By Adam Howe
In More Will Sing Their Way To Freedom, Editor Elaine Coburn brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to expand contemporary debates about Indigenous resistance, resurgence, and social activism across Canada. The book’s anti-colonial and Indigenous lenses challenge mainstream social movement research. Drawing lessons from the Idle No More (INM) Indigenous self-determination movement the book suggests that the goal of research on Indigenous activism needs to be the advancement of Indigenous justice, rather than the advancement of social movement theory.
Some scholars accustomed to traditional academic writing will find this book difficult. More Will Sing is written in a unique Indigenous storytelling style. The contributors all begin with discussions about their own biographies or their research focus. This style of writing imbued with critical self-reflection will no doubt raise eyebrows for scholars used to a more distanced approach; challenging this norm around what counts as research is a major goal of the book.
More Will Sing shows how modern culture and academic traditions are premised on capitalism, structured by western-European democratic political processes and ideologies about society and political communities. Contributors point out how Indigenous worldviews, languages, and notions of society and politics are not only very different from, but are also in some cases antithetical to, western European ones.
Take, for example, the resource mobilization perspective, which assumes that there is a constant potential for grassroots mobilization in any society, provided the movement is organized and has elite support. Of all the resources available to movements, money is said to be one of the most crucial. Yet as several contributors to the book outline, INM’s success challenges these notions on two fronts. First, the movement had no central leadership structure and was unapologetically unorganized, comprising a number of narratives or stories with diverse meanings. Second, INM had no institutional support from elite groups, and did not have significant funding at all.
The political opportunity perspective also assumes strong leadership and sufficient resources. In her chapter Aguirre notes that Indigenous activism is often portrayed as a reaction to immediate threats such as resource extraction companies moving into traditional territories. The implication is that Indigenous activists have limited agency- their activism is impelled by the actions of colonial corporations or states. Instead Aguirre says “to be Indigenous is to be political” (pp. 195). These acts of Indigenous protest are rather a ‘sudden rise’ in visibility of Indigenous resistance and resurgence that is ongoing, and continually challenging the power of colonial states and corporations.
Some chapters directly engage mainstream academic fields, demonstrating how they must be reconsidered in light of Indigenous perspectives. Youngblood Henderson (Chickasaw Nation) details the difficulties of using English (and therefore colonial) language and legal tools to combat Indigenous oppression and inequality – what he calls a ‘split head resistance’, meaning that Indigenous activists must be knowledgeable about their own traditional cultures as well as colonial culture. King (Anishinaabe/Beausoliel First Nation) argues that by using international laws and notions of human rights to frame their international activism, Indigenous groups unintentionally legitimize the same colonial social and political institutions they wish to contest. Wilkes discusses the work of Indigenous scholars such as Patricia Monture who say that because Western academia is conducted in English, which is a noun-centred language, many words and concepts used in mainstream theories to study society and politics such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘the state’, borders, ownership of land, justice, and capitalism, have no direct translations in Indigenous languages, which are verb/process-oriented.
The book is also a good entre to activist-scholar research, and will be valuable for any social movement scholars aiming for greater involvement with the movements they study. Those particularly interested in participatory or community research with vulnerable populations will find the chapters by Walsh & Aarestad (Sturgeon Lake First Nation) and Durst & Coburn useful. Both chapters detail this type of research and its ethical considerations, which are more involved when working with Indigenous groups. Also of note is Denis’ Four Directions model of social movements, which draws conceptually from the Indigenous medicine wheel – a traditional teaching tool – to re-theorize Indigenous self-determination movements. Finally, the conceptualization of mere survival of Indigenous people as acts of passive resistance expands upon mainstream ideas of activism tactics.
Ultimately, many social movement scholars will find significant potential for re-interpreting their personal location, their academic theories and concepts, and the aim of their research, against the Indigenous and anti-colonial perspectives engaged throughout the book. For Indigenous peoples, the book outlines academic, social, and cultural practices of Indigenous resistance and resurgence that redefine the boundaries of possibility for the future of Indigenous peoples, beyond institutional recognition. All should put More Will Sing on their summer reading list!