“Oppos[e na/i]tional Agency” rap essay about salmon fisheries + annotations
After performing my piece, Oppos[e na/i]itional Agency at a talent/untalent show this past Thursday, I got many requests to run through it slowly and explain it for people. I didn’t get a chance to do so with everyone who wanted me to, so, here are some hastily written annotations.
Oppos[e na/i]itional Agency
this title was chosen to be difficult to Google; this work is in fact part of three essays written in different modalities, another being a painting which exists semi-permanently in exactly one location, another being Inebriation and Authenticity which can be downloaded anywhere, and this, which I can reproduce in person on demand. It is an oral presentation, not a written one, and so this is not an “official” version of it. The title contains either “oppositional” or “oppose national,” placing agency at either the locus of engagement or at the level of an organisational structure to be opposed. My political leanings tend to the anti-nationalistic; there’s a subtle dig here against the language of “First Nations,” though it’s the traditional state (Canadian and otherwise) which receives the most ire.
When did we agree, democratically, how to divide coercive authority? The right to write history and decide what’s as formerly?
The Douglas Treaties, foundational documents concerning land use by indigenous people in British Columbia, specifies that they have the right to use the land “as formerly,” which at the time was understood to mean “as if you guys hadn’t come,” but was later interpreted to enforce particular visions of what “traditional living” consists of. For example, line fishing using technology which hadn’t yet been invented at the time of contact became subject to a fine, because it’s not “as formerly.”
Dominion officials conceded jurisdiction to a governing body that treats rights as fiction. To rich whites benedictions, to most others afflictions, ignoring pre-existing native legal traditions
An economic depression in the mid-19th century triggered a transition from a form of governance in which the aboriginal people were largely left to their own affairs to one in which British sovereignty would be enforced, even in areas (almost all of what’s now BC) which had never negotiated a treaty, or even been conquered or in any other respect taken over by non-Native people. Overnight it went from (mostly) peaceful trade and cohabitation to absolute control of everything by the foreigners.
To propagate logics of “land improvement,” they obfuscated freedoms of animal movement. So meant maturation of this state puppet-show, problems for the migration of salmon and buffalo!
There was a mandate to improve the land, which in many cases meant little more than building fences to demarcate territory, in areas with many important migratory species. They even put barriers in the rivers, almost leading to the extinction of certain salmon species.
Way to show why we need system wide contestation: adaptation, innovation, patron annihilation! The implications of oppositional land dividing: providing only minimal per capita acreage while native freedoms continue to hemorrhage!
How many acres of land each person can claim has fluctuated significantly. At a time when white settlers could pre-empt 320 acres of land for homesteading, the indigenous people in BC were allowed only 10 acres per family of 5. Part of the reason for the low amount was that they were a fishing people, and so didn’t need much land for farming. Later, those fishing rights would also be greatly curtailed.
Foucault distinguished sovereignty from government; Tania Li and Nugent redefined state assessment
Sovereignty is coercive control backed up by violence; government is the distribution of resources. David Nugent did work showing how the old anthropological assumption of state vs community is untenable (in fact it’s way more complicated than that, with many subdivisions in both “community” and “state” pursuing different interests which change over time leading to many reversals). Tania Li developed a theory of Projects, Processes, Practices and Positions which is useful for analysing land use and transitions of power. Another small note: there’s a suspicious tendency for academics to refer to male theorists by their last name only and female theorists by first and last (so, Joseph Butler is just Butler, but Judith Butler is Judith Butler). I am guilty of that here; I didn’t change it when I noticed because fixing it would’ve messed up the rhythm.
Processes and projects frame coercive logics; practices and classist twists express interests of activists and pacifists and populists who might only care for opulence while the dominant’s centrality obscures true plurality; every complex system displays dynamicality! So, as positions flip with the shifting conditions, you should never base a theory on just strict oppositions!
There have been many activist/pacifist/populist movements throughout history, and they’ve almost always been largely self-interested, articulating concepts like pacifism because it’s politically useful, or because they don’t actually care enough to put their bodies on the line. Anthropology teaches us to be suspicious of how people position themselves, because their language choices typically hide the complexity of underlying motivations. Also, the state typically doesn’t just impose itself arbitrarily — it does so at a specific moment as part of a larger ongoing project (land improvement; the imposition of sovereignty) or process (climate change; extinguishment of native title).
With our presuppositions focusing on traditions, of wage labour at the fisheries we might make an omission. Employed for five months a year, survive the winter in fear, living with what you’re given’s no way to make a career, but competing for fish stocks still beats trying to farm rocks, and independent boat owners had to put up with cost blocks!
Not all Natives doing fishing during the period I was studying (1879-1925) were doing so “traditionally.” Many worked for commercial canning and fishing companies, because those were the best options for securing a livelihood amidst changing economic conditions.
So go to canneries for guarantees of small degrees of dignities but your expertise still gets traded in for Japanese! Employer rejection because of kinship connections? Alienating and depricating at new heights of perfection
Migrant workers, mostly from Japan, were easier for the fishing companies to control, because they didn’t have families or local knowledge they could fall back on. For this reason many native workers lost their jobs or were denied employment
Our governing system was never smooth on its surfaces but a cacophony of voices working at cross-purposes. Services ensuring land purchases, practices of exclusion, suffusion by settlers, unceded land’s prostitution, creating confusion, leaving Indian Affairs to clean up what’s theirs, a process that could only help the splitting of hairs!
Each governmental department has a different mandate and they often end up in conflict with one another. Indian Affairs was created to advocate within government for the needs of the native peoples, but ultimately it had very little say over anything, so mostly what it accomplished was pacifying resistance by convincing people that they were being heard, and delaying action until processes like settlement had time to continue to the point that the initial complaint couldn’t possibly be addressed without the use of violence against the settlers, which the state was never willing to do, and so even egregious violations of traditional territories went uncontested.
Pseudo-representation! Hegem’nous instrumentation! Sincerity of advocacy only furthered subjectification!
Bigots don’t actually tend to do that much damage in the long run, because they get recognised and dealt with. It was the really nice people who genuinely meant well and could convince people to trust them who really screwed over the natives in the long run, because they were the ones who got the natives to go along with the structures of domination. The “as formerly” line in the Douglas treaties is a good example: no matter how well you meant by something, it’s up to future generations with their own interests to interpret and implement the structures you establish. The same dynamic exists today, for example in foreign aid and voluntourism. You may feel great about yourself for “helping,” and even be appreciated by the people there, but what are the long term structural implications of that engagement?
Allowed to forget the reasons for reserve allotment, access was opened up by the fisheries department.
The land reserves were unusually small because it was assumed that the livelihood of the natives came from the rivers, not the land. After years of infringement onto the already sparse land, the rivers were taken away as well, as the fisheries department opened them up for sport fishing and other uses.
Today the damage is unmended, results no-one intended, well meaning causes unduly commended
In the first version of this essay, I named Gilbert Sproat here. By all accounts he was a lovely man who earnestly meant well, argued for the allocation of enough land for natives to be able to be self-sufficient, and also pushed for improved access to elementary education. Wrote books including “The Nootka:Scenes and studies of savage life.” Though he resigned from the reserve commission in protest of their effectively genocidal aims, he also laid some of the groundwork for the devastation which was to come, and it’s an easy mistake to see him as a positive figure in the history of white-native relations.
Dynamic disuniformity generated deformity, scornfully, at turns informally, cordially or forcibly sovereign authority inflicted this paucity on what was the majority. Whatever became of constitutional priority?
During the period studied, natives were still the overwhelming majority in BC. The alternation between friendliness, informality, bigotry and violence, more than a single mode of engagement, was to blame for how bad things got. A foundational document in BC refers to the “constitutional priority” of protecting native land rights, but with white supremacists in power, this was completely ignored and replaced with genocidal practices.
Private property, once sought for protection, quickly became used as a tool for dispossession
In light of settlement, many natives were convinced that they should specify where they live so that they can be protected against infringement, but such specifications were then used against them to argue that all the land except where people were currently living should be up for grabs.
Foucault distinguished sovereignty from government, Tania Li and Nugent redefined state assessment.
Processes and projects frame coercive logics; practices and classist twists express interests of activists and pacifists and populists who might only care for opulence while the dominant’s centrality obscures true plurality. Every complex system displays dynamicality! So, as positions flip with the shifting conditions, you should never base a theory on just strict oppositions!
At the end of the day it’s not a matter of “government vs community,” or “whites vs natives” or “modernity vs tradition,” but of a tremendous diversity of beings with highly porous boundaries in complicated interactions, sometimes allying with or fighting one another, sometimes allying with former enemies or fighting former allies, sometimes splitting or amalgamating to form new groups. Some are tempted to demand freedom from government, but some method of resource distribution is important for continued mutual survival; abandonment is not a solution to suffering. However, governance and sovereignty are not the same as one another. We can acknowledge that it’s completely fucked up for the Queen to claim authority over unceded lands on the west coast, or for Canadians to take for granted their rights to whichever resources they want on the basis of the Queen’s sovereignty, and we can do that without rejecting the importance of some form of governmental structure to provide for the material and social needs of those who today live on the land, or for those who may do so in the future.