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Social Movement Studies: Journal of


Social, Cultural and Political Protest
Publication details, including instructions for authors and
subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/csms20

Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples,


Settler Colonialism and the Occupy
Movements in North America
Adam J. Barker

Department of Geography , University of Leicester , Leicester ,


UK
Published online: 09 Aug 2012.
To cite this article: Adam J. Barker (2012) Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples, Settler
Colonialism and the Occupy Movements in North America, Social Movement Studies: Journal of
Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11:3-4, 327-334, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2012.708922
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2012.708922

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Social Movement Studies,


Vol. 11, Nos. 3 4, 327334, August November 2012

Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples,


Settler Colonialism and the Occupy
Movements in North America
ADAM J. BARKER
Department of Geography, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

ABSTRACT Indigenous struggles in Canada and the USAthe northern bloc of settler
colonialismhave long been characterized by tactical occupations. It is often assumed that
Indigenous peoples concerns are congruent with those of the 99%: broad-based opposition to
economic and political marginalization, strong sub-currents of environmentalism and direct
democracy, and antipathy towards state violence. Indigenous people and groups have engaged with
Occupy, but have also raised powerful critiques of the goals, philosophies and tactics of various
Occupy movements. As a result, there have been changes within the praxes of Occupy, but also
conflict and disintegration. Many concerns of Indigenous peoples remain unaddressed; legacies of
historical colonization and the dynamics of contemporary settler colonialism are powerfully
entrenched. The Occupy movements seek to claim the spaces created by state power and corporate
wealthspecific sites such as Zuccotti Park or Wall Street, and general spaces of urban poverty and
suburban collapse. Indigenous occupations, by contrast, seek to reclaim and reassert relationships
to land and place submerged beneath the settler colonial world. These occupations question the
validity of settler colonial nation states. Simultaneously, the nationalistic, racialized content of
Occupy movements in North America does not just leave Indigenous peoples out; it situates Occupy
within a settler colonial dynamic, participating in the transfer of land and power to the hands of the
settler colonial majority. Settler colonialism provides a powerful lens through which to examine
SettlerIndigenous dynamics around Occupy.
KEY WORDS : Occupy, Indigenous, settler colonialism, decolonization, resistance

Introduction
The Occupy movements have staked their claim to large areas of political terrain in Canada
and the USA, drawing in anti-poverty and pro-immigration activists, non-governmental
organisations of all stripes and various other social movements. Because of the history of
colonial dispossession, it is often assumed that Indigenous peoples concerns are congruent
with those of the 99%: broad-based opposition to economic and political marginalization, strong sub-currents of environmentalism and direct democracy and antipathy
towards state violence. Indigenous people and groups have engaged with Occupy, and
have also raised powerful critiques of the goals, philosophies and tactics of various Occupy
movements. As a result, there have been changes within the praxes of Occupy, but also
Correspondence Address: Adam J. Barker, Department of Geography, University of Leicester, University Road,
Leicester LE17RH, UK. Email: ajb123@le.ac.uk
1474-2837 Print/1474-2829 Online/12/3 40327-8 q 2012 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2012.708922

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A.J. Barker

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conflict and disintegration. Many concerns of Indigenous peoples remain unaddressed;


legacies of historical colonization and the dynamics of contemporary settler colonialism
are powerfully entrenched.
The Occupy movement first began to grow and spread online, an environment conducive
to graphic design, with electronic posters and artwork being used to spread a variety of
messages. Some of the first notable clashes between Indigenous peoples and Occupy were
sparked by the images and wording being used on posters, pamphlets and online graphics.
Intended to publicize the movement and also draw explicit links with Indigenous struggles,
some messages badly missed their mark. Particularly notable is a poster intended to draw
attention to persistent colonial dynamics in Occupy Wall Street (Figure 1).

Figure 1. This graphic was widely distributed by Occupy groups online. The original creator is
unknown, and they may well be Indigenous. However, its popularity within Occupy, as blogger
Adrienne (2011) points out, is highly problematic.

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This poster, proclaiming the need to DECOLONIZE WALLSTREET, was heavily


critiqued. It is not difficult to see why: the message of the poster is confused. Despite the
location of Wall Street, the aesthetic is plains: images of Sitting Bull, buffalo and
arrowheads; a combination of colours often associated with the medicine wheel. This
aesthetic is commonly appropriated by Settler people in constructing myths of pure, noble
savages, implying an exile outside of contemporary events and into circumscribed
narratives (Adrienne, 2011). The text is also problematic. Wall Street is declared to be on
Algonquin land, but Algonquin is a language group, not a people; the land properly
belongs to the Lenape (Delaware). Supporters are exhorted to defend mother earth
(another overplayed trope), as if Indigenous concerns are strictly environmental, leaving
economic and political critiques to others.
This poster and the language of occupation more generally have cascaded into direct,
contentious discourses. A popular online article by Jessica Yee (Kanienkehaka/Mohawk)
encapsulates many of the concerns Indigenous communities have with Occupy (2011). For
settler states such as Canada and the USA, the reality of capitalist oppression is inseparable
from the history of colonization; the concerns of Indigenous communities are not
necessarily those of the 99% and occupation as term and tactic needs to be fundamentally
reconsidered. This last point is the most important: Canada and the USA collectively form
the northern bloc of settler colonialism. This space was created and has been perpetuated
through the production of a structure of invasion (Veracini, 2010). That invasion has
never ended; this space is already occupied (Yee, 2011).
In this context, it is important to remember that occupying particular sites has a long
history in Indigenous peoples resistance against colonial aggression (Kilibarda, 2012,
p. 36). Fundamentally, though, these occupations are different. The Occupy movements
seek to claim the spaces created by state power and corporate wealthspecific sites such
as Zuccotti Park or Wall Street, and more general spaces of urban poverty and suburban
collapse. Indigenous occupations, by contrast, have sought to reclaim and reassert
relationships to land and place submerged beneath the settler colonial world. Their
occupations do not question simply the divisions of wealth and power in the northern bloc;
they question the very existence of settler colonial nation states.
Pervasive Settler Colonialism
The relationships within and between the various communities converging around Occupy
are complicated and shifting. Settler colonialism does not explain the friction between
Occupy and Indigenous peoples in totality; however, it does provide a powerful lens
through which to examine Settler Indigenous dynamics around Occupy. Settler
colonialism is persistent and pervasive, and is one of the most powerful forces to shape
the North American social, political and economic landscapes. It cannot be ignored if for
no other reason than that it implicates almost every Settler person in its functioning.
The settler colonization of the Americas created a vast amount of wealth for colonizers,
while forcing Indigenous peoples to the extreme margins. It is impossible not to feel for
the American homeowners whose lives have been devastated by predatory banks and lax
regulations, or the increasing mass of the poor caught on one side of the widening wealth
gap. But at the same time, it cannot be ignored that American wealth (especially that of the
esteemed home-owning middle class) was and is generated from the exploitation of stolen
land. The dispossession of Indigenous peoples through a vast array of transfers

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(Veracini, 2010, pp. 35 50) enables invasive settler collectives to co-opt the power of
place: physical resources of minerals, timber, fertile land and conceptual power
relationships with the land enacted through private property and the nation state.
The diffuse nature of settler colonialism enables the perception that, while everyone
may be somehow connected to colonization, no one is responsible for it. Veracini
explains:
. . . a recurrent need to disavow produces a circumstance where the actual operation
of settler colonial practices is concealed behind other occurrences . . . . The settler
hides . . . behind the activity of settlers elsewhere, behind the persecuted, the
migrant, even the refugee . . . . The settler hides behind his labour and hardship . . . .
Most importantly, the peaceful settler hides behind the ethnic cleanser . . . . Settler
colonialism obscures the conditions of its own production. (Veracini, 2010, p. 14)
This denialnot of the existence of colonization, but of personal complicity (Regan,
2010, p. 45)makes settler colonialism very difficult to confront effectively. That these
elements manifest inside the Occupy movements is not surprising, but rather inevitable.
However, it is not only the persistence of settler colonialism within Occupy that is at issue;
it is also what settler colonialism reveals about the direction and intent of the Settler
majority that makes up Occupy.
Beyond the colonial accumulation of wealth and power, Settler people remain
preoccupied with naturalization. Veracini argues that all settler colonial societies desire to
supersede themselves, that is, to create a post settler polity. He describes settler colonial
societies as palindromes (Veracini, 2010, pp. 100 101) that must come full circle to
naturalize themselves in place, or be forever reminded of their status as foreigners and,
more accurately, invaders and exploiters. This necessitates the erasure of indigeneity from
place (Alfred & Corntassel, 2005, p. 598). Not just the physical erasure of indigenous
populations, either; the very memory of Indigenous ways of knowing and being must be
erased or subsumed into a multicultural Settler polity. In this way, the Indigenous Settler
divide disappears, and Settler people become naturalized as simply American,
Canadian or whichever other identity labels apply.
Kilibarda (2012) points out that themes of nationalism persist in the Occupy
movements. The narrative of reclaiming ones country from a corrupt few is a powerful
story. Selbins (2010) analysis of social movements reminds us that people respond to
stories that they know and build the narratives of social change as bricoleurs, using the
pieces of social memory and history that are available to them. In many ways, the Occupy
movements return to powerful settler colonial stories: the exceptional nation, individual
equality, a market that generates fundamental freedoms if only properly tended and
regulated. Despite the roots of capital accumulation in Indigenous dispossession, Occupy
has largely chosen to focus on the abuse of power and position by individuals and
corporations. This problem is to be addressed by mass collections of individuals: the
99%. Rather than addressing the roots of inequality in settler colonialism, the 99% seeks
to level the playing field within the imposed system of state and capital, completing the
settler colonial palindrome: Settler and Indigenous disappear, along with the history of
colonization, leaving only homogenized (liberal and progressive) rights-bearing
individuals. Settler colonial theory reveals this overlap between stories of national
liberation and histories of colonial dispossession in settler states.

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This overlap is evident to some extent in the way that Occupy movements conceptualize
themselves. The 99% moniker is both a powerful rallying cry and also a homogenizing
declaration (Kilibarda, 2012, pp. 30 32). In fact, Indigenous peoples are not part of the
99% in the way that most Settler people are (Yee, 2011). In order to enter the social space
of the 99%, Indigenous peoples must ignore generations of difference making and
marginalization by governments and Settler communities, and assume the role of a
politicized minority in solidarity with other minority groups making equivalent claims.
Participation is contingent on abandoning fundamental aspects of indigeneity.
Indigenous Struggles and Occupation
Perhaps it was inevitable that a movement for economic justiceeven framed in social
termswould not resonate with Indigenous activists. Indigenous peoples have contended
with colonial power since before the creation of the northern bloc settler states. The severe
deprivation and economic marginalization that is a feature of much of Indian Country
inspired similar Indigenous-led protests decades ago. In 1972, before anyone thought to
Occupy Wall Street, Indigenous activists were already occupying the Bureau of Indian
Affairs (BIA) offices. It is important to remember that despite centuries of genocidal
policies targeting indigenous lands, belief systems and bodies, indigenous communities
have nevertheless repeatedly managed to check the same capitalist system that #occupy is
now confronting (Kilibarda, 2012, p. 27). I would argue here that Indigenous
communities have more properly been checking the growth of settler colonial power,
manifested as capitalist exploitation and state oppression. These power dynamics have
been identified and engaged by Occupy movements as well; yet, there seems to be little
understanding of how Indigenous peoples experiences in resistance have informed
evolving goals, strategies and tactics, including that of occupation.
There is a certain frustration that undoubtedly arises for Indigenous peoples observing
Occupy movements trying to define themselves. In the early days of Occupy Wall Street,
discussions about economics and policy were quickly subsumed into discourses about the
practice of experimental and direct democracy. For Indigenous peoples, these discourses
must seem at turns ironic and absurd: privileged Settler people play-acting at freedom
while Indigenous peoples own fully functioning, traditional and tested forms of
governance have been derided and attacked for centuries. And while the protesters would
likely suggest that they are not the probleminstead citing government, military or
corporate structuresin the context of settler colonialism, this position is untenable. It is
too easy to point fingers at these large institutions of power and privilege. Indigenous
activists are aware of this. There are many signs of shifts in Indigenous praxis away from
contending with governments and institutions of power, and towards asserting differential
relationships to place in spite of (rather than against) colonial power structures (Alfred,
2005; Alfred & Corntassel, 2005).
Although, as noted, Indigenous struggles in the northern bloc have long been
characterized by tactical occupations, the motivations, goals and methods of occupying
have changed over time. Occupations of Alcatraz and the BIA Office in the 1960s and
1970s were intended to defy government dictatesasserting autonomyand to raise
public awareness. Later occupations, such as those in Tla-o-qui-aht (Clayoquot Sound) or
Burnt Church, brought more specific demands to bear, asserting control of particular
resources desirable to Settler society. However, these occupations have also been based on

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a subtext that is slowly, powerfully moving into the foreground: land is not so much
occupied as reclaimed. At issue is not just ownership or control, but rather ways of being
on and with the land. The goal is not to reform imposed systems such that Indigenous
peoples can equally benefit from them, but rather to fundamentally decolonize power and
place through a transformation of how people relate to and in place.
Indigenous scholars are articulating effective Indigenous activism as the act of
reconnecting with land, and through this, to identity, social cohesion and self-sufficiency
(Alfred, 2005). Increasingly, Indigenous activism is practised through the direct, collective
assertion of place-based relationships that inform a worldview encompassing individual
and group identities, resource acquisition and use, and governance structures and social
institutions. This can include non-indigenous participation, such as the cooperation
between Indigenous Hawaiians, anarchists and other activists in Hawaii (GoodyearKaopua, 2011). Indigenous peoples are willing to share the struggle, but only to the point
that the ultimate goal of liberation from colonial power, expressed through state and capital,
is achieved. Long before the goal of settler colonialism was clearly articulatedthe transfer
of all land from Indigenous to Settler control; the erasure and replacement of Indigenous
space with settler colonial spaces; the naturalization of Settler people on the land
Indigenous activists understood this inevitable trajectory and began moving to check it.
Either the goals of Indigenous liberation and the decolonization of the northern bloc have
been lost on many in Occupy, or they have been rejected. As noted, Occupy movements have
only partially engaged with Indigenous concerns. Despite a huge effort in both the online and
physical communities of Occupy Toronto, resistance to Indigenous leadership persisted.
Indigenous participants chose different forms of engagement, avoiding the GAs that
have come to characterize Occupy encampments and gatherings. Instead, Indigenous
activists tended a sacred fire at the Occupy Toronto site, asserting an Indigenous space
within the wider protest area. Furthermore, in January, Indigenous academics and activists
spoke at a public forum, Occupy Talks: Indigenous Perspectives on the Occupy
Movement. This forum, while reaching out to the Settler community, was not reconciliation
or reintegration, but an explanation of differences that Occupy Toronto had obfuscated.
Similar patterns occurred in Montreal, with Indigenous concerns portrayed as an add
on. In Vancouver, despite an initial acknowledgement of Indigenous territory and a strong
analysis of colonization throughout, many at the camp still had problems taking
leadership from indigenous peoples (Kilibarda, 2012, pp. 28 30). During the discussions
on the name change during Occupy Oakland, many of the Settler members of Occupy
clung to the name and moniker despite Indigenous protests. After voting down the
Indigenous activists proposed name change, the general assembly devolved into a mass of
shouting, arguments, confusion, protest and counter-protest (Ruiz-Lichter, 2011). It
remains to be seen if solidarity can be established under these circumstances.
Some Occupy activists have asserted that the occupations that they pursue are on par with
Indigenous occupations, as well as those in places such as Tahrir Square. These are
positioned as fundamentally different from colonial occupations. The assumption,
articulated by one blogger, is that there is a basic difference between oppressive occupation
by the 1 percent or the military machine, and liberatory occupations by protestors
(Damato, 2011). Meanings are ascribed to the term occupy that is assumed to have
universal resonance. Understanding of Indigenous difference and the differential
relationship that a history of settler colonialism has forged with the concept of occupation
is limited.

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In 2005, Alfred wrote that anti-globalization protestors appeared, to Indigenous eyes, as


nothing but staunch defenders of the first wave of globalization against the second
(Alfred, 2005, p. 235). The Occupy protestors may be more than this, but thus far their
unwillingness to engage with Indigenous concerns and settler colonial privilege in the
main seems to reinforce the point. The nationalistic, racialized nature of Occupy
movements in North America does not just leave Indigenous peoples out; it situates
Occupy as another settler colonial dynamic participating in the transfer of land and space
to the hands of the settler colonial majority. If that is the case, then Occupy activists should
not be surprised when Indigenous peoples confront them directly; Indigenous peoples
have far too much experience fighting for their survival and right to be on the land to be
drawn into another homogenizing rights and reformation discourse.
After all of this, though, there remains hope that Occupy and Indigenous peoples
movements can find common ground; though slight, changes have been made and
Indigenous activists, bloggers and scholars continue to engage with various Occupy
movements, and vice versa. Furthermore, there are non-indigenous activists involved in
Occupy and other movements that are aware of settler colonialism and move to challenge
it. One of those activists, Harsha Walia, sums up the dual need for engagement and
decolonization, asserting
non-natives must recognize our own role in perpetuating colonialism within our
solidarity efforts. We can actively counter this by . . . discussing the nuanced issues of
solidarity, leadership, strategy and analysisnot in abstraction, but within our real
and informed and sustained relationships with Indigenous peoples. (Walia, 2011).
In order for Occupy and Indigenous movements to truly support each other, decolonization
must be central to their future relationships.

References
Adrienne, K. (2011) Representing the native presence in the Occupy Wall Street narrative. Available at http://
nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2011/10/representing-native-resence-in-occupy.html (accessed 4 April
2012).
Alfred, T. (2005) Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press).
Alfred, T. & Corntassel, J. (2005) Being Indigenous: Resurgences against contemporary colonialism,
Government and Opposition, 40(4), pp. 597614.
Damato, P. (2011) To occupy or (un)occupy? Available at http://socialistworker.org/2011/11/07/occupy-or-uno
ccupy (accessed 4 April 2012).
Goodyear-Kaopua, N. (2011) Kuleana Lahui: Collective responsibility for Hawaiian nationhood in activists
Praxis, Affinities, 5(1), pp. 130 163.
Kilibarda, K. (2012) Lessons from #Occupy in Canada: Contesting space, settler consciousness and erasures
within the 99%, Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, 5, pp. 2441.
Regan, P. (2010) Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in
Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press).
Ruiz-Lichter, R. (2011) Open letter to the Occupy movement: The decolonization proposal, on-line (video).
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Selbin, E. (2010) Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story (London: Zed Books).
Veracini, L. (2010) Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Eastbourne: Palgrave Macmillan).
Walia, H. (2011) Decolonizing together: Moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of
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nizing-together (accessed 6 April 2012).

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Yee, J. (2011) OCCUPY WALL STREET: The game of colonialism and further nationalism to be decolonized
from the Left, Racialicious. Available at http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/30/occupy-wall-str
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Adam J. Barker is a postgraduate researcher focusing on settler colonialism and social


change, Department of Geography, University of Leicester. Originally from Haudenosaunee territory near Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, he identifies as a Settler Canadian
committed to decolonization.