Today’s society has become adept at utilizing symbolic acts to divert attention from the substantive work needed to make real change. They have become the just-add-water staple food of many modern social movements. And, like their ramen counterparts, they are completely devoid of nutritional value.
Symbolism provides a needed distraction from the sense of hopelessness and despair that many are feeling at this time, offering a placebo that allows us to believe that our efforts are having a tangible impact. This is seductive, because it tells us what we want to hear and allows us to see ourselves as we most want to be. And, like seduction, it is mostly a measure of appearance. It offers us a true and radical difference in appearance to the status quo. But those differences remain on the surface while the underlying structure remains unchanged.
On the surface, symbolic acts look good. The danger is found in the real-life consequences that arise when we fail to allow reality to penetrate the haze of our seduction.
Realities like the decimation of global water sources, rapid deforestation, wholesale destruction of vital ecosystems, elevating rates of violence against human rights and environmental activists, and the ongoing horror of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls. These stark realities crash up against the fact that safety pins on lapels, street marches, and sharing posts on social media do not create tangible changes within the systems and structures that maintain injustice or in the lives of those most impacted by that injustice.
Yet, symbolic acts do have a role to play in the unfolding movement of movements. They help amplify the visibility of issues and bring them more firmly into the public awareness. They also help define the social and political climate and can provide visible support to those being targeted. Therefore, we don’t want to eliminate them altogether.
We just want to be sure they are followed by concrete actionable steps that move our issues toward resolution, so they do not become stagnant and ineffective.
Contemporary political activism is very different than it was even twenty years ago. The popularity of hashtag movements and other pop-culture social trends have done a great deal to amplify issues and elevate voices. However, they have also reduced our discussions to sound bites, which does very little to increase overall understanding or engender the type of buy-in needed to create lasting change.
So, what does this mean for the Indigenous Peoples movement?
It means that we must be even more diligent about keeping our substantive issues centralized.
For the last two decades I have worked with a group of Indigenous wisdom keepers on the protection of Indigenous land and water rights and the preservation of the Indigenous way of life. In the last ten years, this work has brought me fully into the field of climate change, first as it intersected with Indigenous Peoples rights and then as a global imperative for survival on the planet.
In this work, I have had to engage with countless officials, representing a number of governmental agencies and environmental organizations. Often, my group’s presence has been met by these officials with an attitude of mild annoyance and easy dismissal. But, over the last few years that attitude has begun to change. Though we are still largely dismissed by government officials, there has been a significant change in the relationship between scientists, environmentalists, and Indigenous Peoples. Individuals from both groups are now actively seeking our guidance and partnership on a broad range of issues and projects. This shift is not unique to our group. Across the globe, there is growing interest in Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), especially as it relates to climate change.
Information connected to Indigenous ways of knowing and being, once only of interest to anthropologists and ethnoscientists, is rapidly becoming a mainstay in the fields of forestry management, ecosystem restoration, and restorative agricultural. TEK is attractive to these communities because it contains a wealth of historical data and it has a proven record for predicting future outcomes. As a result, those who once dismissed Indigenous perspectives as fringe or ephemeral, have come to realize that Indigenous rights are not special interests, they are an ecological necessity. Consequently, environmental groups across the globe are lining up to partner with Indigenous Peoples, to protect vital ecosystems and to stem the flow of destruction that capitalism has wrought. This change is as worrisome as it is heartening. With this rapid surge in awareness surrounding Indigenous rights, and the growing connection of those rights to the climate change movement, comes the very real danger that our most critical issues could become tokenized, and our traditional knowledge could be grossly exploited by scientists, governmental agencies, and politicians. Perhaps the most far reaching concern is that the interest in protecting our lands to avert climate change becomes so critical that there are renewed efforts by the powers that be to take it out of our hands for safe keeping. This is not to say that the picture is all grim, it just means that we must be discerning in our partnerships and remain incredibly focused.
Although there is good news to be shared, and many wonderful partnerships have developed between Indigenous Peoples, human rights groups, and environmental organizations, we must also be mindful of parasitic relationships that seek to divert attention away from our most substantive issues. Groups that seek partnerships to advance their own agendas often subvert vital Indigenous issues like sovereignty, land and water rights, and cultural and religious freedom, so that their issues become centralized.
One example is when Indigenous lands, identities and TEK, are used to promote green washed solutions to climate change, such as the carbon credit program. This program has created two simultaneously troublesome scenarios for Indigenous Peoples. The first problem lies in the land grab frenzy that the program creates. As industrial polluters scramble to buy up vast swaths of land to “offset” their pollution and capture carbon credits, the Indigenous Peoples that are in their way are being quietly and brutally removed. This has been happening in Central and South American and in Africa. In addition to the humans being displaced, the indigenous plant and animal species are also being removed. Under this scheme complex ecosystems are frequently torn apart and replaced with monoculture plantations, which results in water scarcity, water pollution, and soil contamination. All of these factors further distance Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories by destroying their ability to return and live sustainable lives.
The second problem with the carbon credit program is that impoverished Indigenous Nations are being actively targeted for recruitment into the program through promises of large cash payouts. The danger with this scenario is that Indigenous lands are becoming tied to the control of private companies, and Tribal leaders are being subjected to complex and unfamiliar market strategies that could potentially lead to the loss of those lands.
Another example of exploitation can be found in the World Bank’s new Indigenous Partnership Program that purports to bring Indigenous Peoples issues and ways of life to the foreground of their decision making. The problem here is that the program is designed to ensure that the World Bank stays on track with its sustainable development goals. If we read between the lines, we might see that these partnerships are nothing more than a means of advancing development in areas where Indigenous rights have become an obstacle to corporate progress. Additionally, many Indigenous Peoples in areas served by the World Bank are being subjected to increased corporate destruction of their territories, while they are simultaneously being encouraged to abandon their traditional ways of life and enter the market economy. This is falsely being touted as an adaptation solution to climate change. The great irony is that the market economy is destroying our environment, while the traditional Indigenous ways of life provides a pathway toward healing our wounded planet.
In the last few years, Maine has seen the Indigenous Peoples of this land used for political exploitation and posturing. Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, has had a notoriously antagonistic relationship with the original Peoples of this territory - the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq (Wabanaki Confederacy).
Before she became governor, Mills was the State’s Attorney General. During her tenure as Attorney General, she was embroiled in two vicious legal battles connected to the Penobscot Nation’s territorial waters. One case involved the State’s unlawful taking of Penobscot Nation territorial water rights, and the other involved the State’s rejection of the EPA’s recommended water quality standards necessary to meet the Tribe’s sustenance fishing rights.
Mills also hurt the Wabanaki Peoples by grabbing onto a provision in the Maine Claims Settlement Act that excludes Tribes in Maine from federal legislation unless specifically named, and prohibited the enactment of the tribal provisions contained in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in Maine. This left Wabanaki women and children at greater risk of harm from violence committed against them by individuals from outside of their communities.
During her election campaign, Mills realized that the rising awareness of Indigenous rights globally combined with her own well publicized attacks against the Wabanaki Peoples were creating a problem for her politically. Therefore, she took steps to align herself with a few well-known tribal people and pledged to take steps to improve the relationship between the Wabanaki Nations and the State of Maine.
Following her successful election bid, Mills made a few rapid and well publicized political moves that offered the people of Maine the appearance of a changed or changing relationship with the Tribes. She signed a bill changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she passed a state-wide ban on Indigenous mascots in Maine schools, and she posthumously pardoned a white attorney who had worked for the Passamaquoddy Tribe decades ago. To many, it looked like progress was being made. Unfortunately, all of these changes were largely symbolic, nothing substantive had changed.
The changes that were made by Mills cost her nothing politically. In fact, the optics surrounding them gave her a great deal of political capital. The truth is that much of the change attributed to Mills was the result of tireless efforts by Wabanaki Peoples in the years preceding her election. For instance, prior to her election, there was only one Maine school that still had a Native mascot, and the movement toward eliminating that mascot had substantial momentum. This was the result of fifteen years work by the Wabanaki and their allies. There was also a wide-scale effort already underway to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, with more than a dozen cities and towns having made the change prior to her entry into office. In both instances, the background work to make those changes had been done by countless Wabanaki people over the last decade. Her posthumously pardoning of the white attorney who had worked for the Passamaquoddy was a nice gesture, but it didn’t change anything of substance for the Tribe.
The political optics of each of these events allowed the governor to improve her image without requiring her to surrender political capital. They also flooded the media with a flurry of Indigenous images and voices, creating saturation and issue fatigue within the legislature and the public.
Today, the territorial water rights of the Penobscot Nation are still under attack by the State of Maine, and the Maine Tribal VAWA bill has still not been signed into law by the Governor, even though it was passed by the House and Senate more than six months ago.
Anyone who speaks critically about the lack of substantive changes by the State has been quickly condemned, while the few who support the symbolic posturing are wreathed in light. Of course, this is no coincidence. It serves two very important purposes; it problematizes the veteran voices in the Penobscot water rights movement and it hides the substantive issues that are most essential to our cultural continuity as Penawahpskewiyik.
At this point, the only way to reconcile the governor’s promise to create change with her lack of substantive action will be for her to sign the VAWA bill, without making any further demands. And, to ensure the adoption of the proposed amendments to the Maine Claims Settlement Act, so the Wabanaki Nations are finally placed on equal ground with all other recognized tribes in the United States. Until that happens, none can know whether her statements about redressing the wrongs done to the Wabanaki Nations were sincere, or merely another example of political posturing.
Across the world, there are escalating levels of exploitation and violence being committed against Indigenous Peoples. The co-opting of our movements and the attachment of our identities to commercial practices and political agendas present daily challenges. As society makes strong moves to distance Indigenous imagery from sports mascots, corporate and social justice mascotry appears to be rising. Since the early days of colonial history, the misuse of our images hasn’t changed. It has simply changed form. And, as each new form emerges new attempts at eliminating our bodies, cultures, and identities arise.
This is the very real danger hidden in symbolic change.
Original Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Sadly, troubling as this is, it’s nothing new. Using the images of Indigenous Peoples for the benefit of colonial settler regimes has a long history. In the early days of colonization Indigenous Peoples in the United States were painted as noble, peaceful and generous. And, our images were used as a promotion tool to attract settlers to this territory. For example, in 1629 King Charles I granted a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony that included the use of a “promotional” seal. The image on the seal featured an Indian holding a bow and arrow. The arrow was pointed down in a gesture of peace, and the man was standing between two growing corn stalks. There was also a banner with the words "Come over and help us," which emphasized the missionary and commercial intentions of the colonists.
Once enough colonists had saturated our lands, we shifted from being noble, peaceful and kind to “enemies, rebels, and traitors to his Majesty, King George II,” in the Phips Proclamation of 1755, which put a bounty on the heads of my people, Penawahpskew.
After the power base of the country shifted from Massachusetts Colony to the first Congress in Philadelphia trade and other forms of commerce began to drop off. This is when the Thanksgiving mythology first emerged. Rev. Alexander Young repeated the new marketing strategy in his 1841 book Pilgrim Fathers, where he claimed that the Plymouth harvest feast was the country’s “first Thanksgiving.”
Though the form has changed, we are still seeing these same forms of diversionary tactics being used by politicians and industrialists who to either bolster their own image or sell a product or idea. One of the most notorious modern uses of this strategy is the trend to make a land acknowledgment at the start of every event. This is where white people acknowledge that they are occupying Indigenous lands. Land acknowledgements are empty and meaningless ways to say “Yes, we are illegally occupying the lands we forced you from through brutal acts of genocide, but we are unwilling to restore those lands to you or stop infringing upon the unceded lands that remain.” This gives the appearance of respect and movement, but it provides no substantive change in the legal or political circumstances that maintain these thieving systems.
History has taught us to be wary of colonists bearing gifts. That warning is as serious today as it has ever been. Now more than ever we must be skilled at recognizing the things that subvert our identities and divert attention away from our most critical issues and cultural identities. We must always be discerning in selecting our partnerships, consistently demanding equitable representation and legal and political acknowledgement.
We must also continue to sharpen the focus of our Indigenous lens and work to strengthen our traditional kinship systems. And, we must remain diligent in our efforts to centralize sovereignty, self-determination, land and water rights, and cultural and religious freedom. These are the corner stones of our way of life and they must remain the priorities of our movement forward.
Psilde N’dilnabamuk – For all my relations.
Sherri Mitchell (Wena’ Gamu’ Gwasit) is executive director of the Land Peace Foundation. She was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation. She is an Indigenous Rights attorney, writer and teacher. In 2018, she authored, “Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change,” was released by North Atlantic Books. Follow her on Twitter @sacred411 or on Facebook.
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