The article below is based on a speech given by Workers Voice member Taytyn Badger at a discussion on “Indigenous Oppression and Capitalism” in Saskatoon, Sask., on Sept. 12, 2022. Workers Voice is currently examining varying perspectives on how to understand the history of the oppression of Indigenous people in North America and how best to support the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people.

It has been almost seven years since Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister on a vaguely progressive sounding platform of proportionate representation, climate change legislation, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. He went on to abandon all three as soon as it became convenient. The full weight of the federal government has been thrown behind the construction of environmentally disastrous fuel pipelines and related “development” through Indigenous land as they sick the RCMP on anyone who resists. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting against Indigenous peoples’ rights in courts, as well as against restitution to Indigenous children harmed by the welfare system. Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons has grown over the past seven years, and the murder of Indigenous people—particularly women—continues apace. All the while, Trudeau has waxed poetic about Canada taking responsibility for “the mistakes of the past.”

It has also been nearly a year and a half since the discovery of some 200 bodies at Kamloops residential school, since which time, nearly 1800 more have been found at residential schools across the land occupied by Canada. In light of all of this, it is vital that we think about the causes of Indigenous oppression and how we can fight it.

I imagine most people reading this have some idea of what settler-colonialism is. However, I would define it, broadly, as a project of invasion, exploitation, and ongoing occupation of land, achieved by settler expropriation, elimination, and replacement of the Indigenous population. This is a project that began in North America shortly after Columbus showed up in 1492 and that continues today.

Explanations of settler colonialism from those who claim to oppose it tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is that settler-colonialism, racism, and oppression are at their core a result of European ideas and ideologies, leading settlers to believe that they are superior to other peoples, that this land is theirs to take, that slavery and genocide is justified, and so on. Within this model, the work of those fighting oppression is to challenge racist ideas and push for the respect and recognition of Indigenous peoples and their cultures. On the basis of shared respect, Indigenous peoples and settlers can gather in the spirit of Thanksgiving to carve up Indigenous land to the satisfaction of all.

A second explanation, which I believe holds more water, is that the opposite is the case. Ideologies of white supremacy, racism, and so on, while sometimes drawing on prior ideologies, developed to justify the oppression and elimination of Indigenous peoples in the interest of stealing their land. Indigenous peoples are not oppressed because they are hated; they are hated because they are oppressed. Racist ideas still need to be fought, of course, but this is simply fighting the symptoms, not the cause, without working to eliminate the material basis of settler-colonialism and its legacies in U.S. and Canadian capitalism.

An example of ideology shifting and developing to justify oppression in action can be found with a look at how English depictions of northern prairie Indigenous peoples evolved in the 18th to 19th centuries. The peoples of these regions were seen as profitable labor in the fur trade and useful allies in inter-imperial conflicts until the war of 1812. As such, they were often depicted in positive terms, as independent, powerful, generous, skillful, and healthy, even if “uncivilized” and in need of Christianization. However, this flipped like a switch when inter-imperial rivalry waned, biome depletion made Indigenous labor less profitable, and the possibility of new waves of settlers raised hopes of direct expropriation and exploitation of their land for greater profits. All of a sudden, these Indigenous peoples were drunk, lazy, miserable wretches on the verge of extinction—descriptions I imagine most have encountered—and in need of British subjugation and assimilation to save them.

The means to eliminate the material basis of settler-colonialism is through decolonization. Now, often you will hear decolonization used as a metaphor: Decolonizing education. Decolonizing institutions. Decolonizing thought. Anything but decolonizing land. Just like fighting racism, these are good things, or can be good if not half assed by academia, companies, or the government as PR moves. However, none of them are actually decolonization. In fact, the appropriation of the language of decolonization as a metaphor for other social justice work serves as a smokescreen, domesticating it and turning it into something acceptable for maintaining settler-capitalist control of Indigenous lands.

Decolonization, or what is often referred to as “land back,” is the return of the land to Indigenous peoples on their terms, achievement of Indigenous sovereignty, and the end of the role played by the settler population as a garrison that holds down the land against them. As long as settlers get to choose what they need, however much or little that is, while giving Indigenous peoples whatever is cast off, the settler-colonial relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples continues. How exactly decolonization will operate in practice is something that will need to be developed organically over the course of decolonial and socialist struggle. To give a particular model would be utopian. However, some proposed ideas are Indigenous veto, or right of assent, for use of Indigenous land.

Returning control of Indigenous land to Indigenous peoples is really the minimum form of decolonial justice. Decolonization does not mean the expulsion of any settler or immigrant population from Indigenous land. Nevertheless, when the possibility of decolonization is raised, many people respond with terror, their minds flooded with visions of white genocide and settlers forced on a trail of tears onto boats bound for Europe or small plots of barren land. This idea is rooted in the racist assumption that, as settlers, their interests are represented by settler-colonialism, and the moment the settler boot is raised from Indigenous necks, a horde of savages will burst from the closet, hatchets in hand, to return all that has been done to them.

This is the same sort of projection one encounters from Israelis regarding the liberation of Palestine, where it is alleged that the right of return and liberation of Palestinians would see Israelis driven into the sea. However, I have never heard any proponent of decolonization suggest this, nor an explanation of why this would occur. If nothing else, it’s pretty logistically impossible. 

Having arrived at the conclusion that decolonization and the end of settler-colonialism is necessary for the end of Indigenous oppression, the question then becomes one of identifying the underlying social and material factors that require and maintain it. In the modern period, settler-colonialism is firmly rooted in the operation and continuation of the capitalist system, a conjunction referred to as settler-capitalism.

I will avoid going into the nitty gritty of Marxist economics for the sake of brevity. However, it is important to note a few basic characteristics. Under capitalism, profit is derived from paying workers less for their labor-power than the value of the commodities they produce. Every capitalist and firm is forced into a breakneck race with every other to produce the largest amount of commodities at the lowest cost in order to maximize profit by underselling competitors and selling a greater number of commodities. If a firm falls behind, it will go under, to be absorbed by other more profitable firms. At the same time, relative profits are constantly driven downward, as ever greater amounts of machinery and infrastructure are required to keep up with rivals. To counterbalance this tendency and avoid stagnation and collapse, capital must constantly extend into new markets and expand its exploitation of land and peoples.

Settler-capitalism is a manifestation of this tendency. It is impossible for capitalism to survive if it does not continue its invasion, exploitation, and destruction of Indigenous Land. As a result, as long as Indigenous peoples continue to protect their land, continue to assert their ownership, continue to hold on to cultural values counter to those of capitalism, and ultimately, continue to exist, with their prior and rightful claim to this land, they pose an obstacle to capitalist exploitation. It is this fact that lies at the core of settler-capitalism’s past and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples, and that places capitalism fundamentally at odds with decolonization. Because of this, as long as capitalism remains in place, decolonial demands can only be achieved in an incomplete, temporary, and distorted manner. 

This can be seen in the status of many former colonies that have de jure decolonized, with the exception of those who have managed to transition into imperialist powers themselves and the occasional deformed workers state.  They remain de facto semi-colonies, dominated by foreign capital and imperialist states acting on their behalf. Industry is developed according to the designs of imperialist capital with the support of local capitalists and politicians, either to pillage natural resources or to exploit the local population as cheap labor in ways that are incredibly destructive to the local environment and with no eye to local needs.

If these states or their ruling classes offer any real opposition to imperialist hyper-exploitation, they face the threat of sanctions, foreign sponsored coups and destabilization, or even open invasion. Decolonial success stories are overwhelmingly limited to non-settler-colonies, where the Indigenous population was exploited directly for its labor, rather than systematically removed. As a result, they had the means to force the hands of imperialist powers. For these reasons, the destruction of capitalism is a prerequisite for genuine decolonization.

The connection between capitalism and settler-colonialism runs particularly deep, as settler-colonialism was key to the development of capitalism in the first place. Plants domesticated by Indigenous peoples and settler exploitation of stolen Indigenous land enabled a massive population boom, generating a greater amount of proletarianized and proletarianizable people, while also providing primary resources to fuel industrialization. In addition, the resultant explosion of overseas trade and creation of colonial markets served as spawning grounds for the bourgeoisie.

The destruction of the capitalist system can only be effected by the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, smashing of the capitalist state, and the seizure of power by the working class and oppressed peoples. Under their control, the state and production will be taken out of the hands of a small number of capitalists, driven by competition for profits, and placed under collective management to meet real social needs. In this, the working class will need to play a central role, as their exploitation is the source of all capitalist profits. The capitalist need for ever greater profits results in the constant expansion of their ranks and exploitation, and their exploitation can only be eliminated with the end of private control of the means of production and elimination of private property. No longer enslaved to the drive to generate profits, true decolonization becomes possible under a workers’ state.

Historically, American and Canadian socialists have paid very little attention to the roots of settler-colonialism and oppression of Indigenous peoples. Even now, many choose to ignore the Indigenous struggle or subordinate it to that of the non-Indigenous working class, or place addressing Indigenous oppression on the backburner, to be entertained after the overthrow of capitalism.

Many Indigenous activists and decolonialists are skeptical of the possibility that Indigenous peoples and organized labor can be allies. The working class in Canada and the United States has often been slow to take up the fight for Indigenous self-determination. At the same time, it is undeniable that the settler masses were, and today the settler working class is, at the forefront of the settler-colonial project. The former in return for “free” land and state support and protection. The latter in return for higher paying work in construction and extraction and the material benefits that accompany growth of capital. Settler-capitalist states, companies, and union bureaucracies emphasize and exaggerate these benefits through statements and campaigns extolling the jobs created by capitalist expansion and extractive industries. The government of Alberta, both under the social-democratic NDP and United Conservatives, and fossil fuel companies spent tens of millions on advertisements extolling the jobs and economic growth supposedly offered by the Trans Mountain and Coastal Gaslink pipelines in the face of Indigenous resistance. In the land occupied by the United States, the International Teamsters and NABTU released statements against the temporary cancellation of Keystone XL for “reducing good-paying union jobs that allow workers to provide [for] their families.”

However, the reality is that support for decolonization is key if the working class is to overthrow capitalism. Settler-capitalism, especially in the settler colonies themselves is a pillar of capitalist wealth and power. Whatever rewards they reap, settler labor’s support for settler-capitalism is at the cost of strengthening the capitalist class and its domination over itself as well. Not only that, but it is those who are most oppressed and exploited by capitalism, whether women, LGBTQ+ folk, people of color, or whoever else, who provide the strongest voices and fight the hardest against it. As a result, Indigenous peoples will likely be in the vanguard of a socialist revolution. Many are already in the vanguard, as can be seen at places like Standing Rock and the Wet’suwet’en Yintah, where they were able to mobilize large numbers of settlers and people of color across the U.S. and Canada. However, it is impossible for settler workers and Indigenous people to join forces if the settler working class continues to support Indigenous oppression.

Rather than pitting the struggle for Indigenous rights against that of the working class as a whole, socialists must work to weld the two together. This cannot be done in a way that subordinates Indigenous rights, or downplays them, or ignores them in the service of “unity” or a focus on the issues affecting some sort of imaginary platonic worker, who just so happens to be a generic white guy in a hard hat. A socialist movement, and anyone who claims to want to build one, must place decolonization at the forefront and do everything it can to support decolonial struggles, just as it must fight against all forms of capitalist oppression, whether it be of women, LGBTQ+ folk, people of color, or any other oppressed or hyper-exploited group.

An excellent example of how we can weld together the interests of Indigenous peoples and a largely non-Indigenous working class can be found in the political work in Chile among the Mapuche, the International Workers’ Movement (IWL/LIT), and the National Intercompany Mining Union, whose origins are in 2019’s massive uprising of working, Indigenous, and oppressed peoples. Among this union’s key demands are the release of Mapuche and Chilean political prisoners, withdrawal of the military and police from the Wallmapu and its return to the Mapuche, self-determination for the Mapuche people, and the nationalization of the copper mines, to be put under workers’ control with the special Indigenous right of veto [this speech was given before the Sept. 4 vote that rejected the proposed constitution in Chile—editors].

We in North America have seen what relatively disorganized displays of solidarity with struggles inspired and led by Indigenous communities were able to achieve. Imagine what could be done with large-scale, organized solidarity on the part of workers: railroad strikes, in addition to railroad blockades, or construction halted by workers in solidarity with Indigenous opposition. Such support would provide a massive impetus to the struggle against capitalism and its settler-colonial roots.

I believe it would be wise to close with an addendum on the subject of treaties. Treaties, either those made in the past, or the signing of new ones, are something that always comes up in discussions of “reconciliation” and settler-Indigenous relations. However, this focus is actively detrimental in many ways to the struggle against settler-colonialism.

Treaties, however sacred and important they may be to Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous cultures, are only ever adhered to when convenient by settler-colonial polities, either because it suits their own needs directly, or when they are forced to by real or potential Indigenous and mass opposition. However, the existence of a treaty is irrelevant in either of these cases. Further, a focus on treaties serves as a means of justifying settler colonialism. To claim them as legitimate is to renew the settler claim that Indigenous territory is surrendered willingly, and thus that they have claim to Indigenous land.

Treaties between Indigenous peoples and settler-colonial states were deliberately misrepresented, and almost universally signed under the threat of violence, deliberate starvation, or both. Treaty Six (of the numbered treaties signed between the British Crown and First Nations from 1871 to 1921) is an illustrative example. Chief Mistahi-Maskwa, foremost among the treaty-critical Nehiyaw leaders, spoke of the treaty in this way: “When we set a fox trap, we scatter pieces of meat all around, but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head.” He went on to call the treaties a rope around Indigenous necks. He attempted to rally other Nehiyaw chiefs to demand one large reserve and held out for six years before he was finally brought to heel via deliberate mass starvation. The 1885 Riel Revolution would later be used as a pretext to imprison him and Pitikwahanapiwiyin, another treaty critic, until they were on the verge of death.

Even those in the pro-treaty camp acknowledged that they had little choice in the matter. Mistawasis said, “We are few in numbers compared to former times, by wars and smallpox. Even if it were possible to gather all the tribes together, to throw away the hand that is offered to help us, we would be too weak to make our demands heard.” Ahtahkakoop agreed, stating, “We are weak, and my brother Mistawasis is right that the bison will be gone before many snows. What will be left us with which to bargain?” Starvation and the threat of open settler invasion were the key forces behind the treaty.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t support struggles for treaty rights. Even if settler polities only signed them for self-serving reasons, and what they put on paper never matched what was agreed upon, they were still agreed to, and are supposedly protected by the legal frameworks of the United States and Canada. Victories in these fights can serve to ameliorate the worst effects of settler oppression, and settler-colonial states’ inability to adhere to them serves to highlight the hollowness of rule-of-law and treaties’ inability to act as the basis of any sort of real end to Indigenous oppression. As long as we do not pretend they can be a solution, they can serve to sharpen the struggle against settler-capitalism.

Photo: Micah Garen / Getty Images