Listen Now

The erasure of Indigenous thought in foreign policy

Where is the acknowledgement of — and engagement with — Indigenous thought in the development of international relations and the practice of foreign policy? Hayden King calls out the field’s glaring gaps and asks whether a different kind of foreign policy is possible or even desirable.

By: /
31 July, 2017
"Nimaamaa." Illustration by Chief Lady Bird
Hayden King
By: Hayden King
Gchi'mnissing Anishinaabe writer and educator

I spent some of the best days of my childhood on the West Beach of the Anishinaabe community Gchi’mnissing, an Island First Nation in southern Georgian Bay, Ontario.

The thrill of jumping into the back of a pick-up truck and bouncing over bumpy dirt roads, dodging the outstretched birch and maple branches to get to what I remember as a magical spot is something that I roll over in my mind on days I think about the Island. There was another beach, arguably more beautiful, but it was primarily for the cottagers who spent their summers on our reserve.

Then when I was a teenager my Dad bought a little boat, white with a red stripe and a tiny cabin for sleeping. He named it “Bad Apples” and my family would load it up with groceries, sometimes a pig to roast, and we’d spend our summer weekends camped on the shores of one of the reserve’s uninhabited outer Islands, a place called Beckwith.

Beckwith was popular with non-Native yachtsmen and women, too. On long weekends my friends and I would try to count all of their shining boats from high on a sand dune: 90, 100, 120. Then we’d race through the narrow woodland channel, past the Island’s sole outhouse, back to the other side of Beckwith where there were fewer boats, mostly aluminum and disintegrating fiberglass. The water was more shallow here, the sand thicker with moisture and pocked by grass. But it was ours, the Indian side.

This type of arrangement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians might be conceptualized as politics, indeed effective diplomatic practice in an imperfect world. But for the scholars and practitioners in the field of foreign policy it is invisible. Likewise with the more provocative type of Indigenous diplomacy: the countless blockades to protect the land and water, land and treaty claims, the Idle No More movement, and so on. In the discipline of International Relations (IR), too, Indigenous philosophy and politics has been excused, marginalized and categorized as domestic, at best.

Indeed, the centuries of colonization that have subjugated Indigenous political communities are the foundation on which contemporary thinking about ‘the global’ has revolved. In this sense, foreign policy and IR are implicated in both spawning and sustaining settler colonialism in Canada. As a result, there is a need to chart the links between these processes and consider the shape and content of long-neglected Indigenous philosophies of the international. For as long as settler colonialism defines the limits of what is possible for foreign policy, the relationship (or, the politics) between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous will continue to be characterized by conflict.

Foreign policy, but in whose national interest?

For those studying and working in foreign policy, there are certainly debates over what constitutes the definition of the field. In Canada, there are debates about what counts as foreign policy (defence, security, trade, peacekeeping) and also how to approach those subjects (from liberal frameworks, realist, even some critical lenses). In his textbook on foreign policy Kim Nossal notes that the field is inherently divisive, emerging from “the interplay of conflicting interests, divergent objectives, contending perceptions, and different prescriptions about the most appropriate course of action.”

Yet despite these divisive debates, there is near universal acceptance of two core assumptions: the legitimacy of the Canadian state itself as the primary actor in foreign policy and the concept of the national interest, which the field of foreign policy strives to serve. This is no surprise, really, considering these assumptions are underwritten and supported by every domestic institution — from Canada’s constitutional sources, to the cultural organizations that currently promulgate the fantasy of Canada as 150 years of glowing hearts, or decisions of the Supreme Court that reflect on the “assertion of Crown sovereignty” without ever explaining how that sovereignty was obtained.

But for critical Indigenous scholars, these assumptions are myths that form not a legitimate state in the community of nations, but rather a violent settler colony.

Flower break Indigenous

Between 1921 and 1923, after many years of resistance to the young countries, Canada and the United States were steadily encroaching into Haudenosaunee territory and governance. Cayuga Chief Deskaheh, also known as Levi General, travelled to London, England, to appeal to King George on the matter. (He wasn’t the first or last to appeal to a King or Queen; Anishinaabe leader Shingwaukonse actively attempted to, post-War of 1812, and Chief Theresa Spence did so in 2013, among many others). But when King George refused him, Deskaheh turned to the Geneva-based League of Nations, seeking a seat for the Haudenosaunee. With his efforts undermined by English officials there too, he returned home but was stopped at the U.S.-Canada border and turned away by Canadian border guards. He spent his final days in Rochester, New York.

Before his death he made one last plea to ordinary Canadians and Americans for justice: “Do you believe — really believe — that all peoples are entitled to equal protection of international law now that you are so strong? Do you believe — really believe — that treaty pledges should be kept? Think these questions over and answer them to yourselves…We have little territory left — just enough to live and die on [because] the governments of Washington and Ottawa have a silent partnership of policy. It is aimed to break up every tribe of red men so as to dominate every acre of their territory.” (His plea is documented in Rick Monture’s We Share Our Matters.)

The last two sentences of this quote are an apt description of modern settler colonialism, nearly 100 years before scholars identified the process. For anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, there is a distinction between colonialism, which eventually ends when the invaders leave, and settler colonialism, where they don’t. While in the former formulation the Indigenous population is often transformed to labour for colonial extraction, in the latter, the settler colony attempts to liquidate all remnants of the previous (Indigenous) societies to legitimize its permanent presence. Deskaheh was speaking in the North American context, Wolfe in the Australian, but the phenomenon can be seen elsewhere, from Aotearoa/New Zealand to Palestine/Israel.

Common strategies in this liquidation are as follows: physical extermination; oppressive Indian legislation designed to contain; the creation of reserves/reservations/settlements, residential or boarding schools; discrimination aimed specifically at women; and eventually legal absorption into state apparatuses and assimilation. While the genocidal nature of settler colonialism may not appear as physical violence today (though we do still have plenty of that), the underlying motivation to expunge threats to settler sovereignty endures.

But where the specific harms of the field of foreign policy come into greater focus are in crafting a common sense around what counts as a legitimate politics of the international. Consider the core concepts of the field, or at least the discipline of IR that foregrounds foreign policy. I think its fair to say most traditional perspectives view the international system as an anarchic environment where self-interested and (mostly) rational states compete against each other for power. Or, in contrast, they may cooperate. For foundational IR scholar Hedley Bull, this simple formulation is “the supreme normative principal of the political organization of mankind.”

Canadian foreign policy is a foreign policy that normalizes and affirms settler colonialism.

I don’t need to elaborate on these concepts for this audience. But, what about political communities that do not resemble a state, that eschew coercive notions of exclusive sovereignty, that are bound by obligations and responsibilities to the land and thus do not recognize an anarchic world, political communities that do not start and end with men? The discipline of IR, as well as practice of foreign policy, effectively casts Indigenous peoples as primitive (or at least inferior), sanctions the theft of their lands, and then forecloses the possibility of resurgent political communities.

At a fundamental level the perpetuation of this conceptual galaxy denies opportunities for Indigenous expressions of liberation — whether the case is the Six Nations of the Grand River, whose demands for a seat at the League of Nations in 1922 were rejected, or the current Canadian government demands that the articulation of international Indigenous rights not challenge territorial integrity or state sovereignty (this is true generally but seen clearly with the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). Such a denial is also expressed in the the unequivocal support of the state of Israel at the expense of Palestinian existence, or the collaboration with a Honduran government that suppresses Indigenous communities and murders activists like Berta Cáceres.

I am talking about more than denying liberation. By continuing to enforce the view of humanity as a set of political states, with Europe at the centre of the planet – as Chickasaw lawyer James Youngblood Henderson once pointed out in his deconstruction of the familiar Mercator world map – foreign policy actively contributes to the erasure of Indigenous political difference conceptually as well as Indigenous bodies physically. (Not to mention non-Indigenous but racialized political communities and bodies, too.) Thus, Canadian foreign policy is a foreign policy that normalizes and affirms settler colonialism. This is the primary national interest. And so, foreign policy is itself a manifestation of settler colonialism.

A brief history of Indigenous diplomacy

Much of the sophisticated political arrangements cultivated among Indigenous peoples in North America have been destroyed by violence but also legal fictions. Some of the first transatlantic international laws — papal bulls like the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery — defined Indigenous peoples as inhuman, freeing up their lands for legal theft by the Spanish and Portuguese, then French and English. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and subsequent treaties were drafted to privilege colonial interpretations of “nation-to-nation” relationships. The aforementioned institutions — the constitution and courts in Canada — have held these fictions up through time.

Yet somehow Indigenous notions of international politics endure. Perhaps this is not surprising given the diplomatic cannon is some 10,000 years old. For many years, up to the first 250 years of settler presence in North America, and even today, Dene, Nêhiyawak, Mi’kmaq, Salish and many others exchanged gifts, smoked the pipe, made treaties, broke treaties and made new ones again; on their terms. Records of these efforts have been kept — and continue to be — in pictographs, birchbark scrolls, petroglyphs, masks, totem poles, beadwork, wampum belts and many volumes of text.

But that 1763 date is instructive in understanding the contrast between the two general approaches to international politics addressed here. When the English defeated the French after the Seven Years War the former were surprised that the Indigenous allies to the French did not also surrender. As Anishinaabe leader Minavavana famously said, “Englishman, although you have conquered the French you have not yet conquered us! We are not your slaves. These lakes, these woods, and mountains were left us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance; and we will part with none of them.”

And so the English attempted to placate Indigenous resistance with a Royal Proclamation, a system to effectively buy land from Indigenous peoples west of the then-existing Thirteen Colonies. It also shrewdly positioned the Crown as the arbiter of these future land transactions and, as such, the de facto sovereign (in fact the Supreme Court cites this moment as the assertion of Crown sovereignty). A year later, at Niagara, the English gathered approximately 2,000 Indigenous leaders to solemnize the proclamation and earn Indigenous endorsement. After the presentation, the Indigenous leaders espoused their understanding of the agreement, which according to Indigenous law scholar John Borrows was about respect for the self-determination of Indigenous nations, a military alliance, free and open trade (as well as free movement), consent before any English expansion, the ongoing provision of gifts, and finally, mutual peace, friendship and respect. They further demonstrated their understanding by invoking the Two Row Wampum Treaty, one of the earliest diplomatic accords between Indigenous peoples and settlers, created 150 years prior.

Flower break Indigenous

In the early 1600s the first waves of settlers were arriving in Kanien’kehá:ka territory, the eastern portion of Haudenosaunee lands. Reflecting the pragmatism of Indigenous diplomacy, the Mohawk entered into an agreement with these newcomers that they hoped would shape the long-term relationship. Onondaga faithkeeper and philosopher Oren Lyons described the beaded belt known today as the Two Row Wampum in the Nordic International Law Journal in 1986: “The row of purple wampum on the right represents the Ongwahoway or Indian people, it is their canoe. In the canoe along with the people is our government, our religion or way of life. The row of purple wampum on the left is our White brethren, their ship, their government, and their religions for they have many. The field of white represents peace and the river of life. We will go down this river in peace and friendship as long as the grass is green, the water flows, and the sun rises in the east…You will note the two rows do not come together, they are equal in size, denoting the equality of all life, and one end is not finished, denoting the ongoing relationship into the future.”

The key element of the Indigenous reading of the Royal Proclamation then, encapsulated in the Two Row Wampum, is mutual autonomy and non-interference. This in turn rests on the acceptance of distinct political communities highlighted by Lyons’ reference to “ways of life,” which based on Indigenous political organization undoubtedly meant non-state political communities.

Obligations to the land may be the most incomprehensible to the field of foreign policy.

Another Indigenous treaty, nearly as well known as the Two Row, is the Dish with One Spoon. This was an agreement between the aforementioned Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabeg. Graphically, it is a belt of white beads with a purple lozenge in the centre representing a bowl or dish. The treaty effectively recognized that a number of distinct nations live in the dish and have obligations to ensure it never runs empty. That does not mean we surrender authority or jurisdiction to a central government or institution, but that we recognize responsibilities to each other and importantly to the land. It is also important to note there are no sharp objects on the wampum — or, if you will, at the table — with which we might stab each other, just a spoon that we share (as Darlene Johnson described here in 2004). In other words, the Dish With One Spoon encouraged distinct political communities to share the same territory in peace. A terrain mapped not by exclusive sovereignty but mutual obligations.

In the inventory of paradigmatic contrasts described here, those obligations to the land may be the most incomprehensible to the field of foreign policy. Making sure the bowl never runs empty is a reference to the rights of the land. In much of Anishinaabeg philosophy, non-human communities are afforded supreme status. We live at their discretion. This is illustrated in our creation story in which the birds and muskrat decide if we live or die, to the promise we made to the eagle to live by the laws of creation, or our first treaty with the deer and moose to always ensure their homes and communities flourish in exchange for their flesh, bones, skin and teachings. There is diplomacy here but it is limited by an acknowledgement of a rules-based world, i.e., not anarchic. The resulting articulation of political communities limits human exploitation of the land and environment and encourages living in balance.

Consider the next blockade you read about in the news. While the media will struggle to explain, the Mushkego or Wet’suwet’en or Innu will very likely be acting on their political/legal/spiritual obligations to the land. The blockade is diplomacy.

An inter-national politics of the future past

Of course, this is not a fulsome accounting of Indigenous diplomacies or their shift and contortions through time in response to settler colonialism. The above is the briefest of surveys to demonstrate the radically divergent approach to the international. That being said, some words to conclude on the contemporary expression of Indigenous politics amid a settler colonial foreign policy and settler colonialism generally are important.

On the former, I’ll be brief. While there are some counter-hegemonic writers in the field who may engage with these ideas, the likelihood of changing the trajectory, core assumptions or underlying concepts towards a more just, anti-colonial, matriarchal politics is unlikely. Settler colonialism relies on the myths perpetuated by foreign policy experts (among other settler experts of all kinds) to sustain itself and legitimize occupation. So can Indigenous people contribute to foreign policy in Canada and beyond? No, not unless it comes at the expense of further sabotaging the re-building of Indigenous futures. Or, settler colonialism ceases to be, in which cases the field of foreign policy as we know it would also disappear.

Meanwhile Indigenous struggles for freedom within the borders of Canada, an act of international politics itself, go on. Blockades to defend the land, articulating Indigenous interpretations of confederation-era treaties, the attempted centering of Indigenous women and two-spirit perspectives, all seek to undermine and challenge domination. Sometimes we win and that golf course or real estate development stalls. Audra Simpson refers to these successes — when “Indigenous political orders prevail” — as “nested sovereignty” and they reveal that settler colonialism, the project of Canada itself, is not as complete or settled as traditional thinkers in the field of foreign policy would have us believe.

Reconciliation appears as an opportunity for the state to recuperate its image without meaningful change.

Still, Canada itself is a project still committed to suffocating Indigenous political difference without a discernible end in sight. The notion of reconciliation increasingly appears as an opportunity for the state to recuperate its image without meaningful change. And decolonization, as I understand it, requires the institutions that maintain settler colonialism to be dismantled — a project not yet begun.

Now, we live in what Nēhiyaw activist Erica Violet Lee calls the wastelands. A place where “we grow our medicines from the cracks in concrete sidewalks or in between railroad tracks. We have to dig our laws out from underneath gravel logging roads and tend to our worlds in contaminated fields…For those of us in the wastelands—for those of us who are the wastelands—caring for each other in this way is refusing a definition of worthiness that will never include us. To provide care in the wastelands is about gathering enough love to turn devastation into mourning and then, maybe, turn that mourning into hope.”

Indigenous people endure in a settler colony striving to eliminate, re-building what remains after two centuries of that assault. Indigenous philosophies exist in a hostile intellectual environment that refuses to recognize their existence. These are the terms on which international politics is practiced for many Indigenous peoples in Canada, and for that matter, around the globe. So as we re-imagine new/old alternatives for our collective relationship within and beyond the borders of settler states through time, and until we can breathe life into them, I think the Indian side of the Island is just fine.

Flower break Indigenous

A note from illustrator Chief Lady Bird: The main illustration “Nimaamaa” is based on the teachings within the Dish With One Spoon Wampum, which the mother is holding. The image — and the wampum — represent keeping the dish (the earth) clean, ensuring that there is enough in the dish for everyone on turtle island, and never using more than we need. There are also multiple planes of existence depicted: the mother and her baby are in one time and space, whereas her dress, with the hide stretched out to be tanned, acts as a doorway into another time and space. This piece can simultaneously be read as pre-colonial, decolonial, and futurist, and ultimately represents the connection to our traditions and the importance of maintaining them to bring us forward in a good way, which also connects to the Seven Generations teaching.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter