For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die

By Glen Coulthard Posted in - Voices Rising on November 5th, 2013 21 Comments

There is a significant and to my mind problematic limitation that is increasingly being placed on Indigenous efforts to defend our rights and our lands. This constraint involves the type of tactics that are being represented as morally legitimate in our efforts to defend our land and rights as Indigenous peoples on the one hand, and those which are viewed at as morally illegitimate because of their disruptive and extra-legal character on the other.

With respect to those approaches deemed “legitimate” in defending our rights, emphasis is often placed on formal “negotiations” - usually carried out between “official” Aboriginal leadership (usually men) and representatives of the Crown (also usually men) - and if need be coupled with largely symbolic acts of peaceful, non-disruptive protest that must abide by Canada’s “rule of law.”

Then there are those approaches increasingly deemed “illegitimate.” These include but are not limited to forms of protest and direct action that seek to influence power through less mediated and sometimes more disruptive measures, like the slowing of traffic for the purpose of leafleting and solidarity-building, temporarily blocking access to Indigenous territories with the aim of impeding the exploitation of First Nations’ land and resources, or in rarer cases still, the re-occupation of a portion of Indigenous land (rural or urban) through the establishment of reclamation sites that also serve to disrupt, if not entirely block, access to Indigenous territories by state and capital for prolonged periods of time.

Regardless of their diversity and specificity, however, most of these activities tend to get branded in the media in a wholly negative manner: as reactionary, threatening, and disruptive.

Blockades and beyond

What the recent actions of the Mi’kmaq land and water defenders at Elsipogtog demonstrate is that direct actions in the form of Indigenous blockades are both a negation and an affirmation. They are a crucial act of negation insofar as they seek to impede or block the flow of resources currently being transported from oil and gas fields, refineries, lumber mills, mining operations, and hydro-electric facilities located on the dispossessed lands of Indigenous nations to international markets. These forms of direct action, in other words, seek to negatively impact the economic infrastructure that is core to the colonial accumulation of capital in settler political economies like Canada’s. Blocking access to this critical infrastructure has historically been quite effective in forging short-term gains for Indigenous communities. Over the last couple of decades, however, state and corporate powers have also become quite skilled at recuperating the losses incurred as a result of Indigenous peoples’ resistance by drawing our leaders off the land and into negotiations where the terms are always set by and in the interests of settler capital.

What tends to get ignored by many self-styled pundits is that these actions are also an affirmative gesture of Indigenous resurgence insofar as they embody an enactment of Indigenous law and the obligations such laws place on Indigenous peoples to uphold the relations of reciprocity that shape our engagements with the human and non-human world – the land. The question I want to explore here, albeit very briefly, is this: how might we begin to scale-up these often localized, resurgent land-based direct actions to produce a transformation in the colonial economy more generally? Said slightly differently, how might we move beyond a resurgent Indigenous politics that seeks to inhibit the destructive effects of capital to one that strives to create Indigenous alternatives to it?

Rebuilding our nations

In her recent interview with Naomi Klein, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson hints at what such an alternative or alternatives might entail for Indigenous nations. “People within the Idle No More movement who are talking about Indigenous nationhood are talking about a massive transformation, a massive decolonization”; they are calling for a “resurgence of Indigenous political thought” that is “land-based and very much tied to that intimate and close relationship to the land, which to me means a revitalization of sustainable local Indigenous economies.”

Without such a massive transformation in the political economy of contemporary settler-colonialism, any efforts to rebuild our nations will remain parasitic on capitalism, and thus on the perpetual exploitation of our lands and labour. Consider, for example, an approach to resurgence that would see Indigenous people begin to reconnect with their lands and land-based practices on either an individual or small-scale collective basis. This could take the form of “walking the land” in an effort to re-familiarize ourselves with the landscapes and places that give our histories, languages, and cultures shape and content; to revitalizing and engaging in land-based harvesting practices like hunting, fishing, and gathering, and/or cultural production activities like hide-tanning and carving, all of which also serve to assert our sovereign presence on our territories in ways that can be profoundly educational and empowering; to the re-occupation of sacred places for the purposes of relearning and practicing our ceremonial activities.

Although all of these place-based practices are crucial to our well-being and offer profound insights into life-ways that provide frameworks for thinking about alternatives to an economy predicated on the perpetual exploitation of the human and non-human world, at the micro-political level that these practices tend to operate they still require that we have access to a mode of subsistence detached from the practices themselves. In other words, they require that we have access to a very specific form of work - which, in our present economy depends on the expropriation of our labour and the theft of our time for the profit of others - in order to generate the cash required to spend this regenerative time on the land.

A similar problem informs self-determination efforts that seek to ameliorate our poverty and economic dependency through resource revenue sharing, more comprehensive impact benefit agreements, and affirmative action employment strategies negotiated through the state and with industries tearing-up Indigenous territories. Even though the capital generated by such an approach could, in theory, be spent subsidizing the revitalization of certain cultural traditions and practices, in the end they would still remain dependent on a predatory economy that is entirely at odds with the deep reciprocity that forms the cultural core of many Indigenous peoples’ relationships with land.

Developing Indigenous political-economic alternatives

What forms might an Indigenous political-economic alternative to the intensification of capitalism on and within our territories take? For some communities, reinvigorating a mix of subsistence-based activities with more contemporary economic ventures is one alternative. In the 1970s, for example, the Dene Nation sought to curtail the negative environmental and cultural impacts of capitalist extractivism by proposing to establish an economy that would apply traditional concepts of Dene governance – decentralized, regional political structures based on participatory, consensus decision-making - to the realm of the economy. At the time, this would have seen a revitalization of a bush mode of production, with emphasis placed on the harvesting and manufacturing of local renewable resources through traditional activities like hunting, fishing, and trapping, potentially combined with and partially subsidized by other economic activities on lands communally held and managed by the Dene Nation. Economic models discussed during the time thus included the democratic organization of production and distribution through Indigenous co-operatives and possibly worker-managed enterprises.

Revisiting Indigenous political-economic alternatives such as these could pose a real threat to the accumulation of capital on Indigenous lands in three ways. First, through mentorship and education these economies reconnect Indigenous people to land-based practices and forms of knowledge that emphasize radical sustainability. This form of grounded normativity is antithetical to capitalist accumulation. Second, these economic practices offer a means of subsistence that can over time help break our dependence on the capitalist market by cultivating self-sufficiency through the localized and sustainable production of core foods and life materials that we distribute and consume within our own communities on a regular basis. Third, through the application of Indigenous governance principles to non-traditional economic activities we open up a way of engaging in contemporary economic ventures in an Indigenous way that is better suited to foster sustainable economic decision-making, an equitable distribution of resources within and between Indigenous communities, Native women’s political and economic emancipation, and empowerment for Indigenous citizens and workers who may or must pursue livelihoods in sectors of the economy outside of the bush. Why not critically apply the most egalitarian and participatory features of our traditional governance practices to all of our economic activities, regardless of whether they are undertaken in land-based or urban contexts? Cities are on Indigenous land too, and a hell of a lot of us currently live in them.

New alliances, new opportunities

The capacity of resurgent Indigenous economies to challenge the hegemony of settler-colonial capitalism in the long term can only happen if certain conditions are met, however. First, all of the colonial, racist, and patriarchal legal, political obstacles that have been used to block our access to land need to be confronted and removed. Of course capitalism continues to play a core role in dispossessing us of our lands and self-determining authority, but it only does so in concert with axes of exploitation and domination configured along racial, gender and state lines. Given the resilience of these equally devastating relations of power, our efforts to decolonize must directly confront more than just economic relations; they must account for the complex ways that capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the state interact with one another to form the constellation of power relations that sustain colonial patterns of behavior, structures, and relationships. Dismantling these oppressive structures will not be easy. It will require that we continue to assert our presence on all of our territories, coupled with an escalation of confrontations with the forces of colonization through the forms of direct action that are currently being undertaken by communities like Elsipogtog.

Second, we also have to acknowledge that the significant political leverage required to simultaneously block the economic exploitation of our people and homelands while constructing alternatives to capitalism will not be generated through our direct actions and resurgent economies alone. Settler-colonization has rendered our populations too small to affect this magnitude of change. This reality demands that we continue to remain open to, if not actively seek out and establish, relations of solidarity and networks of trade and mutual aid with national and transnational communities and organizations that are also struggling against the imposed effects of globalized capital, including other Indigenous nations and national confederacies; urban Indigenous people and organizations; the labour, women’s, GBLTQ2S, and environmental movements; and, of course, those racial and ethnic communities that find themselves subject to their own distinct forms of economic, social and cultural marginalization. The initially rapid and relatively widespread support expressed both nationally and internationally for the Idle No More movement last spring, and the solidarity generated around the Elsipogtog anti-fracking resistance today, gives me hope that establishing such relations are indeed possible.

It’s time for our communities to seize the unique political opportunities of the day. In the delicate balancing act of having to ensure that one’s social conservative contempt for First Nations doesn’t overwhelm one’s neoconservative love of the market, Prime Minister Harper has erred by letting the racism and sexism of the former outstrip his belligerent commitment to the latter. This is a novice mistake that Liberals like Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin learned how to manage decades ago. Learn more about bitcoin profit and making profit with investing. As a result, the federal government has invigorated a struggle for Indigenous self-determination that must challenge the relationship between settler-colonization and free-market fundamentalism in ways that refuse to be co-opted by scraps of recognition, opportunistic apologies, and the cheap gift of political and economic inclusion. For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.


Glen Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives (Weledeh) Dene First Nation and an assistant professor in the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. This piece is drawn in part from his forthcoming book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, summer 2014). Follow him on Twitter: denerevenge

capitalism decolonization Dene Nation Elsipogtog nationhood post-capitalism resurgence

(21) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Angie - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Inspiring read!


    November 5, 2013 at 4:49 pm

  • For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die | Unsettling America - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    […] By Glen Coulthard, Voices Rising (Indigenous Nationhood Movement) […]

  • Philip Brass - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Indigenuity… Creative local, economies emergent from there ecosystems. Based upon sustainable holistic values that bring healing to the land, water, air. the animals, our bodies, our social culture, our souls. The independent production of healthy, ethically produced food is the core of sovereignty and meaningful indigenous identity

  • David - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Thank you for this. Of course, for many peoples, including the earth itself and all non-human inhabitants,the oppressed of many colors, capitalism must be replaced as the world’s economic model.

    The shift is present and is coming. It is clear that monolithic political structures, by which the dominant culture expresses its power over the marginalized and even today is seeking (via trade treaties) to expand its power, must collapse (in fact, these trade treaties might well add to the weight). What takes its place has to be non-extractive and cooperative. We will probably live in communities of many colors and many traditions - all honored and all respected.

    Or we will all die.

  • Susan O’Donnell - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    This article by Glen Coulthard is inspiring, thanks for sharing it with us. I am wondering about how Indigenous communities can use digital technologies in innovative ways to do this work? It’s obvious that the INM movement and others are using social networking… but beyond that, many First Nations are using broadband technologies to gain more control over community services and governance. See: … of course the state and its corporate partners are also using technologies for surveillance and to do their exploitation work… I like Audre Lorde’s question: Can the master’s tools be used to dismantle the master’s house?

  • Tom O’Hern - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    I loved this. I love the fact that more and more people around the world are collectively moving towards ending capitalism. To do this we need to starve the beast. I think a major step in that direction would be abandoning the use of government issues currencies. These are the tools that they keep us in line, but we now have the ability to issue non-government currency and by pass the systems that they use to oppress us.

    Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin will let us cut away the parasites that are sucking our societies dry. No more banks, no more tax collectors, no more rulers stealing away our labor.

  • Jay Bailey - Reply

    November 5, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Communism and capitalism are just economic systems. The cultural value of the system lies in the spirit of the people. Capitalism has taken longer to show its ultimate exploitative form by hiding for centuries under a veneer of Chri.stianity. That veneer has worn off, and we are now seeing the beast underneath.. Any system as a replacement must keep in mind that it is spirit that determines ultimate outcome. As the Haudenosaunee say, “Keep the Good Mind”.

    • Sherry - Reply

      November 10, 2013 at 11:57 pm

      Miigwetch Jay Bailey for your comments, yes Christianity has veiled institutions, and renamed or hid itself as capitalism, liberalism, etc. Going backwards is the way of life….

  • Nick Estes - Reply

    November 6, 2013 at 5:00 am

    I appreciate the reference to Kropoptkin’s mutual aid. Undoing the logics of capitalism entails undoing and unsettling the “nature” of the beast. Applause, Coulthard. We are not “naturally” greedy nor competitive by “nature.” Indigenous epistemologies are not anthropocentric, nor anachronistic. They sustain and create. But they have been coopted by oppressive patriarchy. Let’s deconstruct the myth of the Americas. America came to us. Hecetu Welo!!

  • Cindy Holmes - Reply

    November 6, 2013 at 6:44 am

    Inspiring. thank you.

  • Dr. Mumbo Jumbo - Reply

    November 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for Glen for the great article and to everyone else for the great comments! I also believe that the healing of the diverse habitats of the Americas depends upon diverse indigenous peoples returning to and revitalizing our traditional roles with the Earth. Granted this isn’t easy, but it will only become more difficult the longer we delay. The more we share our indigenous energy with each other and our habitats the better. Some of us have been able to retain more culture, language, ceremonies and knowledge than others based on when and where colonization occurred! Sharing indigenous values will help awaken the memories their ancestors in those who need it most, about how to live in harmony with the Earth. Our love and respect for the Earth will grow into love and respect for each other. As we remember how to live in peace with our Earth, maybe the settlers and colonizers will humble themselves and follow our examples. In my opinion, any plan to replace consumer capitalism must not just focus on indigenous peoples, it must also include how stop the settlers and colonizers from wanting to be the “masters” of the Earth.

  • Glen Coulthard: For Our Nations to Live, Capita… - Reply

    November 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    […] There is a significant and to my mind problematic limitation that is increasingly being placed on Indigenous efforts to defend our rights and our lands. This constraint involves the type of tactics that are being represented as morally legitimate in our efforts to defend our land and rights as Indigenous peoples on the one hand, and those which are viewed at as morally illegitimate because of their disruptive and extra-legal character on the other.  […]

  • nansye - Reply

    November 6, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    Terrific article! Think about this important fact, as well: First Nation people survived for centuries!! by TRADING w/each other - no money was necessary, ever & i think if First Nation people can go back to their ROOTS in that regard, you would certainly bring much HOPE to Humanity; who could not help but be INSPIRED by this lead against the NEED & “necessity” of cash in a BRAVE NEW WORLD.

  • journeysthatconnect jenny - Reply

    November 6, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    thankyou glen, powerful and necessary to return to where we come from to be part of not apart from….I read the other posts with interest and agree with all that is said….my yearning is to be part of intentional communities with all that it stands for.

    in light and love

  • Tom BK Goldtooth - Reply

    November 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Capitalism is the root cause of climate change. That was our articulation as Indigenous Peoples, peasants and small farmers, civil society came together at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, April 2010, Cochabamba, Bolivia. Activists and social change organizations in Turtle Island however have not had critical thinking on the question of “If we are against capitalism, what are we for?” Are we for reform of capitalism, or what? As First Nations - Indigenous Peoples of the North, we have to ask ourselves this question as well.

  • Tupak Huehuecoyotl - Reply

    November 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Huehuecoyotl: The Territorial Integrity of Mother Earth

  • For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die | - Reply

    November 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    […] By Glen CoulthardPosted in - Voices Rising on November 5th, 201316 Comments […]

  • DBQ - Reply

    November 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Prof Coulthard might be interested in reading the new political novel, Uprising (Dundurn Press, 2013) that describes in detail the story about a First Nations’ attempt to “take back the land” — theory blended with reality.

  • Nancy Reardon - Reply

    November 12, 2013 at 4:57 am

    Very well-written and informative article. I found it after seeing the term “decolonize Canada” in a news item. I was a bit alarmed by that term, to me it invoked revolution and civil war. So, I looked around for more information. This article has explained the concept very well. (I also found a post of an American video on INM FB page about civil war and the inevitable violent revolution, which was shocking - not sure what the intention of the post was).

    I feel that a clear concrete plan of how this would be accomplished (or start to be accomplished) and how it may work economically would be beneficial to the cause - particularly to those who are not aware of INM or what it really stands for (I must admit I’m not clear on it myself, this article helped). I also believe that violence and destruction will only create resistance to the cause and delay progress.

    What percentage of INM supporters would want to return to living off of the land without the use of fossil fuels, oil-based products (plastics) and metals (supporting mining)?

    how would decolonization work? Would all government assistance be stopped in return for land rights? or is a complete separation, cutting all Canadian ties proposed?

    Capitalism cannot be killed, but it will burn itself out eventually (and rebuild itself). The only way to avoid it is to be isolated from it.

  • Anonymous - Reply

    November 13, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    A thoughtful and well-written piece.

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