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Building an indigenous coalition for radical resistance to colonialism

We talk with Kanaka Maoli David Maile about indigenous coalition The Red Nation's efforts to unite different native people in radical resistance to colonialism, and how Native Hawaiians can stand in solidarity with other native peoples.

Will Caron

Yesterday, indigenous rights and decolonization coalition The Red Nation issued a statement of solidarity with the Native Hawaiians currently protesting the development of the massive Thirty-Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. This statement of solidarity is in line with The Red Nation’s goal of building unity between indigenous peoples around the world and teaching these people effective methods of radical resistance to colonial-capitalist systems of oppression.

The Red Nation was envisioned by two Ph.D. students at the University of New Mexico, Nick Estes and Melanie Yazzie, and is comprised of both indigenous and non-indigenous activists, scholars, educators and community organizers—all working toward the liberation of indigenous peoples from colonialism. The coalition seeks to center native peoples’ agendas and struggles through advocacy, mobilization and education about ways of working outside the these subversive systems (hence, radical).

To learn more about The Red Nation, native coalition building, and these radical methods of native resistance to colonialism, we talked with David Maile, a Kanaka Maoli and 2006 graduate of Kamehameha Schools , and a member of The Red Nation who is currently a Ph.D. student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Hawaii Independent (HI): What sort of connections do you see between the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and the efforts by native peoples on the continent? What sorts of things can they teach one another?

David Maile (DM): The Red Nation, alongside the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and other movements for life and land, have similarities as well as differences. One of the most constructive and formidable things about what we’re doing here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is developing alliances and radical coalitions, which are highly political, to think about how these systems of power—colonialism, empire—and to map them, not just here in the continental United States, but also in Australia and Canada, for example. All of that is very relevant to what is happening in Hawaii.

Our movement is trying to provide the necessary space for indigenous peoples from different geographic contexts to be political, to organize and to have access to the agents necessary to produce different kinds of direct action; whether that be in law, or in education, or in state government—all these kinds of direct action are really important to sovereignty movements.

What I’m noticing here in New Mexico is that sovereignty movements are not necessarily an isolated kind of movement. From the Oka Crisis in 1990 in Canada back to Wounded Knee here in the United States, these are very instructive historical examples of how we can take the problematic histories that have been produced in Hawaii and to challenge them. Because we’re really all struggling together, just in different kinds of ways. These are not fractured movements; I think sovereignty movements all over the world have the potential to ally together to forge really thick and dense communities and collectives to work at these very complicated problems—displacement from land, institutional racism, violence—that we experience daily.

HI: How would you begin to form those alliances with advocates from Hawaii and the Pacific?

DM: Right now we’re grounded here in Albuquerque, but the scope of the Red Nation is much larger than this particular place. Our coalition project is trans-national, which is one of the really amazing things about being a part of it. As someone who is not from New Mexico, who identifies as a Kanaka Maoli, an indigenous of Hawaii, but who is also attending school and is a settler of this place, my involvement speaks to the trans-national nature of the movement.

On February 5, we had a screening of the documentary Nuclear Savage, which talks about the different kinds of colonization that take place in the Pacific, in particular the Marshall Islands. Some of the fragments of the bombs that were tested there ended up in a lab here in New Mexico so, just in that film screening, we were trying to convey that kind of trans-national connectivity that relates disparate indigenous peoples together in our struggle against social injustices.

A good example would be police brutality, which has recently shaken communities both on the continent as well as in Hawaii. In early January the Red Nation was already starting to protest the police brutality happening in Albuquerque, as well as in Gallup, New Mexico, which has a horrendous history of violence against native people at the hands of white settlers and, later, the police force. The city of Gallup has institutionalized a lot of really bad legal policies that have allowed the murders and deaths of native peoples, and really has done nothing to change policies that might prevent police brutality. Our campaign against police brutality is not limited to those two cities though, or even in the continental United States, because there are instances of police brutality against native peoples happening in Hawaii, in Australia, in Canada and all over the world.

So these issues that we’re talking about here in Albuquerque are issues that effect other native communities as well. I think sovereignty activists in Hawaii and different Kanaka Maoli community organizers are doing very similar things. There is a lot of overlap, and so making the connection that we are all doing this similar work—to stop violence against native peoples, to resist colonization, to do something like abolishing Columbus Day, which we’re working on here—those are all things that provide the kind of collective solidarity that we need to combat those forces that inhibit us.

HI: Your long-term goal would be decolonization and self-determination, but that can be hard to visualize. What would be a short term goal for the Red Nation; something you’d like to see done in the next year or two with the help of other native peoples?

DM: Well one short term goal, as I just mentioned, would be to abolish Columbus Day. In Hawaii, it’s not a state holiday, and there are number of other states that have also done away with it, but Columbus Day still happens here—in New Mexico, in Albuquerque and at the University of New Mexico—and those are the three levels in which we are targeting Columbus Day for abolishment. So we’re behind on this one form of solidarity against somebody who is a mantle for the colonization of native peoples and the violence against them that ensued.

We’ve provided a lot of support and advocacy with different undergraduate groups at the University of New Mexico to pass a resolution to support the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Resistance and Resilience Day. That resolution actually passed through the student senate, which was a big victory for us. We’ll be expanding that to abolish Columbus Day in the city of Albuquerque—we have a city councilor who is working with us—and then to abolish Columbus Day in the state of New Mexico.

Another example of the coalition work we’re doing is through our new website, which we launched on Monday, March 30. We’re interested in opening up new chapters in other geographic locations and we’ll be using the website to further that goal. We’re also going to be having calls for submissions of different kinds of political writing.

HI: What do you think about federal recognition in the context of the recent proposals for rule making by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI)?

DM: Part of what got me really interested in The Red Nation was simple activism. As a doctoral student, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by academic texts and scholarly books, course work and teaching. But, over the summer when the DOI was holding its hearings, it became imperative to me that I needed to do something. And I say I needed to do something in the spirit that my great, great grandfather, C.B. Maile, was one of the petitioners for the Kūʻē protests, which Noenoe K. Silva talks about in her book Aloha Betrayed. These protests are now pretty readily and popularly discussed when thinking about Native Hawaiian resistance to annexation.

When I found out about the advanced notice for proposed rule making, I had already flown back to New Mexico, so I was unable to go to the meetings on Oahu. But I went on the DOI website and found out that they were also coming to “Indian country” to talk about this initiative. So I actually went to Scottsdale, Arizona, that summer to testify against the DOI. There was a representative from the Department of Justice there who spoke on behalf of the DOI, and there were many different reps from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) that were there. My testimony was similar to the majority of overwhelming opposition to federal recognition policy, and I thought it was very interesting and very supportive to be in Scottsdale with many different native peoples from the area coming to the meeting to talk about federal recognition.

Both sides of the federal recognition debate were represented: some native people said recognition was good and that Native Hawaiians should get on board because, in the short term, it helps with particular kinds of revitalization efforts in tradition, education, health, and so on and so forth. On the other end, there were native peoples that were talking about how federal recognition is a perpetually problematic kind of concept.

Many scholars have argued that recognition involves subordination of power to an alternative group or institution and, where I stand in all this, is that recognition would be problematic for Hawaiian sovereignty and independence, for deoccupation, and for any movement that is about Ea. I am in staunch opposition to recognition, particularly given the way the United States government has structured it, as a dependent nation within a nation, which is really just a way to marginalize and subvert indigenous power. I think that’s already happened in a plethora of ways for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

HI: Accepting federal recognition would be tantamount to giving up your right to self-determination?

DM: Yes, and it’s very contradictory too if you’re thinking about constitutional law, in the way that Bill Chang talks about it, or international law, the way that Keanu Sai talks about it. In those kinds of legal arenas, that contradiction of federal recognition of Native Hawaiians is highlighted. Withdrawing that opposition by which we say that there is, in fact, a contradiction in U.S. law and international law, withdrawing the fact that sovereignty was never ceded to the U.S. federal government and asserting, instead, that federal recognition is beneficial, can overwrite those contradictions and disable self-determination, Hawaiian nationalism or sovereignty. And that’s what recognition would do. There are a plethora of arguments that can be made for why federal recognition is problematic—it just shores up the legitimation of the Hawaii’s settler state and U.S. settler power.

HI: It would perpetuate that problematic history you mentioned earlier.

DM: Right. In some ways, it comes back to me thinking about my great, great grandfather who was, not only a signer of the Kūʻē Petitions, but also a signer of a memorial that was sent to William McKinley in 1897. The authors of the memorial were asking McKinley, who was still president, to respect the kinds of treaties that had been set up that provide Hawaii’s independence. So it would have been abhorrent of me to go back on those kinds of moves that Hawaiians made historically to try and preserve Hawaii’s freedom and, later, to protest against Hawaii’s statehood. Federal recognition is counter-opposed and antithetical to Hawaiian sovereignty and Hawaiian nationalism.

HI: When you talk with the other members of The Red Nation who are Native American, does the discussion ever turn to how federal recognition—becoming a federally recognized “tribe”—has impacted their peoples’ self-determination and futures?

DM: Definitely. Recognition politics—that paradigm of recognition—is something that’s very pervasive here on the continent. It’s also very pervasive in settler states like Canada and Australia, and I’ve had many conversations here surrounding the same kinds of problems that we’re talking about right now with federal recognition of Native Hawaiians, and how that comes along with these ideas of who is “deserving” of rights and who is “deserving” of citizenship and, therefore, who is not “deserving” of those same rights.

This leads us to the notion of cultural authenticity: things like blood quantum policy, or—here on the continent—enrollment and termination policy, have been terrible examples of how federal recognition is violent and incredibly harmful to indigenous peoples here on the continent. It’s something that is sutured and stitched into histories of settler colonization.

These problems are present in other places like Australia as well; historically, the Australian government was very damaging to Aboriginals. The government saw declining health and education and used that as justification to take Aboriginal kids from their families where, unfortunately, many were abused, raped and even murdered. Recognition of Aboriginal people and their subordination under those kinds of laws allows these things to happen. And very similar things happened here on the continent.

HI: Yeah, I was just thinking about the boarding school system and what it did to Native American children.

DM: Exactly. I think those kinds of histories of federal recognition by the United States are things that we, as Kanaka Maoli, look to—problematically so, sometimes. When we protest and resist the DOI proposals for rule making, it’s imperative that Hawaiians don’t say things that critique federal recognition by further marginalizing Native American tribes. Looking at the different records from the meetings, and from showing up in person, I’ve learned that there have been Kanaka Maoli activists that have actually said very damaging remarks in their opposition to federal recognition. What happens is that their opposition develops through abjection of Native American people. So the common kind of phrase is, “we’re Hawaiians, we don’t want to become a tribe.” That justification against federal recognition can be very degrading to the solidarity efforts that groups like The Red Nation are trying to foster.

Opposition to federal recognition is a very tenuous kind of expression in practice, and we need to be examining that more whole-heartedly to think about what, exactly, we’re opposing. If we’re opposing federal recognition, because of the way that it subverts Native Hawaiian self-determination and sovereignty, through the further marginalization of Native American tribes, because of the way that they’ve been federally recognized, then we’re not working to ally ourselves on a large scale against the United States’ settler colonization. It’s something we need to have more genuine conversations about, and not move to isolate ourselves as Kanaka Maoli in the larger picture of indigenous struggles for liberation and for sovereignty and self-determination and overall decolonization.

HI: Sometimes, in Hawaii, Native Hawaiian gathering rights are pitted against conservation; and the environment itself can become a tool of colonization—when native peoples are always placed near the toxic waste dump, for example, we talk about environmental racism. So bringing those two groups—indigenous activists as well as environmental activists—together seems like it should be important. In terms of coalition building, do you see a place for non-indigenous conservation groups as well?

DM: We’re heavily invested in the kinds of radical potentials that alliances and coalitions with non-indigenous peoples might hold. That being said, sometimes non-indigenous groups end up helping less than they think they are because their politics are not radicalized and they are still operating within a system that subverts the efforts of native peoples to find self-determination. So you have to make sure that an alliance with non-indigenous groups is a genuine one that does not feed back into the cycle of control over native peoples.

The reason our coalition centers on indigeneity, resistance and decolonization is because we are working toward radical kinds of indigenous politics for these movements. As a part of that, we’re really concerned with the ways in which capitalist corporations, state institutions, academic institutions, and even entities like liberal environmental groups, evoke certain discourses to say things like, “we want to mālama ʻāina,” when, in fact, some of their actions within that discourse can actually reproduce the same kinds of problems.

The Red Nation is really interested in criticizing the ways in which liberal, multi-cultural, environmental organizations are coalescing around land rights and land repatriation movements, while also being coopted by the capitalist, colonialist system in place. I think the tension comes through the fact that the work and the discourse environmental groups produce is very liberal in subversively servicing things like capitalism or the settler-state, rather than being truly radical.

We’re much more interested in the radical kinds of organizing that admits that land was stolen from native people and that works with organizations like The Red Nation, rather than working over them. It comes back to the politics of radical coalitions and finding out what’s helpful and what’s not. Sometimes a group will think it’s helping native people in things like land repatriation while, at the same time, they are very vested in a system that perpetuates colonization and social injustice against native people.

I think its a tenuous relationship between sovereignty activists, organizations like The Red Nation with very radical politics, and liberal organizations—whether environmental or not. The centering of indigenous life and land and sovereignty should be the most important value for those liberal groups to embrace when trying to think about how to radicalize their efforts.

HI: What’s the best way to achieve change? Are there ever times when you see a need to work within that system, or can true change only take place outside, or maybe above, it?

DM: The kind of work that The Red Nation is doing does exist outside these particular structures of oppression, whether its the University of New Mexico, the city of Albuquerque or the state of New Mexico; we’re trying to take up this notion of the politics of resurgence.

A First Nation scholar by the name of Glen Coulthard, in his book Red Skin, White Masks, says that one of the ways in which native peoples can productively attain decolonization and resist things like recognition politics is to work exterior to the settler state. What that means is challenging things like environmental racism, or institutionalized racism in university systems or the Department of Education—which Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua talks about in her book The Seeds We Planted—by working outside the structure of the university or the structures that liberal environmental groups rely on.

On the other hand, I’m studying at the University of New Mexico and, even in that process of getting my degree, I’m also perpetuating that colonial academy system. We’re also working with the City Council of Albuquerque—part of the settler state—to abolish Columbus Day. I also recognize that I am not native to these lands and that, just by being here, I am an indigenous settler. So I believe that it’s important to have the same kind of radical politics The Red Nation practices outside of these structures within my own academic pursuit.

In the past three months, The Red Nation has hosted several events that have received attention from other native people in New Mexico, as well as in Seattle, Texas and Oklahoma. The Red Nation is interested in founding new chapters across the country to help build coalitions between native peoples. The Red Nation also just launched a new website, and you can find them on Twitter (@the_red_nation) or contact them via email at [email protected].