A review of Francis Dupuis-Déri and Benjamin Pillet, eds., Anarcho-Indigenism: Conversations on Land And Freedom (London: Pluto Press, 2023).

It is true that, as the editors of this volume state, “many Indigenous communities have long been sources of inspiration for anarchists.” It is also true that “Indigenous activists are seldom interested in anarchist knowledge, practices, and ideas.” The way this has often been resolved in the minds of anarchists is that while you find anarchist traits in different cultures, communities, and social movements, not all of them want to use the term. I suppose it’s a truism that follows from two true statements, yet what do we do with it? How does it help if there is some kind of proto-anarchism in this world if it doesn’t translate into a broad political movement? Or does it?

These are some of the questions discussed in this book, which consists of six interviews with people (all from Turtle Island) about the relationship between indigenous cultures and anarchism, or the left in a broader sense. “Anarcho-indigenism,” a term supposedly coined by Taiaiake Alfred (who, in 2010, we interviewed for our German book Von Jakarta bis Johannesburg: Anarchismus weltweit), serves as a common denominator under which these interviews are united.

In their introduction, the editors Francis Dupuis-Déri and Benjamin Pillet present an overview of the relevant literature. It is quite comprehensive, even though Bas Umali’s Pangayaw and Decolonizing Resistance: Anarchism in the Philippines would have deserved a mention. The almost complete absence of the Kurdish movement is also striking, since there’s been a turn toward both (proto)anarchism and indigenism in the Kurdish movement in the past two decades. (Needless to say, there is always something that can be added to an already exhaustive list.)

The people interviewed all have interesting things to say, although presenting the interviews by historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, theater director Véronique Hébert, and Wet’suwet’en land defenders Freda Huson and Toghesity under the moniker “anarcho-indigenism” is a stretch. No matter how you interpret the term, there is very little about anything anarcho in these interviews.

The opening interview with author-artist-activist Gord Hill addresses the relationship between anarchism and indigenous culture more directly. It is worth quoting from it at length:

“I think there are some significant cultural differences between anarchists and Indigenous peoples. Anarchists tend to be more individualistic, and they also adopt a lot of what appear to be ‘bizarre’ lifestyles to Native peoples, such as eating out of dumpsters, rejecting personal hygiene, etc. Not all anarchists engage in these activities, but I think a good number do and they are the most visible cultural traits an outsider might observe about ‘typical’ anarchist groups. Many Native activists I think see anarchists as a variation of ‘hippies’ and punks. It reminds me of what a Native elder once told a group of us, that when you begin the process of decolonizing you will become different from your people. That’s a good thing, but if we go too far in our personal decolonization we may risk alienating and appearing foreign to our communities, which can limit our ability to engage with them and participate in common struggles. I think many anarchists are on this road, and appear and act radically different from what would be their own communities, so anarchism becomes a highly insular movement that in some ways focuses inwardly on its own lifestyles and activities … Another aspect of this is the anti-social character of the North American anarchist movement, where many participants hate and reject the society and become further estranged from it the more they are involved in the movement, perpetuating the marginalization of the movement. Native activists are generally focused on working with their communities, building solidarity with other movements, etc., but are not coming at it from such an anti-social perspective.”

Filmmaker and Oka Crisis veteran Clifton Ariwakehte Nicholas offers insightful reflections on anarchist vs. warrior culture, and, with respect to anarchists being skeptical of indigenous youth joining the military, has the following to say on conformity: “That’s actually one things that bothers me with anarchists when they talk about non-conformity. Fuck off man, you want me to conform big time, you know what I mean?” On another note, I was glad to read that Clifton was a metal fan, although citing Slayer in the context of metal bands with a lefty, possibly anarchistic touch sits a little uncomfortably with Tom Araya’s misplaced political comments of the last few years. Kreator, on the other hand, fits the bill.

American Studies and anthropology professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui offers a nuanced analysis of anarchist principles vis-à-vis the traditional social structures of indigenous communities. In the interview with Véronique Hébert, there are also important comments on the meaning of spirituality in indigenous belief systems. All of this is food for thought for anti-authoritarian, secular radicals. (In this context, I feel compelled to mention the work of German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr, who did a lot for rectifying chauvinistic twentieth-century representations of indigenous cultures in Europe. Unfortunately, Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization, which originally appeared in 1978, is the only one of his books published in English translation.)

Considering the value of all the interviews included in this book in and of themselves (whether they talk about anarchism or not), Anarcho-Indigenism is an enjoyable and enlightening read. It’s not breaking new ground, but that’s not what the editors claim either. In the Introduction they write:

“This project does not offer any definitive answers nor a grand theory; instead, it puts forward a range of voices that express a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. … We hope that this book will kindle reflection and lead to further exchange, more discussion, and supportive collaboration.”

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 31, 2023)