Sociological and Political Thought: Indigenous Perspectives

Thursday Jun 06 10:30 am to 12:00 pm
ANGU 435

Session Code: ISD4
Session Format: Regular
Session Language: English, French
Research Cluster Affiliation: Indigenous Settler Relations and Decolonization
Session Categories: Regular Session

This panel explores the relationship between sociological and political thought and Indigenous knowledges. What are the ways that sociological and political thought have engaged or, perhaps more often marginalized Indigenous ways of knowing? How do Indigenous knowledges shed new light on central sociological and political theories, concepts and methodologies, and how do they fundamentally challenge paradigmatic assumptions within these approaches? This panel invites both theoretical and empirical papers that look at these questions specifically through the foregrounding of Indigenous ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies. Tags: Indigenous Studies, Social Theory

Organizers: Elaine Coburn, York University, Yann Allard-Tremblay, Glendon College, York University, Vanessa Watts-Powless, McMaster University


Augustine Park, Carleton University

Transitional Justice, Settler Colonialism and Decolonising Concepts of Justice

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (and the broader Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of which the TRC is one part) represents a form of transitional justice.  While there is no consensus on a precise definition, transitional justice broadly confronts histories of mass political violence, has typically been associated with transitions from war to peace or the liberalisation of illiberal regimes, and is often pursued through trials, truth commissions, official apologies, reparations and various commemorative practices.  It is relatively recently that transitional justice has made its appearance in liberal democratic settler colonies to address settler colonial violence.  Transitional justice captures a wide range of institutions and practices, but it has also emerged as a large, autonomous, interdisciplinary field of scholarship grounded in western liberalism.  This paper interrogates the theoretical and normative assumptions of transitional justice as a body of knowledge to argue that transitional justice is not equipped to reckon with settler colonialism.  First, settler colonialism is different from the contexts of violence that transitional justice has historically addressed.  This essential difference poses a challenge to the transitional justice paradigm.  Second, to grapple with settler colonialism, transitional justice must shift its liberal theoretical and normative foundations in favour of the pursuit of decolonisation and place primary on Indigenous knowledges, which disrupts the dominant conception of transitional justice.  At the same time, settler scholars must examine the coloniality of western intellectual frameworks and thus unsettle settler knowledge about the meanings and practices of justice.

Steven Ray Orr, Carlton University; Sam Grey, Trent University

Political Philosophy in the Form of a Longhouse: Haudenosaunee Social Contract Praxis

The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace grounds what is normally an abstract set of social contract principles in a political philosophy that is simultaneously historical and lived. Whereas most social contract theory begins from an imaginary pre-civil society (with an accompanying understanding of human nature) and uses that to justify ideal theories of the state, the Great Law begins with the Five Nations and brings these already rational, social, and diverse human beings into a further unity through a praxis that, despite (because of?) its mytho-poetic style, provides a more compelling account than the pseudo-anthropological ‘thought experiments’ that populate the political philosophy canon. This paper analyzes the founding of the Confederacy as a lived social contract that is practiced in the historical record and by contemporary Haudenosaunee peoples, to present a political philosophy, rooted firmly in a North American experience and context, that offers an alternative to traditional theories.

Yann Allard-Tremblay, Glendon College, York University

The Two Row Wampum and Theorizing Democracy in America

Democracy is often associated with a specific historical narrative that traces its origins back to ancient Athens. According to this narrative, democracy is understood as an emancipatory form of government where a single people rules. In this paper, I oppose this narrative by showing how it may as well serve oppression and I offer an alternative narrative. To do so, I focus on the experience and the political thought of some the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. More precisely, I present the Two Row Wampum of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and engage in an interpretation of the political ideas and values it embodies to think about the meaning of a free polity and thus about how democracy should be theorized so as to truly serve freedom. In the first part of the paper, I present the Two Row Wampum. In the second, third and fourth parts, I explain the political relationship offered by the Two Row Wampum, how this political relationship is far from the actual political relationship between Indigenous peoples and the settler state, and how the current situation can be justified by ideas central to the mainstream narrative of democracy. In the last part, I argue, on the basis of the political ideas associated with the Two Row Wampum, that a free democratic polity is better conceived as one where respect, trust, responsibility and peace flourish between kins and where people can freely exercise their political agency to bring governance under their shared control.

Elaine Coburn, York University

"Telling Savage Stories": The Contrapuntal Writings of Emma LaRocque

This contribution briefly considers some of the wide-ranging theoretical and empirical insights developed by Indigenous academics, as a subset of contemporary Indigenous knowledges. This includes writing on gender and sexuality, urban indigeneity, peoplehood and polities, colonialism, antiracisms and decolonization, qualitative methodologies and Indigenous statistics, celebrity and consumerism, relationships with the land and with the academy, among many others. The aim of this brief survey is to gesture to the diversity of Indigenous insights, many with an obvious relevance for contemporary sociological inquiry. Next, I turn to the work of a single, salient Indigenous intellectual, Cree speaking Métis feminist Emma LaRocque. I point to the richness of her theorizing for understanding contemporary colonial relationships and the creative agency of Indigenous women, especially artists, in the reinvention of Indigenous social relationships and imaginaries.  This shift to the insights of a singular Indigenous scholar is meant to insist upon the importance of avoiding simple generalizations about “Indigenous” insights for sociology -- and to foster a nuanced, but also critical engagement with the specificity of one, particularly outstanding intellectual.