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The Principle of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis

By Umeek (E. Richard Atleo)

Review By Damien Lee

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 171-72

Do the theories and worldviews of the Enlightenment unfold all there is to know about reality? Can the political relationships between Canadians and Indigenous peoples be mended solely through Eurocentric remedies? Can settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples live together respectfully?

These are just some of the questions addressed by The Principles of Tsawalk. Umeek (E. Richard Atleo), a hereditary Nuu-chah-nulth chief from the west side of what many today call Vancouver Island, offers us a read that brings into relief the normalized Eurocentric concepts of reality and politics underpinning Canadian society. By threading the various expressions of Darwinism (e.g. social, biological, political) into a sustained critique of Eurocentrism, he argues that a way of seeing reality predicated on competitiveness and fragmentation has brought the world to the brink of environmental and political collapse.

The Principles of Tsawalk offers a framework for Indigenous-Canadian political relations that does not embrace competitiveness per se, but instead seeks to manage inherent polarities in worldviews. Whereas every culture has a story to make sense of reality, which translates into its worldviews, laws, and policies, Umeek argues that the Eurocentric theories of science and politics underpinning Canadian policy are just sub-narratives of another people’s story, namely that of Europeans. The survival of the fittest mentality, Umeek argues, has permeated Canadian politics; combined with Social Darwinism, Canadians targeted Indigenous peoples’ worldviews for extinction. By contrast, the Nuu-chah-nulth concept of Tsawalk, meaning “one,” posits that while competition exists, life is intelligent and seeks collaboration. Living well is finding balance between shifting polarities.

It is against this backdrop that Umeek articulates a lucid political call to action embodied in a concept he calls Hahuulism. A synthesis of Nuu-chah-nulth and Western worldviews, Hahuulism is suggested as a constitutional order predicated on building equitable relationships between Canadians and Indigenous nations and, just as importantly, between humans and the rest of Creation. To move beyond the colonizer-colonized relations that characterize Canada today, Umeek fleshes out protocols based in recognition (mutual respect and understanding), consent (behaviour that is mutually agreeable), continuity (shared harmony; all life is valuable), and respect (truly understanding others), as a way to bring peoples together without naively positing that cultural differences will simply disappear. Indeed, the principles of Tsawalk recognize that such polarities will continue to exist, but can be managed through these protocols.

As such, The Principles of Tsawalk is both timely and timeless. It is timely in the sense that its underpinning principles can be used at this moment to rethink how settler governments are, for example, ramming the Enbridge oil pipeline down the throats of Indigenous nations on the British Columbia coast. Such is a survival of the fittest approach, in which Indigenous peoples continue to be dominated by Eurocentric market approaches to relating with the ecology. Clearly, Canadian policymakers have a lot to learn from this book.

The book is timeless not only because the principles of Tsawalk are part of a Nuu-chah-nulth way of being, but also because settler disrespect for Indigenous constitutional orders has only deepened since the early nineteenth century. In challenging the basis of the colonizer-colonized relationship, Umeek’s protocols of Hahuulism would have had analytical application 200 years ago; they apply with equal traction today (the federal government has, as recently as January 2012, re-committed itself to upholding the Indian Act); and they will apply for the next 200 years (the Alberta Oil Sands demonstrate that colonialism in Canada will not end overnight). Thus, students of political science, environmental management, and native studies engaged in critical thinking will find this book useful when rethinking relationships between peoples and places.

The Principle of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis
By Umeek (E. Richard Atleo) 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 220 pp. $32.95 paper