After•Word Our Call to Indigenous Consciousness: Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasáse

“Make no mistake about it, Brothers and Sisters: the war is on. There is no post-colonial situation; the invaders our ancestors fought against are still here, for they have not yet rooted themselves and been transformed into real people of this homeland.”
– Taiaiake Alfred

In Toronto, in the woods at the end of the street where I live, there’s a standing stone mounted in the ground. Beside it sits a smaller companion, halved and polished and engraved with a story: it was here in 1615 that Étienne Brûlé, ‘an adventurous spirit,’ became the first ‘white man’ to sight Lake Ontario and thus begin the founding of our nation. Oaks probably stood here when Brûlé arrived; now the woods are brambly, too dense to see the lake. A sewage treatment plant lies below this ridge. As I read these words, someone’s running a wet saw through concrete.

Some years ago I started a journey. Like Brûlé I yearned to discover a new country, but the land my heart ached for didn’t lie across an ocean. It was right here: the land we have yet to truly see, let alone love.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the fish populations in Lake Ontario effectively collapsed. Colonial industry had already extracted what the water could provide, and in Toronto today you still cannot buy local fish. Living here on the shore of a great lake, few of us think about this tragic absurdity. The lake’s story has been pushed underground.

Being a storyteller, my journey took the form of writing a novel. My earlier fiction had explored how places inhabit and shape us, even when we’ve chosen to be rootless. Now I wanted to probe the sources of our separateness. I was fed up with it, desperate for another way. Our civilization was accelerating its crash-course to biocide. In the midst of this, I wanted to write about re-connection.

My immigrant ancestors were always moving; they’d stand still long enough to let a child age or an elder pass away, then push on to another town, another property, always another, better place. Following the opportunities opened up by colonial conquest and the imperatives of capitalism, which must always have new and expanding markets, settlers claimed this continent as an endless frontier. And so it’s remained: a resource to develop and ‘get a living’ from. Yet a commodity isn’t a home. In my novel I tried to dramatize a process whereby people like myself—modern, urban—are drawn to the land, drawn down past empire’s foundations, physical, psychological and mythical; are drawn into a place of nakedness in themselves, where re-connection to this earth can begin. This is the place—outside the borders of empire—that the Kanien’Kehaka (Mohawk) scholar Taiaiake Alfred speaks from in his urgent and visionary book, Wasáse.

Like an eagle feather, Wasáse fell across my path at the end of my long writing journey. Wasáse means “thunder dance, war dance,” and this book summons all of us to the work of restoring a free and thriving world. Until we settlers become “real people of this homeland,” Alfred warns, we will remain perpetual drifters and conquerors—alienated and defensive, destroying the land and attacking those who protect it, or feeling disempowered, apathetic, useless in the face of such destruction.

Although Alfred is addressing Onkwehonwe (original or indigenous) peoples and their situation specifically, he also promises that “if non-indigenous readers are capable of listening …[they] too will be shown a new path and offered the chance to join in a renewed relationship between the peoples and places of this land, which we occupy together” (35). This new path is nothing less than the restoration of “indigenous consciousness and ways of being” (39). It is “a spiritual revolution, a culturally rooted social movement that transforms the whole of society and a political action that seeks to remake the entire landscape of power and relationship to reflect truly a liberated post-imperial vision” (27).

For Alfred, indigenous consciousness is the only thing standing between Onkwehonwe and the pervasive “delusions, greeds and hatreds that lie at the centre of colonial culture” (35). If indigenous peoples do not claim and nurture this consciousness, their way of life as indigenous will soon disappear. More broadly speaking, Alfred’s assertion applies to us all: if indigenous consciousness isn’t resurrected and fostered, then empire will utterly consume this world.

A rooted, indigenous consciousness is fundamentally at odds with the mindset that makes the wheels of our modern world turn. Having indigenous consciousness means that you’re ‘at war’ whether you realize it or not. You’re a target. You don’t fit into the system. And you should stop trying to fit in, Alfred writes. Adapting to settler ways will not bring indigenous peoples peace because in empire there is never peace—only domination and control.

Wasáse proposes “a real and deep notion of peace” (27) to counter the acquiescent passivity we generally mistake for ‘peace.’ In imperial culture, we all learn to tolerate the intolerable: poisons pollute our world, the state makes wars and lives are expendable—but that’s alright, the stuff of daily news. Living in integral relation with other nations, without the dynamics of oppression, assimilation and servitude, seems unimaginable. ‘Peace’ is confused with order and (apparent) stability, the uncontested rule of law (28). The machine runs well: you get to work on time, there’s money in the bank and food in the stores, no rioting in the streets. Peace.

A warrior, according to Alfred, is one who strives to bring about true peace: not the absence of conflict, but a “culture of freedom” (29), a coexistence of diverse nations that is “hopeful, visionary, and forward-looking” (28). As an Onkwehonwe activist tells Alfred,

The healthy ones, the bright-eyed ones, must accept their responsibility to restore those in grief, temporarily in dysfunction, so to speak, to health, to accept, recognize, restore, ameliorate, admonish, and provide the new mentor, model and inspiration. In today’s context, this is the primary task and responsibility of the warrior (80).

“It is time for our people to live again” (19), Alfred writes. Instead of squandering their energies negotiating terms with their oppressors, indigenous peoples must regenerate their cultures. Much has been lost to them since colonization. Yet not all. To recover indigenous ways of being, Alfred argues, Onkwehonwe must begin “living the rites of resurgence,” fostering “self-transformation and self-defence” against state control (29). These rites involve the recovery of indigenous story, language, health and community, and above all, a living philosophy or spirit.

This too must be the settler path: our only road away from the statist, capitalistic framework that makes impossible a rooted relationship to earth and all its kin. Yet how do we non-indigenous, who have no cultural connections outside of an imperialist system and thinking, recover an indigenous consciousness? What does it even mean for us to come home to this land? To root?

First, Alfred says, as settlers we must face our denial of colonialism and our painful heritage as imperialist subjects: “Change will happen only when Settlers are forced into a reckoning with who they are, what they have done, and what they have inherited; then they will be unable to function as colonials and begin instead to engage other peoples as respectful human beings” (154).

Secondly, Alfred does not recommend even for indigenous peoples that they set about “replicating the surface aspects of the lifestyle and manners” of indigenous in past times. Rather, he calls for regenerating “the quality of an indigenous existence, the connective material that bound Onkwehonwe together when ‘interests’ and ‘rights’ were not a part of … people’s vocabularies” (254). For settlers, this means we root not by playing Indian but by cultivating that ‘quality’ of indigenous being that connects us deeply to life in this world.

Reading Wasáse, I felt confronted, affirmed, inspired and fiercely guided by Alfred’s warrior honesty and, surprisingly, his optimism. He helped me articulate new and urgent questions: what are those ‘rites’ that we settlers might resurrect? What ways of being will foster a “renewed relationship between the peoples and places of this land” (35)? How do we exchange entitlement for humility, liberal guilt for friendship and alliance, consumerism for caring and detachment for deep devotion?

The woods at the end of my street extend a long way up the river valley through the city. The first time I visited, I left the concrete walkway for a trail, not knowing where it led. The sun shone down through the leaves onto spider webs that hung like dream catchers. I entered a dim grove of cedar and fir. The place carried an uneasy feeling, some echo of misery. On the other side I saw a shape in the trees: a Cooper’s Hawk, a bird I’d never seen. We regarded each other with mutual seriousness. The next day when I returned to the woods, I took a different trail and encountered a coyote standing on the path ahead, looking back at me. I offered a greeting before it bounded into the ravine.

What are our rites of resurgence? How do we become again people who know how to love this earth and live by that love? There isn’t a formula, but there is a path. It begins with the land. Kinship—that ‘connective material’ that joins all life—abides in the body, the spirit and the earth. And even in a rootless time, we retain this alignment—for it comes through the heart.

I went to the urban woods again with a friend, wanting to show her this place. We took the trails. We weren’t alone: others were there, men and women who also go to get away. Rounding a bend, my friend and I came face to face suddenly with a doe. In the grey light of evening she was almost invisible. She didn’t run. Nearby, we could see that she had a smaller companion. The doe stood before us majestically, holding her ground and our gaze for a long moment. And without thinking, we smiled and poured out our blessings and praise.

About the Author

Sharon English – has published two collections of short stories, Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity. Her new novel is called What Has Night To Do With Sleep? She lives in Toronto, where she teaches undergraduate creative writing in the University of Toronto’s Writing and Rhetoric Program.

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