when the colonizers imagine a criminal, do they picture cedar hats/ button blankets
that indian with her hunting rifle
that indian with his fish net
that indian with their eagle feather
that indian with their drum1
During the police raid on Wet’suwet’en territories in February 2020, approximately seventy tactical officers descended on a makeshift watchtower to arrest myself and three other Indigenous land defenders. They brought dogs, semiautomatic weapons, snipers, helicopters, snowmobiles, heavy machinery. They pointed their guns at us. They read the civil injunction over the sound of our drums. They removed us from the tower. They removed us from the territory. They brought us to jail. My work dwells in the carceral geographies created for Indigenous people through the collusion of the state and extractive industry. The spaces of unfreedom on unceded2 Indigenous territories. The bureaucratic criminalization of traditional activities through environmental permits, civil injunctions, industrial allowances. State activities that some experience as new expressions of fascism are, for us, timeless colonial techniques. Nothing has changed.3 Here, I exhume the traces of fascist practice in the everyday experience of colonial occupation. Instead of illuminating the forms of authoritarianism emerging in a formal political realm, I delve into the old colonial tricks that continue to motivate settler colonial dispossession, despite how democratic settler governments might appear.
i met my ancestors in jail
some blood memory awoke
to fluorescent lights and piss and
but my rage muscled out
and after 3 nights
when i emerged from the cell
we had shut down canada
and reconciliation was dead5
how many of my ancestors
held drums and sang,
at the barrel of a gun
this anger flows in my blood
fills my throat
we built a tower
stood on higher ground
screamed at the invaders
when we were surrounded
by the enemy
we kept singing
i dreamt once
i ripped out a human heart
with my hands
and when i awoke
i was calm as a frozen lake
some blood memory
The night before the raid, it is cold and clear. The moon is bright and casts crisp shadows on the snow. The ring around the moon glows, a message from our ancestors that we are protected, loved. Surrounded by kin.
We know the police are coming in the morning.
I do not sleep.
A raven warns us of their approach. We hear the drone, first, and the snowmobiles. Then see vehicles, police pouring out. Then see rustling in the bushes as they snowshoe the perimeter. Then the excavator, the chainsaws, to break down the barricades. Two black helicopters fly low, unloading tactical teams behind us. Two more. Two more. Two more. Eight in total. They have dogs. A sniper kneels behind a flipped over van and aims his weapon at us. We are surrounded, two of us on the tower, two in the bus below. They are all armed. Semiautomatic weapons, tactical gear. We call out the ones with name badges. Others are only marked by numbers; we call out to them as well.
you are invaders
this is conquest
this is genocide
we have permission to be here
we are unarmed
we have our ancestors behind us
think of your children
think of the river
think of the land
are you proud of yourselves
your spirits will never recover from this
i tell myself to be calm to move slowly.
I tell myself:
there are four of us
there are over 70 of them
they have come for us
their guns are for us
they have trained for this
The police move into the bus below and take my friends away. I sing the women’s warrior song6 until I am breathless. Then they begin to scale the tower. They cut our prayer ties off with a chainsaw. I cry angry tears. They ask if we will hurt them if they climb; we say that they are the violent ones. They put us in harnesses and lower us down with dead-eyed precision. They take us to jail.
We are encouraged to sign conditions of release that would disallow us from returning to Wet’suwet’en territory. These conditions are later dropped; we are released and later cleared. The entire police operation was mounted to clear a blockade to allow the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline to access the territory without the consent of house group chiefs. The entire police operation was mounted to undermine a system of Indigenous governance that predates Canadian occupation and settler law by thousands of years. The entire operation, the weapons, the lethal force, the millions of dollars spent—all were in service of enforcing a civil injunction.7
For months in the lead-up to the raid, we were painted as criminals for living as Indigenous people. The police knocked on the doors of our remote cabins just to “check in.” They recorded our movements and filmed our license plates. They followed us berry picking. They pulled us over on back roads. They strode into our encampments. They asked us for ID. They enforced nonexistent traffic control laws on remote forest service roads. They flew surveillance drones overhead and tracked our communications. They mapped our encampments with aerial surveillance. Our lives were tightly monitored and controlled. And, in the end, they did not have to press criminal charges to deploy dozens of armed and trained tactical forces, ready and able to kill.
Months after the raid, I have a dream that I am trapped in a police encampment. When I try to escape, I am stopped by a smiling white-haired policeman, who presses a gun to my temple. “I will shoot you.” He is still smiling. “And no one will care.” I wake up, but am I free from this dream? This nightmare?
This is what criminalization feels like.8
The omnipresence of state violence. It’s the atmosphere we live in.9 The air we breathe. The gaze of the state, the knowledge of the growing police files on each of us, the fear of slipping up. Paranoia. Worthlessness. Depression. The police invade our dreams. Etched over the unceded lands of Wet’suwet’en yintah are carceral geographies. The boundaries are patrolled; our actions are monitored. Spaces of unfreedom are a shadow over us. Every time we step into the light, we are reminded that it is illegal to seek our own liberation.
We must train ourselves in the laws of the colonizers. I spend months liaising with lawyers and preparing legal documents and advising the chiefs.10 In the end, the best advice I can give is that the courts will not serve us; this legal system is meant to displace us and reify colonial power. In the end, Indigenous laws are swept aside, and the uncertainty of Canada’s title is glossed over. Never mind that British Columbia has no legal title to these lands. Never mind that the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia11 decision affirmed that Indigenous title to these lands was never extinguished. Never mind the generations of oral history proving that Wet’suwet’en house chiefs have occupied and cared for their territories for thousands of years. The colonizers have the power to violently enforce their laws, so their laws prevail.12 Industry uses every loophole to check the boxes they need to continue. Consent doesn’t matter. The project pushes on.13
When the daily police patrols, the jeering white supremacists, the surveillance and threat of violence starts to wear on us, we remind each other that we have done nothing wrong. That we are not criminals. That we are defending the land. That we love the land and each other. But the feeling remains, tugging at the edges of our consciousness. They decide when we become criminals. It could happen at any time, for any reason. The police are on foot, at our smokehouses and cultural sites, patrolling with semiautomatic weapons. They stop our relatives when they come back from hunting. They respond to “gunshots” like we are on a city street and not in the bush. We hear that our relatives in Mohawk territory are being arrested, alone, pulled from their homes weeks and months after clashes with police. Picked off on trumped-up charges, out of the tenuous protection of the media spotlight.
This is what criminalization feels like.
We do not walk in two worlds. Or the two worlds are not the old ways and the modern world, as some would have it. We exist, on our lands, within a web of relations that are as old as time itself. When we defend the land, we are not creating barriers to outside forces but deepening connections and responsibilities that have always been there. Connections and relations that have held us and shaped us and created us as peoples.
Colonial power attempts, at every turn, to redefine our worlds. To draw the old meanings out of our lives and inscribe these colonial relationships on everything. To make us think this is the way it must be, has always been. Our hunting grounds become construction sites. Our ancient trails become highways. Our rivers are technical problems. Our medicines are cleared for more profitable things. We are meant to look at the photograph of the police officer beside our smokehouse and see nothing unusual. The daily patrols fold into the rhythm of life for us. Police control is normalized. Our existence has always been criminal.
We walk in our own world, this world born of rivers spilling from Raven’s beak, this world watched over by glacier women, this world where light spills from cedar boxes into the sky, this world where our ancestors walk and whisper to us from mossy corners of the forest.
And the colonizers, they walk all over us.
Here is what we must remember. When the police patrol ancient trails, they are walking in a world in which they do not and cannot belong. A world that will not claim them as it claims us. Our storytelling is powerful, because it is a reminder of our belonging. A reminder that the invasion, the conquest, is not normal or natural or the way things need to be. A reminder that we are connected to this land. We need to choose to live in this reality. The one where we are free and autonomous on our lands. The one where our lives and stories matter. This other world is a smokescreen, a cheap simulation, and we can see through it.
When we speak of decolonization, or land back, or whatever the current language of resistance offers, we are talking about peeling back this layer of violence that has (literally) settled over Indigenous lands. We are talking about naming this system as oppressive, violent, foreign, and out-of-place.14 These lands do not belong to Canada, and Canada does not belong here. We are talking about treating our Indigenous laws as if they are the Law (they are), about treating Indigenous peoples as if they are the People (we are), about treating other oppressed people here as our honored guests, about finding reciprocal relations with those who are capable and powerful and generous enough to return the gifts we have given them.
Neofascist and white supremacist movements also attempt to make a deeply hierarchical social order appear to be the natural order of things. This is an old colonial trick and one that Indigenous people know about. We can be on the lookout for the naturalization of the carceral. Who belongs in power? Who belongs in jail? When does the “rule of law” apply? How is our mobility limited? When are our movements surveilled? How are our actions made suspect? Whose power is threatened by our existence? Carcerality seeps into our relations. Into our dreams. But we can shake off this illusion. Colonizers have never been much good at magic.
On the top of the tower, I feel a circle around me like the ring around the moon. The matriarchs are drumming for us. The ancestors are holding us and protecting us. I am wearing my mother’s parka; I gather it around me. Looking out over the snow below, drab police teeming at the base of the tower, I see the layer underneath. I peel away this illusion of control, of ownership, of colonization. They do not belong here. They do not belong to this land. We have permission to be here. Our ancestors are behind us. Our spirits will recover. We can dream something different.
Anne Spice (she/they) is a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dun First Nation, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at X University, and an associate fellow at the Yellowhead Institute. They have been actively supporting Indigenous land reoccupations since 2015, and their work dwells in the intersection of Indigenous geographies, histories and futures of Indigenous resistance, poetry, and art. Their writing has been published in Environment and Society, Jacobin, New Inquiry, and Asparagus Magazine.
I switch genres to avoid capture. I shape-shift to avoid capture. I learned from Raven. Raven who knew when to walk on human feet and when to fly. Raven who knew when to escape and live to tell the story. The language of the colonizers is easily appropriated. Scholarship can be a technology of capture. When I start to sense they’re onto me, I change it up. Quote this piece in your police report, I dare you. Remain unmoved.
Wet’suwet’en territory is unceded, meaning it has never been surrendered through treaty or war. The provincial and Canadian governments have no treaty agreements, no legal paperwork through which they can claim the territory as belonging to anyone other than the Wet’suwet’en people.
At the same time, everything has changed. We’ve lived through apocalypse, genocide. The colonizer now knocks on our doors to invite us to the table, to join in negotiations. The colonizer wants reconciliation without giving up control. The timeless colonial techniques fold in new tactics to pacify us: the politics of recognition holds up our cultures but not our law and governance. See Glen Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), and Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). Here is the thing that is fascist about it: we never consented to be governed in this way, and our old ways are not allowed. No amount of recognition will give us back our autonomy, will bring back the millions lost to war and disease, will give us back the children stolen and assimilated, will convince us that this new “democracy,” cribbed from notes on the French Revolution and the Iroquois Confederacy, gives us more freedom than what we had when we were exercising our own peoples’ rights to govern in accordance with natural law, in accordance with our inherent title to our lands, in good relation with the land and with each other. In the meantime, the “rule of law” contains us to the reservation, incarcerates us at alarming rates, guarantees premature death, limits the possibilities of life. The colonizers will grieve with us when we describe what we’ve lost, but they will not let us protect the little we have left.
The Gidimt’en access point was set up forty-four kilometers along the Morice River West forest service road in 2018, to buffer the neighboring Dark House territory and protect the land-based healing work of the Unist’ot’en Healing Center (located at sixty-six kilometers along the forest service road). The first raid of the checkpoint occurred on January 7, 2019, and the actions of police—including the use of “lethal overwatch”—elicited a national outcry. For details, see Jaskiran Dhillon and Will Parrish, “Exclusive: Canada Police Prepared to Shoot Indigenous Activists, Documents Show,” The Guardian, December 20, 2019, https://
www .theguardian .com /world /2019 /dec /20 /canada -indigenous -land -defenders -police -documents). The second set of raids on Wet’suwet’en territory occurred in February 2020 and are described in this piece.
After the February 2020 raids, solidarity actions across the country shut down railways, highways, ports, bridges, and offices under the hashtags #ShutDownCanada and #ReconciliationIsDead. The rail blockades, especially those on Mohawk territories, paralyzed the Canadian economy, made national headlines for weeks, and catalyzed a series of negotiations between Indigenous leaders and Canadian politicians.
The women’s warrior song was given to Martina Pierre of the Lil’wat nation. According to my late friend and mentor Brian Grandbois, the song first came to her in jail during the 1990 Lil’wat blockade (a four-month highway occupation begun in solidarity with the Kanehsatà:ke Mohawks in the siege at Oka).
The Secwepemc leader Arthur Manuel referred to the injunction as a “legal billy club,” noting that “the weight of this club is provided by the racist colonial doctrines of discovery claiming that we have been fully and irreversibly dispossessed of our territories. That is the underpinning behind the Canadian state’s vision of Crown land, and it’s the force behind the injunctions that industry and governments use to get enforcement orders that allows them to use the police, paramilitaries and even the army to crush our efforts to inhabit the lands given to us by our Creator.” Arthur Manuel, The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land Rebuilding the Economy (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2017), 215. In a policy paper released by the Yellowhead Institute, they found that “76% of injunctions filed against First Nations by corporations are granted, while 81% of injunctions filed against corporations by First Nations are denied.” Yellowhead Institute, Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper (Toronto: Ryerson University, October 2019). CGL’s original application for injunction is analyzed in Yellowhead Institute, “An Analysis of Coastal GasLink’s Notice of Application for Injunction,” accessed November 3, 2021, https://
redpaper .yellowheadinstitute .org /wp -content /uploads /2019 /11 /coastal -gaslink -injunction -analysis .pdf.
Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark discusses how Indigenous criminality is constructed by the U.S. and Canadian governments throughout the nineteenth century to mask colonial illegality, to impose colonial law, and to reify settler sovereignty. Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, “Criminal Empire: The Making of the Savage in a Lawless Land,” Theory and Event 19, no. 4 (2016), https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/633282.
Kristen Simmons describes “settler atmospherics” as “the normative and necessary violences found in settlement—accruing, adapting, and constricting indigenous and black life in the U.S. settler state.… Some of us cannot breathe.” Kristen Simmons, “Settler Atmospherics,” Society for Cultural Anthropology (website), November 20, 2017, https://
culanth .org /fieldsights /settler -atmospherics.
This was in preparation for the court hearing that would determine whether the interim injunction would be expanded to an interlocutory injunction. The court’s granting of the interlocutory injunction in December 2019 resulted in the police enforcement actions described in this piece.
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) 3 SCR 1010. The Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa court case determined that Aboriginal title still exists on Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territories and has not been extinguished by the province or through settler occupation of Indigenous lands. The affidavits from the case make clear that the title holders on Wet’suwet’en territory are the hereditary chiefs whose names tie them to the house group territories for which they are responsible.
One of the most recurrent questions as the injunction case was heard in court was: Why doesn’t the Delgamuukw decision matter? Shouldn’t the precedent be to recognize Aboriginal title, to respect Indigenous law? Justice Church dodged this by insisting that, while the Wet’suwet’en may have legitimate claim to their territory (and therefore the ability to make decisions about access and any industrial projects on it), that was a question for a higher court. The work of the civil injunction is to separate the question of whether an injunction is necessary from the status of the land over which the injunction applies. In essence, she ruled that CGL could legitimately obtain an injunction against Wet’suwet’en people on Wet’suwet’en land and that injunction could be enforced. The fact that the Crown has no legal claim to the land in question becomes a question for a later date and higher court, and one that would require a massive title case (and millions of dollars) to fully resolve. This is understandably infuriating for Wet’suwet’en people who spent ten years (and millions of dollars) advocating for their jurisdiction on their house group territories through the Delgamuukw court case already, only for the decision to be inapplicable when a territorial dispute actually occurs.
Resource wealth continues to be extracted from Indigenous territories in the name of national prosperity, and petro-fueled capitalist accumulation requires infrastructures of invasion to gain access to lands under Indigenous jurisdiction. Anne Spice, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society 9, no. 1 (2018), 40–56.
The line between colonial capitalism and fascism is blurred. Fascist practice is evident when the state uses violence to undermine the will of the people, to consolidate control outside of community decision-making processes, and to criminalize and punish dissent. Indigenous liberation movements are anticolonial, and so they are antifascist, and there is much possibility for combining Indigenous strategies against colonization with antifascist organizing. I deliberately refuse to differentiate between the “colonial” and “fascist” forces we oppose, because I think that antifascist organizing often ignores the (centuries) of experience that Indigenous peoples have in standing up to the imposition of state violence, surveillance, military occupation, and extralegal violence. We can unite against the codification of white supremacy within settler-state institution and agree that when we fight “the colonizers” and “the fascists,” we are likely talking about the same systems and people.