After attending last night’s INM gathering last night (From Idle No More to the Indigenous Nationhood Movement) I think I need a Children of White Settler support group. It was intense. After only a couple of hours listening to personal stories, the emotional rollercoaster that moved me from sadness and guilt, to a sense of relief, and back again and all around left me exhausted.
I didn’t know that a trench 30 ft wide and 80 ft deep known as the St. Lawrence Seaway was built on top of Taiaiake Alfred’s family homes, forcing thousands of years of ancestral history to suddenly take a radical turn. Taiaiake (a Kahnawake Mohawk and Professor of Indigenous Governance at UVic) reminded us how important it is to protect the wilderness now, before it’s too late.
Most people know that indigenous cultures the world over are resplendent with songs and ceremony, last night we were reminded that we don’t really know how significantly intertwined ceremony is woven into the culture until we experience it personally. Taiaiake told us a story about his experience near Bella Coola, where he watched a native man communicate with a grizzly bear that had wandered a little too close to their gathering. The man used his drum and his voice to calm the bear, which turned and retreated into the forest. It was clear this experience affected him deeply, one small example of the ways indigenous people were truly connected to the land and all that surrounded them, something he was deprived because of the way the colonialists chose to interact with his people. It’s these experiences, he said, that inspire people to fight with all their heart to stop any further destruction.
Toghestiy (Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu Clan, Wet’suwet’en) and Freda Huson (Wet’suwet’en, and spokesperson for the Unis’tot’en Action Camp) travelled 12+ hours just to get to this gathering and share their stories. They had both lived “successful” integrated lives, studying and working and earning and being part of the mainstream consumer culture. And they had both found the experience lacking. Freda spoke of an emptiness that she didn’t understand. There she was with a good job, a house, no debt, but she was not happy. Then she began walking in the woods, feeling the spirit of her ancestors, finding water that’s still so clean you can drink it directly from the river, and now she’s willing to go to jail to prevent destruction of the magnificent northern wilderness of her homeland. Sitting across the table and trying to negotiate just doesn’t work, she said. They’ve tried it. Their ancestors have tried it. Treaties are written, and then broken, over and over again. The only way to stop them is to stand in their way, that’s all they listen to.
I didn’t realize that roads in Saanich pass over former village sites. I often give thought to what this land must have looked like pre-contact, what a paradise it must have been with its plentiful and clean running water, camas fields, and salmon filled oceans and streams, but I’d never thought specifically about riding over peoples’ village sites. One of the Saanich elders spoke about it after the formal presentations. Another spoke about his mother who was removed from her family and sent to school on Cooper’s Island. Nowadays she sits in her rocking chair watching television. When he asks her about his grandmother she always says “oh, she was a wonderful woman.” That’s all she says. Eventually the man realized that’s all she says because she never knew her mother. The colonialists took her before she was old enough to form any significant memories (and then, probably, tortured her mind with memories of abuse).
It’s difficult, challenging, to begin to comprehend all of the horrible things that have happened, that continue to happen, in an effort to eliminate these people and their cultural heritage. It’s horrible to realize that, even though my own life has been difficult, a lot of doors have opened merely because of the colour of my skin. I sometimes have to put up with sexist bullshit, but I’m not subject to racist comments like Dawn Smith’s (Nuu-chah-nulth, LE,NONET/UVic Education) young female relative who recently asked - where’s Idle No More when racist comments are thrown at her?
A couple of weeks ago I went door knocking with the Social Coast crew, in an effort to raise awareness about some of the street names in Victoria and perhaps reclaim traditional native place names instead. Trutch was a land commissioner who freed up land for settlers by significantly reducing the size of BC reserves. Sutlej was the name of a ship sent to destroy villages near Tofino. And Begbie is well known as the “Hanging Judge,” ending the lives of many natives who refused to get with the program of colonization. We knocked on a few doors along Trutch street, to mixed reactions. Those who get it, they really get it. We should absolutely refuse to recognize these barbaric acts with place names. Others, well they just baffle me. One young woman, who lives in the renovated Trutch mansion, said it’s not up to her to judge history.
Really? We don’t judge Hitler, or have an opinion on the witch burnings? This was an attempt at genocide, shouldn't we make an effort to judge that?
If people really knew this history, I’m pretty sure they’d form some kind of opinion. But, thanks to the corporate and state media who are everyday responsible for the vast majority of education the masses receive, we will instead be programmed to think of Toghestiy and Freda, and everyone else willing to stand the front lines in this war for the remaining earth’s wilderness, as trouble makers. Terrorists.
In addition to the challenge I personally feel processing all of the aforementioned, and finding my place in the struggle (are my urban attempts at alternative media enough or should I join the camp and put my body on the front line?) my very strong vegan sensibilities kept nagging at me. There’s no doubt in my mind that the way forward, if we are to survive as a human species, is through reconciliation with the past and a clear understanding of the native relationship with the earth. They realized a special balance with nature. They honoured the spirits of the animals whose lives they took, and they didn’t do it for profit. But there are now 7 billion people on this planet, and we can’t all live off the land like they do at the Unis’tot’en camp.
Last night I heard a very powerful call to protect the earth for future generations, to preserve the traditional ways so the children’s children will know the languages and the significance of the ceremonies. I couldn’t help but think … what about protecting the earth for the earth’s sake? Why not preserve the wilderness for the grizzly bears, and the wolves, and the owls, and the millions of tiny creatures that comprise the mysterious biodiversity of the ancient forest? I suppose that message was contained within the INM call for nationhood, but I didn’t hear it.
I guess I won’t be leaving for the camp anytime soon. I’ll continue to struggle with my own feelings of inadequacy and do my best to support them from here, from the low-carbon life I live in this urban environment that has been constructed on their homelands. And if I can continue to inspire my friends and family to reduce their environmental footprints, to shift to plant-based diets and thereby refuse to participate in the continued torture and murder of innocent creatures, perhaps that’s enough for a pale-skin born of working class settler parents who only wanted to build a better world for their children.
Hy'ch'qa Si:yam (thank you)