Essay: Decolonizing the “Primitive Skills” Movement

by onstolenland

Decolonizing the “Primitive Skills” Movement

A note: I use the word “primitive skills” as a catchall for traditional, indigenous, ancestral, and earth-based skills and technologies, because it is the term widely used in the movement I speak of in this essay. However using the word “primitive” is problematic, as it implies that the technology of industrial civilization is more “advanced” than these older technologies, and ignores the fact that many of these technologies are part of living traditional cultures.

People in modern America choose to practice “primitive”, also called ancestral or earth-based skills, for a number of reasons. Many oppose the modern lifestyle, are critical of capitalism and civilization and mourn the ways it has disconnected us as humans from the earth. Many recognize that Indigenous ways of being represent a picture of humans living in harmony with nature, a truly sustainable way of life, finding food, shelter, and every other need using local, natural materials obtained from the wild. Primitive skills gatherings attempt to recreate a kind of Indigenous lifestyle by mimicking egalitarian tribal hunter-gatherer cultural relationships, as an alternative to the obviously exploitative practices of modern civilization such as agriculture, mining and extraction, dams, and clearcutting. They argue that we all have Indigenous roots and to reconnect with them is a birthright. Many do so intending to be in solidarity with living Indigenous Peoples of this land. However, non-Natives going “back to the land” can still be acting in ways that are exploitative to the Indigenous people of this land and perpetuate colonialism. To work toward allyship with Indigenous struggle, the primitive skills movement must decolonize itself.

“Decolonization”, is described by Derrick Jensen “as the process of breaking your identity with and loyalty to this culture-industrial capitalism, and more broadly civilization-and remembering your identification with and loyalty to the real physical world, including the land where you live.” It seems reasonable, in this context, to want to feel connected with one’s landbase. The primary issue in most primitive skills communities however, particularly those who intend to be allies to Indigenous Peoples, is the lack of open acknowledgment that we (non-Natives) are in fact settlers on stolen land, that colonization is real and ongoing, cultural genocide is happening and unless we are actively fighting it we are contributing to it. In the wise words of Howard Zinn, “you cannot be neutral on a moving train”. Waziyatawin, Dakota activist, puts it this way: “all colonizers, by continuing their occupation of another People’s homeland, remain colonizers, no matter their intent”, and we, as people not native to this land and benefiting from colonization, fall into the category of “settlers”.

“Historically, the desire to live on Indigenous land and to feel connected to it-bodily, emotionally, spiritually-has been the normative function of settlers” says Scott Morgenson, in his essay “Un-Settling Settler Desires”. He points out that so-called “alternative” settler cultures-“occupying and traversing stolen Indigenous land”, variously characterized by squatting, hoboism, anarchism, neo-paganism, communalism and other sub- and countercultural practices are in fact an extension of colonialism, including the back-to-the-land primitive skills community, primarily because there is little critique questioning our continued occupation of stolen land and responsibility as colonizers. Morgensen says that “historically, non-Natives became settlers by adapting Indigenous dwelling sites, travel routes, place names, modes of gathering or cultivating food, and spiritual knowledge and practices”. Participants in such alternative settler cultures, including the primitive skills community, often “appreciate” Indigenous culture and pursue supposedly Indigenous ways of life, supposedly in solidarity with Indigenous people. It seems that gathering the fruits of the wild should be a sustainable, and perhaps politically neutral alternative to the destructive forces of large-scale agriculture and resource extraction, but Dakota activist Waziyatawin brings up an excellent point: “if colonizers are practicing sugar-bushing or wild-ricing within Dakota homeland while most of our people live in exile, they become just the latest wave of colonizers exploiting Indigenous resources at indigenous expense.” This is particularly relevant to participants in primitive skills communities who are often very focused on learning how to forage wild food, such as wild rice and maple syrup, or in my part of the country, salmon and berries. Courtney, in her essay “Cultural Appropriation: Beginning Reflections from a Settler Standpoint” elaborates on this idea of connecting to a conquered landbase and using its resources. She says she loves herbalism and foraging, but she says: “after delving more deeply into the history (and therefore present-day effects) of colonization, however, I can no longer do this without keeping in mind the people who were displaced from this landbase that I now live on. Because of a system from which I benefit, these people are displaced.” The word “unsettling”, on the other hand, “suggests the work of displacing settlers from their possession of Indigenous land” and “reminds settler radicals to divest of their desires to occupy Indigenous land in order to work for decolonization”. (Morgensen)

It is with rare exception that us settlers have learned to ignore the full truth of our own history, but many are ashamed by it, and thus try to adopt aspects of traditional cultures that seems to us to be more suitable or sustainable. This is, however, the definition of cultural appropriation: the adoption of the practices of an oppressed people by those who benefit from the systems in place. White supremacist conditioning means that whites have historically and characteristically have felt entitled to Native cultural and spiritual traditions, for example, “New Age” practices, Robert Bly’s “Men’s Movement” which entailed much appropriation of Native culture like sweat lodge ceremonies, and Native dress. According to Ward Churchill, “playing at ritual potluck is to debase all spiritual traditions”. North Americans, he says, are so distanced from their own colonizer history that they think of themselves as a “new people” forging “new traditions”, but colonization is recent and real.

So what does it mean to “decolonize” the primitive skills movement? Now I am speaking, theoretically, to primitive skills communities. Here are some specific suggestions which I will follow up with explanations: understand your colonizer status and take a stance, retrace your own Indigenous roots, understand and work to undo white supremacist and patriarchal conditioning, establish respectful communications with Native tribes, and embrace Indigenous values while maintaining a critical eye for cultural appropriation.

First of all, as the first step toward decolonization, members of primitive skills communities should understand their own colonizer status and take a stance. To reiterate Waziyatawin in her essay “Understanding Colonizer Status”, “all colonizers, by continuing their occupation of another People’s homeland, remain colonizers, no matter their intent.” She looks at the descriptions by Albert Memmi in his book The Colonizer and the Colonized: there is the self-accepting colonizer, which she also calls the colonialist, who is a “colonizer who agrees to be a colonizer”, unquestioning the current social order and justifying the theft of Indigenous lands. Waziyatawin says that the majority of the United States is composed of self-accepting colonizers. Self-rejecting colonizers “recognize the injustice of colonialism and do not want to participate in the subjugation of other human beings”, and their choices are “to return to their country of origin and relieve themselves of their guilt, or they can stay in the colony and live a life fraught with contradictions.” Members of the primitive skills communities may fall into either category: self-accepting colonizers justifying their right to remain in North America and practice primitive skills, or self-rejecting colonizers, many of whom are still confused about whatas allyship means. Waziyatawin says that many self-rejecting colonizers “maintain fantasies…about their incorporation into Indigenous societies post-liberation. These fantasies need to be shed quickly. Most colonizers will not be incorporated into our cultures post-liberation.” So if non-native participants in primitive skills communities entertain these fantasies, they should shed them. Non-Dakota, (and I would add, all non-Indigenous allies) generally are, she says, “choosing the path of a self-rejecting colonizer”, and she says we can play important roles, and disagrees with Memmi’s argument that for decolonization to occur, colonizers must leave. She argues that self-rejecting colonizers can be dedicated allies who are willing to stand on the front lines and work to challenge the status quo. We are all full of contradictions, colonizer and colonized alike, but that we all have considerable work to do. So viewing struggle through this lens, participants in the primitive skills movement may want to reconsider whether spending all their time learning Native ways is a route to allyship, or whether true allyship may not look quite so romantic-it may involve spending more time within civilization, working alongside Indigenous people, having meetings, and doing a lot of listening.

Churchill, in his essay “Indians Are Us?” encourages whites to retrace their own Indigenous roots, and understand that Europe first had to colonize itself, that our own Indigenous histories were swept up in the formation of the nation-state of “Europe”, and that witch-burnings were happening actively only a few hundred years ago. Participants must understand the true history of colonization-there is still serious denial, “debate over whether genocide is ‘really’ an ‘appropriate’ term to describe the physical eradication of some 98% of the continent’s native population between 1500 and 1900.”

Also, emulating Indigenous ways of being, even drawn from our own histories, isn’t a direct way to erase settler conditioning. It is a long and involved process to undo patriarchal conditioning, rape culture, and white supremacy. These topics are directly tied in with settler conditioning, and several more essays could be written about the intersections. Primitive skills communities have a responsibility to support this work if they seek to be allies to Indigenous people. Participants must question their sense of entitlement to native lands, skills, practices, even if they appear to be “public property”-they were often stolen. Question right to use them or at least acknowledge their origin and gain explicit permission if possible. Question the desire, also, to “help” Indigenous peoples by learning their culture in order to help preserve it, work to actively fight the systems of domination that keep them from practicing the culture in the first place.

Primitive skills communities who are seeking to be allies to Indigenous struggle would do well to maintain constant communication with local tribes-to invite them to be part of the conversation. A situation to examine is when predominately-white primitive skillshares invite members of local tribes to share their skills. A quote from the Earthskills Rendezvous website says “the three founders eventually invited their Cherokee friends to come share their living traditions of baskets and pottery, weapons and music.” While the Cherokee men were making personal choices to teach their traditions to white folks, we can be reminded by Waziyatawin, “Those Indigenous individuals who will support any position you want them to support-that is a direct result of the colonial experience”. Additionally, she says “those Indigenous individuals who encourage non-Indigenous participation in ceremonies are often (not always) those who are attempting to curry favor with white women, or white people for their own purposes”. Their “own purposes” could include getting paid by the white primitive skills people, and native folks are categorically poor and economically disadvantaged this is understandable, but their choices may not be consistent with other tribal members and it is unfair to pick and choose the Indigenous people most friendly to our white desires, especially if there is a strong Native voice that is critical of the choice to share the traditional knowledge. True allyship would mean acknowledging the anger and frustration of “the rest” of the Native folks, listening to and addressing their criticisms of white primitive skills movements, as well as the perspectives of those who are less vocal and friendlier to our causes.

Now, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. If we (settlers) are seeking to be allies, we should not necessarily abandon our practice of so-called primitive skills, as, after all, as Churchill says we do all have Indigenous roots, and there is nothing inherently wrong with learning non-civilized technologies in a respectful way. It can be an inherently political act to reclaim non-civilized traditions that are harmonious with the earth, to recognize that we are not separate from nature and fight against the systems that are actively destroying habitat on this planet. But we must ask ourselves, are we spending all our time learning skills that benefit ourselves, and no time educating ourselves about our own colonial history, developing a critical eye for the ways in which we benefit from and perpetuate colonization? If we desire to be Indigenous allies, are we working to directly serve the needs of Indigenous struggle in ways that may be less glamorous than practicing bowdrill fire and making baskets? If we aren’t actively working, we may fall back into the same old patterns. Waziyatawin says that decolonization does not mean that others should never “engage Indigenous ways of being”…she says “we will all need to engage in sustainable living practices and Indigenous cultures, including Dakota culture, offer excellent models for all people.” This does not mean that “former-colonizers can appropriate our spirituality and ceremonial life, but it will mean they need to embrace Indigenous values such as balance and reciprocity”.

The primitive skills community would do well, as we all would, to question our settler desires and actively work toward decolonization. This does not mean abandoning the desire to embrace Indigenous values and ways of being, in fact it can be harmonious with this desire, as long as we reframe our connection to this land with the understanding that it is stolen, to shift in order to become true allies to the existing Native peoples who continue to be oppressed and fight for their own liberation.


Articles from Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstruction Colonial Mentality:
Churchill, Ward. “Indians Are Us? Reflections on the Men’s Movement” from
Indians ‘R’ Us: Culture and Genocide
Courtney. “Cultural Appropriation: Beginning Reflections From a Settler Standpoint”.
Jensen, Derrick. “Foreword”.
Morgensen, Scott. “Un-Settling Settler Desires”
Waziyatawin, Ph.D. “Understanding Colonizer Status” and “Colonialism on the Ground”