Wednesday, January 09, 2013

settler responsibilities + idle no more

 This is the land I grew up within, along the Sturgeon River here, before it meets the North Saskatchewan.

I was told by a local elder Métis woman that the river was originally called after the red willow, the  mihkwâpemak, and that's why the park is named for it in English.

 But now the signs downtown say 'names sīpiy', or literally Sturgeon River in Cree. It's certainly possibly though, that there are multiple names; however, I think perhaps this is a backtranslation from English.

         wacask, Cree for muskrat. 

So maybe you are hearing a lot about the Idle No More movement right now, in response to the Canadian government trying to sneak through Bills C-35 and C-40-- two big omnibus bills that could have a rather massive impact on a lot of Canadian land and waterways. Perhaps you are hearing about the fast of Theresa Spence from Attawapiskat who is frustrated with the lack of housing, running water on her home reserve, not to mention environmental pollution, and a whole host of issues, or another fast in solidarity with Idle No More.

Oh! These bills, yes. Look at what C-45 covers:

  • Bill C-38 (Budget Omnibus Bill #1)
  • Bill C-45 (Budget Omnibus Bill #2)
  • Bill C-27 First Nations Financial Transparency Act
  • Bill S-2 Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act
  • Bill S-6 First Nations Elections Act
  • Bill S-8 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations
  • Bill C-428 Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
  • Bill S-207 An Act to amend the Interpretation Act
  • Bill S-212 First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
  • “First Nations” Private Ownership Act

Look at all the mentions of First Nations here. Could it be that this bill also violates a number of pre-existing agreements the Canadian government has, with other nations? 

This is what a man named kâ-pimwêwêhahk, whose father signed Treaty Six, said the Queen's representative told the signers:

‘iskoyikohk pîsim ka-pimohtêt, iskoyikohk sîpiy ka-pimiciwahk, iskoyikohk maskosiya kê-sakikihki, êkospî isko ka-pimohtêmakan ôma k-êsi-âsotamâtân.’

‘So long as the sun should go along, so long as the river should flow, so long as the grass should come up, that is how long this promise I’m making to you will continue.’ (source)

(These things are still happening! You know, in case you didn't notice.) 

So, at the very least you should be angry that your government can't keep a promise, which in this case is a bilateral agreement (not a top-down law, but a TWO-sided treaty). You should be angry that your government keeps trying to distract from the issue by throwing out shoddy accounting as a decoy instead of owning up and answering questions. You should be absolutely livid because these two bills are going to endanger the water and the land, and the rivers and air and earth do not know any sort of border. And you should be seething because at the very heart of this issue are people, citizens of your country; this is an issue of human rights abuses, and this is happening on occupied territory. 

As much as I am inspired and heartened and feeling so hopeful about a movement like Idle No More, I am angry, so angry. So frustrated by the racism that flares at times like these, but also more terrified perhaps at how much lingers there, covertly, always, seeping out in the most insidious ways, colouring so many actions in this paternalistic, promise-breaking country. Not just the leaders, but the citizens. People in my family. 

I seethe at this lack of compassion, of empathy. I wonder how people can go about their lives like this, cut off from everyone else. Is it the dire individualism of the North American capitalist monoculture, the ridiculous bootstrap-pulling? Lingering fears of difference? That plus a head still full of colonial superiority, coated in ignorance because they have never been taught any different? And this refusal to listen, to learn? Perhaps the most frightening of all.

How can you just tell someone to assimilate? That there is nothing left of their culture? That 'it' didn't happen to them (which is patently untrue, because colonialism is continuous) so they should just get over it and move on? How is it that people complain flippantly about turning into their parents but have no fucking idea that trauma doesn't begin and end with one person, not in their lifetime, not in the lifetime of their children? (Are they that separated, disconnected, that individual?) 

Suffice it to say that I believe that nothing stops at death, and we inherit a lot of from our ancestors. Just as trauma doesn't cease when the individual who suffered it directly passes on with issues unresolved, neither does responsibility. I strongly feel that the most fundamental ethical act as a human being is to acknowledge our responsibilities to each other, and we have to understand that though we may have not have been the root of the problem, we are still twined up in the branches and they are ours to bear, to disentangle.

I am a môniyâw, a non-indigenous person. So were my ancestors. What do I do? What is my appropriate role in this?

Maybe it's difficult. So many people carry such noble narratives of their ancestors, who travelled over the ocean to Canada for a better life for their families. It's harsh to find out that your forebears accepted (knowingly, or less consciously) stolen goods. But they did, and whether or not they understood, whether or not they are still alive now, it doesn't change the fact that they were occupying a place that was not theirs, and that their prosperity depending, in many cases, on land and resources being funneled away from the indigenous communities-- that still is.

(It's perhaps a little uncomfortable to wonder what you might have done, in that circumstance, if you were the new settler and knew what was happening to the native peoples. It can hurt to think of these people you admire, to think of YOURSELF, as benefiting from the misery and subjugation of another group.)

I know my relatives at least three generations back on the most sparse branch, and back into the 1600s on other sides. They were poor, working class Scots and English on my dad's side and Ukrainian ex-serfs and peasants on my mother's. They did not come to Canada for fun, because they were wealthy and looking for vast lands to conquer or even possess; they basically wanted a chance to make a living, or not die in a famine or a war. The Ukrainians heard something about free land, and a relative of mine heard about it, and started the exodus, in fact.

I understand that we do valourize our pioneering settler ancestors, and to acknowledge that their actions were not entirely noble or respectful doesn't mean denying outright their narratives of hardship or persecution or the courage it took to leave their homelands; it simply means recognizing and honouring that some of the successes they certainly have directly been to the detriment of the indigenous population of this country. We need to see both sides, allow nuance into the story. It is essential. Too often I find, especially with the descendants of Ukrainian immigrants, a great deal of deification of your settler-ancestor. And while I personally am moved by my own grandparents' and great-grandparents' survival and resilience, I must always remember that even those who were oppressed could still oppress others (We all live at the intersections of various oppressions and privileges, and we need to learn to identify them). This is all too often forgotten.

I have relatives who married into Métis and Cree families in east-Central Alberta and Manitoba and farmed and hunted and lived together respectfully.  On the other hand, I also had a newly arrived Scottish great-grandfather waltz in and decide to fight against Riel. But the details matter little. The point is that as a whole, we, as settlers and descendants of settlers, need to learn humility and simply accept our responsibility as bearers of a colonial legacy regardless of the particular actions of our individual foremothers and forefathers; we benefit from the actions of the whole group, we continue to receive privilege as their descendants and we simply need to acknowledge this, remove our claws from it, and let go.

And with letting go of privilege comes the regathering of our responsibility as descendants of settlers, responsibility to act as allies for indigenous rights. We need to be humble, we need to criticize ourselves and listen closely to what others say of us. It will be awkward, and it will hurt. 

And this Idle No More movement gives everyone a perfect opportunity. So, in lieu of the New Year's resolutions that I never make, I have made a plan in the spirit of incorporating Idle No More into my daily life. 

1. Educate others.

Sometimes that's all you can do. But it's worth it, even if you make someone think just a little. I suppose it's always a little more than they would have otherwise.

There is rampant ignorance abounding, some of it horribly willful and virulent. As difficult as it is to engage with racists, there are also some people who are not deep and incurable bigots. They just don't know what's going on. And you can help them. 

Don't let it go, and don't give up. 

A tenacious and generous blogger, âpihtawikosisân (Chelsea Vowel) has written tirelessly lately, compiling the facts for you: about the Attawapiskat First Nation's financial situation, as well as dispelling myths about the lives of indigenous Canadians in general (in regard to the reserve system, etc.) Learn these things. Correct others. 

If you are having trouble keeping the points of the Indian Act (and what the bills C-35 and C-40 will mean) straight, listen to Russell Diabo here.

If you are looking for further resources for allies (information, facts, and how to be a supportive but not meddlesome, settler-splaining one) there's a collection here. The Idle No More page is also excellent for orienting yourself. 

2. Take care of the land. 

Not because you own it, but because you are of it. Do it in the spirit of land stewardship, of living in a place and caring for it. I love this land so much it hurts me, that I ache in my legs and my chest when I go away for too long. It's not my land, no, not my ancestors' land, but I am made of it and I was raised on it and of it and I want to care for it, honour it.

I am going to choose places that I go often and seriously care for them. Riverlot is already protected, but the edge by the water always needs cleaning in spring. Winter food for birds is always a good idea. And then in the road slump off the banks where I used to live in Edmonton -- the beer bottle golf ball graveyard amongst the saskatoons and hazelnuts. This needs love, and honouring. This is the kind of mindfulness I want to cultivate along with the time I spend in these places anyway, as a gesture to this place.

3. Learn nêhiyawêwin, Cree.

I have been meaning  to do this for years. Always interested in it, growing up, learning the place names and the few words my dad knew for plants and animals and places. My Musée/Métis centre volunteering introduced me more to local toponymy and I meant to start then. But then I went up to the Yukon, and I learned dän k'è there, and then to Russia and learned Sakha, and I've learned these other indigenous languages but not the one that is indigenous to where I am from.  And I want to honour the people whose land I live on, people whose names I have known in my elementary school (keenooshayo) and the woods (pitikwahanapiwiyin, Poundmaker) and all those who have moved through these places and known them and loved them too.  So I am starting to learn, in deference to this language of the land here, where I am from, and those amiskwacīwiyiniwak, the Beaver Hills people, and Métis who have made their lives here far, far longer than my own people, so I can know it along with my own ancestral speech.

I want to support all Treaty Six First Nations here, and all indigenous groups across Canada.

I just want to give all people the quiet support and space to heal, and allow them the self-determination and agency to do so. I want to remember my responsibilities, and I want to listen.

I don't know what to do. I don't know if these are the best things to do. But I am angry and I am at a loss and this is what I want to try.