Sunday, December 27, 2009

Going Native



Or the key to saving the savages is to become a savage and show them how to save themselves.

I saw Avatar today. And while I cannot deny how breathtaking the movie was, how seamless the special effects imagery and how mind-blowing the depiction of a fully-realized alien biosphere was, I had a major problem with the story. Not the least of which was the whole white man as saviour thing. That was just plain insulting.

I normally love this kind of thing, with cool special effects and world-building visuals going on, but I found this movie just bugged me. I couldn’t turn off my critical mind and just enjoy it. It made me feel schizoid -- on one hand I thought it was visually breath-taking but mostly it just creeped me out. And that had everything to do with the story line.

I think Cameron was attempting, albeit clumsily and in a heartfelt way, to be anti-colonial, anti-imperalist, but some of the assumptions that the film made were unsettlingly racist. It was Dances With Wolves all over again, Pocohontas in space – any number of post-colonial settler narratives that attempt to assuage white guilt. It was like hit us over the head with your metaphor, James – the natives live in harmony with their planet and regard themselves as part of the biosphere, not separate or given dominion over it, but as just another part of their planet. They wear feathers in their hair and are fond of bows and arrows, ride horse-like creatures and obviously have some kind of tribal structure that includes a chieftain and references to an animistic religion.

I found myself being horrified by the overtly militarized colonization efforts; there was not even any attempt made to defend the human incursion onto a different planet where strip-mining almost instantaneously takes place; there was no real diplomatic efforts made, there was not even an acknowledgement that perhaps six hundred years of colonial oppression on Earth may have taught them something. There was just Manifest Destiny in outer space. It made me feel sick to my stomach. And then the whole idea that they tried to introduce a “school” and conveniently teach the natives “English” – Jesus Christ, how fucked up was that??? They may as well have just had a Christian missionary there as well, since the “savages” obviously required their souls to be saved. What was next, residential schools and the introduction of alcohol?

Don’t even get me started about the sexy female alien and her obvious “importance” in the tribe because it can’t be just an ordinary tribal chick, she has to be a “princess” and be the one who accepts the white boy, thereby signalling his worthiness to the rest of the people. Give me a break! While I do acknowledge that attraction between different peoples is a given – the whole history of the Haudenosaunee being representative of this fact (a Haudenosaunee woman chooses who the father of her children is going to be and that’s nobody’s business but hers), the idea that her status has to be elevated is strictly a settler thing, given as they are so fond of hierarchy. In a tribal world, that shouldn’t matter, but in a settler narrative it damn well does. Her “value” conveys legitimacy to the white dude’s efforts to make everyone think he’s worthy. Gag me.

I wish it had been a better story because certainly a movie like this doesn’t come along very often – there was definitely $300 million worth of CGI and custom-built sets on that screen. But gorgeous eye candy does not a great movie make. And certainly I didn’t enjoy having to sit through nearly three hours of a white dude being a saviour to a “savage” people because they have to be shown how to save themselves. Essentially he gets to go native while retaining his white privilege. Good one. I bet everyone wishes they could do that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sick of fascist apologists, or why I’m tired of hearing the “it’s not my fault, I didn’t settle here and oppress your people” argument that I get


I’m a huge science fiction fan. One of my greatest pleasures in life is reading and thinking about science fiction. Some of the more amazing books have planted ideas and concepts in my head and I love chewing over these ideas, thinking about them and dwelling on different scenarios so different than this reality. From the time I discovered the genre at around eleven I have been a fan, gobbling these books down at lightspeed and spending an inordinate amount of time lurking in Bakka and the science fiction section in bookstores. Being a science fiction fan is kind of like being in the closet in a way – you don’t really want to out yourself in certain social settings, but once you do, it’s extremely liberating. So I’m coming out now – yep, I’m a geeky science fiction freak! Soon I suppose I’ll be attending conventions and wearing a Princess Leia get-up… but I digress.

The reason I mention this is that one of my favourite writers, marine biologist, amazing storyteller and fellow Torontonian, Peter Watts, got arrested, pepper-sprayed, sucker-punched in the face and thrown in jail for the dubious crime of “assaulting a border guard” while he was attempting to LEAVE the USA. Apparently he had to spend the night in a freaking Michigan jail and was then unceremoniously dumped at the border sans computer, notebook, or winter coat.

Seriously. Notwithstanding the fact that the border has always made me antsy/angry/anxious and full of any number of resentments, a good portion of which have to do with the entire colonial construct of the border concept anyway, especially to a righteous Haudenosaunee citizen (which I plan to get into at another time)… However, accusing a full-on science geek with trumped-up charge like that points to just how bad the fascist jackboot has gotten without anyone noticing!!

And to make matters worse, all of the blogs and newssites that are reporting on this incident have a disturbing trend to them. There are any number of people in the various comment sections basically blaming the victim and saying “he had it coming.” What? Excuse me? Asking why you are being searched on YOUR WAY OUT OF THE STUPID COUNTRY is grounds for getting the shit kicked out of you and forced to defend your innocence in a foreign country’s legal system? WTF people!!! Think about it. How stupid is that? Smells, sounds, and feels like fascism to me.

Ask the people at Akwesasne or any of our nations how they feel about crossing the freakin’ artificial border every day and see what they tell you. Ask them about intimidation and invasive searches and being targeted and held unlawfully. Fascism is alive and well and insinuating itself, deeper and deeper like an insidious virus, into both of these colonial construct countries that pride themselves on their liberty and justice for all. I call bullshit.

But what’s worse are all these apologists. Defending fascism’s right to make all people suspect, to claim that they were only doing their job, that they have the right to subject a person to an unlawful search and then whale on their head for asking why. I hate that more than anything. You freaking mealy-mouthed collaborators!! People have the absolute right to question authority, especially when authority makes baseless accusations.

It’s the same as people saying, “I didn’t ask to be born here” and “You should get over it” when indigenous people start to question a system that denies us our rights, denies us the liberty and justice for all that other (white) people get to enjoy, and a system that brainwashes all of us into thinking “If I just work hard enough I’ll get ahead and become the CEO/win the lottery/get picked up for the NHL/become a famous movie star”. No one wants to examine the oppressive systems of colonization/capitalism/race-based social supremacy that makes things they way they are. No one wants to understand why privilege exists in the world. No one wants to look at the great human migrations forced around the world by colonial capitalism and why people are uprooted, torn from their homelands. It’s not just friction between tribes and the struggle for resources. It is a widespread, ongoing capitalist system that is responsible for oppressing the vast majority of human beings. But people –specifically people in the comfortable First World -- don’t want to look at these systems. They just want to be able to buy that flat screen tv and watch the frickin’ hockey game and not worry about all that shit. That’s for them freaky pointy-head geeks to think about.

Utah Phillips, the great American folksinger and trade unionist once said “the state can't give you freedom, and the state can't take it away. Freedom is something you're born with, and then one day someone tries to deny it. The extent to which you resist is the extent to which you are free."

Right on, brother.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pretending to be dead


The best thing about going to yoga is the time spent in savasana – corpse pose. Every yoga teacher I have ever had calls it the hardest pose to do, which I suppose it is. The reason for its difficulty is because you have to lie flat on your back, eyes closed, muscles relaxed, and pretend that you are dead. A lot of people in this wired world, their nervous systems all jacked up on too much caffeine, too much wireless technology, sleep deprivation and general culture-driven neurosis get up and flee when this pose, which traditionally ends a class, is talked through by the teacher. You can practically feel their relief as they exit the room.

I find it extremely relaxing. I don’t fall asleep at all – ostensibly you are supposed to meditate, and I suppose what happens to me is a form of meditation, although it’s more of a rumination than anything else – I chew over snippets of thought, things I have read, things that have happened to me during the day, things people have said, what a random occurrence meant to me... I could spend the whole day in savasana. Maybe that’s my characteristic laziness coming to the fore, but seriously, I could.

I don’t even mind the contemplation of death. After all, we spend much more time – an entire eternity – being dead than alive. It’s the fate of us all. Sooner or later we will all experience it. So if twisting your body into weird pretzel shapes is intended to help you feel alive and prepare your nervous system for the serious meditation work which enlightenment requires (this is, after all, the real intent of yoga), then the yin to that yang is obviously thinking and preparing for death. And after a number of years on the planet, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is it. This is Heaven, this is paradise, this is the happy hunting ground – right here, right now, in this body, at this point in the continuum of time, for me as an individual human animal. So learning to be present and in the moment is my lifelong work. And sometimes, when I pretend to be dead that’s when I feel most alive.

I’ve often wondered if being Kanienkaha’keh has anything to do with my comfort around the whole concept. I remember how close and real death was among us growing up. One of the coolest things about growing up as a Haudenosaunee is how real everything is to you. Nothing is shielded, nothing is considered off limits to children. Birth, death, heartbreak, illness, conflict, joy, grief – all of these things are open and expressed, all of these things are right there in front of you. Every Iroquoian funeral I’ve ever been at, there’s babies crawling beneath the coffin, the kids hang out and play around where all the people are sitting in the room at the visitations and wakes. Children are present at births, at grave illnesses, at all of those primal rites-of-passage moments that the dominant culture, from what I’ve observed, tends to shield their children and even each other from these very human realities under the label of “privacy”.

Children are, after all, going to be the people at some point, and most of the families that I knew believe you are not raising children, you are raising adults. There was a lot of benign neglect from my parents. Not neglect in a survival or nurturing way, but we were left alone for long periods of time, with my older cousins assuming the responsibility for me and my brother’s safety. I remember long periods of time of hanging out in the bush doing nothing in particular, just sort of playing – some of my earliest memories are being out with my cousins and playing down by a creek or in the barn without any adults around at the age of four and possibly younger (Side note -- some of the very few non-indigenous people who share a similar experience were from northern communities, and then they were mostly male).

People freak when I tell them that, and get weirded out when I tell them I’m sad that my own children never got as much of that unfettered free range playtime as I did. But that’s Iroquoian parenting for you. Too much supervision is considered stifling, negating the necessary work of becoming an independent, self-reliant Haudenosaunee person with duties to fulfill. I’ve always been chagrined and yet secretly proud of that core Iroquoian value – that everything and everyone – plants, animals, microbes, water molecules, sunlight and people -- has a duty to fulfill as a resident of Turtle Island. It goes back to peace, power, and righteousness. Those who want the rights and privileges that being alive entails must embrace their responsibilities and fulfill their duties – “pick up their medicine”, as the translation from the Mohawk goes.

I ruminated on this a lot during savasana in class last night. I hope that when the time comes I meet my inevitable death with the same kind of equanimity that I have on the mat. I’d like to think so... but there’s always the meat and what it wants, and no matter how disciplined your mind, the body has its own ideas. But all of us cross that bridge when it comes, some by choice, some by the random vagaries of fortune...it all comes down to whether or not it’s a good day to die, as the Lakota used to shout upon entering into battle.

My own people used to compose a death song upon battle so that the enemy knew exactly who it was they were taking out. I think maybe I'll start doing that metaphorically. My song has a lot of wailing guitars in it with a definite psychedelic sound...the sound of a life lived in the journey.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

CBC News - New Brunswick - 1st-degree murder charge in N.B. teen case

CBC News - New Brunswick - 1st-degree murder charge in N.B. teen case

A relief to the family... and to those of us who seek justice for missing and murdered aboriginal women.

But this is SO WRONG.

I can only wonder at this. I have twenty-three first cousins, nineteen of them male. I can't imagine what would make one of them spark off into this kind of atrocity. They are really more like my brothers than my cousins, we are that close. And I know it is this way for many of us who come from First Nations.

Poor little girl. A child missing, a family torn asunder.

Tragedy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Extirpation. Sorry, Mr Prairie Chicken




1. to remove or destroy totally; do away with; exterminate.
2. to pull up by or as if by the roots; root up: to extirpate an unwanted hair.

I always feel ashamed when I read news of yet another species’ extinction.

This time it’s the prairie chicken.

Okay, I suppose I should take some comfort in the fact that it’s only the Canadian version of said beastie and that there’s some remaining on the American prairies... where it’s still open hunting season on this fowl because apparently there’s a sustainable population.

Sometimes I hate my own species.

How the hell did we naked vulnerable apes end up ruling this planet, running amok with our crazy-ass breeding ability, our tool-making, our fire, our shit fouling the beautiful earth that has given us everything? How is it that we have managed to be so damn destructive?

In the Gany’honyonk, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, we say at the beginning it is an honour to be a human being. This is because we are the only animals that can speak about everything else. We are the only ones to know that everything else is alive. Deer know they are alive, eagles and bears and turtles and insects too – but human beings are the only ones who know that everything else exists and is to be honoured. In the speaking of it, we honour its existence and its place on the planet.

And that is why we give thanks to everything, from the water rushing over the land, to the plants and berries, to the animals, straight on upward to the stars. We honour the life force that creates us all. We honour nature. We honour our evolution.

And in the speaking of this evolution, this incredible intertwined biosphere, we acknowledge our duty as human beings to live within it, to be of one mind with the planet and its bounty.

We have failed in our duty. All of us human beings, we have failed.

We have so sadly negated our responsibility to the earth, done terrible harm to this incredible planet, this jewel that shines so softly in our little corner of the universe. I think it’s because our species can’t live beyond our little lives. Hell, most of us can’t live beyond our next meal. So how are we supposed to think about the consequences of our actions, about how our dependency on petrified dinosaur poop and the subsequent plastic and toxic chemicals is going to affect our next seven generations, let alone the millions of other creatures along for the ride on Spaceship Earth?

People always say, “It’s not my fault that this is happening. I didn’t ask to be born.”

Well for fuck sakes, you’re here now, deal with it. This is ultimately the problem with mankind. No one wants to take responsibility for anything. Capitalism conveniently preys upon this tendency, saying in its seductive whisper, it’s not your fault, just buy something and you’ll be happy, and then people say it’s not my fault, I’ll just buy something... And so it goes. More plastic, more cars, more waste, more people...more more more and suddenly... no more prairie chickens. Or passenger pigeons, or dodos. And soon on that list, polar bears. Siberian tigers. Right whales. Cod. Salmon. The list goes on and on and on. Talk about bad karma, mankind is going to be burning off that extinction shit for a very very long time as dung beetles of the first order.

Sometimes I think we should just die of an infectious plague, or an asteroid crashing into us, or giant space insects coming and devouring us, because we suck.

I apologize to you, prairie chickens. It’s all of our fault.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tribalism is the new Black



Last night I was waiting for the Esplanade bus and noticed a trio of baby dyke young womyn, all in their very early 20’s. They had extremely cool eyewear, short boy haircuts and one of them was wearing a black t-shirt that proudly proclaimed “Cunts” in silver writing. I loved how happy and at ease they were; two of them were unashamedly holding hands and the other was bouncing up and down with excitement, jabbering at her friends with lots of hand gestures and smiles and laughter.

I wanted to ask them where they were going but figure it’s none of my business, and also why would they care if some old lady thought they were as cool as shit? I also think it’s amazing that young women can casually wear t-shirts that say “Cunts”. Back when I was in my early 20’s I would have died of embarrassment rather than wear something like that. Hell, it took me until my late 20’s to be able to wear the Nirvana t-shirt that says “Fudge-packin’ crack smokin’ satan worshippin’ motherfuckers” on the back. And then my mother was appalled. My 13 year old daughter, on the other hand, swears like a blue streak and wears black eyeliner and band t-shirts already. So I guess it’s a matter of what A) passes for fashion in your zeitgeist and B) how comfortable you are with anything.

But what watching this young trio of baby dykes reminded me of was how you can pick out members of your own tribe – and I don’t mean the indigenous nation of your birth – but the tribe with which you identify. For me, it has always been urban bohemian music freaks, the wider tribe of which encompasses musicians, punks, Goths, metalheads, artists, photographers, skaters, writers, computer geeks, bike couriers, radical fairies, djs, music store nerds, comic book artists, web heads, crazy cat people, designers, coffee junkies, yoga instructors, latter-day hippies, eco-freaks, labour activists, social justice advocates, graduate students, potheads and psychedelic experimenters, science fiction nerds, and other fringe dwellers. You can spot ‘em a mile away. And feel comfortable around them.

Tribalism is one of those things that is as old as our species. It’s a survival technique and the way humans have lived for much of our existence. Families organize into clans which organize into tribes which organize into nations. And I don’t mean “nation state”; my definition means the tribal organization which believes in its own sovereignty and allies itself with other nations to form confederacies – can’t help what I already know!

Most people in modern Western culture have no experience living in a tribal organization. We all know what colonization did to the vast majority of tribes here on Turtle Island, where the settlers saw us as competitors for the land resources and an evolving capitalist marketplace saw our collective communism as impediment to a free market economy. The surviving people, my own included, are a pale shadow of the powerful and healthy tribes we once were. Even as I hate to admit that, it’s true. We are nothing like we once were.

But we still feel the pull, the need, the essential ability to form and be in a tribe. Being in a tribe means you have a primary loyalty to a group that really cares about your personal survival and your future success, because that in turn strengthens all of the tribe.

Most of my non-indigenous friends don’t have anything like a tribe. They come from nuclear families that are weakened by economics that force movement and mobility away from each other, a very weak extended family – I can’t count how many of my friends say they envy me knowing and loving most of the members of my vast and sprawling Iroquoian family – a social circle that is more about proximity and shared interests than loyalty, and then – what? Loyalty to a hockey team? A corporation? A rock band? A country? I guess that’s what passes for tribal living for non-indigenous people. But how do you find comfort in those structures in a world as chaotic and as harsh as modern environments can be? Who do you go to for that wider sense of security and a sense of loyalty and belonging?

I think we should all build our own tribes. Tribes based not on blood but on networks that extend to other families and worthy people… A group of people that you are loyal to and who are steadfastly loyal to you. Isn’t that what we all want from life?

I should start gathering one around me, I could be the tribal matriarch. Two winters ago I was convinced that the environmental apocalypse was at hand and I was totally ready to start getting all Road Warrior with a group of people. Maybe I should revive my plans.

P.S. The picture is a recent photo of part of my extended family, taken last summer.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shirtless Onkwehonwe Boys


I took my daughter to see the second instalment in that ridiculousTwilight series, “New Moon”... while I think that the main premise of the book is an obvious celibacy metaphor, I always find cultural phenomena to be interesting and so endeavour to check them out. I’m actually responsible for turning my daughter onto the whole thing because I gave her the first book 3 Christmases ago, before it was a cultural phenomena – so sue me, I had read the back of the book and figured my-then 11 year old voracious reader would appreciate it. When she went absolute apeshit for the books I figured I’d read them just to get an idea... Kind of sorry I did, the author is obviously an amateur and they weren’t the best-written books in the universe, but there’s no denying the attraction of the whole series for teenage girls.

Which brings me to the second movie instalment... It’s one thing to read about all the hype around pretty little Taylor Lautner and his posse of Quiluete boys, but the lovely indigenous male eye candy was a pleasure to behold. And I can’t deny the weird pleasure I had at thinking, here’s a way of looking at indigenous people beyond the obvious stereotypes. Well, actually I shouldn’t say that, there’s still the noble-savage thing going on by virtue of the fact that they turn into wolves, but again, how cool is that? The fact that they have this ability to protect their people and tap into this magical power is pretty awesome. Perhaps it’s just more of that whole spiritual stereotyping thing again – all that stuff about the sacred four directions and the peace pipe et cetera ad nauseum – but I was thinking, this is really nice to see, indigenous people portrayed in a positive light. They weren’t drinking, they weren’t terribly poor, they were all beautiful and powerful and cared for one another in a very tight, very community-oriented way... Kind of how we would like to see ourselves if the obvious post-colonial bullshit didn't exist.

Then I entertained myself with visions of millions of rabid white teenage girls descending upon indigenous communities all over America trying to find their own little Jacob Blacks only to be met at the edge of the reserves by scary, menacing, mean-eyed Indian girls, and that made me laugh to myself as I was driving home. Now there’s a frightening prospect! All the girls I grew up with on the reserve would kick their asses if that happened, and from what I know of my nieces and younger cousins, that hasn’t changed much.

I was never into indigenous boys growing up – I saw them all as my brothers and as my family members, so there’s obviously no erotic spark there when all the boys on your reserve are family.

I was always a sucker for the dreamy poetic Jewish boys, the soulful dark-eyed Italian boys, the intense dirty white boys. If they played guitar, rode bikes or made art of any kind then I was a goner. Those were the kind I liked, never giving the guys in my community even as much as a once-over twice. They just never did it for me. If I was fourteen years old right now I might be thinking differently. But a friend once told me – I am not cut out for a homocultural experience, and it’s true. Got too much of the oddball, the misfit in me. Back in the old days I probably would have been the crazy old medicine lady hanging out at the edge of the village by herself. Jikonsaheh, She is the Cat-Faced Woman, feeding the warriors and encouraging them into battle out of her spite and rage at everyone who pissed her off. But that's another story.

No point in whining about the what-ifs. I embrace my cute aging white hipster boy who I married and can look with delight upon the young indigenous boys who have been flung into movie stardom by virtue of their chiselled bods and think how nice is it that they all had dark hair and dark eyes and tawny skin, that they obviously didn’t look like blond, blue-eyed All-American boys. It made me happy. And isn’t that what a movie is supposed to do?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Face-to-face with the post-colonial reality



I just spent the better part of last week in Winnipeg, dealing with that lovely and burgeoning example of the best of aboriginal promise, APTN. I had a lot of fun – their membership is bright, brave and willing to do a lot of things, and they shine with the brilliance of promise and the novelty of speaking in our voices in a way the majority of Canadians have never seen before. I salute them and their youthful courage, their ambition and drive. They made me feel proud.

But you know what... I have to say I found Winnipeg incredibly depressing. I shouldn’t because it’s probably the one place in Canada where the indigenous reality of this country is reflected in the population, but damn, the in-your-face clarity of our post-colonial reality was too intense, too heartbreaking, too concrete for me to celebrate what should be a success story. The evidence of our degradation and colonization was everywhere, in the methed-out skinny teenagers with scabs all over their faces, in the rail-thin elders begging in the streets, in the obese beaten-down women pushy wailing children in rickety strollers, in the freaky facial deformities that are the stark reminder of fetal alchohol effect, in the poverty and the jaded hopelessness that pervades through the city like a black miasma. It was depressing, almost too much for me to articulate.

Maybe as a sheltered Haudenosaunee from Southern Ontario I get to be spared the worst of our post-colonial reality. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, insulated as I am through a combination of luck, a functional family, an education, a well-paying job. I am incredibly fortunate when I think about it. Born into a family that functioned, that was not battered too badly from the loss of culture and our language, a family that was able to adapt and prepare its members to function in the white man’s world. Because seriously – all of my family is capable of doing that. We are lucky. None of our progenitors had to go to residential school because they were able to figure out a way to send their children off the reserve to be educated and they in turn came back to start the education system on the reserve. We also value a higher education and finding employment, to make ourselves into model citizens that retain the core of our Iroquoian ways. My entire family is extremely proud of our heritage and work in ways to let that be known. In fact, my family name precedes itself, opening doors in the aboriginal world in a way I wasn’t really conscious of until now. It’s kind of cool. And the noble history of the Haudenosaunee precedes itself as well. People were telling me, “Where would we be without the resistance of the Iroquois?”

However, if I had to live there I would be spending my entire time plotting and scheming and scrimping and saving to get the hell out, to launch myself into orbit. But I shouldn’t be such a snob about it. Everyone tries to do their best with what they have. It’s just that the post-colonial deck is stacked against some of those beautiful and bright APTN workers, especially the young women.

And what beautiful girls they were! God I loved them – they were so cool and eager and ambitious, you could see the flame burning in them and I want them all to shine with supernova brilliance. I want them to burn gloriously like stars. I think they are capable of it. Moreso than the men. I don’t know why that is but it seems to be a reality of our people, the reality of all of us who have been colonized. Or maybe that’s my own personal projection, but still... I know they can do it – they just need to be given some time and the grace to be able to.

I want to say to those beautiful and bright girls that I met, come with me, come to Toronto, we’ll hang out and do cool things and buy pretty clothes and shoes and bags, and you will have a beautiful life, you will be a star...But like me they will find a city that becomes their home, and close to their families, close to the place that sustains them and where the bones of their ancestors lie, and I can’t make things easier for them. I wish I could, but they have to learn in their own way how to be a modern indigenous woman in Kanata. I can only hope that they will.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Charter for Compassion

Charter for Compassion

This is important and everyone should sign on.

It may be a defining moment in the history of our species.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Another flower is uprooted

CBC News - New Brunswick - Dental records confirm body is missing N.B. teen

This makes me so sad, and desolate. Another indigenous flower, cut down before she could finish blooming.

I can't help but fear for the safety of my own child. She's 13, a newly minted teenager, bright, bold and beautiful, another in a long line of strong Haudenosaunee women, a rock'n'roll rebel girl who dresses in black and likes loud guitar rock. She's already evincing that serious Mohawk badass attitude. And the thought that her ancestry makes it four times more likely that she will be victimized somehow makes me shudder in fear. Intellectually I know that it's the same odds as a plane falling out of the sky on top of her, but emotionally I can't help this fear. And this fear is shared by indigenous mothers everywhere. Our daughters, our precious flowers, the rich resource of our people, are four more times likely than white girls to be raped, to be beaten, to be abducted and murdered. It is dangerous to be an indigenous woman, even more dangerous to be between the age of 10 and 28.

I hate this postcolonial reality more than I can say. It terrifies me and enrages me. And so I pretend that it won't happen, that it can't happen, and that it will happen to someone else. And I'm sure that there are five hundred and twenty-one other mothers who thought the same thing.

I will whisper a condolence for Hillary Bonnell, and hope with everything in me that her killer is brought to justice, and we will know why she had to die.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sovereignty and the Colonial Occupier Government


I have been ruminating on my friend Audra’s main focus of study for a couple of days now. She is currently a professor at Columbia University where her main focus has been on re-shaping the notions of sovereignty for indigenous people. She always makes me think about what it means to be a sovereign people, and what that does for your sense of identity.

I often think of sovereignty in Mohawk terms – we understand that our Confederacy formed alliances, political and military, with the other sovereign powers at the time of Contact and our political understanding of how we deal with foreign nations stems from that. However, colonization seems to have shifted the settlers’ idea of how they perceived us. Suddenly we were no longer allies; we were a nation that had to be subdued, conquered, or failing that, remade into a lesser version of the whites who had suborned our economic, military and political systems. Suddenly there is no talk of allies but talk of subduing, of remaking, of eliminating our nations because we stand in the way of settlement. The continuing settler monologue shifts focus, taking on a blatant racist cover to allow Manifest Destiny – and this is not just an American ideal, but a Canadian one as well, couched in friendlier terms as “exploring” and “settling” and “unifying” the west –to continue as an unchecked philosophy that extinguishes the people who were already there and by extension, their inherent title to the land.

I discovered this excellent quote taken directly out of the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples that would go a long way in explaining the relationship – if anyone bothered to read through and understand the damn thing:

Canadians need to understand that Aboriginal peoples are nations. That is, they are political and cultural groups with values and lifeways distinct from those of other Canadians. They lived as nations - highly centralized, loosely federated, or small and clan-based - for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. As nations, they forged trade and military alliances among themselves and with the new arrivals. To this day, Aboriginal people's sense of confidence and well-being as individuals remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the twenty-first century.

Let us be clear, however. To say that Aboriginal peoples are nations is not to say that they are nation-states seeking independence from Canada. They are collectivities with a long shared history, a right to govern themselves and, in general, a strong desire to do so in partnership with Canada.


I am not so naive as to expect that we would declare ourselves a separate country and secede in bloody, anguished revolution; in fact, Canada is damn lucky that as children of the Great Peace, we don’t believe in blowing up ourselves or innocent bystanders; we believe in the tenets of the Peacemaker and a pathway that seeks peace, power, and righteousness – the peace between individuals, the power that stems from a recognized, lawful leadership, and the moral authority to govern. In this, are we not inherently Canadian? Are not our goals the same as the colonial occupier government? I always chuckle when I say that, but truly, to the Iroquois, it is a colonial occupier government and remains so until it lets us in. The reason there has been resistance and land reclamations in Iroquoia is because we are defending the last of our territory, the defense of which we believe is lawful in that we have never surrendered this land and it is the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself. However, we are always open to negotiations. Maybe they would like to join our Confederacy, to come in under the House of the Long Leaves. Now that would be a truly interesting development.

This is why I am interested in the petition that the Gitskan have put before the government of Canada, to essentially disenfranchise their entire population from the Indian Act. While bold and interesting and radical, I wonder if they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. Is this a revolutionary attempt to control their own resources, land, and membership base, to truly embrace self-government, or is this a short-sighted means of getting some dollars now? And would they introduce their own form of taxation in to their members? What about people who were not on their membership lists but are living in their territory? What are they going to do about them? And lastly, how will they define who is a Gitskan and who is not? Will you be able to apply to be a Gitskan in the same way you can apply to be a Canadian? True nationhood confers these rights, so it would be interesting to see what they do about it.

In the meantime, sovereignty begins with the self, and this self is looking forward to an intense hot yoga class tonight. Also I am looking forward to visiting Winnipeg next week, where I will be Queen of the Indians for a weekend. More on that later...

Monday, November 2, 2009

FIVE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE


Everytime I see that figure, my vision blurs and my throat tightens and burns with tears, and I feel my heart begin to pound.

Five hundred and twenty one missing or murdered indigenous women in this country.

If this was proportional to the rest of the population the figure would be 18,000.

What would happen if there were 18,000 missing or murdered white women in this country? There would be screaming and gnashing of teeth and police forces pressed into action with task forces and resources dedicated to finding these women or solving their murders. The media would be on the story night and day, we would be inundated with their pictures and their stories and everyone would be saying, we have to do something, we have to stop this atrocity.

But because it’s indigenous women there is only silence. Because these victims and their families are powerless, because it’s just another Indian – there is only silence. No outrage, no questioning, no resources put behind finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. Only the pain and the suffering felt by these women’s families and all of us left behind in their communities. And this burden of suffering is done in silence. Because that’s what we do, what we have always done.

I say that we have to be silent no more. We have to be loud and angry and vocal about it. Because this has to stop. This is utter bullshit, that these women remain missing.

And of course there’s this weird perception that they somehow brought it on themselves. They were working in the sex trade, they were out a bar, they were hitchhiking…That somehow they were asking for it. There’s this underlying ugly reality to all of this that pisses me off so completely, that somehow indigenous women aren’t good enough or smart enough or worthy enough to remain safe.

Every single one of these women was a daughter, a sister, a mother, a friend, an aunt, a cousin. These women meant something to someone in their lives.

This just makes me want to find out who is responsible for each and every one of these disappearances and torture them with my bare hands in all of the messy methods recorded by the Jesuits in the Relations. I hate feeling this way. But this is part of the reality of being onkwehonwe in this stolen country. Our lives obviously do not have the same value as a white woman’s.

I found this dry but completely correct quote from “Mapping Violence: A Family Violence Prevention Planner” put out by FREDA:

“The destruction of indigenous cultures and communities has resulted in an intergenerational cycle of violence which is marked by the high levels of sexual abuse within Aboriginal communities, and the internalization of violence among those who are affected. This internalization is evident in the high levels of substance abuse and suicide rates within the communities. However, the situation is also compounded by the extreme poverty experienced by Aboriginal peoples both within and outside of reserves, as well as their sense of disenfranchisement and dependency.

"For Aboriginal women, the experience of violence within their communities leaves little choice. Faced with the lack of available services and resources, many women leave the reserve to escape the abuse. They come to urban areas in search of safety only to be further victimized by poverty and the abuse they face on the streets. Many turn to prostitution as a way of survival. It is estimated that the mortality rate for girls and women in prostitution is 40 times the national average (Davis, 1994). The suicide rate for adolescent Aboriginal girls is 8 times the national average of non-Aboriginal adolescent girls (National Forum on Health, 1997).”

There’s a quote from the Cheyenne that I always remember: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons.”

Andrea Smith writes in her book “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Genocide” that the continued abduction, rape and murder of indigenous women is a sign that far from being over, colonization continues, with its final goal that of genocide in order to complete the task of settlement. The original people must be removed from the land in order that clear title can be transferred. As long as there are indigenous people here that “ownership” can never be clearly claimed. And what better way than the removal of those persons who confer lineage, heritage, and culture?

We should have a condolence ceremony for every single indigenous woman on that terrible list, and for every single other woman in this country who is missing and murdered. We should have a means to remove this terrible grief. The Peacemaker was wise in giving us the condolence ceremony; grief causes more misery and moves people into doing terrible things, to seek revenge and to burn your entire life away in hatred. I don’t want to do that. I want justice and sanity to return to us, to our communities, and I want the families of these five hundred and twenty-one women to have some peace.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Metallica, my sister, and privilege


The other night I got to go see Metallica. Twice, actually – they did a two-night stand here in Toronto. They have been one of my favourite bands for a very long time, ever since someone handed me a cassette of “Kill ‘em All” back in 85 and said “This band will change your life.” They are, for me, why people will beg, borrow or steal for the live concert experience, for the high and the exhilaration of being in a huge stadium with thousands of like-minded people getting off on the prowess and sheer performance of excellent musicians.

I love going to see a Metallica show. It’s always fun for me because a lot of onkwehonwe seem to adore Metallica as well. I always see people from my community, sometimes even my extended family. I took my sister to see a show in Pine Knob, Michigan when she was 16 (don’t tell her but it was so I could borrow my parent’s car – that was the condition) and got her hooked on them as bad as any drug. So whenever they come to Toronto we make it a point to try and go. Back in the day I actually used to travel around to see them, in the same vein as roadtripping to see the Grateful Dead, but I haven’t done that in years. I’ve always wondered why I love Metallica so much, but I think it’s the pounding, driving double bass drum -- it sounds like a water drum amplified by a million decibels and double-timed. They are a very Iroquoian band – concerned with democracy and personal power and righteous soul-searching, and also how to wade through this modern world that wants to crush the warrior spirit out of us. But I digress.

Anyway, the first night I took my daughter and turned her into a convert, and then second night I teamed up with my sister, because she has to go – no question. I got her addicted, I have to help feed the monkey. So of course the band is in top-form, thrashing through a beautiful performance that gave me goosebumps and I was headbanging so hard I still have whiplash. Our seats were right below the private boxes in the ACC, in section 118.

Now a word about those damn private boxes – I hate them. I hate that bullshit crap about “If I can afford it, I should lord it over the unwashed masses because I am great and powerful”. Every fiber of my Iroquoian being rebels at elitist shit like that. I don’t give a damn how much money you have – you are still a human being that breathes and farts and sleeps and how is it you get to think you are better than the rest of us? Where the hell do you think you are, ancient Rome in the Coliseum? Dining on canapĂ©s while the gladiators fight it out for your amusement?

Anyway, it was during a literally firebreathing version of “Blackened” that I started to notice that the knobs in the private box behind us were flinging beer around. They had first doused a bunch of guys to my left, about two rows down – how they hell they managed that I’ll never know. And then I got sprayed with warm beer. I turned around and yelled, “Hey, why not try being considerate, you fucking jerks??” which may not be the most polite opening salvo, but come on, they had been jerks for the last two songs.. I turned back to the show and it kept happening, upon which I turned around and glared at them for a whole two minutes, maintaining eye contact with the jerkoffs until they looked away. They were all white men (of course) between the ages of 28 to 35, with their prissily dressed girlfriends all looking as bored as shit and huddled off in a corner of the booth.

But by the time the band ripped into a full-throttle rendition of “Enter Sandman” they were back at it again, and this time doused my sister.

I should say a word about my sister. While younger, she has always been tougher, louder, more-opinionated, braver and bolder than I will ever be. I know that freaks out a lot of my non-native friends, who think I am the toughest, loudest, most opinionated, bravest and boldest badass Iroquoian girl out there – but they’ve not met my sister. Or a lot of the other women on the reserve. Iroquoian women are tough. They don’t take shit and woe betide you if you try and get between them and something they feel is right. Why do you think the whole Caledonia resistance thing happened? Or Oka? Or any of the other places where Iroquoian people feel wronged? It’s not the men, it’s the women. I was scared to death of most of them while I was growing up and I’m one of them!!! In full-on battle mode, Iroquoian women are terrifying.

So my sister tells them to quit fucking around and behave, and of course they don’t, and more beer flies around, this time getting the guys in the row in front of us, and my sister picked up a three-quarter full cup of whatever they had lying around on the ledge in front of their private box and heaved it at them, catching three of them full on in the face!!! She soaked them! It was totally awesome. You should have seen their faces – it was like never in a million years did they ever expect to get their shit thrown back at them, much less by a woman. They got all huffy and my sister is like, “You wanna go? Let’s go, you fucking assholes!!!” and then the dudes in the row in front of us, two of whom looked like bikers, got behind her and they completely backed down. It was totally cool. They were completely deflated. By the time the song ended, they were gone. Talk about getting the eff out of Dodge – the damn Indians are coming!!

At the end of the show my sister looked around and said, “Hey, where did they go?” I told her they probably had to leave to get the last GO train to whatever suburban shithole they had climbed out of and we started to laugh, and one of the biker-like dudes tapped my sister on the shoulder and told her that she was awesome, that he was glad she had stood up to those assholes and that he had her back anytime, and we left the show laughing hysterically, and couldn’t stop, being all exhilarated from the show and the adrenalin rush of battle.

But of course the whole thing made me think about privilege, and the sense of entitlement that comes with it. Why do people behave like assholes? Because they think they have the right. They don’t see that living among other people, living in a city or in a community means you have to live WITH them, not against them, and that it doesn’t do anybody any good to behave like an asshole, to put yourself at the head of the line and constantly take without giving. But they keep trying to do it, and because there’s no one to shut them down, they are successful. It’s like there’s this whole myth in this culture that rugged individualism will see you through, and to hell with everyone else. This is why I despise the political process that I see at play in this country – it’s just the elites battling it out. My pork barrel party is better than your pork barrel party, and meanwhile everyone else is going hungry and looking elsewhere for sustenance. And the other thing that drives me crazy is that these overprivileged and overbored people believe inherently that they have the right to tell you how you should live.

Coming from an onkwehonwe background means you never think you are better than anyone else. In fact, most of our cultural myths and stories make sure you don’t get a big head and think of yourself as better. But hey -- we know that all Haudenosaunee are the toughest, loudest, most-opinionated, bravest and boldest people out there, and together we will collectively kick your ass.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Skanadariio


When I look out my (new) office window, I can see a sliver of the lake, Lake Ontario, and observe its many moods. Today it looks cold and metallic, silver blue and wave-capped in the wind. I think about the lake a lot. It’s a focal point to my people, part of the territory that we have always considered ours. Skanadariio, beautiful shining water, some days as calm and placid as a mirror, other days dark green and angry, surging and powerfully mean. Due south of Toronto is Rochester, originally a Seneca town, launching point of our northward trading and warring ventures. We used to control the waterways in our part of Anowara (Turtle Island) in giant war canoes made of elm bark, massive and menacing. The Ojibway had those sleek little birch bark canoes that were fast and agile, but we had elm bark canoes, made to hold war parties and transport goods and people over long distances.

I think a lot about the military tradition of my people. I read once that to observe the Iroquois in battle was to observe the course of a hurricane, powerful and devastating. Yet our traditions from the Gayanashagowa, the Great Law, make it very clear we were interested in peace. We call it the White Roots of Peace, the Great Peace, the Tree of Peace. Everything relates back to living in harmony with each other and with the earth. Even our greeting – “se:koh, skennenkowa” essentially means “How’s your peace?” We call our great cultural hero, the architect of the Great Peace, the Peacemaker, who lived by three principles: peace within individuals and between groups that comes from a healthy body and a sane mind; secondly, justice that comes from correct actions, thought, and speech. And lastly, spiritual power that comes from physical strength and civil authority (meaning the power of the chiefs to make the decisions and the authority of the women who appoint the chiefs). These were the overriding principles that governed our nations and our Confederacy.

However, contact with Cartier at Hochelaga in 1534 and then the subsequent disaster with Champlain firing on the Mohawk at Ticonderoga in 1609 – suddenly this seems to turn the Haudenosaunee into a lean mean fighting machine, a Spartan-style military society that suddenly ruled over the territory with a fiery fist, intent on ruling the territory and controlling the beaver trade. In fact, subsequent reading of history tells us that the Iroquois are responsible for eradicating or absorbing up to at least 30 different nations to rule over a wilderness empire from north of the St Lawrence in the East, the Mississippi Valley in the West, and down through to the edge of the Cherokee territory in North Carolina.

It’s actually interesting to figure out how swiftly and intensely the entire culture threw its weight behind such a military venture. Suddenly women spend all of their energy raising children and growing the corn to fuel these military expeditions; the men train from a very early age to become warriors and walk the warrior’s path, wasase. I admire the discipline of a people who can just switch direction like that and pour all of their energy into a common, united purpose. I salute my ancestors for their ferocity and discipline... and I utterly grieve the reality that colonization has completely fractured us today, perhaps fatally. I can’t imagine us getting so completely behind a cultural program that designed us for dominance, to spread the White Roots of Peace beyond our borders even if it had to be done by flint and fire. So many of us would rather not bother thinking collectively, living instead with our flatscreen tvs and our SUVs and contentedly bickering over the tobacco trade that while lucrative does not fund our communities adequately. Sometimes I wonder if we are broken to the point of disintegration.

But then I think of some of the people I know from my community and how vibrant and alive and amazing they are, and figure maybe it’s just different now, that our wasase, our personal war dance, has to be different. Maybe we spread our Haudenosaunee-ness outward like a virus, infecting subtly at a cellular level. Maybe it’s enough that I can sit here in an office tower overlooking my little sliver of Skanadariio, and simply by my being here and working at my job can influence a culture that tried to forget about us and thinks we have gone away, but here we are.

Maybe that’s enough.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Federal reserves


One of the things that makes me happiest in life is when I see another onkwehonwe person, regardless of their nation, looking healthy and happy and bustling around the city in the same inimitable fashion as me, just going about their business, going to work or getting a latte or grocery shopping or just going about their day the same way as everyone else here does. Because let’s face it, we’re a minority in this city that sits sprawled over our territory, all concrete and steel and glass shining on the edge of the lake like a spaceport city from a fever dream. I always want to run up to the Indians I see and go, sekoh innit! We’re so cool, we’re so plugged in and progressive and we flew away from our reserves like a supersonic jet engine, aren’t we awesome…

Because it’s hard to leave the Rez. I don’t care where or what kind of Rez you come from, that little patch of earth has become the last of our territory and the tie that binds us there is like chains of unbreakable steel. The land that we cling to, our feet planted firmly into the earth with roots that run so deep it physically hurts to tear yourself away… and even so, every so often you have to go back to breathe its air and replenish your soul.

How did that happen? My own people were refugees before we settled on our reserve, refugees in our own homeland. We were the broken survivors of a genocidal war that forced us out of the lush lands of the Haudenosaunee, burned out by the Town Destroyer and the violent birth pangs of a new nation whose Manifest Destiny spelled out the end for all indigenous people. The weight of that, when I contemplate it fully, hurts so much it’s like a wound that lacerates down into the muscle and how could I possibly still feel it? I was born seven generations after we put down roots along the Grand River, but dammit, I still feel that pain. And the land that we have left, so crowded with our burgeoning population and tangled with weeds and the hulks of rotting cars… How did it happen that this is all that is left of the territory that we once ruled over with a fist forged from flint and fire?

I recently read a new book for young adults (I vetted it for my daughter) by Sherman Alexie, the Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian (god I love that title) and he writes that reserves are like concentration camps, where they put the last of the Indians. They didn’t have to use gas, they just gave us residential schools and alcohol and bad food. They were hoping we would all die there and then the camp would grow over and they could put up a shopping mall over our bones. But it didn’t happen. We survived that too.

So now we love our reserves. I think it’s really hard for non-indigenous people to understand that. Take the crisis in Kashechewan, when their water system completely broke down and there was flooding… Pundits and ordinary people were saying, For Godsakes, get the eff out of dodge already, just move. Easy for them to say. That is what a culture for which it’s all about real estate and not about the land says. Take the easy way out, buy a new place and you can start over again. But this is not what indigenous people do. This was the last of this peoples’ territory, where the bones of their ancestors lay buried beneath their feet and the heartbeat of the earth was felt for them in that place. They had no choice but to stay there, inasmuch as a nomadic people is forced to be in one place for all eternity, but that’s another story.

For myself, there were things about the reserve that drove me nuts, nuts enough to leave it behind me at the age of 17... but I also love it. I always go back. It’s in my heart, a place that I know is there for me, where the bones of my ancestors are buried and where I know I can go and hear the heartbeat of the earth channeled through the rhythm of rattle and water drum at a longhouse social. And that's not something to be given up lightly.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Being Invisible

I had a massage today and spent the whole time on the table explaining about being Mohawk to a young beautiful woman who, while good at her job, knew nothing about the fact that yes, there are still Mohawks in the world and yes, we function well in the city and get massages from time to time.

Side note – I’m a vain creature and so devote a lot of my time to getting my hair cut and dyed, and manicures, and pedicures, and facials and massages, and doing yoga and looking for fabulous handbags and shoes, and the coolest ensembles. Because I’m just that way. But also, I contemplate a lot what my friend the glorious Audra Simpson, Kanienkaha’keh scholar and thinker and fellow-girl-about-town says: Sovereignty begins with the self, and that self should be presented stylishly.

But why is it that every time I go somewhere, I have to explain myself? I guess people are curious, and I suppose if I was Irish, or Australian, or Burundian, or Tibetan I'd be explaining myself as well. But in this city there’s an expectation, an acceptance, of the exotic, the newly-emigrated, the multi-cultural and the differently skinned, and people want to hear their story. But this is my city, this is my territory. Why do I have to explain all the time about being an indigenous person? And more than that, a functioning, funky downtown denizen?

It’s interesting to me that even casual encounters like this one mean I have to educate. I spend a lot of my time in this culture educating people. It’s alternately fascinating and infuriating. I mean, why should I end up being a freaking ambassador for all indigenous people? What are we, invisible? And this lovely young woman was from Cambridge, of all places, up the Grand River a ways and you’d think she at least would have the faintest idea of the fact that we’re still here and not some freakish museum artefact.

Guess not.

I’m fascinated as to why that is. But I think about something my kids have complained about, something which they raise vehement objection to and which means they have to educate and explain. In the course of learning their curriculum at various points in their schooling, indigenous people are looked at as a part of history, a people that are essentially extinct, that exist only in the dry pages of history and as preserved and as artificial to them as a museum exhibit. My daughter was especially vocal about it. She feels that this has the effect of diminishing her entire vibrant and beloved Kanienkaha’keh family and the reserve, the community that she is completely aware of as she and her brother grew up with a foothold there, a knowledge of the place and their family’s history and by extension, the story of the Kanienkaha’keh at Six Nations. Both her and her brother raise the objection that they are here, not extinct, that they are indigenous and that they and their family thrive.

Indigenous people have to be invisible to the rest of the culture. It has to be that way. How else can you be comfortable about the fact that the very land upon which you stand was stolen, cheated, and made a commodity? It suits the dominant culture to pretend this. Then you don’t have to deal with the very messy reality of land claims/reclamations/residential schools/teen suicides and all the other dirty secrets of the colonial corporate franchise. Then those “aboriginal” people are an abstract and invisible. Extinct. Or if you do encounter them, it’s the drunken relic on a street corner, the empty-eyed drug-addicted prostitute whoring for her fix. Or those filthy people living on those god-forsaken hellholes up north and we may as well send them body bags when the pandemic erupts because what else is there to do? They are already dead.

I guess it comes down to the fact that I refuse to be invisible. And so it comes down to this: being plugged into this culture means that yes, I have to be the freaking ambassador, at least in my little corner of Tkaronto, for the Kanienkaha’keh nation. Maybe I’m not the best one my people could ask for, but at least I know something of my culture and our ways, and can explain it. At least the colonial corporate franchise couldn’t take that away.

I may not know everything, but I know this. I can tell you a story, a story about a people, with a strong, intensely democratic political system, an emotional tie to the earth, an oral tradition that has survived, and a dynamic culture that exists despite the attempt of the dominant culture to silence us, to make us invisible. And that counts for something, damn straight.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forgiveness? Maybe not

The Buddha taught that all suffering arises from the aversion to pain and the pursuit of pleasure, and that because we have been born into this sentient, sensitive body, we are doomed to suffer. The way forward and freedom from suffering is to learn equanimity, or the Middle Way.

I’ve always been extremely interested in Buddhism. There is something beautiful and truthful in its austere discipline, free from the worry about sin and God and all manner of dogma that has always bugged me about Christianity. And because I am always interested in learning about spiritual pursuits I have been investigating Buddhism, off and on, for about five years now, actually before I got serious about a yoga practice.

A side note – I have rejected Christianity pretty utterly. I was raised an Anglican but what is any form of colonizer’s religion to indigenous people but a capitulation, a recognition that if we didn’t convert it was completely over? That’s why I’ve always admired the people who stayed in the Longhouse. That was resistance to the max. My parents dragged us to church every Sunday from the time I can remember until I was about 13 and started to raise objections about it. But when I think about it, my parents were probably bored with the whole deal by that point anyway – it was 1975 and I think the zeitgeist got to them. However, I knew I couldn’t seriously follow any religion that couldn’t reconcile all that shit about Adam and Eve with the evidence of the fossil record and Darwinism – when I was 6 years old. I got married at Mohawk Chapel though but that was mostly to please my dad, not because I was actually believing in it.

I went to a meditation workshop yesterday taught by Noah Levine, who is my total idea of a hot teacher. He’s one of those American Buddhists, a nominally Jewish dude who overcame youthful addictions and criminality to become a tattooed, thoroughly cool follower of the Buddha. I could listen to him in a guided meditation for days.

However, it was during the metta meditation – the practice of sending loving kindness – that I ran into an unforeseen difficulty. In this meditation, you breathe in and then breathe out, May you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be free from suffering. His instruction was to practice this first on yourself because the first person worthy of this is you, because you cannot love others until you love yourself. He spoke of forgiveness and compassion for yourself, and I found myself inexplicably weeping during this. The entire thing made me feel so uncomfortable that it made me weep, that somehow I wasn’t worthy of the kind of compassion that I am completely willing to bestow on other people, on complete strangers. I became a lot happier when we were then to direct this meditation outwards.

In the discussion afterward, I observed to the class that I had found it so much easier to bestow loving kindness to other people than it was to myself. He said that this is common in the West, were the Judeo-Christian tradition of sin, in which you are born out of sin into a sinful world seeps into all of us, part and parcel of the memes we breathe. But in a flash of insight, the kind that happens so rarely that it is like a lightning bolt, I realized that for me, this was an ugly bit of my internalized colonization that I had to rip out by the roots. I am not worthy of self-love, or forgiveness, or loving kindness, because at the essence of myself, I am an onkwehonwe woman trying to pretend to survive in a city in occupied territory.

Surviving in this colonized culture means you have to accept certain ideas as true, even unconsciously. The idea that somehow your birth culture is an inferior one, one that failed in the march to modernity is one of those toxic ideas floating out there that we onkwehonwe unfortunately are forced to breathe in as part of our capitulation to survive in a country that robbed us of our sovereignity, our political power, and our land.

Even though I know intellectually that no culture should be considered inferior, that all of humanity thrives in diversity and difference, it’s one of those pervasive ideas that ooze through the West like poison. And I have drunk this koolaid and now it is a part of me as well.

After the class I went and talked to Noah about it, and he told me that for several of his students who come from cultures like mine that survive under a cloak of racism have the same problem, and that it’s almost like they have to do extra time on the cushion to root it out, and that it becomes a part of the practice. He told the story of his father, noted Buddhist scholar Stephen Levine was told by his teacher that part of moving through all of these internalizations is to forgive the people that have oppressed and abused you and yours. He said his father was like, “Forgive Hitler? I can’t forgive Hitler.” But that by looking at Hitler and the Nazis as abused children who were acting out their own internal pain and rage he was able to get through it.

But how the hell do you forgive an entire system, a way of belief that oppressed your people and continues to oppress them? I’m not sure I have the fortitude to push through this, to become a bigger person – an enlightened being that lives in compassion and forgiveness. I’m not sure I can do it.

I think, however, I will continue to investigate my own mind and use the practices of Buddhism as a way to get to know myself better. Maybe this will be my life’s work.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Meditations on why I do yoga

I ended up going to yoga after all. Let me digress a little and explain -- I was a headstanding, Sanskrit-chanting, blissed out yogini chick for about a four-year span of my life -- my late 30's early 40's. Then, for a lot of reasons (which I will not get into here, but suffice to say it had to do with my marriage almost breaking up, being in a funk about my work, changing gears and getting an actual career, and repairing my marriage) I went on a two-year yoga hiatus wherein I didn't even think about it.

But recently a lot of factors brought me back to the mat. Number one, changing jobs and getting an actual career that makes me incredibly happy was the first thing. I am actually in a place where I can get out of my head and back into my body because I'm not all tied up in knots about the fact that I hated my job so much. Number two was my younger brother getting diagnosed with the dreaded-but-sadly-expected diabetes. I always thought I'd be the first one because my brother has always been a bit of jock, what with all his hockey and baseball and golf playing antics, to say nothing of his semi-physical job. But nope, he's 44 and earlier this year -- whammo. Welcome to the blood-taking calorie count for him. So that kind of spurred me to think -- better get active sister or you are next. Number three was the myriad aches and pains I've been having lately. For heaven's sake, no one tells you that being in your middle 40's creates these weird twinges and downright annoying spasms in your feet, knees, hips and back. Plus I was tired all the time and I know that if I get my kapha body up off the couch my pitta soul will thank me for it (digression -- I picked up some Aruyvedic lore and have always thought that "pitta trapped in a kapha body" described us Iroquoian people to a T). So back to yoga I went.

I'm practicing a form of bikram-inspired yoga, a North American hybrid called moksha yoga. I've been taking a bunch of classes at the Moksha downtown studio and it's a beautiful place -- all eco-friendly interiors and clean lines, my kind of space. Of course, there's the lithe 20-something yoga gurls running around in their tight little Lululemon outfits and their neurotic energy, but I just hang out with my shorts and tank top and don't give a fuck about the fact that I'm six inches and probably a 100 lbs bigger than the biggest of them. I stopped caring. After all, I'm 45, I've got a husband and kids and a house and a dog and a car -- all of those things you can literallly feeling them vibrating for -- and I could give a shit what they think when they look at me. Actually in the shower I've been tempted to say, "Yeah, this is what you're going to look like after two pregnancies that put 60 lbs on you, 30 of which you have never lost and then two rounds of breastfeeding!!" but why scare the poor children. After all, yoga is about compassion...

But last night I had a really great teacher who wisely counselled the class that it should be about friendliness, and humour, and compassion, and not about achievement and competition and success, because after all, what are those things really? And it made me smile and even though I sweated probably 20lbs of water out of me -- it lingers with me today.

Which brings me to my main meditation today. My (white)brother-in-law actually asked me this on the weekend -- How do you reconcile that form of belief with your indigenous spirituality?

And besides worrying about why he felt he could ask that question, I've actually ruminated on this very topic for a long while. It comes down to this: my culture is about adaptation. This is how we survived. We have a long history of adopting other people into our clans, those persons replacing the ones we lost to war, starvation, disease. I don't think you can actually call those of us who are Iroquoian pure bloodline Iroquois; we are the sum of all of those years of adoption and assimilation of other tribes, other peoples into our own. And even if we call them Iroquois, who can say what those people who were adopted have brought into our culture? Our genius for survival is our ability to adapt. Our genius for resistance and political savvy and powerful people is that we harness all of that internally into our beings and project it outward into the world, onto the Turtle's back. We are a traditional people living a postmodern experience and culture-jam it back. It's a survival technique and it works. Even though there are only about 100,000 Iroquois people (this figure literally made me weep) in the entire world, we are here and we survived, coming back from the brink of extinction, and we continue to prosper. We will continue to survive and adapt. We are Darwinian in the extreme.

This brings me back to my personal belief around meditation/yoga/liberation. In the old days, work was your meditation. Working in the fields, pounding corn, making clothes and weapons and tracking animals, even walking the warpath -- this is all about turning off the mind, getting into your body, and becoming something other than yourself. My dad used to say that when he plowed a field it was like a meditation; hours could pass in the blink of an eye, there was only the earth, the sky, and the hum of the tractor. Now that I live in a city and the work is not physical but mental I need/desire/crave that exercise of the body that shuts off the mind. Even if it's for a little while.

So I'm feeling fairly great today. A little sore, but energized, alert -- happy. And ready for the challenges of the day.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

To Yoga or not to Yoga

I've been having a low-grade headache all day. It feels like a low pressure headache, the kind I'm susceptible too. It makes me grumpy. And being grumpy is not a good thing for me. I tend to direct grumpiness outward. I think it's a Wolf Clan thing. Most Wolf Clan people I know are grumpy just by reflex and we like to let people know it. Just so you can participate in the pain as well. Hey it's a pack thing! I once read a "clan horoscope" thing that talked about the traits of people in the various Haudenosaunee clans and it was actually hilarious, because the two clans I'm most familiar with -- Wolf being my own (and all my mother's family) and Bear (my father's mother's family -- just go along with it) were preternaturally right on. For instance, it said that Wolves are generally kind of arrogant, know what they want and how to get it, and are quite generous even though they will always remind you of just how generous they are -- bang on. And Bears -- jovial, slow to anger, and once you anger them, get out of Dodge. Totally my Dad and his Anderson kin. Weirdness. But hey, being in a Clan is a large genetically-connected family so hey -- you're bound to get some traits that go beyond your family.

Anyway, the reason I got into this is -- I'm prevaricating on the yoga thing. The mind is willing but the flesh is weak in this case. I snitched aspirin from the first aid kit in the kitchen here at work but it wore off and maybe some ibuprofen is needed. I am a firm believer in harnassing the power of chemistry to better your existence. It's always been my excuse for my experimental drug usage.

But yoga is the exact opposite of ingesting. It's all about detoxifying and concentrating -- preparing the body for enlightenment and thus the ultimate liberation. So what to do...

But at least I bought a coat for Winnipeg. That's saying a lot.

Somewhere Along the Line I figured I should do this


I've been musing for quite some time how I want to do this. I think it's simple really -- I can, therefore I should.

I think being a modern indigenous person in occupied territory needs to speak about the experience. And I'm a rock'n'roll kind of gal, I think/feel that I should. It's important. If not me, who else.

About me: 45, wife, mother, daughter, Haudenosaunee of Kanien'kahakeh persuasion. Or for you non-speakers (which compromises probably 99.9% of the population) I'm a full-blooded Mohawk woman from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, the last remaining congregation of all the six Iroquois tribes (and some of our more fortunate allies like the Delaware and the Mississauga) in the entire world. I live for rock'n'roll, indigenous rights, worker's rights, my large and extremely cool Mohawk family, shih tzus, cats, cool books, art, photography, film, and yoga.

And I am, by virtue of being Mohawk, opinionated, stubborn, political, a ravenous consumer of art, and adept at adaptation. So there you go.

Here I plan to rant, rave, explain, educate, pontificate, muse, ruminate, and otherwise bleat out my ramblings to the uncaring universe. All because I can.