Perhaps that can be said for what’s now underway in “Library Learnings,” and what will continue right through year’s end: a series of seven interrelated essays about Indigeneity in Canada. After all, does a day go by in which the media don’t report on Indigenous peoples in this country, and their relationship to others of us who are non-Indigenous?
Consider writer Paul Christopher Henry Webster’s scrutiny of Indigenous sovereignty, this in The Globe and Mail of July 6: in Canada, “Indigenous issues currently command centre stage”; “Canadian Indigenous people are singing an increasingly discordant tune”; “Indigenous nationalism is not to be underestimated”. He quotes Indigenous legal scholar and activist Pamela Palmater, who argues that “Indigenous Canadians should pursue their right to be ‘self-determining, and free from interference or control by another nation,’ including Canada.” He quotes Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who teaches at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Yellowknife, who would have First Peoples find “ways out of domination, and ‘not [be] afraid to let those imaginings destroy the pillars of settler colonialism’.” Clearly, the matter is consequential, and mustn’t be shrugged off.
Thus, “Library Learnings” writings, which total more than 15,000 words in length, and are the result of a half-year-long study. Eleven different books were read—note that several are in the SSUC Library; and well in excess of 50 articles and papers and online sites were perused. Sources range from The Soul of the Indian from 1911 to the RCMP’s Native Spirituality Guide, APTN News, a TEDTalk, the NFB’s Faith Project, the Alberta School Boards Association’s Indigenous Insights video series, Evergreen State College materials for Native American learners, the Oneida Indian Nation website…and elements from SSUC Sunday gatherings.
The articles—here itemized, with their publication dates noted; a new one will be posted every four weeks—examine reconciliation (which, as Webster put it in his piece in The Globe, “Always seems to be the hardest word”) [July 5]; author Kent Nerburn and his book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog [August 2]; the new Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada [August 30]; and, in four parts, Indigenous religion and spirituality [September 27, October 25, November 27, December 20].
There’s much for we who are non-Indigenous to learn, to know, about Indigenous history and ways. About how First Peoples had to give up, as Palmater observes (and Webster quotes her), their “language, culture, laws, governance and ways of being, and adopt Canadian ways of life.” Maybe, just maybe, these “Library Learnings” and their focus on Indigeneity, will help us to enrich our understanding. And then to move on. Together. After all, it’s as one of the sources quoted in the essays put it, “…we are stuck, unless we move ‘past the past’.”
Part 1: Reconciliation
“Because it’s the right thing to do”
“It is such a Christian word: reconciliation.”
Eileen Markey has that right. This sentence of hers comes from her 12-page-long hard-hitting article about Canada’s efforts at “‘whitewashing’ Indigenous children,” reported in the June 14, 2018, issue of America Magazine, the 110-year-old weekly periodical of the Jesuit order in the United States. A graduate of the Jesuits’ Fordham University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she, based in New York City, is an independent, investigative journalist who specializes in such matters as the role of religion in the public square.
In straight-arrow Christian theology, reconciliation is, according to Wikipedia, “an element of salvation that refers to the results of atonement. It is the end of estrangement, caused by original sin, between God and humanity.” “God reconciles us to himself,” biblestudytools.com adds, quoting Romans 5:1, “through the death of his Son.” But this same entry makes it plain that reconciliation can, and should take place between mere mortals, as well. As the website Patheos puts it, “This is stressed in Matthew 5:21-25, where we are told that, if we have an unresolved disagreement with someone, we should resolve it as soon as possible….”
Yes, but. Reconciliation can be hard to come by because, as Markey writes, “it requires the perpetrator to reckon with evil. For reconciliation to work, members of the perpetrator groups need to acknowledge what happened, put in place protections to ensure it does not happen again, and make amends.”
This notion is that of Robert Schreiter, whom she interviewed for her feet-to-the-fire story; to hear her tell it—and in this she takes pride—her journalism “is distinguished by deep, immersive interviews, and robust research.” “Truth-telling is an essential element” in any attempt at reconciliation, he, a professor of systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, told her, “even if some would rather rush forward toward forgiveness.”
(Further along in her article, Markey introduces the reader to Rebecca Thomas, described as “a Mi’kmaw woman and the student services advisor to First Nations students at Nova Scotia Community College,” who is “one of the people who inherited [from her parents] the damage of Shubenacadie [Residential School].” And because that is so, she is in no hurry to give absolution: “‘I think in order to have a good and meaningful reconciliation, we need to sit with the truth for a while.’”)
Another member of the school’s faculty, and one who is a Canadian, Michel Andraos, reckons that the hardest thing for Christians to accept “might be the idea that their religion was not incidental to the violence [meted out to First Peoples], but was central to it.” This “culpability” must be faced, but, oh, Markey wonders, how do religious communities “embark on a spiritual endeavour with people they have harmed?”
It can be seen in both song and prayer that reconciliation is a resolve of the Southminster-Steinhauer United Church community. Consider the lyrics of minister Chris New’s song, “Reconciling Ways”: “Gathering, honouring, remembering where we meet; our deep respect for history and culture, still incomplete. First Peoples’ land from long before, relationships to restore; enriching and reconciling ways, we live and dream for more.”
And here are the closing words written for the June 23 spiritual gathering, which honoured National Indigenous Peoples Day: “We go with gratitude for the great heritage we share with one another. We go strengthened for the good and difficult work of reconciliation. We go with great hope for the good way of relationship and connection to our land and all that lives on it. We go with peace, knowing that the Great Spirit that is alive in all things and all people goes with us.”
Then, in taking up, in emphasizing, the residential school horror, Markey turns back to Schreiter: “The root sin in the case of the residential schools, he says, was the lie that European and Christian culture was superior to First Nations’ cultures. That lie made everything else possible.”
No wonder, then, that columnist Denise Balkissoon, writing on the op-ed page in the June 14 edition of The Globe and Mail, shared her concern about the Canadian public “stubbornly remaining ignorant” of the history and ways of Indigenous peoples.
The previous month, Robert Bertrand, took up this matter in The Globe’s Report on Business pages—he is the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples: reconciliation calls for “profound and transformative change. For many, this pursuit can feel daunting.” Indeed. “Recognizing the unique contributions and worldview that Indigenous people have to offer…is part of this work. …although Indigenous and non-Indigenous people had, and continue to have incredibly different experiences, we are all in this together.
“In order for reconciliation to begin, there is essential work to be done, beginning with self-reflection and learning about Indigenous experiences.” This “requires openness and a desire to understand that the dominant experiences of Canada have not been shared by all…. Meaningful reconciliation is a reflective, sustained, and evolving process. It is a journey into the unknown that can be intimidating, but also an opportunity.” Bertrand concludes by stating, plainly, while we have the chance now “to find a path” forward together, “this window will be brief….”
“Nobody can tell me that we are not impacted by the residential schools.” Brenda Semantha, who is Dene, is speaking, this in one of the 20 short videos that make up the Alberta School Boards Association’s Indigenous Insights series. “Whether you like it or not, they are a reality, a part of Canada’s history that we can no longer avoid, and no longer say, out of ignorance, ‘Oh, that doesn’t affect me’.”
A worker with The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, a part of the All Nations Hope Network in Saskatchewan, she recalls, “They had the ability to strip us of our braids, our language, our way of life. But,” she adds, resistively, “they were not able to strip us of our spirit. And I truly believe that that is what pulled the people through the horrific experience of the residential schools.”
If this is so, it might be wise to pay heed to the unnamed blogger, writing for Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. in an August 16, 2018, posting, “What reconciliation is and what it is not”. It tells how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action “awoke in many individuals…a realization that they had not just a role to play, but a moral responsibility to make amends for the past. …reconciliation is [by now] a familiar term to most of us. But there’s still confusion over what it means, and who is responsible…. The TRC definition of reconciliation [follows]:
“‘…Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.’”
“I believe,” the blogger opines, that “Canada has moved to the point at which we no longer ask ‘whether reconciliation is possible,’ but ‘how is reconciliation possible’. And from that position, increasingly non-Indigenous Canadians are asking, ‘What can I do?’”
He or she makes these recommendations, among others: that we accept that reconciliation “is the responsibility of every Canadian”; that relationships be built between Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks, and negative perceptions and stereotypes be forsworn; that “learning about Indigenous history” is essential [and here he or she wants recognized “the intergenerational impacts of colonization, attempts at assimilation, and cultural genocide”]; and that “Indigenous beliefs, cultures, traditions, world views, challenges, and goals” be heralded.
That is what “Library Learnings” will strive for in the remaining months of 2019. And why it will do so.
Coverage continues with the essay that will follow this introduction: to be posted here August 2, it will point up the Canadian Geographic’s new and admirable Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, a four-volume set of books. Read it, and you’ll suppose that it covers all things native. But, really, the atlas makes scant reference to religion and spirituality. “Spirituality is not typically discussed as a matter of practice,” Perry Bellegarde explains in the introduction to the volume about the First Peoples, but then the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations adds, “yet it forms the core of First Nations world views….”
Because this is so, “Library Learnings” then will be given over to an informative four-part series of essays, one a month, specifically about Indigenous religion and spirituality, based in part on several books in the SSUC Library collection. The first installment of this primer or overview will be posted on the Library web page on August 30; succeeding chapters will appear on September 27 (contact, colonization), October 25 (consequences), and November 22 (moving on).
And perhaps this focus on Indigeneity, now begun, will, in some small measure, help to foster reconciliation. One hopes.
In attempting to say, finally, why reconciliation is desirable, is essential, Robert Joseph, in a May 24, 2016, TEDTalk from Vancouver, put it simply: “…Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it aligns with our Canadian values.” Hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk Tribe, he concluded his address with these words: “…really, at the heart of it all [reconciliation] is this idea of love—of loving yourself, loving others—and we all can be driven by that…. [Then] one day soon, we will have achieved a country that is reconciled….”
Afterword: a survey that “should give Canada cautious optimism”
“Canada’s relationship with the Indigenous peoples who first inhabited this land continues to be unresolved and fraught with controversy.”
Ominous, that is the first sentence in the introduction to a national review conducted this past spring by the Environics Institute for Survey Research. The first of its kind, it measured the attitudes, experiences, priorities, and aspirations of young adults, ages 16 to 29, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. And what it found is not enmity—that opening line not withstanding—but hope.
“The results of this survey should give Canada cautious optimism,” EI pronounced upon the assay’s release on July 9, pointing out that there’s “a striking alignment between [the views of] both populations.” [exchange.youthrex.com puts it this way: “…the similarities in perspective stand out, much more than the differences.”] The “youth in Canada as a whole are aware and engaged”—they get that the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples “is fractured,” but they’re “optimistic that we can repair it.”
So it is that “…reconciliation in particular” is a goal. Both populations agree on what will be required: “…reconciliation is considered to be about rebuilding relationships and trust, apologizing and making amends, and correcting past wrongs.” And both anticipate “meaningful progress toward reconciliation in their lifetimes.” The survey makes plain how important it is “to consider the perspective of the country’s youth—the emerging generation on whose shoulders the promise and challenge of reconciliation rest most directly.”
EI’s final report—which can be found by Googling “Canadian Youth Reconciliation Barometer 2019”—was pointed up in the Opinion section of The Globe and Mail’s Civic Holiday weekend edition. The writers, EI president Michael Adams, and Keith Neuman, lead researcher on the project, conclude that public attention now is focused “on the claims and concerns of Indigenous peoples and communities arguably to an unprecedented degree,” and so “more meaningful changes in public understanding and public will” may result.
Coincidentally, on that holiday Monday The Globe published what it called “The most-read ‘First Person’ columns of the past year.” There were four of them, including, from last November, a love letter to Canada penned by a woman from Virginia, Lorraine Koury, headlined, “I’m an American, but I’m head over heels in love with Canada.” It was unabashedly favourable, a paean to our country.
In fact, Ms. Koury waited until the 12th paragraph to point up just one shortcoming: “And even though we adore you, we are not blind to your faults, either. We know that you have your own problems, most importantly your continuing treatment of the Indigenous.” But, even after calling out this iniquity, she ended that paragraph on this supportive note: “But if there is one country on this Earth that we believe will eventually right its wrongs, it’s you.”
May it be so.
Part 2: Neither Wolf Nor Dog
“Just carry Dan’s words in your heart”
“You did something we did not think was possible. You killed us, without even taking our lives.”
This intense, unexpected passage in the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog stopped this reader in his tracks. Is this what Murray Sinclair meant when, in reporting out the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, he spoke of “cultural genocide”? Or what Marion Buller meant when, in presenting the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, she eschewed the adjective, and discerned “genocide”?
The words are Dan’s. He is the wizened and wise Lakota ancient on a South Dakota Indian reservation who, together with his side-kick Grover, all but kidnaps Kent Nerburn to tell his, and his people’s, story. Which the author does, feelingly, in his 1994 book Neither Wolf Nor Dog; it, and the two books that continue the story, The Wolf at Twilight  and The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo —together, they, all critically-acclaimed and award-winning, make up the so-called Neither Wolf Nor Dog Trilogy—were recently gifted to the SSUC Library.
But it was not an easy story to write. Or read. Hard truths are told. As Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat put it in their review of the book for spiritualityandpractice.com, “…Nerburn has fashioned a powerful drama around his encounters with Dan, a Lakota elder who unflinchingly speaks the truth about Indian life, past and present.”
“No one will leave us alone,” Dan disheartens, “and let us be who we are.” The ways of his people were “taken from them. Everything. Your people did it,” he rails at Nerburn. “That’s the way it was planned, and it worked. You took their spirits, and left them with shame.” And as “our culture goes, we go. Everything our old people starved for and our ancestors died for will be gone.” He adds, ultimately, “We were a good people. But we were not allowed to live.”
In the aftermath of this ruination, Dan tells Nerburn that “…we are still at war. …if we don’t fight for who we are, we will be destroyed….” So, he believes, “There is not an Indian alive who dares to think too much on the past. If we looked too long at the past, we would be too angry to live.”
Such bitterness is personal, he admits: “…my grandfathers…said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens.” But his grandparents advised him of this, too: “There are good white people…. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger, they said.”
How different are the ways of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples? “…White people always think of themselves first, and how to get your individual rights,” Dan reckons. “We don’t. We think about our culture, and how to make the people strong within it. That’s what we’re doing. We’re building the culture. That’s our job….”
Nerburn mentions how nowadays white America is coming to “rediscover” the Indigenous “way of life,” and seeking “to appropriate the very spiritual truths we had tried to destroy, in order to fill the void of our own spiritual bankruptcy.” This is not lost on Dan: “Some of my people…think you know that you are lost, and that you want us to help you find your way.” He obliges: “You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be more quiet. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.”
Albeit fleetingly, but tellingly, Dan brings the Christian faith into the conversation: “I like Jesus. …He was wakan [Encyclopaedia Britannica: “a great spiritual power…a kind of holiness or wonderfulness inherent in some objects”]. He should have been an Indian. He didn’t own anything. He slept outside on the earth. He moved around all the time. He shared everything he got. He even talked to the Great Spirit as his Father. He was just like an Indian.”
What’s more, “The white people knew they…weren’t living like Jesus had told them. They made up excuses. When they looked at us, they saw the way Jesus had said to live. We made their excuses look false.”
Can a book “be at once a work of fiction,” Kent Nerburn asks on his website, “and non-fiction?” Yes, he answers, and cites Neither Wolf Nor Dog: it is, he asserts, “neither wolf nor dog.” In it, and in the other books in his trilogy, he uses “aspects of the novel, oral history, mythology, parable, and spiritual homily…. He describes the end result as “a genre-blending, category-blurring literary vehicle….” He tells minnpost.com, “We’re calling it creative non-fiction.
“Is every part of it factual? No. True? Yes. Everything in there is based on actual physical experience and memory,” he continues, “but, for the sake of story-telling, the narrative is reconstructed in places.” So, Dan, Grover, and the others in the book are “real people, all,” Nerburn declares on his website. Though “‘Dan’ is not his real name,” according to Minnesota’s mprnews.com: “Nerburn has renamed everyone, except himself.” [St. Paul’s Pioneer Press reported that “Dan died in 2002.”]
In a 2017 interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Nerburn, who had just moved from Minnesota to Portland, supposed that his 1994 book “has remained alive…because it serves as a bridge from the non-Native culture to the Native cultures, and I walk you, the reader, across the bridge. I…hand you over to their voices [those of Native Americans], to the most authentic expression of their understanding and beliefs that I can create, and I get out of the way and let them talk….”
As Neither Wolf Nor Dog nears its conclusion, Nerburn is taken, inevitably, rightly, to Wounded Knee. It was here, on December 29, 1890, that 457 Seventh Cavalry troopers—this was General George Armstrong Custer’s corps, remember—fired indiscriminately and at close range on mostly unarmed Indian people, approximately 350 of them, whom they had been escorting. According to the Library of Congress, over 300 were killed, half of them women and children.
That morning, the Sioux in their camp, had joined in a Ghost Dance, according to history-online website Timeline, “praying that the soldiers be scattered like dust in the air.” To Native Americans in the West, the Ghost Dance symbolized “blissful resurrection”; to non-Indigenous peoples “it represented Native American resistance to white brutality and cultural erasure. …the United States military perceived the Ghost Dance as an act of war.”
What it was, was a peaceful spiritual movement, begun in the late 1800s by a Paiute religious leader, Wovoka, which spread quickly as far east as the Missouri River and to the Canadian border. He saw himself—this as britannica.com puts it—“as a new messiah, or Jesus Christ, come to the Indians.” Intended to rehabilitate Native American cultures, this movement announced the imminent return of the dead—hence, “Ghost”—the ousting of whites, and the restoration of Native lands and ways of life. These ends, it was believed, would be hastened by song and dance.
Dan touches upon the Ghost Dance phenomenon: “But it made the government angry. The Indians had hope. If you have hope, you come alive again. We had all become dead in our hearts. When the government saw us come alive again, it had to kill us. We could not have hope. If we had hope, we might have dreams. We could not be allowed to have dreams.”
By now in his book, Nerburn, fully committed to the Native Anmericans’ cause, picks up on Dan’s outcry: “…people who had sensed the power of God in every rock and bird and square inch of land had been reduced to dancing crazily in a circle, in hopes that their desperate ecstasy would call forth a saviour who would keep them from having to watch one more of their children die hollow-eyed and uncomprehending in their arms. …we had destroyed the dreams and families of an entire race, leaving them homeless, faithless, and with nothing but ashes of a once graceful and balanced way of life….”
In real life, too, Kent Nerburn is fully committed to the Native Americans’ cause.
Five years ago, the website minnpost.com [“nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism”] mentioned that he “isn’t a Native writer, but the majority of his work centres in Native American themes.” As an author, he has managed to “respectfully bridge the chasm between the white and Native worlds, and he ultimately earned the trust of people who have learned to trust no one who looks like him.”
You wonder, how did he do this? “I became a watcher,” he explained a year earlier in an interview with Read the Spirit online magazine. He cited this as an example…and it’s worthy of reporting here in whole:
“I went to visit one of these places [a former Great Plains residential school for Indigenous youth]. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, ‘Sure.’ I asked, ‘Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I went.’ ‘How was it?’ He said, ‘I learned good language. I learned good Christian.’ Then he paused. Finally, he said, ‘And now I am no longer myself.’ To me, that was a dagger in my heart.”
At the end of that interview, Nerburn added this: “…I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self, or my sarcastic or angry self, get into my books. …As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart. …I’m giving readers stories with heart….”
That he would see his endeavours as a “ministry” is not surprising. After earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota—he’s from Minneapolis—he pursued studies at Stanford, then Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union; in 1980, he graduated with a Ph.D., with distinction, in both theology and art. David Crumm, Read the Spirit’s editor, labeled him “a unique American theologian, working his way through cycles of stories and artworks [Nerburn is a noted sculptor, not only an author of 20 books], travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in geography and peoples of this continent.”
Finding “creative non-fiction” in the Christian Bible
Kent Nerburn’s use of “creative non-fiction” in the writing of Neither Wolf Nor Dog shouldn’t trouble in the least progressive Christian readers. It’s something with which they are familiar, surely. Consider how progressive Christianity pioneer Marcus Borg finds it thither and yon in the Bible. He just calls it something else: “metaphorical narrative”.
In The Heart of Christianity, he insists that “stories can be true, can be revelatory, can be epiphanies, even if they are not factual reports.” In the Bible, for example, “the Genesis stories of creation…are not history remembered. Yet, as metaphorical narratives, they can be profoundly true, even though not literally factual.” He loves to tell how the Oglala Sioux medicine man and spiritual leader Black Hawk would begin to tell his people’s story of creation: “Now, I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know the story is true.”
All right, but Nerburn is best known as an author, as Crumm mentions, and especially for his books that explore “Euro-American relationships with Native Americans.” In this, he’s helping to retell the national narrative: “One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative,” Nerburn warrants, “when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first.
“Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time, we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools, and tried to expunge their history from them, by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy, to erase their stories from our national story.” (It’s worth noting here what Haligonian Tara Thorne wrote in The Coast in a review of the movie version of Neither Wolf Nor Dog:“…Canadians will see the parallels in the two countries’ treatment of its Indigenous citizens.”)
That Nerburn has wrestled with what he calls “this unresolvable tragedy” can be seen in his letter to teacher Bill Davis’s high school students in Stillwell, Oklahoma—they had read Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and had shared with Nerburn their take on the book: “ ..There may be nothing we can do other than be aware of what our presence on this continent had wrought. …there may not be a way to rectify past wrongs, beyond having them serve as a kind of dark knowledge that guides our footsteps into the future….
“We, as members of the dominant, or at least the dominating culture, do not have to feel guilt at what happened in the past. We merely have to feel responsibility for it as it impacts the present and future. Power is real, and the powerless rely on those of us who can effect change to do so, even if that change is only in attitudes….
[Referring then to Dan and his insights, Nerburn continues his letter] “…he gives us insight into a way of understanding [different from our own]…. Once we can begin to share that understanding, if only for the purposes of seeing into the heart and mind of another, we are on our way to reconciliation and healing…. …Just carry Dan’s words in your heart….”
Correspondent Kathy Holmgren, writing earlier this year in the Rapid City, South Dakota, publication, Native Sun News Today, displayed more passion, and less compassion, as a result of taking in Neither Wolf Nor Dog: if we “take great collective pride in the stories of the people who settled this land…the ‘wild west’…then we must accept that we have collective guilt…for killing innocent old men, women, nursing mothers and babies, at Wounded Knee. If we take collective pride in the American cowboy, we must accept collective guilt for the Indian schools that ripped children from their mothers, and beat them for speaking their own language, even though they didn’t know any other; priests who molested them; teachers who tied them in chairs. …we must accept the collective guilt that comes with broken treaties, broken families, and broken lives.
“You see, if we take the pride, and never accept the guilt, then Dan and Grover and every other Native has a right to be angry. They may always be angry, I don’t know. But I do know that without acceptance of that collective guilt, we can never even begin to heal the wounds and the rift that still divides.”
Part #3: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada
Canada—”before the lines were drawn”
We’re Albertans. There are lines on maps that make us so. More than a hundred years ago, someone somewhere—Ottawa?—drew these mostly-straight strokes on a map, where there’d been none before. They pre-empt us from being, instead, residents of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, or the Northwest Territories; another had been drawn earlier—it’s the one that thwarts our longings [should we have these] to be Americans. But what would we be had these lines not been drawn? Can you even imagine Canada without these familiar demarcations?
Created by The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, published by Canadian Geographic, and funded by the Canadian government, the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada discards these lines. See for yourself—the atlas has been added to the SSUC Library’s reference collection. See this new-old depiction of this land, sans borders; lose yourself in it, and you likely will. Shouldn’t that waterway be labeled the North Saskatchewan River? And how come we are in a place labeled “Cree”? And when you drive 390 kilometres west on Highway 16 you should enter B.C.—right?—except there’s no such place; there’s no such highway, either.
It’s as John Geiger, the RCGS’s president, observed, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen: “It is a view of Canada ‘before the lines were drawn’.” That was one of the things “we were really clear about: we asked not to see political boundaries,” states Charlene Bearhead, educational advisor for the atlas. “Canadian Geographic listened. They interpreted. They came back, and asked if they got it right. It was incredible. And I believe that that was the most significant contributing factor to the success of this project.”
After all, as Adam Gaudry, a Métis professor from University of Alberta, points out in the forward, “Cartography has long been an imperial enterprise used to claim territory and imagine the geographic reach of empires. In its imperial usage, map-making is an instrument of Indigenous erasure.” Educator Angela Nardozi, who, for over a decade, has had what she describes as a “passion for working alongside Indigenous communities,” references on her website Gaudry’s contribution, and how it affirms “the political nature of mapping, how mapping has been weaponized against Indigenous peoples.”
In September of last year, Steve Paikin, devoted an entire half-hour episode of his TVO show, The Agenda, to the atlas. “For generations, knowledge about Indigenous history and culture was overlooked, dismissed, and even intentionally erased, as the residential schools experience amply demonstrated. Times have changed, and an ambitious new project is putting some of that back on the map. Literally.”
The project began in 2016 with an informal talk between Carolyn Bennett, minister of crown-Indigenous relations, and Geiger—who, by the way, pictures the minster as “a great lover of geography and a great lover of maps.” As he later explained, “It is our hope that this atlas will help Canadians to build a better understanding of our Indigenous peoples, appreciate their contribution to building our great country, and ultimately begin the process of reconciliation.” The venture arose out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s incitement that “culturally appropriate curricula” be developed for Aboriginal Canadian students.
“This unique Indigenous-led educational project will provide Indigenous students with a much-needed tool kit to help them learn more about their people, geography, and culture,” the RCGS stated in a news release. More than that, however, the atlas provides a resource “for all Canadians to better understand our shared geography, and positions us to build healthy relationships for the future,” according to Roberta Jamieson, CEO of Indspire, a charitable organization dedicated to raising funds to deliver programs that’ll provide the tools needed for Canada’s Indigenous peoples—especially youth—to achieve their potential.
To create the atlas, editors collaborated with Indspire and these other groups and organizations representing Indigenous peoples: the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, as well as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The RCGS warrants that “the level of Indigenous participation and Indigenous-led content creation” proved to be “unprecedented in scope.” “Wherever possible, we used the voice of [an Indigenous person],” Ossie Michelin told APTN News. The journalist who edited the atlas’s Inuit section, added, “When that wasn’t available, we went with a researcher or scientist working directly with Indigenous groups.”
Geiger says so, too. In his interview with the Ottawa Citizen, he affirms, “…one thing that was clear from the very beginning was that…the content had to be Indigenous-led. This wasn’t the society trying to tell a story on behalf of Indigenous people; this would be a story told by Indigenous people.” Further along, he declares, “This is a magnificent story to tell of the incredible cultures that existed pre-European contact, and the depth of these cultures and the beauty of them. I think this book really captures that.”
On whose territories were pipeline projects happening?
On the heels of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada comes Native Land Digital, a crowd-sourced, interactive website [native-land.ca] that’s mapping traditional territories of Indigenous peoples, treaties, and languages. While this new Canadian not-for-profit—it was incorporated last December—was designed to be, and is becoming fully Indigenous-led, it was created in 2015 by Victor Temprano, CEO of mapster.me, a tech startup in Vancouver. As he explains, it “is not anacademic or professional survey of Indigenous territories, and the maps are constantly being refined from user input.”
The venture arose while he was “mapping out pipeline projects” in British Columbia. “I started to ask myself whose territories all these projects were happening on.” Native Land’s mutable maps are “meant to encourage education and engagement on topics…[such as] colonization, land rights, language, and Indigenous history.” Too, it’s hoped that those who’ll view these maps will look at the land “from an Indigenous perspective [which] means understanding that the land is a living being.”
It’s thanks to Lois Evans that SSUC now possesses this publication. She purchased the four-volume set—one provides an overview; the others are devoted, one each, to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit—and then donated it to the church Library. She found the atlas advertised in a magazine, she explains, and, because “we have been exploring our relationship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada, I thought it would be an excellent resource for the church.” Is it ever! It fills 328 good-sized pages; contains 48 full-page maps, plus over 50 smaller maps; features more than 350 photographs; and includes timelines, charts, graphics, frequently-asked questions, and a helpful glossary in which a whopping 164 terms are explained.
Even if you’re one of those who can’t tell up from down when eyeing a map, this collection of books will grab your interest. Kids Can Press is the global distributor of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, which company president Lisa Lyons Johnston describes as “so much more than an atlas, the gorgeous four-volume set of books can more accurately be described as an encyclopedia.” As the Canadian Press mentioned, it includes information about Indigenous lands, communities, languages, treaties, and addresses topics such as colonization, residential schools, cultural appropriation, and racism. As Nardozi puts it, “It is amazing to have this amount of information that I trust in one place.”
Because so much information is imparted, this essay can do no more than offer a wee sampling…of what especially piqued and concerned and jolted this reader.
* “We live in an era of reconciliation,” Julian Brave NoiseCat allows in the introduction to the atlas. But he, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in British Columbia, goes on to add, “but it would take an unprecedented transformation for the immense wrongs perpetuated against our people to be put right. To begin, we must peer into the abyss of these injustices.” He goes on to tell of “decades and even centuries of struggle,” and, more specifically, that, “Our land was stolen, and with it our culture and life ways….”
Just so, Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, reports and regrets this history: “…one fact remains central—the traditional lands, practices, values, cultures, languages, systems and understandings of Indigenous peoples have been systematically attacked, dismantled, and destroyed, at the hands of the Canadian state.”
* Of Southern Tutchone-Athabaskan and Euro-Canadian descent, Jocelyn Joe-Strack, in writing about efforts to negotiate land settlements with governments, points out, “At the heart of this dispute was a foundational difference in the Indigenous approach to development: our vision is generations-long. …This phenomenon of intergenerational leadership driven by devotion to our children is one of the key successes of Indigenous peoples. It is a force that has [changed] and is changing how decisions are made. …there’s still work to do to convince our colleagues in development of the value of prioritizing generations over year-to-year benefit….”
So it is that—this is reported in the piece on “Protected areas”—Indigenous rights advocate and former Xat’sull First Nation chief Bev Sellars filed private criminal charges against a mining company for the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia: “‘We just couldn’t let it go. In my culture, we have a sacred responsibility not only to care for the land, waters, animals, and people living today, but also for the next seven generations to come. I could not bear to witness B.C. simply stepping aside and giving up on its responsibility to protect our shared environment and waters.’”
* In the volume given over to the Métis, it’s explained, “Being from both Indigenous and settler traditions, the Métis have always had the ability to ‘live in two worlds,’ and have been able to adapt to changing circumstances.” Their adaptive nature can be seen in “their traditional culture, which seamlessly blends Cree, Ojibwa, French-Canadian, and Scots parent cultures into a vibrant synthesis….” [This volume, incidentally, tells in a straightforward manner the history of the Métis, from when “they arose out of the fur trade, in the late 1700s,” to today; those given over to the Inuit and First Nations peoples are more topical in their approach.]
* Not surprisingly, climate change is pointed up in the book about the Inuit. “…The environment of risk that Inuit are born into is intensifying because of climate change…. Unprecedented rates of summer ice loss, reduced sea ice in the winter, ocean acidification, temperature and sea level rise, melting permafrost, extreme weather events, and severe coastal erosion, undermine our ability to thrive in our environment…. For Inuit, sea ice is critical infrastructure…. Ice is an extension of the land—its existence is imperative for Inuit to travel…. …Recent changes in the northern climate have led to increasingly dangerous sea ice and snow conditions, causing hunting areas and traditional travel routes to become inaccessible….”
* The precariousness of life in the north is underscored in a particular table, found on page 50 of this volume: it reports such social and economic inequities as these in the Inuit regions compared to the rest of Canada: the life expectancy for Inuit is 10-1/2 years less than it is for non-Indigenous Canadians; the infant mortality rate is almost three times greater than that for the non-Indigenous in Canada; 70% of Inuit households are food insecure, while all households in Canada are 8% food insecure; and the inequities go on and on.
* In writing, movingly, of the residential school debacle, Anne Spice, a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Yukon, tells of her maternal grandfather: “…He died before I was born. He died of demons born in this school [Carcross Residential School]. He died without ever telling his story. Instead, he swallowed it, and it is this absence that troubles me…. …By holding his experience and refusing to pass it along to his children, my grandfather was destroyed from the inside out. Crucially, my mother names this not as passive suffering, but as an act of sacrifice. He contained the violence to ensure it was not transmitted to future generations….
“As adults, knowing even a fraction of what may have happened in that school is enough to undo us. We know enough about this school, about the others, to assume that it was worse than we can imagine. It destroyed him. But he had demons that assaulted him for his whole—whole life. …His silence was a shield. My mother grew up without knowing, and his knowing but not telling was an act of love….”
* In what is the most hard-hitting entry in the four volumes, Karyn Pugliese, who’s just vacated the post of director of news and current affairs for APTN—she’s heading to Harvard this fall as the Martin Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow—scathes journalists, and not only non-Indigenous reporters and editors, for failing for so long to cover ably the story of the First Peoples. Writing about reconciliation, she, described as an Algonquin citizen of the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, and she alone in the four volumes, gets a disclaimer added to her contribution to the atlas: “Her opinions are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of her employer.”
“…it took years to do work we are proud of,” she declares, writing about the coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “And lest we forget, we did not get there on our own. Indigenous families insisted their loved ones deserved equal word counts, to be above the fold. Mothers marched through downtown streets, held vigils, lit candles. Women glued photos of their lost sisters onto coloured bristol board, scrawled their names in bold black marker. They planted themselves on Parliament Hill in the path of journalists heading to scrums. Why did we make families push so hard and wait so long?”
* And yet…and yet…the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada teems with hope and promise and grace. Craving a way forwards, Ry Moran would have us create “a new national narrative.” We need “to fundamentally shift the national narrative away from a culture of domination and oppression, and towards a culture of respect, reciprocity, and understanding.” We have, he warrants, an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to walk together “towards the destination of a fair, equitable, and just country. …Together, if we are willing, we can transform this country into something we are all proud to call home.”
By way of concluding this essay, the writer herewith cites Elizabeth Renzetti’s June 8 column in The Globe and Mail. In it, she points out that the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls “make simple but profound requests of all Canadians: that we take the time to learn about Indigenous history and the crushing consequences of colonialism and misogyny.” He’ll say, too, how a helpful start on this venture can be made by visiting the SSUC Library and delving into the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada.