My advice: Build Power

Updated: Jan 22, 2019


Building power within communities is an intentional act of resistance. As resisters, we pursue the realization of justice and as organizers “swim like fish in the sea of the people.” Xicanx and other Indigenous peoples are currently finding paths to rescinding acquiescence to settler colonial domination. Indigenous peoples can and are through the organizing work happening all over the continent determine their cultural/political/economic relationship to this settler society and imagine Indigenous struggle in terms of national liberation that ends five centuries of settler colonialism.


In her work examining the political discourse of guerrilla forces in Mexico specifically the Zapatista movement Kathleen Bruhn suggests, “that ‘cultural warfare’ plays a more significant role in Third World revolutions than Gramsci had any reason to anticipate.” This cultural warfare, I believe, is the major arena where student and community movements within the boundaries of the United States can hope to have any long-term impact or success. I think from a liberationist viewpoint we could call this a de-professionalized organizing approach. (Esteva)


Building Indigenous liberation movements begins with questioning Indigenous relationship to settler colonial structures on the micro, mezzo and macro organizational level. Questioning and the investigating how the violent relationship between settler and colonized is sustained over centuries is one of the main questions that colonized communities contend with.

  • Address problems within the settler colonial system by building structures of national liberation.

  • Understanding that working to “fix the system” while necessary at times is not a path to ending settler colonialism.

Implementing surface level change, various social and economic reforms, within the colonizer/colonized relationship is often the easy part as these reforms almost always perpetuate state sovereignty by enmeshing colonized people deeper and deeper into liberal juridical frameworks. Oppressed communities learning how to steer their efforts toward building sustainable alternative institutions that fill in the gaps left by dominant society is more difficult. These anti colonial movements of change are educational.


According to Mao Tse-Tung, the basic formation of guerrilla warfare, which I would argue at different junctures all anti capitalist organizing represents is “foremost political.” The success of the urban organizer lies in their understanding of this statement, “the guerrilla swims like a fish in the sea of the people.”


All culture within the boundaries of the United States is either settler culture or a colonized culture perverted by settler colonialism. During this period of settler colonialism this is our common heritage. The history and culture we have are settler history and culture. We will our own history and culture when settler colonialism is brought to its end. When we deny this situation we unwittingly support the settler narrative emotionally, spiritually, politically and culturally. The way through colonialism is to acknowledge our loss of nation and history. Acknowledge that contemporary Indigenous peoples are products of a corrupt settler cultural experiment. Then reject settler culture by beginning our personal and group return to history by educating and organizing Indigenous communities into a liberationist way of thinking.


That rejection of settlerism means different things in different places but to begin, there has to be an articulation of grievances from the organizers that speak to and work on behalf of the nation. Since different communities feel the sting of oppression in different ways organizers in responding to local conditions must developed an understanding of the immediate situation and how those issues unfold theoretically and materially into national liberation movements. Paulo Freire wrote in his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1974), “The role of the revolutionary is to liberate and be liberated with the people – not win them over.” Before rallies, demonstrations, direct action, strikes or any action taken on behalf of the people there must be education about the relationship of the individual and community to the dominant structure of settler colonialism. This education reinforces and dramatizes in people’s mind the need for collective thought and action.


Indigenous people in the United States have a certain type of freedom. However, we are not a self-determined people. The Indigenous claim to the land is documented. The truth of the matter is that Indigenous acceptance of U.S. identity is the deathblow to irredentist feelings among Indigenous people’s today. If we are citizens of the United States then how can the land be stolen? How can it be returned to us?


Building power within communities is an intentional act. Pursuing justice from our oppressor is an intentional act. For the majority of Indigenous organizers that type of intentional work takes place outside of the university. Until we are able to build power based institutions, we will be locked into the activist/protest paradigm constantly playing out the role as squeaky wheel.


How are these dual power institutions created? How are they maintained? First, a belief must exist that it needs to be done. This does not need to be a widespread belief just one accepted among those unafraid to create power. These individuals begin an urban insurgency – not necessarily one with guns but an educational and organizing insurgency a “war of positions” where the dominant ideals are challenged on a daily basis. This type of low intensity organizing is a first step toward fashioning what Fanon termed a “new revolutionary culture.”


It is not that our community lacks organization; it lacks organization directed toward challenging settler colonialism in the Americas. Within the context of Xicano/Indigenous liberation, movement organizations that espouse national autonomy or national creation are viewed as thuggish, simple, or childlike. National liberation, the end of settler colonialism is considered by well meaning Indigenous liberals a flight of fancy, a pipe dream. How are we as academics and community organizers reaching out to that critical mass? Are we leaving the political education and direction of Indigenous communities in the hands of bitter settler thugs hardened by years of racism and abuse?

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