Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This Land IS My Land

And in this case, wishing it wasn’t doesn’t change the fact that it is.

I was initially going to avoid the entire issue of the Douglas Creek Estates land claim in Caledonia, bordering the territory of the Six Nations of the Grand River that’s currently the subject of so much media coverage and resistance/anger/misunderstanding/utter governmental bullshit that’s been happening for the last five years, but I simply can’t. How can I? It is an undeniable fact that this land was stolen, despite our protests, despite our formal complaints and attempts to forestall the process, practically from underneath us. And in this world, where so much of our lives as aboriginal people is dictated by the statues of the Indian Act, what is left to us but an act of defiance, of resistance, of the outright fuck-you to the white culture that stole it in the first place? Seriously. Sorry for your luck you fucktard developers and you oh-so-politely racist denizens of Squatterdonia, but it’s ours. Hate to disappoint you, to point out this irrefutable fact of history, but there it is. Even your courts are reluctantly beginning to see this fact, much to the consternation of your citizens and the upright burgermeisters of Haldimand County. Even if two levels of your government is reluctant to deal with it, has always been negligent because it’s a political hot potato, sooner or later the truth of it, the utter rightness of our claim, must be heard.

The Haldimand Proclamation of 1783 is explicit in the original land grant, given to the Mohawks and the Six Nations Indians for their fealty and alliance throughout the American War for Independence, a dry historical fact that hides the reality of what happened to us. We were driven out by the one of the first genocidal wars initiated by the fledgling American government, our towns and villages burned, our crops destroyed. Our numbers, already dwindling from over one hundred years of contact, warfare and disease, were very nearly decimated. By the time Thayendenageh, Joseph Brant, had successfully guilted the British government into providing a sanctuary for our by then refugee population, we were probably about a thousand Mohawks with a scattering of people from the other nations. We were ragged, sick, and broken, huddled at Fort Niagara, refugees in our own homelands. How can Canada forget this? Because they never knew, and it suits the colonial franchise NOT TO KNOW. But I digress...

That original land grant was six miles on either side of the Grand River from mouth to source. That’s a hell of a lot of real estate. Originally it was designed to be a buffer between that upstart American nation and the comfortable colonial franchise of Upper and Lower Canada, the idea was that the remainder of the Six Nations would provide security for the British colonies and act as a defence corps against the Americans. During the War of 1812 we proved the wisdom of that decision, effectively keeping the Americans out of Southern Ontario and creating the present border, so that Canada has this weird little dip into what looks like the American territory and securing the carving up of the Great Lakes. It is no accident that the province looks the way it does. It is because of my people and their acumen at defending territory, and the wise strategic moves made by Tecumseh the Chippewa war chief and his principal allies, the Oneida of the Thames (who, yeah, are Iroquois).

Over the years the architects of the Canadian government sought to diminish the power of the Six Nations and erode that magnificent land base that the British government had left to us. As the burgeoning British population moved into the lands of Southern Ontario that were originally forested, the valley of the Six Nations proved irresistible to them. And remember, our population had crashed and was on the verge of extinction. Plus the movement onto this restricted land base took its toll on us. Alcoholism and family breakdown was rampant, as were the loss of language and the destruction of our culture, taking place even before the residential schools were up and running. We were lucky in that we Iroquois tend to be stubborn bastards, and were the recipients of several factors that allowed us to survive this period, not the least of which is the Gai’wiio, the Good Word of Handsome Lake, and the diplomatic cunning that has always served our people well. We were able to hold on to a fraction of our land base, but it was not without tears and betrayal and outright theft.

The current area in dispute, the land known as the Douglas Creek estates, is but one parcel that remains unresolved. In 1842 the land currently running south from Caledonia was requested to be ceded for a new road to provide access from Port Dover to Hamilton. This road was called the Plank Road and is now the present day number Six highway. The chiefs of the day refused. This “ceding” had only resulted in vast tracts being wrested away from us. Some areas, like the source of the Grand had gone years before and other “leases” had taken place under dicey conditions, and they wanted to prevent the remainder of our territory from being leached away. It was only through the manipulations of the Indian Agent, a dude named Samuel Jarvis (who turns out to be a freakin’ thief, so much for his identity as a founding father of the City of Toronto) that a lease was drawn up and a swath of land where the road was located and a buffer zone between the eastern boundary of the present day reserve was established, with the understanding that the money for the lands would be held in trust. Uh – not. Jarvis gave bits of this land to his business buddies and other lackeys but did NOT provide them with leases so that there wouldn’t be any evidence of his cheating, because for all his bluster, he was not just a little bit scared of the Iroquois and their fierce reputation. And well he should have been.

To this day, none of the white people who are in possession of these land parcels in question have actual deeds to their “property.” That’s because there are none. These lands were swindled.

Fast forward to 2006, and the necessary resistance and all the ugly racist response and subsequent shit that has gone down since then. I’m not going to recount it. Suffice to say it reminded me that for all of its protestations to the contrary, Canada remains a deeply racist nation founded under false pretences and built on the backs of indigenous people without acknowledgement, justice, or thanks. Perhaps that is a harsh assessment, but this is the ugly reality of my people’s dealings with Canada to this point.

When I was a child my dad would drive us around the lands of our people and point out exactly when and where we had lost this or that parcel. And I know this was a common experience for a lot of my friends on Six as well, regardless if our families were traditional Longhouse people or Christianized the way mine was. That didn’t matter because we all knew the score. We all know what happened. And that gives us an edge over the people living outside of the reserve, on our land. Perhaps that is why they are so angry. They, too, have been deceived. It sucks to think that in the middle of nice Southern Ontario suburbia there’s a big honking elephant in the room, a massive land claim that will dog development and stall progress and disrupts the safe, comfortable myth that this is your home. On native land.

Someday there will be a reconciliation, an understanding. But until the government stops its posturing with regard to our land claims, recognizes our sovereignty as the Six Nations of the Grand River – and grants this to all of the Iroquoian territories – this issue is not going away.

I drive my kids around the perimeter of the reserve and tell them the same stories that my father told me. And so it goes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

2010 Olympics Opening Ceremony -- A Canadian Fantasy

For the millions of people around the world watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics broadcast from Vancouver last night, it must look like Canada is a vibrant, diverse place rich in the storied shared history of hundreds of aboriginal nations with all those intrepid European pioneers and later the arrival of displaced people from around the globe. What a beautiful, wealthy nation they have created together, rich in culture that borrows from those shared stories and the reverence with which this history is celebrated.

Um... NOT.

It is said that symbols are everything, with the national myth of a country being the most symbolic of all. I found it very interesting last night that all those indigenous people come out in their traditional finery, speak the surviving languages into the universe to welcome in everyone from the globe, and then dance happily about the stadium in what looks like a lovely display of formalized greeting. But what was very interesting to me was as the indigenous people were dancing away, they were surrounded by white people dressed in white. I tried not to read anything into it, but my daughter and my niece who were watching the spectacle with me were like, “Why are all those white people circling the Indians? Are they making sure they are going to stay away from the athletes?”

I laughed, but found myself bothered by uneasiness. And then it hit me – in a nation that does not address the legacy of colonialism with regard to its aboriginal peoples, that does not allow them full access to the kind of wealth generated by the rest of the nation, that keeps them indentured on a reserve-based system and our very existence dictated by the terms of a paternalistic Indian Act, this is exactly what was happening. Symbolically we were being kept away from the rest of the action, only trotted out as window-dressing and part of the colourful spectacle that is Olympic pageantry. It made me think of what happened to the proud Lakota after the decimation of their people post-Wounded Knee – able only to find work in Bill Hickok’s Wild West show, dancing around desultorily in their finery and looked upon as objects of curiousity, a throw-back to the past and also the spoils in a war that secured a continent for the expansion of colonial supremacy.

I have often thought of our relationship to the colonial construct government as being trapped in an abusive marriage. Seduced, betrayed, abused and abandoned. Seduced by these newcomers and their new technology, their guns and trade goods, their religion and rum, their talk of alliances and treaties and sharing the land. Betrayed by an entire system that once entrenched, denied us our rights under those very treaties we had made and deliberately cheating us out of fair settlements and compensation for our homelands. Abused by a religion that told us our ways were savage, and forcing our children into residential schools in order to conform to the colonizer’s culture, and by a parochial Indian Act that dictated the terms of our very existence as indigenous people by telling us who could claim that status. Ultimately we have been abandoned because the government of Canada does not want to deal fairly with those outstanding land claims, offering us pittances for what was rightfully ours and attempting to extinguish our rightful title to vast acreages that should still be ours. And so the opening ceremonies remove all reference to the Canadian reality and instead reach once more for the myth that Canada is a peaceful, diverse and welcoming place, and that everyone lives in prosperity and equality for all while respecting the cultures that contribute to the fabric of the nation.

Thus does the abuser wear the mask of the loyal, supportive husband and the abused the happy, loved consort.

In discussing the ceremonies with an (enlightened white) friend of mine, she told me her partner had said that he had hoped for a contingent of masked warriors ambushing the ceremonies on snowmobiles and ATVs, flicking cigarette butts at the crowd and littering the ground with empties, a giant fuck-you to the Games and all they represent. I laughed, delighting in the imagery. That would have been a much more fitting representation of the reality of what has happened in indigenous communities and exposed the dirty laundry of Canada’s colonial legacy to the world, instead of this sanitized and carefully-choreographed fantasy.

I am lucky to count among my acquaintances Taiaiake Alfred, eminent Iroquoian scholar and thinker who has written about the colonial experience and indigenous resistance and how to address the problems of governance for our people. He said that how onkwehonwe people respond to the Olympics is a litmus test for how deeply colonized we are, and I agree with him. Our own communities are divided over the issue, with those of us who view the collaboration of our people who have been turned into Olympic cheerleaders with suspicion and being told by our own people that we are too angry and not seeing the opportunity these games represent. I don’t deny that for many indigenous people they have profited from the Games, and more power to them, but for myself view the entire thing with scepticism. The amount of money poured into this thing is staggering – money that could also have run arts programs, daycares, hospitals, better transit systems, infrastructure and green job initiatives.

I myself have been sucked into the Olympic spectacle before, with its seductive glamour of competitive sport and the drama that it represents, but as I’ve developed my own personal economic/class/race analysis, I don’t think this way anymore. The Olympics have become a bloated, exploitive thing that instead of honouring the purity of athletic endeavour relies on how much wealth a competitor nation can pony up to essentially buy medals. It is the ultimate circus, distracting people from the very problems of class and race divide that oppress the majority of the world’s population, and the nations who win those medals reinforce the hegemony of the North over the South, of white over brown, of rich over poor.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Memorium: Karl Staats 1962-1983

I was overcome with an unaccountable melancholy when I woke up this morning and soon came to realize it was because of the weather. This kind of weather always reminds me of that March day so long ago when my mother called me to tell me that my friend, Karl, had been murdered when his car broke down and he gone to a house to ask for help. He was shot in the head because he asked for help. It was March 21, 1983.

Karl and I first met each other in Grade 7 and went on to be very tight friends by the time we were in Grade 13. We at first had competed against each other for grades, especially in English – which I find really ironic for two Mohawk kids to be excelling at. My competitive nature didn't want to be friends but he won me over -- he was slyly funny and whip-smart. We both loved fiction and wrote reams of poetry and used to try and outdo each other with our short stories and poems, competing for prizes and then later collaborating on work together because we admired each other’s turn of phrase and mindset so well. It was really the first time in my life I had realized that you could be friends with a member of the opposite sex and love them thoroughly without any kind of messy sex tension rising between you. It was because deep down we were brother and sister, tuned into the same kind of cosmic interests and a bone-deep conviction that our lives were going to take us far from the reserve. By the time we were in Grade 13 – he was the only guy with me, Lynx and Lorrie the last remaining Indian kids with our sights on university (when I started at that school there were over 100 kids from the reserve in Grade 9; by the time we graduated Grade 13 there was just the four of us. Goes to show you how hard it is for aboriginal kids to get into higher education). By then our interests had expanded into music, both of us freaks for Motorhead, the Ramones, Judas Priest – any kind of loud, thrashy stuff that jarred with our classmates who wanted to listen to Journey and Styx. We also liked bizarre movies, the two of us quoting A Clockwork Orange and Monty Python’s Holy Grail much to the eye-rolling of everyone else, or breaking into spontaneous song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were forbidden after a while from being partners when we would play euchre in our Grade 13 spares because we had a psychic connection which meant we could guess what each other was holding in their hand – and clean everyone else out for their lunch money. We hung out on weekends and traded music back and forth, along with books and bits of writing, poetry, critiquing each other’s work with suggestions that were only meant to make it better. We would skip school when the weather got better and smoke joints on the beach at Port Dover and talk about music and poetry. Karl played guitar so it was inevitable he would start a band and I would get invited to band practice, allowed to hang out and offer suggestions. God it sounds like some kind of teen movie and I guess in a way it was.

After graduation I went to York University because I had delusions of being a writer. Karl went to Fanshawe in London were he was studying sound engineering. Our contact started falling off because our lives were just going in different directions. Back then there was no internet, no email, no cellphone to make it easy to keep in contact. We tried making the effort to hang out but our schedules were just so radically different. It wasn’t because we hated each other or that there was a dramatic falling-out, it was just the reality of being in different cities with contact getting increasingly infrequent when we managed to be at home on the Rez at the same time. And you know – it is with great sadness that I don’t even remember the last time I saw him. But I remember him playing guitar, and headbanging, and I know utterly that we would still have been friends especially in light of the music that was starting to come out – Husker Du and the Replacements, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Flag, Sonic Youth – all of those bands that were fusing thrashing, angry guitars with thoughtful, poetic lyrics and intense melodies – and also because of the books and films and theatre and art we were both being exposed to.

That horrible morning...I remember the numbing shock and the taste of ashes in my mouth, my knees buckling and sliding down the wall of the phone booth on my dorm floor, hearing what my mother was telling me but not comprehending, not understanding that Karl was dead, that he had been shot. In the head. Because his car had broken down and he had gone to a house to ask for help. And I couldn’t cry. I didn’t cry at the funeral, or at the horrible visitation at the funeral home where they had an open casket and he was as pale as only a corpse can be with a ghastly putty thing over his forehead that was supposed to mask the bullet wound. I’ve never been able to cry about it, for him, until now. And now I weep as I write this, remembering it as vividly as if it had been last week.

It was a bad footnote. Indian kid gets shot by a white man. White man claims he was defending his property. White man gets sentenced to ten years involuntary manslaughter (whatever the fuck that means) and gets out in three years (for good behaviour). Wonder what would have happened had it been the other way around? You tell me.

Three years and this murderer got his life back.

Karl is dead and the potential for who and what he could have become – god I feel so desolate in thinking about that.

In 1983 we were 20 years old, with our lives ahead of us and a future so bright it was blinding. And for Karl, it was snuffed out in an instant and only the memory remains, and some of us in mourning for all the might have beens.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Contemplating Personal Power

I’ve always been extremely interested in power. The trappings of it, the scramble for it, what is power, why do we want it, how can I get it, is it just primate dynamics played out in a human forum… et cetera ad nauseum. I like power. I like how it feels, how it looks, what it means. I like it when I get to exercise it in whatever little sphere of influence I have, I hate it when I have none. It’s an interesting thing.

My people have always been interested in power. We even have a word for it – orenda, or the “soul of all things” – which I am given to understand is kind of a bad translation, as this is one of those purely Haudenosaunee concepts that really doesn’t have an equivalent in English. It is the philosophy that every human being is invested with his or her own power, a life-force that is equal parts aura, destiny, force of will, strength of character, and personal charisma. Probably the closest comparison is karma, but even that kind of falls short. Men and women equally are expected to develop their personal orenda, to follow its pathways and exercise their abilities in the pursuit of peace, power, and righteousness – and ultimately for the benefit of the entire nation. There is also the expectation that a healthy orenda leads to balance and equanimity among the people. When there is sickness, madness, or internal conflict within the tribe than some agent, whether external, internal, or supernatural has caused this imbalance and there are all kinds of rituals and songs and dances and feasts to be performed to restore the balance.

However, I am interested in orenda as a purely personal reflection of my keen desire for power. I have always wanted the kind of power that a strong ruler would yield. I joke among my friends that in the event of a world-wide apocalypse I am totally going to band together the survivors and rule an entire kingdom from a Throne of Skulls in a wild Mad Max scenario, and they believe unflinchingly that it would be possible for me to do so. Perhaps they are humouring me, but hey -- I have never grown out of that adolescent desire to be Empress of All I Survey.

However, the sad reality is that as an aboriginal woman in this country I will never achieve the kind of political or economic power that I really would rather enjoy. Sometimes the obviousness of that fact smacks me in the face. One could say it should to keep me humble, but sometimes it’s just depressing. Like tonight I was driving along the Grand River through Caledonia (or Squatterdonia, as my dad calls it) towards where my sister lives in Cayuga and I was thinking, hey look at all these beautiful houses ON OUR STOLEN LAND.

In reality I don’t want to move back to the Rez and environs, but it would be nice just for once to think – hey look at all those beautiful houses here ON THE RESERVE (not that there aren't any right now, but it would be nice if they reflected a higher standard of living, and that this was the norm right across the country).

Or to think, gee, if I ran for election into a political office, I bet I’d get elected.

Sometimes I have idly entertained delusions of getting into politics. I love politics and have always been good at the kind of office/power/group dynamics that drive a large group. I don’t think any human gathering of more than twenty people is without its own internal politics. And I’m damn good at it, at fostering alliances and talking to people and debating and/or defending positions. I love it. This sort of thing is something I was born to do, use my Iroquoian guile and power of oratory to change minds and influence decisions. This ability actually got me somewhere in my old union, but now I'm staff and can't indulge my prediliction for politics any longer.

Sometimes I think, I bet I’d be an awesome MPP/MP or hell, I’d make a damn fine party leader. But then I realize there’s no party that I would seriously join and be committed to. I’m way too irascible and even though I’m nominally an NDPer by virtue of my union affiliations, it does not suit completely. Maybe I’ll become one of those cranky weirdos that always put their name on the ballot in any election in the hopes that other disaffected losers will rally around me. Yeah, that’s it. It’s my new plan and I’m sticking to it.

But somehow I can’t help but wish for my Throne of Skulls…