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.