Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Recognition

Published on new Socialist Webzine, by Glen Coulthard, March 23, 2013.

… Over the last 30 years, the self-determination efforts and objectives of indigenous peoples in Canada have increasingly been cast in the language of “recognition.” Consider, for example, the latest policy position on self-determination published by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in the spring of 2005. According to the AFN document, “a consensus has emerged [...] around a vision of the relationship between First Nations and Canada which would lead to strengthening recognition and implementation of First Nations’ governments.”  

This “vision,” the AFN goes on to explain, expands on the core principles outlined in the 1996 Report of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: recognition of the nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the Crown; recognition of the equal right of First Nations to self-determination; recognition of the Crown’s fiduciary obligation to protect Aboriginal treaty rights; recognition of First Nation’s inherent right to self-government; and recognition of the right of First Nations to benefit from the development of their lands and resources … //

… Recognition and Freedom:

  • The increase in recognition demands made by indigenous and other marginalized minorities over the last three decades has prompted an explosion of intellectual work which has sought to unpack the ethical and political significance of these types of claims. To date this literature has tended to focus on the contested relationship between the recognition of cultural distinctiveness on the one hand, and the freedom and well-being of marginalized individuals and groups living in ethnically diverse states on the other.
  • At the center of this debate has been the influential work of Canadian political philosopher, Charles Taylor. In his 1992 essay “The Politics of Recognition,” Taylor argues that political communities such as Canada ought to provide recognition and protection for certain sub-state cultural and national communities because it is within and against the “horizon” of these communities that humans come to develop their identities, and thus the capacity to make sense of their lives and life choices.
  • Taylor’s reasoning goes something like this: as culturally situated beings we do not develop our identities in “isolation” – rather we form them through complex “relations of recognition” with others. However, given that our identities are formed in this manner, it also follows that they can be significantly deformed when these processes run awry. In this sense, our identities are not only shaped by recognition, but also its absence, “often by the misrecognition of others.”
  • Thus Taylor writes: “A person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning one in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.” It is this idea that unequal relations of recognition can impede human freedom and flourishing that continues to serve as one of the main theoretical justifications for state policies geared toward the protection of indigenous cultural difference.

Recognition in Colonial Contexts: … //

… The Fanonian Critique:

  • The first problem has to do with the liberal-recognition approach’s failure to adequately confront the dual structure of colonialism itself. Fanon insists, for example, that in order to transform a colonial configuration of power one has to attack it at both levels of operation: the objective and the subjective. This point is made at the outset of BSWM and reverberates throughout all of Fanon’s work.
  • A significant portion of BSWM is committed to diagnosing the “psychological” dimension of colonialism. But Fanon also emphasizes in his introduction that strategically, any “effective disalienation” of the colonized subject can only happen if one also addresses the “social and economic realities” of colonial rule. Fanon correctly situates “colonial-capitalist” exploitation alongside misrecognition and alienation as one of the foundational sources of imperial domination.
  • Of course, Fanon was enough of a Marxist to understand that capitalist economic relations play a foundational role in exacerbating asymmetrical relations of recognition. However, he was also much more perceptive than many Marxists in his insistence that the subjective realm of colonialism had to be the target of strategic transformation along with the socioeconomic structure. The colonized person “must wage war on both levels,” in Fanon’s view. “Since historically they influence each other, any unilateral liberation is incomplete, and the gravest mistake would be to believe in their automatic interdependence.” Attacking colonial power on one front, in other words, does not guarantee the subversion of its effects on the other.
  • Fanon’s insights here immediately expose the limits of the politics of recognition for restructuring indigenous-state relations in Canada. This project has largely been conceived of in terms of reformist state redistribution schemes like granting certain “cultural rights” and concessions to indigenous communities through self-government and land claims processes. Although this approach may alter some of the effects of colonial-capitalist exploitation and domination, it does little to address their generative structures – in this case the racist capitalist economy and the colonial state. Seen from this angle, the contemporary politics of recognition simply leaves one of the two operative levels of colonial power identified by Fanon untouched.
  • The second key problem with the politics of recognition’s proposed remedy for colonial injustice has to do with the subjective realm of colonial power. Here it is important to note that most recognition-based proposals – whether we’re talking about the recommendations of Charles Taylor or the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples – rests on the assumption that the flourishing of indigenous peoples as distinct and self-determining agents is dependent on their being granted recognition and institutional accommodation by and within the settler-state apparatus. As sociologist Richard Day has put it, under these models, recognition is conceived of as a “gift” bestowed from a superior identity to an inferior one.
  • For Fanon, there are at least two problems underlying the idea that freedom and independence can be achieved via a gift of recognition. The first involves the relationship that he draws between struggle and the disalienation of the colonized individual. Simply stated, for Fanon it is through struggle and conflict (and for the later Fanon, violent struggle and conflict) that the colonized come to be rid of the “arsenal of complexes” driven into the core of their being through the colonial process.
  • Struggle, in other words, serves as a mediating force through which the colonized come to shed their colonial identities, thus restoring them to their “proper place.” In contexts where recognition is conferred without struggle, this fundamental self-transformation cannot occur, and as a result authentic freedom is denied. Although the formal political structure of domination may change in this process (the colonized are afforded “rights,” for example), the subjectivity of the Native remains the same – they remain colonized at the level of their being.
  • However, when Fanon speaks of a lack of struggle in the decolonization movements of his day he doesn’t mean to suggest that the colonized in these contexts simply remained passive recipients of colonial practices. He readily admits, for example, that the colonized may indeed fight “for Liberty and Justice.” However, when this fight is carried out in a manner that does not pose a foundational challenge to colonial power as such – which, for Fanon, will always involve struggle and conflict – then the best the colonized can hope for is “white liberty and white justice; that is, values secreted by [their] masters.”
  • This brings us to the second major problem identified by Fanon: without conflict and struggle constituting a central feature of the decolonization movement (a) the terms of recognition tend to remain the property of those in power to grant to their inferiors in ways that they deem appropriate, and (b) under these conditions, the indigenous population often comes to see the limited and constrained terms of recognition conferred to them by their colonial masters as their own. In effect, the colonized come to identify with “white liberty and white justice.” Either way, for Fanon, the colonized will have failed to re-establish themselves as truly self-determining, that is, as creators of the terms of their own recognition and in accordance with their own values.

Fanon’s Insights Today: … //

… Toward a Politics of Doing:

  • I have argued here that Fanon’s insights into the subjectifying nature of colonial recognition are as applicable today to the liberal “politics of recognition” as they were fifty years ago, when he first formulated his ideas on the matter. Fanon’s dual-structured conception of colonial power still captures the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which a system of imperial domination that does not sustain itself exclusively by force is reproduced over time.
  • But if colonial power is dispersed much more diffusely today, how do we go about resisting it? Fanon suggests that those of us struggling against colonialism must “turn away” from the assimilative lure of the politics of recognition and begin to direct our struggles toward our own on-the-ground strategies of freedom. Today this process will (and must) continue to involve some form of critical individual and collective self-recognition on the part of indigenous peoples. In my mind, this self-affirmative process must be carried out for everyone’s sake, because indigenous societies have truths to teach the Western world about the establishment and preservation of relationships between peoples and the natural world that are profoundly non-imperialist.

(full long text).

(Glen Coulthard is a Dene activist, and teaches First Nations Studies and Political Science at University of British Columbia. He is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples and recognition politics in Canada).


The new propaganda is liberal, on Green, by John Pilger, March 19, 2013;

Lost in Translation — $=$$=Zero — What Is the Contradiction? Money for Uneducation: University of Phoenix Dumpster Diving for Dollars, on Dissident Voice, by Paul Haeder, March 25, 2013;

EU migrants flooding over here, paying for our pensions, on Left Foot Forward, by JAMES BLOODWORTH, March 25, 2013;

See also published on Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce, by Angela Fiebelkorn, President:

Comments are closed.