Great Lakes Area II

[Part 2 of 2. For part 1 click here]

Relationship Maintenance (or Polishing the Belts)

Every relationship requires understanding. You don’t need to 100% understand the other, but there needs to be some basic agreement on how to relate. Discussions of, ‘this is okay, that’s not okay, please don’t do that any more, I’d really like this’, etc. At a societal level, one way relationships are understood here is through Wampum belts. Another approach in these parts is through written-word legal systems like French civil code (used in Quebec) and British common law (used in rest of Canada) both of which are too complex for a single person to ever fully know and understand.

Lynn Gehl is an Anishanaabe-kwe scholar on the subject of wampum belts and treaties in the Great Lakes area. Gehl is in court right now for a historic case about Indian Status. She notes that Wampum belts describe relationship agreements – be they between groups of people and/or with lands, water, plants, animals, etc. Life is a product of many intersecting relationships. Wampum belts were often made in pre-colonization times (pre-European contact) and presented from community to community, says Gehl. The practice continues today. And when a wampum agreement hasn’t been discussed in a while, the practice of re-visiting it and rebuilding understanding is sometimes referred to as “polishing” the belt, cleaning off the dust and grit that has accumulated in the interim.

(It must be funny watching mainstream Canadian society from outside trying to understand the whole of our relationship with something like frozen pepperoni pizza. What does it say about our relationships to the land, water, plants, animals, and other humans? What does it say about our state of connectedness? In our culture, we simply lie about the relationships and call it “marketing” or “advertising”. I certainly fall victim to that game. But I digress…)

I don’t want to give the idea that all first nations got all relationships right. Ronald Wright, who delivered the Massey Lecture A Short History of Progress, notes that societies indigenous and non-indigenous to the Americas all made mistakes, that they were and are human. He emphasizes that different civilizations made different mistakes.

I want to emphasize that my society, predominantly European-descendant “Canadian” society, is part of a relationship. We share this land. Our bodies are made of the same waters as all other peoples here.


The basis of this relationship in the Great Lakes region can be understood in the Two Row Wampum bead belt that was exchanged between the Haudenasaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and Europeans hundreds of years ago. The Treaty of Niagara (1764) belt is also very important (especially for the Anishanaabeg).

The Two Row Wampum depicts two vessels going down the river of life together forever, never interfering with the navigation of the other’s vessel. It is often said that one vessel is the canoe of the peoples here and the other is the sailboat of the newly arrived peoples. Around the vessels are three lines of white representing peace, friendship and respect/forever.

That is a very basic description of our mutual relationship. Remember, Two-Row Wampum belt. The opposite of the dysfunctional scene on the water with the kids in the sailboat terrorizing the kids in the canoe (from part 1 of this post).

Non-interference is a key lesson from this understanding of our relationship. Many Wampum belts and proclamations and treaties after the Two Row Wampum exchange reinforce this concept. Non-interference has, in some ways, become a very Canadian idea. You do what you want, I can do what I want, and as long as we don’t interfere with each other it’s cool.


Seeing Interference

But the history of the English-French-Canadian side of the relationship with First Nations, the history that has led us to this moment in time, is a history of continual violent and widespread interference. There are 4 000 pages in the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples detailing some of this interference. While Residential Schools, one particularly genocidal bit of interference, may be over, indigenous children are forcibly taken from their families and communities by the Canadian government and put in foster care in greater numbers today than the analogous forcible removals during the residential schools era. Agreed upon funding is today withheld from communities that don’t do what the Canadian government wants them to do, namely extractive projects. The interference continues. Peace and friendship and respect are not offered by Canada.

The interference extends to language and culture. “Speak English and get a job!” are standard refrains I hear from friends and in media. These, I am told, are prerequisites for being a respectable member of a community. I’m going to speak about what I see in my society regarding language and employment.

Canada’s government has embassies all over the world staffed with people capable of translating from English to other languages and other languages to English. This takes much time and money. At home, the government demands all indigenous people speak English (French is okay in some instances) when communicating with the government and doing official business. Languages from around the world are respected and spoken by the Canadian government, but the languages of its homeland are not respected. By contrast, the Guatemalan government translates some official documents into indigenous languages and allows bilingual education (Indigenous and Spanish). Keeping indigenous language alive in Canada is still an underground activity. The English (or French) or nothing attitude shows the British image Canada still holds of itself. (Not central to this argument is my personal observation from limited experience that the languages here contain bits of wisdom and ways of framing things that are not found in English nor French nor Spanish. I won’t try to explain examples, but people like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson are writing prolifically with deep commitment and contagious enthusiasm for their languages.)

Regarding employment, the idea of a “normal job” is being eroded in my society. While some economists freak out about the growth in part-time but not in full-time jobs, many people rejoice in the overall fulfillment they get from part-time work and the pursuit of what they like, what they care about doing with their time. As I wrote recently, only about 22% of the Canadian population works on providing what we need to survive (water, food, shelter, fire), so of course some will prefer to put time towards what they like and care about instead of prioritizing a 9-5 workday of make-work as the ultimate goal. (This 22% figure relies heavily for energy on fossil fuels in a similar way to how the leisure of wealthy landowners relied on the labour of slaves. Many people care about becoming less dependent on fossil fuels so we see the attempt to resolve this contradiction by people using their “extra” labour time to create a future independent of fossil fuels.)

To summarize on the imposition of “speak English and get a job!” on other people and specifically First Nations, it strikes me as an unnecessary and destructive.

If you want to get into the issue of payments for healthcare and education that from forgotten trust funds, we can certainly get into that. That issue, which is a simple part of the relationship we have, has become terribly obscured. Finally it’s roots are coming back to light, and institutions like McGill University and the Government of Canada are deflecting blame at each other.

Call me wacko, but when one group of people control another against their will and keep stealing their land often through violence and in violation of treaties and other agreements, the word that comes to me in trying to define such a situation is “war”. I spoke to a few upper-class Canadian friends about this a few years ago and they agreed. They supported the war from the Canadian side. “Yes, we are at war,” they said. (Not sure how much I want to be their friends actually.) That is the opposite of non-interference. If Canada, the world’s 2nd largest country in size, is at war with the hundreds of first nations

Bolivarian_Alliance_for_the_Peoples_of_Our_America_(orthographic_projection)_Without_Honduras.svgwithin its borders, when can we expect an international coalition to intervene? Maybe the Latin American coalition ALBA (pictured) put together such forces some day and the UN will facilitate diplomatic relations.

If we are willing to wage war and continue it over making people speak English and get a job, we can expect an international outcry someday. Well, there have been a few of those days.

Israeli officials have at times argued that the attention they get for invading and occupying Palestine is selective and symptomatic of anti-semitic. Their argument is to ask why the whole world doesn’t pay equal attention to the violation of land rights190px-Iroquois_passport
in Canada and the USA and Mexico. The question has validity. In a way it’s not surprising rhetoric that the Canadian government stands with Israel. After all, the Haudenosaunee (aka. Iroquois), have been trying to get nation status at the UN for a long time. There are strong parallels with Palestine’s recent efforts at the UN. Haudenosaunee passports exist and are recognized in some parts of the world. In denying the existence of Palestine and the Iroquois Confederacy, we see that Canada’s position on Israel is non-contradictory. Settler colonialism is settler colonialism be it in New Mexico, Palestine, Nova Scotia or Ontario. James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples raised many red flags in his recent trip to Canada. The international outcry is happening. We haven’t been listening much, maybe ALBA is.

And so as one story of Canada goes that we are non-interfering sovereign peoples who responsibly use resources, there is another narrative playing out. To describe this other narrative we need to talk about how we relate to the land in additional to our relations with other humans.

Some Haudenasaunee and Anishanabeg people I’ve spoken with see a relationship with the land where respect must be shown and not too much interference made otherwise we would destroy the land, the earth, and ourselves. The damming of the St. Lawrence River upstream of Akwesasne in the 1950s and placing of high-polluting industries on the river’s edge it is an ongoing instance of highly destructive interference. (for more on that situation, follow link then click on the file RestoringOurRelationsshipfortheFuture.pdf)

So here’s another narrative of Canada and the land and water:

Decimate beaver population for hats for Europeans. Once American colonies throw out British influence decimate Canadian forests for boats and furniture for the British Empire. Allow Irish and Scottish refugees fleeing the hard British rule to kill nearly all the fish on the east coast and ruin their source of sustenance. Destroy many areas of land trying to grow things that don’t want to grow there using inappropriate techniques. Over-use fertilizers making lakes and rivers poisonous to drink (eg. Lake Eerie, cottage haven Lake Memphramagog). Overfish the west coast waters indiscriminately. Once the surface of the earth and water have been interfered with, go deeper into the waters and ground at a rapidly accelerating pace to get stuff out. Get out more gold than we need, get out oil and coal and gas that we will use inefficiently, and try to send this stuff to parts of the world far from where it came from. Become so set on digging into the earth that a major part of our identity worldwide becomes our enthusiasm for doing so at home and for going to southern places demanding to dig for gold destroying land there, poisoning the water, fracturing communities, and making a very few people very rich in money and thereby power.

The whole thing seems predicated on interference. It is a far cry from peace, friendship, and respect. Or compare this narrative with the Anishanaabe 7 Grandfather Teachings of:

 Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, Truth


Conclusion and More Resources

There’s an Arabian proverb I think about a lot:

It is good to know the truth, but it is better to speak of palm trees.

It’s a guilty sentiment. In our relationships we like to avoid the truth, not confront it, and we preoccupy ourselves with less heavy things like palm trees swaying in an ocean breeze. But any functional relationship needs to look at its truths. There needs to be an effort to listen and figure out how to move forward. The Before and After the Horizon: Anishanaabe Artists of the Great Lakes at the AGO helps provide good fodder for reflection.

But one exhibit in an art gallery is small. I don’t think we’ve really listened yet. I don’t think we’ve had the conversations. I don’t think we’ve thought about how to move forward with respect, in peace. There are innumerable ways to be helping make this happen. The Skills for Solidarity series was great. For me, I’m looking inwards and around me and writing a lot and meeting people and trying to figure out next steps. It’s something that requires conversation. A relationship without communication is brittle. My side of the relationship, the new peoples here, the settler peoples, we have a lot of learning to do. This is bigger than any individual, but at the same time deeply personal. Every journey is different but none completely alone.


Here is a list of things that have been helpful for me:


Leanne Simpson – Lighting the 8th Fire, and Dancing on the Turtles Back

Thomas King – Inconvenient Indian

Harold Cardinal – The Unjust Society

John Raulston Saul – A Fair Country (start is good, then gets pretty tangential and ranty)

Joseph Boyden – The Orenda, Three Day Road (though I haven’t read much of either)



Northern Exposure

Lighting the 8th Fire (on CBC)

Watching the news on APTN


In Person

Meeting people! Pow-Wows but also other ways. I’m down to talk about that. It can be intimidating especially if you don’t know what to expect. Fear of the unknown is a stupid but real thing. Like walking along East Hastings Street in Vancouver, it’s fine but beforehand is scary if you have no idea what to expect. There’s also internalized racism to work through, which is real. Going to comedy shows is good. Ryan McMahon is one of the biggest name in Canada right now and just launched a whole series of podcasts. Lots of others.


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