June 25, 2008

Our Collective Reply

On June 11th, the Canadian federal government issued the apology to the Aboriginal peoples in Canada for the policies of assimilation with the residential schools system. It was a historic day for Canada, as well as living Residential School survivors, and their decedents. The Residential schools in Canada were operated for decades by Christian churches aimed to assimilate indigenous people into the dominant White society. Language, culture, history, and everything connected to our very being was deemed, wrong. It was from the House of Commons in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized.

Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, "to kill the Indian in the child." Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.
- except from the apology text

When talk of the apology came up a few weeks prior to the announcement of the apology, I began to wonder what it would be like. Just a few months prior, the Australian government issued a similar apology after a new government came to power. Their apology was for the Stolen Generations, a similar policy engaged by the Australian government to “civilize” the indigenous people there. Their apology lacked in many regards, and their opposition leaders response was expected and appalling. Expected from a conservative political party, but non the less, appalling for their ignorance and deem absolved of sins.

When the government of Canada issued it’s apology, I was returning home from a trip performing my culture in Los Angels and Seattle. Sharing our ancient songs and dances to people around the world. Same songs and dances that our ancestors danced, and their ancestors. Some pre-dating the Flood time. It was with pride that I was able to come home and say we were doing such a wonderful thing for our people, but also humility that I was thankful for the opportunity.

Also at the time of the apology, my grandmother traveled to Ottawa with other Sḵwxwú7mesh elders, and my auntie accompanied her. She witnessed first hand the apology, sitting in the upper balcony above Stephen Harper. My s7el tiyaltalut (grandmother Audrey Rivers) who attended residential school for 10 years at St. Paull’s Residential School in North Vancouver, was alive and there to see the government apologize for what they had stolen from her and done to her and her people. She’s a woman of strength and humility also, in an inspiring way, was humbled to be there and welcomed the apology. This is woman who experienced horrific things, seen atrocious acts, and felt the decimation of a livelihood on her culture and language. She has forgiven the nuns for what they did to her, and she forgave the government for what they tried to accomplish. She let it go, believing it’s time to move forward, and move on.

I shocked a few friends when I said I welcomed the apology, and fully accepted it. I don’t have any “Anti-Canada” rhetoric or inflammatory language to throw back at something I believe was long over do, and somewhat genuine. I accepted the apology for all the elders who are still alive and will be able to feel the effects of the government apologizing for what they did. I welcome the apology for step taken to move forward by many parties.

For my great grandmother
For my great grandfather
For my great grandfather
For my great grandfather
For my grandmother
For my grandmother
For my mother
For my auntie
For my auntie
For my uncle
For my uncle

My initiation reaction is to accept the apology, and as I said, it was a historic day. When reality comes back though, it was that: a day. The morning after the apology I was asked to speak on CBC Radio as an indigenous youth and what my thoughts were on the issue. I spoke of how it’s a good step to move forward, but in reality it will have very little effect. The residential schools were a monumental force in recent memory of indigenous people and of course it’s effects are still present, extremely strong. The apology may have come and gone but the Canadian government’s lack of response to it’s own apology to change policy is not surprising and expected.

The apology won’t give me my language.
The apology has not returned my land.
The apology does not recognize my nations right to be an autonomy people.
The apology does not give me my dead grandmothers back.
The apology does not restore balance to mine and many other dysfunctional families.
The apology does not end the continued racism on indigenous women, men, and people in this country.

There is much the apology does not do. “Thanks for saying sorry, but now can you give us back our land?” My non-Indigenous friend discussed the apology with me also, curious as to my response. He asked, “How is it that a people can move forward when they see their culture as traditions from the past?”. I responded with, “The residential school was something meant to ‘break the connection’. To our land, our language, our people, our everything. Moving forward does not mean turning back the hands on a clock, but picking up the tools my ancestors used. The same tools that worked for thousands of years, and still have relevance today. This means more then just “cultural” icons like songs and dances, and phrases in a dead language, but really living a lifestyle that is non-colonial.” I continued with, “The place that our societies, indigenous nations and Canadian civil society, can move forward is in the relationship dynamic of our peoples. The Indigenous-Settler relationship.”

A few years ago when I attended High School, I lamented about the abysmal instruction or curriculum on indigenous peoples history, and particularly Residential Schools. One single paragraph was dedicated to Residential schools. The British Columbia education system, and that of most of the world, is obvious inadequate. I understand more now that indigenous children and youth need to learn our own history. Simply put, a war two parts of “Canada”, happening on the other side of the continent, has little to do with my people. Learning about origins, reserve systems, and residential schools is entirely relevant. It’s this allowance of ignorance that breeds to the awful understand, but also the continual assimilation of indigenous people.

Schools to this day are entrenched in assimilation, but it’s not race based anymore, just culture-based. The bells, the desks, the teacher-dictators, and the slew of Euro-style educational paradigms dictate the epitome of “educated citizens”. Perhaps if settlers learned more about indigenous peoples existence, there would not be this silent racism among land reclamation and nation-identity. All indigenous history in public education is merely a point of view from European colonization. Anything else is only “information you need to know, so you can get the jist of colonization.” From colonial existence in an occupied country. What ever is talked about indigenous peoples political, societal, or religious, is all ‘past tense’. “The Kwakwaka’wakw people potlached during the winter time. These ceremonies were about the distribution of property and displaying ones wealth.” Wrong! So, so, so wrong! The potlatch is not about just “distributing ones property”, it is about giving of ones self to your people. About the supreme generosity we learned from the Creator when the Creator gave us his gifts. Language, conscience thought, song and dance. We potlatch to this day and it has the same meaning it did for our ancestors.

It’s something children and youth need to be raised with, simply to understand the predicament of our existence. To learn why that boys mother could never love except with a bottle or a fist. Realizing the connection in why that girl, and all her cousins, were sexually molested by their uncle, who also happens to be a so called “hereditary chief”. Why the pain of motherhood forced the alcoholic mother to flee in despair, leaving a legacy of abandonment, but only carrying on the path her grandmother did with her children too. Seeing the reasons a father and a son could never truly love each other, because one lacked the proper human responses to being human.

Connecting our historical trauma to the mission of colonization is a power point to make our people powerful again.

The generations to come are leading to a time when Residential schools with not be in recent memory. It’s why I tell my friends my age that this generation, the one I’m apart of, will play an instrumental role in the shape of the future. It will be our response to the act of residential schools, that will have the same intergenerational effects on indigenous peoples. Simply because our parents and grandparents could never have achieved what we’re capable of now. The sacrifice and decisions of our predecessors, to keep our culture alive by bringing the potlatch underground, by remembering the language they were raised with, knowing how to hunt, gather, and be on the land. That point in our history is having less and less of an effect on our lives as generations continue to come, except that we are either making a choice to become more colonized, or decolonizing more.

While some of the more liberal politicians will speak of “moving on”, I’m not so quick to join their failed bandwagon. Gibby Jacob of the Squamish Band Council speaks of how “If we don’t quit victimizing ourselves, we don’t release ourselves from the prison we keep ourselves in.” Playing the blame game in a reactionary stance like so many of our angry uncles, aunties, and past movers and shakers did created little in the path for future generations. Warriors act, fools react. The reactionary stances and tactics of band councils, FN political organizations, and FN politicians is an example of foolishness. I don’t believe in ‘blaming” anyone, of “victimizing” ourselves or anyone. The thought of holding something responsible though, is something worth considering. When we can identity and hold responsible the colonial forces in our lives and where they come from, then we can build that connection between an indigenous existence, and an indigenous person living a colonial experience.

Holding it responsible, not blame. We hold politicians style of deceit and lies in band politics responsible by dissolving a stupid political system and re-institute indigenous governance. We don’t allow ego-department heads to be “Intellectual Property Rights” dictators with our culture, history, and language, but actively learn and share our culture with OUR people. We restore balance to our community by coming together to creation action, not always reacting to the latest outrage.

The other liberal politicians will forgo any sort of real political change in our sense of belonging and move towards misguided ideas of “development” and “progress”. It’s why the AFN whines for more money, and why the 2010 Olympics is destroying the Squamish Nation. It’s where multiple court wars of attrition drive First Nations in to bankruptcy.

I wish to introduce an action, built in sustaining a way of life as an innovative path for our generation to accept our rights, our way of life, and our possibility to be empowered nations. Rooted in indigenous values, not with pompous lies of “traditionalism”. Think of it as a collective chant of a generation shouting a collective chant.

This action, what is it? It is this:
Searching out other like-minded people to create change in our nations.

It’s where we’ll decolonize the psychological effects of colonization, we’ll reconnect the disconnect like our land, spirituality, and history, to re-learn and breath life into a dead (almost extinct) language. This will be our generations collective response and action to the past few hundred years of occupation, oppression, and tyranny on all parts. They say sorry, and we reverse the damage of Residential school, reserves, Indian Act, colonization.


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