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.