Indigenous peoples (35). The subsequent president, Jamil Mahuad, “ignored CONAIE’s demands for political reform and the return of indigenous homelands,” and within two years CONAIE had toppled his government as well (35). Afterwards, “policy experts and government officials proclaimed Ecuador to be ungovernable,” but for Corntassel, “this form of ‘ungovernability’ is what indigenous peoples should be trying to achieve. Instability and ungovernability on this level is a result of indigenous responses to the illegitimate occupation and encroachment of the state on indigenous homelands” (35). However, when CONAIE formed a political party named Pachakutik, which was allied with the Sociedad Patriótica party, it became co-opted and “governable” (35). 

That story suggests something about the incompatibilities between Settler and Indigenous cultures and values, Corntassel suggests:

Most indigenous peoples around the world have words in their languages that refer to themselves as the real, original or principal people of their homelands, such as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ian) or Onkwehonwe (Mohawk). Cherokees use the term Ani-yun-wiya, which means real or principal people. Ungovernability means embracing the principles of Ani-yun-wiya and discarding state offerings of rotten apples. (35)

Co-optation, Corntassel continues, “offers indigenous peoples the illusion of inclusion,” when what is actually needed “is a de-occupation of settler institutions and values from indigenous homelands,” a delegitimization of the settler-colonial regime that is, according to Taiaiake Alfred, “the most fundamentally radical act one can perform” (qtd. 35). “As Ani-yun-wiya, our values and responsibilities, not settler institutions, govern us,” Corntassel continues (35). Gadugi, “a built-in spirit of community comradery,” is one of those values; it means “that whatever issues/concerns arising in collective living have to be addressed in a unitary way and that no one is left alone to climb out of a life endeavour; it reflects a collective community base” (35). For Corntassel, adhering to such principles “makes indigenous peoples ungovernable in the eyes of Settlers. Ani-yun-wiya are governed by a continuous renewal of our shared responsibilities and relationships” (35).

Settler values, on the other hand, can be found in indigenous languages and “the stories indigenous peoples tell of first contact with settlers” (35). For example, “the word Canada is derived from a Mohawk term, Kanatiens,” which translates as “squatter” (35). The Tsalagi (Cherokee) word for white Settlers, “yonega,” means “foam of the water; moved by wind and without its own direction; clings to everything that’s solid” (35-36). In Cree, the word “môniyawak” literally means “worship of money,” or “sôniyaw” (36). (My Cree teachers would disagree with that suggestion, I think.) “Wasicu,” the Dakota word for settler, means “taker of fat,” and it suggests that the first Settlers the Dakota encountered came into a camp during winter and helped themselves to the fatty parts of a soup boiling on the fire (36). “Ve’ho’e,” the Cheyenne term for settlers, means “spider,” and suggests a trickster figure: 

Settlers are viewed this way because they have hair like a spider, divide that land like the web of a spider, communicate through power lines like strands of a spider, and wrap their prey to devour it, such as the indigenous peoples who were wrapped in blankets during the small pox and cholera epidemics. (36)

These words and stories, which are based on over 500 years of experience, provide Indigenous peoples with “valuable insights into a different value system”: “directionless, money-worshipping, fat-taking squatters that divide the land, devour their prey and cling to everything that’s solid. . . . Clearly these are not principles for Ani-yun-wiya to emulate or mimic” (36). Indeed, when expressed that way, they are not principles anyone would want to emulate or mimic.

“Indigenous governance is an ongoing process of honouring and renewing our individual and collective relationships and responsibilities,” Corntassel continues. “And settlers are not off the hook either—they will have to decide how they can relate to indigenous struggles. Will they make the necessary sacrifices to decolonize and make amends now?” (36). One of the problems involved in answering that question is the “debilitating ‘Free Tibet Syndrome’” which many “would-be allies suffer from,” “which causes them to cast their decolonizing gaze to faraway places while ignoring local indigenous struggles” (36). “The further away the exotic overseas ‘Other’ is from their present geographic location,” Corntassel writes, “the greater the intensity of their fundraising and self-determination proselytizing activities,” while they are not interested in “promoting freedom and justice for indigenous peoples closer to ‘home’” (36). 

Globalization, Corntassel argues, “reflects a deepening, hastening and stretching of an already-existing empire; it is merely the latest permutation of imperialism. Shape-shifting colonial powers continue to invent new methods of domination in order to erase indigenous histories and senses of place” (36). He quotes at length from a conversation between U.S. Cavalry Captain E.L. Huggins and Smohalla or Yu’yunipi’t-qana of the Wanapum Nation to show that his generation is not the first “to confront the dilemmas of participating in the political economy” (36). Smohalla told Huggins that “[n]o one has any respect” for Indigenous peoples who have adopted the ways of Settlers. Rather than work, Smohalla stated, his people “simply take the gifts that are freely offered” by the Earth, while “the white man tears up large tracts of land, runs deep ditches, cuts down forests, and changes the whole face of the earth,” activities that are, he argued, “not right. . . . But the white men are so greedy that they do not consider these things” (36). Smohalla is describing a way of thinking that has led, inexorably, to our current climate and extinction crises, which frankly terrify me.

“Fortunately,” Corntassel writes, “the spirit of Smohalla is alive in other indigenous movements today,” and a brief survey of those movements shows that they remain “ungovernable” (36-37). For instance, between 1997 and 2002, U’wa peoples in Colombia kept Occidental Petroleum from building a pipeline through their territory, a struggle that was not finished. The Forum for Cultural and Biological Diversity, an Indigenous-run group in Honduras, was hosting annual seed exchanges where Indigenous farmers could trade for non-GMO seeds. At Six Nations in 2006, clan mothers and warriors “reclaimed 40 hectares of their traditional territory” along the Grand River from a housing developer (another struggle that continues still). These examples, Corntassel writes, “illustrate indigenous alternatives to neoliberalism”: “The approximately 5,000 indigenous nations trapped in 70 settler states around the world offer us 5,000 different versions of ungovernability” (37). Indigenous peoples are patient, he continues, “and will live to see our homelands de-occupied by settler values. Until that time comes, settlers are illegally occupying indigenous homelands” (37).

“Ani-yun-yiwa are spiritual beings, as embodied by our clan systems, languages, ceremonies, sacred histories and relationships to the land,” Corntassel writes:

Our powers reside in our languages, cultures and communities—not in political/legal authority structures. An indigenous spiritual regeneration is necessary to facilitate the de-occupation of settler values from our homelands. In these times of spiritual and physical warfare, our pipe carriers and clan mothers (not band councillors or lawyers) are the true voices of our struggles. (37)

Travelling to other Indigenous and Settler communities to find allies in these struggles “can be a useful antidote to colonialism,” but state-centred forums are limited in what they can do to promote Indigenous resurgences (37). Instead, he argues that “[i]t is time to again represent ourselves in our own terms,” by making treaties between Indigenous communities that “follow the protocols of pipe ceremonies, not the paper diplomacy of settlers,” and for Indigenous peoples “to lead by example and demonstrate once again their communities’ approaches to principles of respect and diplomacy” (37). Engagement in Indigenous forums, such as the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, is another direction in which Indigenous mobilization efforts should be directed. “Ani-yun-wiya warriors must ready themselves for physical and spiritual warfare,” Corntassel continues. “Let us remember that a process of regeneration takes time” (37). In addition, “settler populations can begin by decolonizing their thinking, engaging in insurgent education, making amends to local indigenous peoples and seeking out indigenous-led alliances” (37). “As ancient nations, we have proven to be persistent and ‘ungovernable’—we are nations that predate the state and will outlast it,” Corntassel concludes (37). “Ani-yun-wiya power arises from Gadugi, and responsibilities to our territories and families. Ultimately, only indigenous laws can flourish on indigenous homelands” (37). 

Interestingly, Corntassel doesn’t suggest that Indigenous homelands need to be “de-occupied” by Settler people, only by their values (37). Adopting Indigenous values, then, would be a way for Settlers to decolonize their thinking and educate themselves as a prelude to making amends to local Indigenous peoples and seeking out Indigenous-led alliances (37). That adoption, though, would have to avoid appropriation, and I’m not sure how those two things can be kept separate. In any case, what I found useful about reading “To Be Ungovernable” was the same thing I found useful about reading Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom during my MFA work (and, of course, that’s a book I should be rereading for this project): both texts present a way of looking at the world that are radically different from the ones I’ve lived with my entire life. Reading such texts must be a valuable part of decolonizing oneself, or at least of the self-education that is part of such a decolonization.

Works Cited

Alfred, Taiaiake. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Corntassel, Jeff. “To Be Ungovernable.” New Socialist no. 58, September-October 2006, pp. 35-37.

Land, Clare. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed, 2015.