[I sat on this post for a while. I wrote it before the events in Ferguson. I am still uneasy speaking into these issues but I want to offer them to challenge some themes and to open myself for criticism as well.]
I was biking through The Forks the other day and noticed a small gathering area with seats and monuments. I stopped by and read the main plaque. It was a monument honouring Indian Residential School survivors. The first lines of the monument read: Residential School survivors past and present provide powerful lessons in faith, forgiveness, joy, and peace. Next to that monument was another sign noting an historical event that occurred around 500 years ago in which it is said that a number of indigenous nations gathered at the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (The Forks) to establish a peace treaty.
This monument is placed in the ‘Peace Gardens’ outside the soon-to-open Museum for Human Rights. I understand that this monument was initiated from within the Indigenous community and a number of representatives were present at its unveiling but I have no idea how the wording was developed. And it is the wording and the framing of this are that has given me pause. My concern or criticism is precisely in how the indigenous traditions get taken into dominant media/cultural discourse.
One thing that I have learned from my (limited) contact with indigenous writers and activists is there deep and abiding vision of peace. I was impressed by a short piece written by Ellen Gabriel for the Indigenous Nationhood Movement website. This website reflects a movement not interested in political compromise with colonial based governments but is committed to following “the natural course of actions taken by Indigenous peoples struggling to reclaim, rename and reoccupy our homelands.” Peace within this context is a ‘warrior’s’ commitment. Warriors in Gabriel’s tradition are, at least in part, those with a burden for peace. Now of course the notion of ‘peacekeeping’ is contentious but what I found interesting in Gabriel’s notion of the warrior is the integrated context in which a warrior functions.
In Kanien’kéha, the word [for warrior] is “Rotiskenrakéh:te”, meaning “those who carry the burden of peace”. In the younger days of our societies’ existence, Rotiskenrakéh:te were trained for combat by using the game of Lacrosse, to get into shape as “warriors”. But more importantly, they carried with them the teachings of peace and the customary laws of their peoples. They underwent ceremonies to prepare them for physical battle, and when they returned they underwent more ceremonies, such as a condolence ceremony to cleanse them spiritually and mentally for what they had endured on the battlefield.
Leaders like Clan Mothers and Chiefs were the voice of the people; they listened to what was in the hearts and minds of the people and brought forth the issues that needed to be discussed. In Haudenosaunee customary laws, the women are the protectors of the land and hold title to the land, while the men were the protectors of the people. During the Kanehsatà:ke Siege, this kind of governance was practiced by the people of the Longhouse and our allies.
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It is important to note that in times of war, women have always participated equally with men on the front lines.
Gabriel sets this understanding of the warrior within the context of the ‘Oka Crisis’ in the 1990s and how the Indigenous community was characterized as led by masked warriors ready to do battle with the government. This indeed was part of the posture but it did not define the working of the community and its engagement with this crisis. As is clear from Gaberiel’s account the warrior was a much more integrated figure within the workings of a community that allowed a greater diversity of voices in discerning issues and responses.
The Oka Crisis is an excellent example of contrast to the monument of Indigenous ‘peace and forgiveness’ at The Forks. In the Oka Crisis (which I have limited memory of as a kid) Canadians were shown a band of warriors out in the woods preparing for violent (or at least threatening; definitely threating) confrontation with the Canadian military. This is a necessary image (a threat) for justifying military action. These images saturated and effaced what I can’t even image was the painful and all too common process of indigenous people trying to legally address land claim injustices which has literally gone on for centuries (I have read claims of peaceful action in response to unjust lang appropriation going back to the early 1700s). Regardless of this history the branding of a warrior was imprinted; natives at the edge of the woods ready to attack.
Contrast this image to the monument at The Forks. Here we are given the image of ‘Indigenous wisdom’. The way of peace that has stretched back over 500 years and now can be seen in the ‘forgiveness’ of the Indian Residential School survivors (we are not told who is forgiven and for what). This is another useful image for settler culture. It appropriates the Indigenous vision of peace and re-inscribes onto our thinking. This re-inscription moves in two directions. First, it creates a norm in the mind of settlers. It feels like progress (for liberal whites) from the notion of the ‘violent savage’ so that we can now feel good acknowledging that Indigenous people really are those who work for peace, we see this now. Peace is named here as ‘faith, forgiveness, and joy’. What is implied here however is that when peace does not come in this form we should be wary as settlers, we will be concerned that Indigenous people are not walking in their own wisdom. What, you are angry, you hold us responsible, you want justice!? But what about your way of peace and forgiveness? In naming this tradition of ‘peace and forgiveness’ we will now be tempted to hold them to it. There is no monument for the community’s warrior tradition that will stand against injustice.
Perhaps I should just experience this monument as a positive, even if flawed step. I really want to be careful because I cannot speak of the journey survivors have gone through and what it means to them for this monument to exist. There should indeed be recognition for Indian Residential School survivors and I hope to support those expressions as they continue to develop and emerge from within the indigenous community. As a settler, though, I want to name at least the potential damage in framing this tragedy in the way it is. I am not convinced that, as it stands, this social expression can create a break, shift, and alteration in the dominant discourses about indigenous/settler relations.
This post feels all the more pressing as events in Ferguson unfold. We seem to have only two images of the black and indigenous person in Canada and the US. It is either the visceral aggressive male (whether the masked ‘savages’ of Oka or the bare-backed Molotov cocktail lighting ‘animals’ of Ferguson) or it is the appropriated peace ambassador who is only acknowledged in the posture of forgiveness. These are the only images we are able to function with as a society and to the extant this remains true I am not sure how it is we can work for peace and justice.