Indigenous

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

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from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

Scarf and Medicine Bundle

Matthew squares off with Scarf Women

On my leaving, the Finns of Montreal gave me a gift. It wasn’t a gift card, or a gold watch (do people do that anymore?) or a bottle of fancy wine. They thought about who I was to them, and who they were to me. Then nine households – nine different women, to be more precise – knitted a scarf. Together. They each, in turn, added wool from Finland, and colours from their homes that would mean something.

I’ve rarely been so touched. I wear the scarf often. I keep it in a place where I can look at it, as I’m doing now. Its colours tell me about the people who knitted it and the services and events we enjoyed together. Its heft in my hands reminds me how warmly I was embraced by the Finnish community. Although it wasn’t intended as such, the scarf turned out to be the perfect length for a stole (that priests and pastors wear over their robe as a sign of their ordination). When I got it, I told the women it would be a ritual object for me – it couldn’t help but be, because of how it was made.

In 1884 Canada’s Federal Government passed the potlach law, part of the Indian Act. It “legally” abolished all “Indian cultural practices,” the Sun Dance, the potlach, and other religious ceremonies. It also forbade Indigenous people and groups from keeping their ritual items. That provision was only repealed in the 1950s. Bob Joseph, in 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes that “for 71 years…almost three generations grew up deprived of the cultural fabric of their ancestors….thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets, and other….items were lost forever to their people” (49).

When I walked into the Castle Museum here in Nottingham UK, the first thing to catch my eye was the medicine pouch you see below. The little sign says it comes from Alberta, Canada. When ceremonies – the life of a culture – were outlawed, many of the stolen objects were given to museums. That bundle belonged – STILL belongs – to someone…Blackfoot? Cree? It’s hard to imagine someone coming into my house to take my Finnish scarf, or a Bible, or a communion chalice. But that’s exactly what my government did to the Indigenous peoples. Learning this, and remembering it, is part of being ready for reconciliation.

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All Our Systems

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the V2V: system meets relations, but who did the paint-job? photo: M. Anderson

The sound of a chain saw greeted me as I walked toward the intersection, where Government street meets Victoria’s harbour, right by the Empress Hotel. The street was closed to traffic. On the meridian, in the middle of the lanes, with downtown buildings all around, a half-dozen workers were finishing the job of bringing down what must have been a fairly large tree. Some were cutting the trunk into pieces, others were shredding branches, still others were piling four-foot slices of hard-wood trunk onto a front-end loader. The crew was working hard. But there was just as much action outside the cordon. Three different TV crews had cameras trained on the workers, who self-consciously were trying not to pay attention to them. Several camera photographers were snapping photos.

I ran my errands. Fifteen minutes later, on my way back, the cameras were gone. A flag-woman guarded the yellow tape.

“What’s all the media interest about?” I asked her. “What happened?”

“Oh,” she replied, “we cut down a tree.”

“Was it an important tree?” I asked.

She shrugged. “There aren’t that many around– take a look.” Her arm swept the horizon. “I guess so.”

“There were protesters?”

“Believe it or not, only one.” She laughed. “All those media folks came down on her like a gang. They all had to interview the same person!”

“Why’d they cut it down?”

“That’s the best part,” she leaned in, as if sharing a secret. “It’s for a bike path,” she whispered. Then she hoisted her neon vest and headed back to the other workers. “We live in a bizarre world!” she called over her shoulder.

Today I’m flying out of Victoria, headed east. And you cannot fly without experiencing – and, let’s be honest, benefitting from – systems. There’s a system that directs travelers through airports onto planes, and systems to guide the planes safely across runways and through the air. A system will, I hope, make sure my luggage arrives when I do. A system for bike paths spelled the end of that tree. But despite their undoubted value, we make a mistake when we treat other people, or creation, as if it’s only that – a series of systems to be managed, and not relations to be nurtured and respected.

We use systems, and we think of them as external to us. On the other hand, we are part of a web of relations. Tanya Talaga points this out in her book “All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward” (Anansi Press, 2018). Other Indigenous writers such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Indigenous activists such as Kenneth Deer warn us that to ignore our relations with creation puts us at peril. Indigenous courage and sacrifice in defense of the planet, whether against fracking, or pipelines, or sacred sites, has led the way. I don’t know if that one tree, in downtown Victoria, should have been saved. A bike path is certainly a good thing. But I wonder if it was a case of “all our systems,” rather than “all our relations.”

Triumphalism

Via Dolorosa Ivory

Triumphalism is gloating. It’s me going by you on the highway, seeing you have a flat tire and saying to someone: “they deserve that.” We Canadians are more than a touch smug right now. Justin Trudeau may not be perfect. But he’s not Donald Trump. The world loves us, not so much for who we are, but for who we’re NOT. And we lap up the credit. Or triumphalism is those of us who are Euro-Canadian saying that we tend to live a richer and healthier life than many First Nations people because we somehow are smarter, or work harder, or something. When in fact, the truth is that people like me get an education and a good diet and many of these breaks because we are living off the ill-gotten gains of land that was  stolen from the First Nations to give to our ancestors. And we have the gall to give ourselves credit. The same is true of this Gospel, written after the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, Jesus says to the Chief Priests and Elders, because of how you’ve treated the Son, I tell you this: the Kingdom of heaven will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces fruit. It’s been two thousand years since this supercessionist – and awful – text was written. In that time, has the official, institutional Church done any better than ancient Judea? No! The opposite: have we crucified those who were only seeking freedom? Yes. Have we stood idly by while the innocent suffered? You bet. Have we rejected love? Constantly. Reading this text shouldn’t make us smug. Christians are NOT God’s replacement for the Jews. What we are, is extremely fortunate we’re included in the family. And that, right there, seems the best way to eliminate self-righteousness. This is a perfect reading for a Thanksgiving weekend. The moment you and I take the time to think about how unbelievably fortunate we are, is the same moment smugness disappears. Happy Thanksgiving.

Estonians, the Red Army, and Unsettlement

Red Army Tank

When I read Enn Raudsepp’s book Vändra, it was eye opening. The novel makes it very clear that Estonians have rarely been able to live on their own land. In the Middle Ages, German landowners came and took over everything, making the Estonians serfs and peasants. Then the Soviets came, again and again. Today is “Red Army Sunday”. If anyone knows about strangers taking over land, it should be Estonians. They know, as do the First Nations here in Canada, what it is to have foreigners pushing you out. Estonians know what an injustice that is. Estonians should, then, also know that the right thing, the loving and just thing, is to name that injustice for what it is, even here and now in Canada. So you, mortal, says Ezekial, you I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you should give a warning. I guess we who are Christians are not quite over the “should” stage. We should identify injustice, not just at the end of the Second World War, but also now. We SHOULD develop solidarity and empathy for people who are not like us. In that way, the reign of justice, of our God, begins already, in a very small way, here and now.

 

Indigenous Studies at VST

Here’s a little video I shot and produced, to show the summer school program run by Ray Aldred and the folks at Vancouver School of Theology, where I taught this last week. Ay-ay!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/226521214″>NMC weeks at VST</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user32514305″>Matthew Anderson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

The Churches and the Clearing of the Plains

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Consider this: when we think of the participation of  Canadian churches in the decimation of the First Nations, we repent of residential schools and the 60s scoop. But it started even earlier. Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, were among those who urged the Saulteaux, the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine and others to make treaty with Ottawa, right around that 150-years-ago date Canadians are celebrating this year. “Christian Indians” (as they were called), influenced by their priests and ministers who attended the negotiations, urged their traditionalist brothers and sisters such as Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) to take treaty. Since Christians were so crucial in brokering the numbered treaties, shouldn’t Christians have a special responsibility, now, in making sure they’re upheld? (with others, I will be walking the Battleford Trail in August 2017 to draw attention to an often forgotten part of Saskatchewan, and Canadian, history. For more info, see shfs.ca)