Taiaiake Alfred, the world’s foremost expert on the effects of colonization on indigenous peoples, speaks about the ongoing anger felt by people who have been victims of colonization. Listening to Taiaiake speak on the today’s ongoing colonialist experience of Aboriginals (formerly called Inuits) in Canada, I found his points relevant to what is happening today in the Middle East and Africa.
As a Westerner arriving in the Middle East some years ago, I was shocked to find Middle Easterners and North Africans describing the Iraq Wars in two ways–as Americans leading a new Christian Crusade against Muslims, and Americans as neo-colonialists out to “steal” Iraq’s oil. “Why else would a country do these things?” I was told, when I tried to argue with people.
North African and Middle Eastern people are still focused on the Crusades as a recent memory (in the way that Westerners focus on the two World Wars as a recent memory) because of their very recent memory of colonization. Recent colonialist experience colors the judgement of a people about everything in life. This altered mentality creates a way of thinking where they feel that no one ever acts altruistically, that no one (nor any country) ever does something unless they will be able to “benefit” from it personally.
The reason it’s difficult for Americans to understand this colonialist mentality is because our own colonialist experience happened so long ago, and anyone with living memory of it died more than 100 years ago. I would posit that for a society to rid oneself of the colonialist experience and mentality takes at least 150 years. If we could go back and look at American society , post-1776, I think we would see lingering attitudes from the Colonialist experience up all the way until World War I. Those born in 1770, some of whom presumably lived until about 1860, would have told their own grandchildren and great-grandchildren about their memories of the colonialist experience. Those grandchildren born in 1830-1850 would have lived until the early 1900s. I would say that sometime between 1900 and WWI, those old attitudes would have been overcome by other events, and forgotten.
So, how does this extrapolate to Africa and the Middle East today? In my experience, people in the Middle East and Africa seem to have a love-hate relationship with their former colonial power.
A love-hate relationship often exists between the colonizers and the colonized. (Painting by John Frederick Lewis, British Orientalist Painter 1830s to 1860s)
In fact, parts of North Africa were united under nationalist governments for the first time in the 1950s. Prior to this time, these areas existed under feudal warlords.
Viewing the independence dates of African countries in the map below, and adding 150 years, shows us that it will take until at least 2100-2130 before Africa is able to begin to shake off its colonialist heritage and the lingering negative effects of the colonialization experience.
Decolonization Dates / Independence Dates of African Countries
A recent colonialist experience creates an anger among a people over their own native culture having been repressed, that no amount of material “goodwill” can ever assuage. In the Middle East and Africa (without mentioning specific examples) there are instances of lands and people being absorbed into a national culture of which those people consider to be a foreign power; these national governments have spent a great deal of money on improving the infrastructure of the absorbed areas–highways, schools, telecommunications, transportation, and modernization–without obtaining any loyalty from the part of the local populations.
New Highways Built for Local Populations in the Deserts of Northwest Africa
Why not? Because these materialist “offerings” do nothing to address the real problem of “forced” assimilation. Native peoples remain alienated.
New Empty Towns Built for Local Populations in the Deserts of Northwest Africa
No doubt this process of forced assimilation and alienation has taken place all over the world, throughout history. But it is not an easy process to recover from, and the effects linger in each locality for up to 200 years afterward. During the North African Spring we have heard much talk of the different tribal areas in Libya, and the problems of forced assimilation during the Gaddafi regime which are now bubbling to the surface. In the past decade we heard of Kurdish problems in Iraq and Turkey. Sometimes we hear of problems with groups in the Sahara. Elsewhere, China has built new infrastructure in Tibet.
New Road Built by the Chinese in Tibet
According to Taiaiake Alfred, colonized peoples–such as the Aboriginals (formerly called Inuit) and other native peoples of North America–especially believe in treaties, because treaties show respect between two peoples, or two nations. National governments of various societies, on the other hand, believe in integration and assimilation based on social justice principles. The main agenda of national governments is to make formerly colonized peoples into fully-functioning members of society through providing language, education, and job opportunities; however, they show a lack of respect to native peoples by trying to assimilate them. Education is used everywhere as an assimilation tool. “Native peoples living independently is also a threat to national governments because if they live independently, they control more land. This makes less land available for mining claims, for other citizens,” Taiaiake says.
Modern Inuits in Canada Dealing with Effects of Colonialization
Native leaders who try to work within the national system to obtain more benefits such as land claims and self-government for native peoples are usually viewed as illegitimate leaders by the grassroots population.
Colonized peoples don’t want to be part of an integrative relationship. Their vision is different. their problems are not money problems, or problems of jurisdiction. They are angry about losing their culture and their different way of life. This creates a permanent state of alienation. No matter how many material goods are given, these make no difference, because those material goods never address the source of the problem, the psychological anger.
Furthermore, as these new material things become the norm, the material standard rises ever further. This process prevents getting to the root of the problem–this psychological anger–the pain in the community which comes from losing one’s culture. This causes a permanent state of alienation coming from not having their culture, their values, reflected in the value system of the overall society. This is why there are so many social and psychological problems in the communities which are not being addressed.
In Canada, people wonder why, when the government injects 7. million dollars to relocate a complete band of 700 Inuits to a new location, giving them new housing and other material goods, why the same problems of alcoholism, suicide, depression, and despair emerge again.
Morgan Fawcett, an Aboriginal (Inuit) victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, has dedicated his life to making sure women think before they drink
“It didn’t work because it’s putting the car before the horse,” says Taiaiake. “These people aren’t ready to participate in this government because it’s not a form of government which is reflective of their culture, and their values. It is essentially an imposed form of government. More importantly, the problem of deculturalization of these people has not been fixed.”
Taiaiake says, “When Africa was decolonized, you have societies left that reflect all the worst aspects of the colonizers in the way power is used, in the way that corruption has infused the society.”
Canada’s indigenous people suffer from a post-colonialist mentality, according to Taiaiake. “Native peoples have been illegally dispossessed of their land and treaties have not been honored. We have to address those things before we can have reconciliation.”
“There is always a connection between the means and the ends,” Taiaiake says. “If you want to have a peaceful co-existence with your neighbor, you can’t use violence.”
The true reclaiming of what it means to be an indigenous person is spiritual. This means one must return to the essence of being a true warrior, in the sense of “they carry the burden (of their heritage).” It is about having strength and integrity inside yourself to be an authentic person, carrying yourself with a sense of justice and rightness.
“Colonialized peoples need to recreate themselves as people who are spiritually-grounded and strong, in order to withstand all those forces of assimilation and recreate the something new out of the best values of the indigenous culture. The most impressive thing that Ghandi did was to take a stand against both imperialism and traditionalism, and insist that people needed to create something new out of both appropriate to today. This is really the solution.”
Meanwhile, what can be done about growing problems among youth? There are increasing levels of drug use, violence, and family violence. Smoking is increasing, gun and gang culture are emerging in Canada. What about indigenous people in the urban centers?
“We need to create relationships between those people and the home communities. However, many of those home communities themselves are problematic.”
More indigenous people in Canada are going to university and becoming doctors and lawyers. Taiaiaka’s view is that each day of his life, no matter what job or education level an indigenous person receives, he can make the choice to support either the vision of indigenous people, or the vision of the colonizer. Taiaiaka hopes to inspire the next generation of indigenous leaders to regenerate the culture in a political and legal manner, to force Canada into a reconciliation with reality. He envisions a social and political agenda in Canada like the Black Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The goal is to recover the stolen sense of what it means to be an indigenous person living the authentic life of our ancestors.
For all recently decolonized peoples, the way forward is to find a middle road which is neither the vision of the colonizer, nor a reactionary vision against the colonizer. Decolonized peoples must take what is useful from the colonizer and combine it with a spiritual vision from their own culture to find a new way forward in the modern world–to be part of the modern world, while not “of” the colonizers’ world.
With regard to national cultures which are trying to assimilate native cultures through the use of education and materialistic recompense, I feel this strategy is far preferable to the ethnic cleansing which is happening in so many parts of the world (which is what happens when assimilation efforts fail). While I can understand the pain of native peoples, I think adapting to the dominant culture is probably the best middle course of action for all.