Struggles Against Enclosure: Black and Indigenous Pedagogies of Resistance

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

In Part I, I examined and critiqued various forms of enclosure, and how they are reproduced through the practices and institutions of schooling. Just as these enclosures have functioned as mechanisms of dispossession, extraction and exploitation, for purposes of capital accumulation and social control, it is also true at every historical juncture, that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have been engaged in a continuity of resistance. While in some cases these efforts have been reactive, a direct response to the most egregious trespasses of State and Capital, I believe in most cases resistance has taken the form of resilience, that is, efforts to preserve, protect, and regenerate our bodies, minds, spirits, as well as our lands and relationships to each other. 

Here I explore some of these epistemologies and ontologies, particularly within the context of education. I will emphasize the theories and practices of Black and Red Indigenous peoples, and also give particular attention to where each of these intersects with environmental stewardship. 

In exploring various Red pedagogies [1]Grande, S. (2010). Chapter 21: Red Pedagogy. Counterpoints, 356, 199-207.[2]Grande, S. (2015). Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers., I identify common themes which extend from precolonial Indigenous practices to more contemporary  attempts to work within and in direct response to settler colonialism, such as the survival schools built by the American Indian Movement. I will examine explicit decolonial practices, from the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil (MST) to the project of radical resurgence being advanced by a plurality of indigenous scholars and activists, most notably Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Sandy Grande. 

I justify the synthesis of these practices under the umbrella of “Red Pedagogy” through what the people have in common: classification as indigenous people, and what seems to be a thematic through-line regardless the part of the world to which they are indigenous. Naturally, this raises an important question, often taken for granted:

Who is indigenous?

Qualifying Indigeneity

In global discourse, there is a vague understanding of indigeneity — who “has it” and who doesn’t. The violent relations between indigenous and settler subjectivities are predicated upon dislocation. First Nations in Canada, Native Americans in the United States, Aboriginal Australians, and the Maori of New Zealand “have it”, while Europeans, for the fact that they have colonized the world, do not. Black people of the African diaspora, even on the continent, are rarely coded as “indigenous” here in the West, outside of academic circles. This in spite of meeting every reasonable criteria, and in some sense arguably the only truly indigenous humans anywhere on Earth, given the African origin hypothesis. What does it mean that Black people aren’t recognized as indigenous where we come from and unwelcome everywhere else? It is the same logic that relegates us to the status of non-entity, property, and fodder throughout history. 

The “settler-native-slave triad” does not help us define indigeneity, because it requires colonization as its reference frame, and the settler as its axis. The term “indigenous” only exists by comparison to its opposite in the settler, “in contrast to and in contention with the colonial societies and states that have spread out from Europe and other centres of empire”.[3]Alfred, T., & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against contemporary colonialism. Government and opposition, 40(4), 597-614. Just as the slave only exists by comparison to a “master”, who is usually also the settler. 

Indigenous people’s terms for themselves in their own languages usually translate simply as “people”, or refer to some characteristics of the lands they occupy. Therefore, the “indigenous” are defined merely by their personhood with respect to place, and their “struggle against the dispossessing and demeaning fact of colonization by foreign peoples”.[4]Alfred, T., & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against contemporary colonialism. Government and opposition, 40(4), 597-614. For the fact that the colonial intervention itself sets the terms for indigeneity — and for Blackness — it is worth unsettling these terms.

The status of people who are displaced or relocated — always through violence — such as immigrants, refugees, and descendants of the enslaved, is variably contentious by location. What’s interesting is that indigenous people seem to carry this marker with them, even when they leave the land of their birth, as in the case of Native Americans forcefully removed to reservations, or certain Central American migrants who come to the United States. What this suggests is that indigeneity is less about geographic location, and more about relationship to land. What indigenous people carry with them are collective memories and cultural practices of right-relationship to the land, which naturally inform how they situate themselves in their new locations. 

An obvious fact, though seldom discussed, is that everyone is indigenous to some place, along some historical continuity. It is not people’s dislocation from that place, temporally and spatially, which “de-indigenizes” them, but the relationship to place they carry with them and pass on memetically through culture and across generations. If a people’s relationship to place is mediated by scarcity — as it was for Europeans, dispossessed themselves by enclosure and colonization — they will likely enter any new location in the extractivist mode. 

For the purposes of this essay series, I am considering two parallel classifications with respect to how people relate to land: 1) when they or their ancestors arrived and 2) the power relations inherent to their arrival. The first classification has five categories:

  • Indigenous — person whose ancestors have been here for generations and have a historical relationship to the land itself
  • Native — born here, even if family migrated; no necessary relationship to land
  • Settled — person who has lived here for significant part of their life and plan to stay for the long term
  • Relocated — person forced to come here by external circumstances
  • Visiting — person here temporarily or intermittently

Each of these classifications occur along a spectrum, meaning that people can hold more than one relationship to place simultaneously, or exist in an intermediary space. Again using the example of descendants of enslaved people, we might be both “native” in terms of where we are born, and “relocated” with respect to the power relations that brought our ancestors here. 

I am native to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, my historical relations extending back over 100 years and four generations. I do not identify as “indigenous”, for I feel that classification belongs to the Lenni Lenape, the original inhabitants — and more importantly, the stewards — of these lands. My reasons for distinguishing myself as a non-Indigenous person are three-fold. First, I am able to access the records of my family’s migration from various points south, indicating that we are “from” some other place. Second, all of my known ancestors can at some point be traced back to Africa and Europe. Historically, by way of my African ancestry, I am relocated, and with respect to my European relations, a visitor, and then a settler — not here in the U.S., but in the Caribbean. That side of my family would not arrive in Philadelphia until my mother came, at the invitation of my father, a third generation native.

Third, and in my view, most importantly, neither I nor my family have had any physical, cognitive, emotional, or spiritual connection to this particular land. Some of my ancestors were land stewards in the Southern U.S., but as of our migration here to Philadelphia, apparatuses of labor and capital have mediated our access to and engagement with land. 

The second classification has three categories, and is only relevant if the person in question is not indigenous by the first set of criteria. However, indigeneity in this case should be localized, recognizing the sovereignty of particular clans, tribes, and nations.

  • Invader — one who has imposed themselves, physically, culturally, ideologically, upon Indigenous/Native people and land not only without consent but against it, and usually with violence; this positionality can be historical (e.g. descendants of settler colonists) or recent (e.g. gentrifiers).
  • Tourist — one who occupies space with the tentative, conditional, and/or temporary consent of Indigenous/Native people, and for their material benefit or that of the land.
  • Guest — one who is explicitly invited to occupy the space; this consent/permission can be granted retroactively, as in the case of those who were forcefully relocated recently (refugees) or historically (descendants of the formerly enslaved)

My use of these particular terms was inspired by an article by Nisi Shawl, discussing invaders, tourists, and guests, within the context of cultural appropriation in speculative fiction. 

Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance. Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable. Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.[5]Shawl, N. (2004). Appropriate cultural appropriation. International Review of Science Fiction.

While I find Shawl’s framing useful, I mean to use these terms in their original material context. 

There’s a tension between indigeneity as tied to specific places and cultural distinctions between tribes, and indigeneity as a broad quasi-racial category based on the historical relationship to the whole of Turtle Island. A person or group’s indigeneity is often removed from their race, as in the case of culturally Indigenous people who are racially white, or Afro-indigenous people. Indigenous lineages are characterized by the transmission of culture — and with it a relationship to land — rather than by phenotypes or proportions of blood, as imposed on Black and Indigenous people through the “one-drop“ rule and blood quantum.a 

So, who is indigenous? While I do not feel qualified to make a definitive claim, what feels essential is a historical continuity between a person and the land — even and perhaps especially if severed by colonial intervention — a lineage drawn not in blood, but in reciprocal relations of sustenance and stewardship. 

Because indigeneity is contingent upon geographic and environmental contexts — i.e. “place” and “situatedness”, the pedagogical details may vary, but all practices discussed here fall into seven thematic categories:  

  • Learning as lived experience — everyday learning which occurs through observation and interactions with one’s immediate social, cultural, and ecological context
  • Learning in community  — sharing knowledge between clans, tribes, nations, and to more than human relations, what the Nishnaabeg call “visiting”
  • Cultural continuity — preserving and/or restoring language, culture, and history
  • Environmental knowledge — the knowledge and skills to derive the means of living from the land and to sustain the land base for future generations, and understanding land as teacher, process, and context.
  • Knowledge ecologies — learning through a deep relationality between people, plants, animals, and the land, across physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual dimensions
  • Visioning — indigenous dreaming, theorizing, and prefiguring, in order to build a decolonial future
  • Political Action — cultivating political awareness and vision, working in solidarity with other communities, toward goals of decolonization, sovereignty, and self-determination

In the same way that I challenge the definition of “indigenous” or “Red”) I must also challenge the definition of “Black”. If all people are indigenous (and therefore “Red”) in the places from which they come, is Blackness qualified by degree of subordination or domination — again with the settler/master as reference — or is there a more essential definition? 

The Infinite Void of Blackness

Inherent to Blackness is a relegation to the “void”, a place where we remain unseen as human beings and punished for any attempt to become visible. But if ”Black” represents the slave, what does this mean in relation to the other vertices within the settler-native-slave triad? As Garba and Sorentino argue, the enforced polarity of the settler and native would seem to reinforce blackness as an ontological zero — a non-entity — which is transformed into “either a colonised or proto-settler position”.[6]Garba, T., & Sorentino, S. M. (2020). Slavery is a Metaphor: A Critical Commentary on Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”. Antipode, 52(3), 764-782.

Yet there is a particular attention, a violent gaze, which regards Blackness — black bodies in particular — as the excess of production, which must be externalized as the cost of production, or failing these, eliminated. Our labor is enclosed from our bodies, the former put to settler purpose, the latter marked for destruction in order to clear space (land) for more extraction and production.

the slave’s very presence on the land is already an excess that must be dis-located. Thus, the slave is a desirable commodity but the person underneath is imprisonable, punishable, and murderable.[7]Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).

This is different from whiteness, which also functions as a form of erasure, a divorce from culture and spirituality, the reduction of a whole self to a body strategically positioned as a placeholder for power. 

What, then, do I mean by “Black pedagogy”? That which emerges from the void, to demand visibility? Or that which dwells within the void — the marronage — rejecting evaluation or validation from dominant forces and paradigms? There is something to be said for embracing the darkness, for willfully occupying the margins and achieving self-determination outside systems of surveillance and domination. Here being “invisible” or “unseen” can provide a kind of safety, as where AI algorithms code Black people as animals, or fail to see us altogether. After all, do we even want to be visible to these predatory systems? The void also represents an original state of being, infinite potential, that which is not defined, and therefore not limited by the “illumination” of the white gaze.

Important to note here is that Black pedagogies are a response, an adaptation, and a resistance to the institution of slavery and its afterlife, recognizing the construction of Blackness within the settler-native-slave triad. Education taken up by Black people prior to slavery are instead classified under Red Pedagogies, as they extend from and connect back to our African indigeneity.

Black Pedagogies extend from the understanding that knowledge is power — the very reason it was forbidden to the enslaved — and not just any power, but the ability to be self-determined, liberated from subordination to capital and control of the state. From this premise, Black pedagogies tend to be organized within or at the intersection of six themes: 1) Matter and Spirit — the holistic focus on “body and soul”, addressing both the short and long term material needs, as well as the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual needs; 2) Cultural Education for the cultivation and preservation of self-knowledge, community, history, and lifeways;  3) Political Education, which hones our critical lens, allowing us to identify the structures of our oppressions, and organize to dismantle them. 4) Community education emerges from the understanding of how education at the behest of a white supremacist state only reproduces relations of domination, and where those institutions cannot be reconfigured toward Black purpose, 5) Fugitivity and Marronage are strategies for escape  — whether brief respite or permanent sanctuary. It is within these spaces that we have the time to 6) Freedom Dream, theorize, study, plan, and prefigure the world we want.

Red, Black, and Green

For both Black and Indigenous people, there have been tensions between the cultural and the political, manufactured by State and Capital in order to disrupt our collective lifeways and to continue the project of settler colonial capitalist exploitation and domination. From these tensions emerge practices of cultural recognition as an end in itself, as with certain so-called “Afrocentric” programs, and the “cultural resurgence” movements of some Indigenous scholars, which enclose the cultural and political into separate domains. This separation allows cultural resurgence efforts to take place within the settler colonial structure, where ”it is not concerned with dispossession, whereas political resurgence is seen as a direct threat to settler sovereignty[8]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press.. I call attention to these practices in order to isolate and excise them from the continuity of liberatory practices. 

Because it is difficult to clearly define and delineate Black and Red, it is more interesting to me to explore what dwells within the liminal spaces, the overlaps, and at the edges.

With respect to “green pedagogy”, I aim to unsettle mainstream ideas of “education for sustainability” (EFS), which is too often predisposed to merely “softening” the impacts of extraction and exploitation, rather than digging up the common roots of what plagues both people and planet: white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, and the violence they usher forth.  I will discuss the evolution of EFS into “place-based education”, and its further refinement into land-based education, which embodies the radical continuity of ancestral and contemporary engagements of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people with land and the more-than-human world. 

Ultimately, my goal is to synthesize a Red, Black, and Green ecology — abandoning “pedagogy” altogether in favor of education as the disruption of existing systems and the building of new ones — one might call this abolition — prioritizing relationality between people, and most importantly, education as the experience of living — of thriving — in right relationship with more-than-human nations and the planet as a whole.

a It is important to note here that some Indigenous groups recognize the Dawes rolls, and blood quantum, as valid qualifiers of tribal affiilation.