The Black and Indigenous struggles are one

By Alicia Elliott

Indigenous support for the Black community

On July 27, as Pope Francis traveled through this land currently called Canada, offering a long-overdue apology to residential school survivors and performing masses as he went, a delegation of my people called the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee went to meet him. They had gone all the way to Rome in the past. This time, thankfully, they only had to travel to Quebec City.

They went then, as they had in 2016 and again in 2018, to ask Pope Francis to revoke the three Papal Bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery: Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455), and Inter Caetera (1493). These Catholic legal orders were, as the committee laid out in their press release, “the root cause of the genocide that was carried out against our Peoples.” The Doctrine of Discovery was, in effect, the legal, political, moral, and spiritual rationalization for colonization — and the get-out-of-jail free card for all the blood and bodies that were sacrificed on its altar.

The Doctrine also directly led to a desire to assimilate, and therefore to “save,” to “civilize,” Indigenous peoples — a desire which translated into the legal creation of residential schools across Canada. In other words, these Papal Bulls laid the foundation for the very schools Pope Francis was here to apologize for. To not address the legal orders that led to the schools’ creation would make Pope Francis’ apology feel disingenuous, incomplete.

The Doctrine of Discovery was more than just the legal, political, moral and spiritual basis for the colonization of the Americas: it was also the basis for the transatlantic slave trade. And while slavery is now technically outlawed, it is the foundation for global anti-Blackness today, just as it is the foundation for ongoing anti-Indigeneity via stolen land. This Catholic legal order was “the template, the blueprint, that colonized nations have used toward the suffering and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and dignity over the last 500 years.”

If Black and Brown Indigenous peoples were not human, as these Papal Bulls claimed they were not, they did not need to be respected or considered or cared for. They could be stolen, bought, sold, traded, killed, raped, exploited, starved, forcibly removed, incarcerated, institutionalized. In other words, as a direct result of these Papal Bulls, Indigenous and Black discrimination and repression — as well as Indigenous and Black struggles for liberation — are forever linked.

As Pope Francis made his way through the colonized lands now known as Canada, I was thinking through the ways that these three Papal Bulls laid the groundwork for colonialism and capitalism — turning the Indigenous Peoples of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the lands Indigenous peoples the world over had complex and reciprocal relationships with, into property to exploit and own and destroy. Just as I was mulling over these connections, pulling at the threads of shared struggles, I started reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Robyn Maynard’s book, Rehearsals for Living, a collection of letters written to one another during the pandemic amidst escalating social and climate crisis.

The timing was impeccable. It is a book that not only acknowledges that Black and Indigenous repression are two sides of the same colonial, capitalist coin, that not only draws upon histories of separate resistances and linked solidarities, but that also grounds this history in the present. Maynard and Simpson declare, boldly and without exception, that the only way we can reach justice is to undertake abolition and land-back movements simultaneously — to make us all free, together.

Although the book does not mention the Doctrine of Discovery by name, the connections are all there. Maynard, for example, brings up the way that the very concept of “humanity” has historically been denied to Black and Indigenous peoples around the world.

“The Human has never been a politically neutral category,” she writes. “The currency of the concept of a universal ‘we’… has always been a violent exclusion relying on who is a historical subject, who is considered a full human, a national citizen, with Black and Indigenous communities, of course, written out of the very boundaries of the concept.”

This worldview sees humans as inherently more important, more worthy of consideration and life, than all other aspects of creation — which means that separating Black and Indigenous people from “humanity,” from the universal “we,” means we are not important, not worthy of consideration or life. Whatever atrocities done to us, particularly in the name of “progress,” are acceptable as long as they’re in service of continuing capitalism and colonialism.

A careful reader would note that this ideology is what has paved the way for the current climate crisis. This is where their so-called “progress” has led us: a burning planet where no matter what, to paraphrase Frank Herbert’s Dune, the profits must flow.

Maynard and Simpson declare, boldly and without exception, that the only way we can reach justice is to undertake abolition and land-back movements simultaneously — to make us all free, together.

The Doctrine of Discovery made it clear that Black and Indigenous people — and, indeed, all non-Christian people across the globe — were seen as less than human; this is how systems like slavery and residential schools were justified. And yet now, when it comes to the climate crisis, suddenly our planet’s plight is the fault of all of humanity — a humanity that has opportunistically opened up to include the very Black and Brown people they have purposefully excluded from “humanity” for centuries. It’s a clever rhetorical trick: suddenly those who have been fighting against extractive capitalism and colonialism, against poisoning our planet, are now a part of the universal “we” responsible for that poisoning. Even though people of colour are the ones most likely to feel the effects of climate change, we are told we that are all equally responsible for the decisions of the greedy executives and politicians who have been the architects of the climate crisis.

The connection between climate change, capitalism, and colonialism is obvious. The Industrial Revolution is generally considered to be both the beginning of the climate crisis and the beginning of capitalism. It is the moment that created the concepts of “first world” and “third world”; “civilized” and “uncivilized”; “developed” and “developing”; “colonizers” and “savages.” And, as Maynard and Simpson remind us, it is crucial for us to not buy into the idea that either colonialism nor capitalism are inevitable, or that these systems of discrimination and destruction were forged by all humans. They were not.

They were forged, “in fact,” Maynard writes, “by the violent ejection of some, most, of the world’s inhabitants from the conception of who is considered to be a human… [The world as we know it today] was quite literally fuelled by the violently coerced labour of kidnapped Africans, on the lands from which Indigenous populations had been murdered and forcibly removed.”

Considering this violent genesis it is hard not to see how little has changed. The same systems that created residential schools and slavery are responsible for the oppression we see today. Every day we see new ways that people are dehumanized, their existences as flesh and blood — as kin — argued away in hateful rhetoric that aims to create barriers between us instead of bridges. We see the modern descendants of residential schools and slavery — the enduring oppression that has not been “solved” but has simply transformed, letting us pretend we’ve made progress while continuing to crush those arbitrarily deemed less than and expendable.

But Black and Indigenous people have been in apocalyptic situations before. We have survived world-endings, and attempted world-endings, and we have continued, as Simpson writes, to “world-build anyway, as a practice, as a way of life.” Because our imaginations, our wills and our love for our people have always been stronger than those who attempt to use hateful rhetoric and violent police and unjust laws and Papal Bulls to destroy us.

As Maynard says, “Abolition is imagination work, anti-colonial struggle is imagination work, conjure work, science fiction in real time. It is daring to see that the world now did not need to be as it was, does not need to be as it is, and certainly, most importantly, need not — will not — remain this way. It is… justice, re-imaging and refashioning governance as abundance rather than enclosure.”

And that is what we must all do, together: reimagine, refashion, and rebuild this world, so we are on the side of collective life instead of collective death.