Paul Nadasdy, an anthropologist, published a book in 2003 titled Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. The book presents an analysis of the ways in which the Canadian state and its bureaucratic structures impose a transformative context on negotiations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, a context that distorts and displaces the meaning of aboriginal accounts. Using his experiences living with and aiding the Kluane First Nation, settler-born Nadasdy explores the subtle power of the state to structure the terms of dialogue such that the demand for a public accounting of traditional practices and ways of knowing leads to these forms of life being excluded or disfigured in translation.

Nadasdy employs the work of a number of theorists to illustrate just how ‘contexts’ delimit what it is possible to say, do, or even think. Referring to the work on ‘symbolic power’ developed by Pierre Bourdieu, he argues that speech acts are situated within certain “linguistic fields” that may or may not be amenable to the particular ‘linguistic habitus’ of an individual. In certain contexts, particular modes of speaking may be discredited or excluded while others are recognized as ‘official’ or ‘formal’. Likewise through the work of Michel Foucault we see that knowledge is always imbricated in relations of power that do not rely on coercive force but nevertheless shape discourse, what Eric Wolf has referred to as a ‘structural power’ that defines the basic conditions of admissibility and intelligibility (10).

What this means in practice is that we cannot simply depend on dialogue to forge mutual understandings, if for no other reason than the meaning of words is derived from and supported within certain forms of life that may be absent from the context of the negotiation. Nadasdy offers the word “respect”, upheld as a guiding principle of traditional life, as an example. He writes that it is not enough to simply agree with aboriginal peoples on the importance of respect because we’re probably not talking about the same thing.

 We cannot simply assume that the English word “respect” stands for a distinct and coherent set of First Nations beliefs and practices; rather, we can only hope to understand what First Nations peoples mean by the term if we examine it “in action.” In other words, we must observe its use within specific social contexts. (80)

Of crucial importance here is the fact that these “specific social contexts” are not the contexts within which negotiations take place, and that any de-contextualized attempt at translation into a western idiom will only disfigure the intended meaning of the speech act.

We find in most western perspectives on deliberation an unassailable presumption that knowledge is something like the water we draw from a well, deliverable inside words that act like containers for easy transport to different contexts. This differs considerably from most aboriginal perspectives on language, which focus on the insuperable link between speaking, knowing, and doing. For many aboriginal peoples, “true knowledge is rooted in personal experience; that is, they believe that people can only truly know what they have experienced,” which is distinct from the European conception of knowledge which “posits a collection of thing-like bits of information that can be separated not only from their social context but also from the people who “know” them” (95). Such a view overlooks how the re-presentation of information is affected by its immediate, and sometimes foreign, context of practice.

Nadasdy does not elaborate on this, but practice-based approaches like those upheld by many aboriginal communities have parallels in western thought. We find it in early Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, Searle, Brandom, Habermas, and most notably, in late Wittgenstein. But with the exception of Wittgenstein, it would seem that most of these perspectives do not go far enough in their commitment to the contextual basis of meaning. Contexts of practices do not exist in order to be articulated in and transformed by language; rather, practices are inherently meaningful interactions that often admit of but do not require linguistic elements for their meaning or dynamism. We might say that words do not carry meaning from a distant form of life; rather, they refine the meanings that inhere to the immediate form of life. This is another way of saying that any instance of decontextualization is always an instance of re-contextualization.

Thus, when Nadasdy writes that western and indigenous perspectives on knowledge “are truly incommensurable in that there is no way to integrate them that does not do violence to one or the other” (111), we must bear in mind that at the root of this incompatibility is the dogmatic western assertion that knowledge can be delivered from its meaningful origins in a practice and re-presented more or less intact. When cast as the foundation of political life and legitimacy, this privileging of re-presentation manifests in the demand that aboriginal peoples provide accounts of their practices and beliefs in contexts that do not support those accounts. Indigenous peoples “are allowed to speak” but it is Canada that provides the context within which speaking is made intelligible and geared to action (131).

Participants often feel “out of place and a bit bewildered” in such negotiations (131). But many have also developed quite complex and articulate relationships with Canada. The costs have been high and include

the creation of governmental structures and processes within First Nations communities themselves that are far more compatible with the lifestyles of Euro-Canadian bureaucrats than those of First Nations hunters and trappers. Because of this, the negotiation of land claims agreements, much like the process of co-management, is – in its very conception – incompatible with some core First Nations beliefs and practices regarding the land and their relationship to it. (223)

Likewise, many communities will seek protections of traditional practices through the strategic use of western legal constructs, often omitting important local understandings in order to, for example, translate a “complex reciprocal relationship with the land into the equally complex but very different legal [and official] language of property” (223). Nadasdy explains that

for First Nations peoples to participate in land claims negotiations at all, not only must they speak the language of property but they must also do so in a physical and intellectual context that is far removed from the land-based way of life that most Yukon First Nations people lived before the advent of land claims negotiations (248).

Much is lost in such translations. As a result of the “contextual bias” built into negotiations, some of the most experienced and therefore ‘knowledgeable’ individuals have simply given up on such talks. It is not that communication is impossible, for biologists often have a very good understanding of the traditional accounts of aboriginal peoples. The critical issue here is that “government lawyers and biologists, in their official capacities, cannot act upon those understandings” (112).

This demand placed on aboriginal peoples to re-present their traditional practices embodies a failure on the part of democratic theorists and practitioners to come to terms with the commitment to practice – as opposed to utterances and performances abstracted from practice – required for the task. Related to this is our failure to appreciate that the perspectives and arguments of Canadian officials are no less situated in a parochial context of practice and that liberal democratic institutions are therefore neither neutral nor benign venues for negotiations. We see this when it comes time to making decisions, as bureaucratic resource managers generally retreat to “conferences and resource board meetings” and accordingly “never find themselves in truly unfamiliar social contexts” (130) that would bear on the meaning of their utterances.

Nadasdy offers an observation that is altogether missing from the theory and practices of democracy: “Being heard (and even understood) is not enough because,” he observes, “without the necessary links to state power, these alternate forms of talking/knowing cannot form the basis of legitimate action” (268). The key point here is that the “bureaucratic context of land-claims negotiations and co-management makes certain types of behaviour possible and others impossible – and sometimes even unthinkable” (268). So, while it is no doubt true that the state’s monopoly on violence “is implicit in the seemingly cooperative and “enlightened” processes of co-management and land-claims negotiations” (264), such threats are not actually required since aboriginal communities are “compelled to participate” on the grounds that if they refuse, Canada will simply “continue to manage wildlife and alienate First Nations lands without the consent of First Nations peoples – as they did prior to the advent of land claims and co-management” (264).

In the end, I couldn’t agree more with Nadasdy’s conclusion that the first step in challenging colonialism is to relieve aboriginal peoples “of the burden of having to express themselves to scientists and bureaucrats in ways that are foreign to them” (145). I also agree with his contention that this would probably require devolution of control over land to local communities.