What If We Actually Treated Indigenous People as People?
When it comes to meaningfully acknowledging the theft of land, or addressing poverty, we would rather not be bothered.
Where are you right now?
That question is deeper than it sounds, and a great deal turns on the reply given. Most inhabitants of the Americas know that the modern-day countries on these two continents began as European settler colonies. Far fewer are aware, beyond some casual trivia, of the depths of the suffering that Indigenous peoples experienced at the hands of the invaders. Nor are those crimes fully imparted to students through school curricula, even if some jurisdictions have finally begun teaching the heart-rending history of the residential school system.
As recognition of the need for truth and reconciliation continues to gain steam, it has become popular to begin public events and school days by acknowledging the “traditional, unceded Indigenous territory” on which the event is taking place. These observations serve as valuable reminders of the events and decisions that made a given location what it is today. Considering that the places where this sort of preamble is given are not First Nation reserves, an astute reader will notice that “unceded” is really just a polite way of saying “stolen.”
That’s a powerful message, and it’s important that people occasionally receive a proverbial kick in the ass. Yet as part of an effort to increase historical literacy, territorial acknowledgements are only a means to an end. Complacency and arrogance, including among liberals, risks framing acknowledgements as an end in themselves. That could be worse than doing nothing at all.
ᐊᒋᒧᐢᑕᒪᑫ [achi-mo-stamakee] “Tell a story” (Cree)
Virtually every last inch of North America has a rich, but mostly forgotten, past that predates the Columbian Exchange of 1492. Learning something as simple as the origins of a name gives a place new meaning by revealing an aspect of its history.
Canada derives its name from the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village.” It’s not hard to imagine the misunderstanding that must have transpired.
European arrives at shore: “Hello, what is this place?”
Indigenous person: (Points in the direction of his village) “Kanata!”
European: “Oh, I see. Hey guys, he says this whole land is called Canada!”
There are many, many places in North America whose names originate in an indigenous language. Ottawa comes from adaawe, an Anishinaabe word that means “to trade.” Québec is kepék, or “where the river narrows” in Mikmaq. Dakota comes from the Sioux word dakhóta, while Texas — formerly pronounced “ta-shas” — originates from the Caddo word taysha. Both mean “friend/ally” in their respective languages. Mississippi (misiziibi: “big river”) and Michigan (mishigamaa: “big lake”) both evolved from Ojibwemowin words. Kentucky (gëdá’geh) is Senecan for “on the prairie.” Chicago is shikaakwa, or “wild onions” in the Potawami language. Milwaukee’s name comes from the Algonquin word millioke, translating to “gathering place by the water.” Even Louisiana’s capital city Baton Rouge, though French, is named for the red sticks used to delineate the local tribe’s territory.
The history of a name gives one a glimpse into the past by highlighting what a region was known for before colonial times. Acknowledgements of traditional territory attempt to draw a line between the past and the present for the sake of context and discussion.
Still, acknowledgements are more complicated than they appear. For starters, stolen property is meant to be returned. Does anyone reading, much less hearing, a territorial acknowledgement at a university campus or public theatre really believe that the land on which it stands will be restored to the Indigenous tribe from whom it was confiscated or swindled generations earlier? If not, the acknowledgement must be treated symbolically rather than literally.
Territorial acknowledgements are written so that we may express a sentiment without feeling it.
All is not lost, for symbolic messaging holds value if it can move people’s hearts and elicit political action in other meaningful ways. Yet a glaring weakness remains. Territorial acknowledgements stand all alone on the cultural landscape, like a single scarecrow in an open field, outnumbered by a flock of birds who have little reason to take heed. So long as a society is uninformed about, and therefore uninterested in, the matter of reconciliation with its marginalized members, lone acts of protest will never be more than token gestures.
That is Hayden King’s fear. He’s an Anishinaabe writer and educator who works at Ryerson University in Toronto. In 2012 he helped to write a territorial acknowledgement for the university, but now regrets doing so. King explains in an interview (edited lightly for concision):
I started to see how the territorial acknowledgement could become very superficial and also how it fetishizes these actual tangible, concrete treaties. They’re not metaphors — they’re real institutions, and for us to write and recite a territorial acknowledgement that obscures that fact is a disservice to that treaty and to those nations.
The really important aspect of a territorial acknowledgement is the obligation that comes on the back end of it. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, we’re on the territory of the Mississaugas or the Anishinaabek and the Haudenosaunee.” It’s another thing to say, “We’re on the territory of the Anishinaabek and the Haudenosaunee and here’s what that compels me to do.”
I think that the territorial acknowledgement is by and large for non-Native people. So if we’re writing a script, then providing a phonetic guide for how to recite the nations’ names, it doesn’t really require much work on behalf of the people who are reciting that territorial acknowledgement. It effectively excuses them and offers them an alibi for doing the hard work of learning about their neighbours, about the treaties of the territory, and about those nations that should have jurisdiction.
Now there’s some straight talk. A little effort to learn about the past would go a long way to making up for it. Humility is also required from the progressive-left, though, which must recognize the magnitude of the task it is leading. Will repetitive and ubiquitous territorial acknowledgements, each time students or hockey fans take their seats, impress upon a new generation of North Americans the urgency of tangible reconciliation with Indigenous peoples? Will it inspire them to succeed where every other generation before them has failed? Can it lay the groundwork for a more compassionate society in the future, one which refuses to blame suffering on the sufferer? One can hope so.
Mukk wen pepsimaw: “Think before you speak” (Mi’kmaw)
Success is far from certain, however, chiefly due to a tradition of arrogance that has haunted Euro-Christian culture since it arrived on American shores, and probably well before. America, after all, is named for its eponym Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and cartographer who, unlike his compatriot Cristoforo Colombo, realized that the Caribbean islands known as the West Indies are not, in fact, located on Asia’s eastern flank.
That blunder sparked the inaccurate, and now mostly defunct, practice of calling the original inhabitants of the land American Indians. In polite company that word is widely considered a slur, particularly among white progressives who strive, in most cases laudably, to eradicate prejudiced language from the lexicon. Indeed, many on the left are motivated in part because they feel a need to repent vicariously for the sins our ancestors committed against minorities, including Indigenous peoples. But although their hearts are in the right place, the social-justice-warriors hankering for abrupt change are often less philosophers than they are bulls in a china shop. Even on the caring end of the political spectrum, arrogance endures.
Many people tend to whitewash history in an ingratiating way that abets white liberals’ tacit desire to signal their own virtue.
Slavoj Zizek, a celebrity philosopher, has a charming anecdote to illustrate why political correctness — a darling cause of the far-left — doesn’t necessarily bear benefits. He recounts a conversation with two Indigenous men in Montana who told him that they preferred being called Indians because at least that label is a monument to the White Man’s stupidity.
That pithy story has to be among the best of all time for its authoritative and counterintuitive twist. Picture it: just as the social-justice warrior takes the batter’s plate, preparing to smash a home run out of the park, a perfect curveball arrives that zips right past for a strike. The tale is a blunt reminder that human beings, like the historical narratives their lives write, are complicated and unpredictable. It is dispiriting, but hardly surprising, that most people have not bothered to think hard enough about most important subjects, let alone reconciliation.
Affluent western society is full of limousine-liberals. They are the sort of people who live comfortably, mean well for the world, feel sympathy for those less fortunate, and do little to change anything. They’re more than willing, of course, to sign an online petition against factory farming, or choose as their morning latté the promotional edition that donates 5 percent of proceeds to help feed Guatemalan children. They’re the first ones to change their Facebook profile photo to “support” the victims of tragedies…in rich countries. And as for territorial acknowledgements, well, they think that’s just swell. They are specialists in slacktivism.
Progress will be a long and bumpy road because even many of the people who think they actively support reconciliation don’t care enough to know the first thing about it. When someone claims to acknowledge so-and-so’s traditional land, what does “traditional” mean? And whose traditions are they referring to? These are among the inconvenient questions Stephen Marche raises, before remarking that “[territorial acknowledgements] are written…so that we may express a sentiment without, as far as possible, feeling it…They sound like microwave warranties, not the desire for atonement.”
Eliding the messiness of history in the Americas is a tactic used not to heal old wounds, but to soothe white guilt.
Many people also tend to whitewash history in an ingratiating way that abets white liberals’ tacit desire to signal their own virtue. For instance, although Europeans visited terrible violence on Indigenous peoples, they did not invent it. Like all human civilizations, the numerous tribes of the Americas engaged in both peaceful trade and brutal warfare for eons before Europeans bullied their way into the frame. The men speaking to Zizek allude to this point, too, through their distaste for the term “Native American”: it seems to imply that while real Americans lead the charge through modernity, Natives are backward tree-huggers who have yet to catch up. That is far from the truth.
Stephen Marche quotes Jessie Thistle, an historian at York University, who parses the complexities of acknowledging traditional territory in the Toronto area:
Haudenosaunee people, some of them, don’t want to recognize that the Anishinaabe took control and were here historically. Some Anishinaabe people will not recognize that the Haudenosaunee people were here. And both those people sometimes want to erase the Wendat [people].
Indigenous people have been just as petty and selfish as the rest of us frail human beings. To find that surprising is itself a racist reaction. Some people have forgotten that although Indigenous peoples have been victimized throughout modern history, they are not, and never were, rudimentary, monolithic, or immaculate. Eliding the messiness of history in the Americas is a tactic used not to heal old wounds, but to soothe white guilt. If the cross-burning white supremacist is the worst sort of racist, the enlightened white savior is a close second. Paternalism is its own form of bigotry.
Bidzï hitsigh: “Her heart is crying” (Wet’suwet’en)
Upon their arrival in the New World, Europeans discovered crops they had never seen before, including corn, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, vanilla, and cocoa. In turn, Europeans introduced much to the Americas that the Indigenous peoples had never experienced: apples, bananas, oranges, mangos, onions, wheat, rice, coffee, and animals such as horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep. The most consequential thing that arrived with the settlers, however, was disease. Old World viruses such as influenza, smallpox, and measles, to which the peoples of the Americas lacked immunity, eventually killed 50 to 90 percent of the Indigenous population.
Europeans were perplexed, offended, and incensed that Native peoples had the temerity to take their goods and return their gods.
— Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
Episodes like that should give pause to those of us with predominantly non-Indigenous lineage. First Nations communities across North America still bear the scars of the damage suffered in times past. Today 1 in 4 Native Americans, and 1 in 3 Native American children, live in poverty — almost double the United States average in both categories. The situation is even worse in Canada, where half of status First Nation children live in poverty, rising to 60 percent for children on reserves nationally, and 76 percent on reserves in Manitoba. It is so dire, in fact, that poverty for Indigenous Canadians is becoming worse, not better, despite overall economic growth.
We each have a responsibility to care about the plight of marginalized peoples, many of whom were dealt a shitty hand at birth but are ignored — or even blamed — anyway. Pursuing justice begins by reminding the world that justice is needed, but it does not end there. It requires serious contemplation and concern for tangible problems before symbolic ones.
Sympathetic white people like to get in a tizzy over a sports team’s offensive name, or the cultural appropriation embodied in certain Halloween costumes. They are right to be disgusted by such examples of racist contempt, which can avowedly retard social progress by normalizing bigotry. But these are, in a way, white-person problems.
Indigenous peoples, by and large, have bigger fish to fry. Those living on reserves are in desperate need of clean drinking water, adequate health resources, and internet access — all of which most white people, in between Twitter feuds, take for granted every day.
Territorial acknowledgements can play an important role in a broader strategy to inform and remind people of the facts they would rather forget. But on their own, in the absence of a real commitment to understand and treat Indigenous peoples as people, and without a burning anger for change expressed at the polls, acknowledgements mean little. Time will tell whether or not we really mean it this time.
If we need a rule of thumb to guide us in our relationship with Indigenous peoples, Thomas King says it best:
Indians are not special…The fact of Native existence is that [they] live modern lives informed by traditional values and contemporary realities and that [they] wish to live those lives on [their] terms.
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