On Wednesday September 20, the Office of Indigenous Initiatives at McGill hosted a widely anticipated discussion led by prominent Kahnawà:ke activist and author Dr. Taiaiake Alfred. The talk centred around the process and inspiration behind his most recent book, It’s All About the Land: Collected Talks and Interviews on Indigenous Resurgence.
As part of this year’s lineup of events during McGill’s annual back-to-back Indigenous Awareness Weeks (September 18-30), the talk was given in the SSMU building ballroom and attended en masse by students, academic professionals, and members of the university community. Seats quickly filled up; I drew up a folding chair in the back row and found myself between two other students waiting with their notebooks open.
Together with Dr. Pamela Palmater – a longtime friend and collaborator from the Mi’kmaw Nation who penned the foreword to his book – Dr. Alfred addressed the continued effects of Canadian state-led colonization on First Nations communities and individuals. His book lends a unique perspective to this conversation by exploring how policies on land acquisition set the course for many Indigenous communities today.
Published through the University of Toronto Press earlier this year amid considerable excitement for its release, It’s All About the Land is a compendium of collaborative insight and lucid commentary on the interplay of sovereign policy, social attitude, and Native identity cultivated through a series of bold conversations and complex reflections. Alfred’s writing is richly informed by his educational background in political philosophy as well as his personal journey to becoming a force of action for the Kahnawà:ke people. Both academic and personal perspectives are woven into a fluid conversational flow directed at deconstructing the negative impact made by systems of the Canadian government on First Nations sovereignty, security, and cultural identity.
A short introduction by Professor Veldon Coburn, Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Ottawa, underlined the significance of Alfred’s contribution to the socio-political discourse on contemporary conflicts faced by Indigenous people: his four previous books on the subject set such a considerable precedent for his work that some among the ballroom audience had waited more than a decade for the release of his most recent publication.
With most of his work concerning processes of decolonization and cultural recovery through the legal and political empowerment of Indigenous people, Dr. Alfred’s primary driving force is his innate desire to find “the truth” about his people. A major consequence of the colonization endured by the Kahnawà:ke and other First Nations communities was the loss of large-scale social integrity due to the effective dispersal of their hereditary collectives. The truth must be reconstructed by picking up the pieces. He draws an analogy, referencing the great historical leader for whom he was named: “The figure of Taiaiake in 1701…stood on a rock as big as Mont Royal. I am barely standing on a rock that’s big enough.”
Alfred cites his parents’ generation of community leaders as an early source of inspiration; the earnest dedicatees of the book are his aunt and uncle, from whose influence he adopted his “militant” attitude towards justice for his community. Addressed to the people who shaped such an important aspect of his identity, his intention was to explain, through the book’s exhaustive dialogues and painstaking commentary, his own “Mohawk worldview.” The title, in addition, came from a succinct reminder he heard constantly from peers and elders in Indigenous activist spaces during his youth: “Remember – it’s all about the land.”
For many First Nations across the continent, the inability to live on their own territories or to hand down the land within the community constitutes a fundamental, original loss with no recourse. Divided land, as divided truth, denies the possibility of a complete identity. Alfred enumerates the experiences that separate him from the other Taiaiake: “I didn’t know our language…I went to Catholic school and I lost the [Kahnawà:ke] spirituality.” But despite knowing these differences, he still grapples with the question: “What’s this Tai’s reality?”
Today, Alfred’s work occupies its own league in the Indigenous literary space. His particular impact, remarked by Professor Coburn, is owed in part to the firm, prosaic style that translates his personal magnanimity into a compelling literary voice that draws readers from all backgrounds together. Unfailingly sensitive towards nuances in the subject matter, his writing preserves a clarity of articulation which renders even his most theoretical arguments plainly accessible. From a stylistic approach, Alfred added that It’s All About the Land was, perhaps more so than any of his other works, very much “like an oratory.” Like the course of one of his unscripted speeches, the free prose aligns with the gravity of his concerns in stark authenticity to follow a winding path — though by no means complete — of one man’s journey after the truth.