A Conversation with Ricky DeFoe
Regular Agate readers may recall Anishinaabe elder Ricky DeFoe, who was quoted by Emily Levang in her March feature on the Rights of Nature movement. DeFoe called for a shift in perspective that begins with “each of us doing the work to decolonize our own minds.” We were inspired to follow up with DeFoe to further explore this idea and his thoughts on the challenge of incorporating Indigenous world views into the Western legal framework. Here we share our conversation, from a phone interview that took place on 3/3/2020.
Agate: Why was it important at this time for White Earth to declare the legal rights of wild rice, as part of the “Rights of Nature” movement?
DeFoe: I think it’s long overdue. It’s a different approach, the legal. English law always seems to talk about property and the importance of it, so when we go to their courts, the outcome is usually against our initiative. That’s just historically, but I think it sets in motion a collective change in the trajectory of thought for the people, and we’ve been having that for quite some time. It’s just now recently that the mainstream is catching up to a way of thinking, which stems from the philosophy of Indigenous peoples, that we don’t own anything, it’s not our property; and also that things are spiritualized. We live in harmony and balance. For White Earth, those things are inherent in the way we think and the way we do ceremonies. In most mainstream ways of seeing, these things are de-spiritualized, just commodities. They commodify everything, to make profit from it. So, it was long overdue.
Agate: As you bring this forward into the courts, are you having to find ways to codify and explain this? Language that somehow creates a bridge of understanding that puts your framework into—or changes—the existing legal framework? Is it a language issue?
DeFoe: I do think it is, because when you’re a lawyer, you talk the lawyer-speak, when you’re a doctor you talk the doctor-speak.
What happens [in the existing legal system] is they compartmentalize things: they don’t look at the holistic approach, the big picture, the world view. They hold dear to what they’ve been socialized into believing, which is ‘the dominion over all things.’ That’s part of the root paradigm that’s creating the chaos and the confusion and the conflict in today’s world because we’re all socialized into that, the idea of having dominion over all things. It stems from the papal bulls in the past, where war was declared on all non-Christian peoples, in which the Indigenous people were sub-human, and didn’t have the ability to have property rights. They were just like the flora and fauna.
Then you have the hierarchy of life, which—in America—it’s man at the top and women lower than man, so we see that misogynist nation that we have. This hierarchy of life includes racism, actually, the white man at the top and the black man at the bottom. There is also this chain of being with God at the top, then the angels and everybody else, all the way down to things like, I’m not even sure it includes the trees and the plants and grasses. And you have this exceptionalism that America has, that American lives are more valuable than anybody else’s.
So, that’s the context. The task for those involved in the [Rights of Nature] legal effort is to create a system that gives the right to exist, the right to flourish, the right to be sustainable.
In our philosophy, for instance, the rock nation, the stones, the mountains were here first. In our language they’re animate, they have spirit. And then the grasses, the plants, the seedlings, the trees, came next. The rocks provide the stability, the grasses, the trees, the plants provide the oxygen. And then came the animals, the flyers, the walkers, the swimmers, the crawlers. And then last came Anishinaabe, original man. We were last. In the other world view, the rocks do not even have spirit, and they’re at the bottom. So the world is upside down. And it’s our aim to right-side that, of course. And how do we do that? We talk about rights of nature. I think that kind of scares people, when they talk about rights of nature, because they don’t see the living spirit of nature, they’re thinking of the property. But I think the struggle is where the beauty is, in today’s world right now.
Agate: In your view, what would be the best that would come of these efforts? What would that look like?
DeFoe: I think there has to be a revolution in the way of thinking; decolonizing one’s mind, of course, and then everything else following. That crosses over into the social economics of a country. People think that if they have a job they’re going to be healthy and well. But mother nature has all the healing power. So why are we voluntarily killing something that gives us life? I’m thinking that the best scenario would be to get behind the ones that are protesting the coal, and the [oil] extraction. We see the damage that it’s done to the climate. It’s hard to fathom where we’re at today, the challenges that we face.
Agate: Do you take hope from the activism of young people?
Oh, that’s where all of it is. The hope is that they can recognize that that is where the power is at. When we give it to the institutions, the institutions never give it back. So we have to be supportive of young people as they demand that power back from the institutions. And there’s always an attack on their leaders; even that young girl, Greta Thunberg, was attacked by the president.
Institutions stem from the philosophy and values of a nation. What we value defines what these institutions are, so clearly our values of the nation—collectively—need to be looked at. The young people are going in the right direction because they see it. Our current form is not working for the younger generation.
Agate: Ricky, when you talk about decolonizing our minds, what would those ideas or thoughts be that we would correct or shift in our minds, both for indigenous and non-indigenous people? How would we change that internal dialog?
DeFoe: I think it’s recognition and identification first. Recognizing that we are colonized and that we have been raced and we have been gendered in this society, in America. So we recognize that colonization takes its form and that many in America have benefitted from that, particularly with racism. So you have to see it for what it is, recognize it for what it is, identify it. And then: what are the marks of colonialism that we see? The courts are a clear indication of colonialism at work. The ideals of property. Ignorance in all its forms, whether willful or genuine, that leads to violence. Recognizing that your mind is socialized to believe in that root paradigm: the hierarchy of life, that we’re exceptional, that racism and patriarchy are natural.
It’s only been a few thousand years that we have been in a patriarchal society; we have to think way back. And matriarchy doesn’t mean that the women are leading in all forms. It means more of a balance and a harmonious society. There are misconceptions about that, so there is a lot of education that is taking place.
Agate: As the Rights of Nature initiative unfolds, you hear about the value of getting voices of native people “at the table.” But are you saying that native people not only have a voice but a leadership role, because of your traditions and your world view?
DeFoe: Yes, because in the current form of this facade called democracy, the system protects itself, inequality protects itself, even when one has a voice. That’s part of a concept called “whiteness” where people of color are considered to have no valuable voices, no valuable leadership qualities. But maybe we can agree on a world view that recognizes the value of native ways of thinking, recognizes that we know the issues, that we have our thinkers, our scholars, our philosophers. Then, if you’re going to support that, stand at our side, or stand behind us. There are moments that nonnatives who want to help and are allied with us can speak, but too often they think that they’re the only ones that can speak and then that creates a problem in relationships.
Agate: What would you say, speaking to the broader community, is the best way for people who care about this and are aligned with the philosophy you’ve been describing, to get behind it in the weeks and months ahead?
DeFoe: The best way is to get away from the abstraction of it all, because that’s really sterile. And to get right into relationships, right with the people, right standing by their side, listening, talking, sharing. So take it out from the head and put it into practice, into action. They say that racism is a denial of relationships. Division is a tool used by the oligarchs, the corporatocracy. So the most important thing to do is to get it out of your head, quit thinking the intellectual piece of it, and then start to get in relationship with people where you have coffee, a sandwich with them, and laughter, and crying. Your true humanity is what we need. We need to get next to each other.
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Ricky DeFoe is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.