Reconciliation is so far away. And now is not the right time. We are so distant from each other, miles and miles apart, even though we live next door. How do we move closer? How to begin at the beginning? Hello, my name is. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?
An RCMP officer banged on the door of a trailer to tell Colten Boushie’s Mom that her son had been killed. He is deceased, the officer said. Officers came into her trailer and searched it. Opened all the doors and cupboards. Meanwhile, Colten’s mother collapsed on the floor. Get yourself together, the officer said. Have you been drinking? He smelled her breath. Asked Colten’s brothers, Have you been drinking?
Gerald Stanley, the farmer who shot Colten, didn’t know him. He used a semi-automatic handgun. He didn’t ask, How do you do? Where are you from? The kids in the pickup didn’t know that farmer either. No one sat down and introduced themselves.
Margaret McKeown, my grandmother, kept a rifle filled with rock salt in her bedroom. When drunk fishermen came to the house to steal farming equipment, she opened the window, shot them in the butt and watched them run away.
Would the RCMP officer have helped Colten’s mother up, made her tea and held her hand if he could see she was a Mom? Not a criminal but a mother? If we don’t know each other, there is nothing to reconcile, only hard words, stony ground. Walls with no doorways leading through. No garden on the other side, that we could walk in together.
I know of a town and a reserve. The mayor and his son went on a canoe trip with the chief and his son. They travelled together on that rushing river, adventuring to a place they had never been. It is part of the process of creating. To build a community centre, a hockey rink. Something that wasn’t there before. To make a place where strangers can sit side by side and ask, How are you?
Rock salt hurts like hell. A Tokarev semi-automatic kills or maims. In the absence of knowing each other, comes the warning shot from the ramshackle farmhouse in a bush clearing. Comes the bullet through the window of the pickup truck. The problem is always the same and keeps repeating. Gerald Stanley’s wife says This is private property. What did you expect? Colten’s mother says We share the land. You say you killed him for trespassing. You violated the treaty. Nobody owns the land.
We are side by side in a place of stories – some shared, some growing out of this ground, in this old place, on land that belongs to no one. It is not the right time. It’s the only time. How do we get close enough to each other? Close enough to tell the old stories, close enough so we can hear them, be claimed by them and find ourselves changed?
Sometimes in this life, I’ve felt a touch, soft and faint against my skin; the quiet whisper of cloth. I look up, and there it is: an endless blanket of twinkling lights rippling above; big sky flowing over; the round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, in a tiny Mohawk place, I have walked at night in a stand of pines that I love; the forest is small, but its trees become tall and endless in darkness, and I wander there. During a pow wow, I once found a clearing where Seminole women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under the branches of the jack pines, ground covered with their soft, scented needles; round and round, to the distant sound of drums.
Specks of light flow in my blood, like tiny clouds of silvery fish, flickering, sending me back and back, far into the past, until the constellations change and my head swims in the humid night, and my fingers drip with sweat from holding hands in endless rounds of dances, circles within circles. Sweat mingling and steps crossing over onto each other’s paths, until our way is one. My way and your way, at unexpected times, one foot on asphalt, one foot on pine needles; soft, bronze needles, smooth under me.
I’d be willing to give up this Canadian life, the small world of cities clinging to the southern border, full of houses huddled for safety; the friendly faces, the order and good government, the satisfaction. I’d give it up and cross over, just to follow the silver current in my blood. I’d extend my hands, feel the weight of wampum beads pressing onto them, white and purple, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship. I’m wandering each day further away from my old home and into the forest; out of Canada and into the world, a wide open land, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.
Once a man said, “Indigenous people should not have to endure the labour of educating you.” He said, “I’m here to help you understand that you were culturally insensitive.” He mentioned my creativity to shove in the knife and twist it. But he’s a politically correct man; used to saying the right things to the right people. Helping to lift the world up through his righteousness. He’s not quiet and doesn’t seem soft.
Each year, delicate creatures migrate across the hemisphere to arrive here. They know how to find safe places to rest. They avoid his hands and shoulders; never land on the top of his head. Too much risk to their paper-thin wings.
I meet men who say the wrong things and don’t know it, but still, try to make offerings. Open themselves to being on the wrong side of the argument, though they are baffled by this world. In their uncertainty, they stop and notice. Something light and hesitant has landed, just for a moment before flying away.
On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.
Here is an article I wrote for Rabble.ca on the exhibit that took place in Kanehsatake earlier this month. I made the trip out and visited the exhibit at the elementary school in Kanehsatake. I chatted with Ellen Gabriel, the show’s curator as well.
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Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – the Red Post Art Exhibit, curated by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatà:ke and Jolene Rickard of Tuscarora, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Crisis of 1990, also known as the Oka Crisis, by demonstrating its impacts through art.
This exhibit brings together the work of 16 artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have reflected on their experience of the Crisis of 1990. In some cases, artworks reflect first-hand experiences of Kanehsatà:ke residents, and in other cases artworks reflect on the long-term impacts of the Crisis.
The Crisis of 1990 began with a peaceful protest against plans by the town of Oka, Quebec to expand a private nine-hole golf course. The expansion would destroy part of a mature pine forest in Kanehsatà:ke and required the destruction of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community graveyard. The peaceful protest escalated when the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke were surrounded by the Quebec provincial police on July 11, 1990.
Many of the artists represented in the exhibit are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehá:ka community which was also involved in the Crisis.
The exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the conflict on the people who were personally involved, as well as the impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies and politics across the continent.
In the centre of the exhibit is the red post itself, an installation piece created by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The red post refers to the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) practice of erecting a red post in communities during times of conflict or war.
Gabriel’s installation, a post painted red, a colour signifying power and war, reminds us of the Kanien’kehá:ka people’s long history, one that began long before European settlement and continues into the present. The symbols depicted on the post include wampum beads, corn, a war club and the tree of life.
At the top is a circle of people holding hands, united in protecting the land. These symbols emphasize the richness and longevity of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and calls into question the settler notion that Indigenous people belong only to the past, or that their cultures and political systems have no role to play in the modern world.
The red post also reminds those entering the exhibit of the long-standing and unresolved conflict over land rights that grew into the Crisis of 1990 and remains unresolved today. The pine forest where the conflict took place is considered by the municipality of Oka to belong to the town. However, the Kanien’kehá:ka never ceded the land that is now Kanehsatà:ke (includes the Pines).
Among the artworks contributed by artists from Kanehsatà:ke is Douglas Tehonietathe Beaver’s backpack called “Pelt and Pine, Armed with Healing.” This work alludes to a soldier’s pack, and reminds viewers of the Canadian Army soldiers who surrounded Kanien’kehá:ka s in 1990. But instead of being filled with ammunition, grenades and guns, this backpack is “armed” with an eagle feather, a sweet grass braid, a cedar smudge stick and pot, and other items related to spiritual healing, presenting an alternative response to land conflict both in Kanehsatà:ke and elsewhere.
Another artwork emphasizing the importance of Haudenosaunee culture is a quilt called “Sky Woman’s Descent” by Carla Hemlock, a Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake. The story of Sky Woman is the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people — Sky Woman descends into our world and lands on the back of a turtle that transforms, with the help of various animals, into North America. In this blue, gold and black beaded quilt, we see the back of the turtle from the perspective of Sky Woman as she descends.
Elizabeth Saccà, a non-Indigenous artist and retired Concordia University professor who lives near Kanehsatà:ke, contributed an abstract monotype called “Maelstrom.” For this viewer, this print evokes the confusion and disorientation that must have reigned in the Pines when the Quebec police first attacked Kanehsatà:ke with tear gas and smoke bombs. It also represents the ever-present potential for violence that Indigenous people face when they protest land development on their territories.
Nadia Myre, an Algonquin artist based in Montreal, contributed “Still Life,” an ink print depicting two protesters in silhouette with flags. The image connects the Red Post exhibit to the broader history of Indigenous social and land justice issues and brings to life the widespread support for Indigenous sovereignty manifested nation-wide in the form of demonstrations, blockades and flash mobs, as well as Idle No More.
Along with these artworks, pieces include Patrycja Walton‘s “Dress for Amicee,” a sculpture of a dress made of animal hide, wire and stain glass, and dedicated to missing Aboriginal women and girls, including her friend Amicee. Julie Otsi’tsaonwe Gaspé’s created her untitled graphite drawing of the Pines before the protests against development turned into an armed conflict. Her prophetic drawing depicts a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Pines, while above them in the trees, faces look down, watching the conflict unfold.
Yesterday morning I watched Aaron Huey’s TED talk on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota Sioux. To me, the most important thing that he said was:
“Honour the treaties. Give back the Black Hills. It’s not your business what they do with them.”
In these few words, Aaron voices the transformation needed here in Turtle Island – a shift from the patronizing, controlling approach to First Nations politics, land and culture – to one of respect. Canada needs to get out of the business of Aboriginal nations. It’s not up to us how a Mohawk or Ojibway or Haida community decides to use its land or organize its community. It’s long past time for us to get out of their business and start listening instead of dictating. I believe our future depends on it, because resource extraction in the form of mining, drilling for oil, forestry, etc is destroying our ecosystems. Maybe Aboriginal people will treat the land the same way. But if past experience is any indication, I believe things would be different. I also think that our colonial relationship with Native peoples is stunting our growth as Canadians, and undermining our humanity.
I recognize that ending our colonial relationships with Indigenous nations does not mean that First Nations become closed societies that don’t need or require relationships with other societies. It’s just long past time for use to get out of the way.
It has often been said that we have the most in common with our enemies. This is, in many ways, true of Israelis and Palestinians. They occupy the same part of the world, have similar desires for nationhood, identity, safety and freedom, and even follow religions that are very similar. With a few changes, this angry letter from an Israeli could have been written by a Palestinian:
“But I will not apologise for surviving. For surviving missiles intended to kill me. The fact they didn’t kill me doesn’t mean they weren’t sent with the intention to murder. I will not apologise for living and surviving thanks to being prepared because we have a culture that celebrates our lives and cherishes them…I will not apologise for having a business, a home, a family and friends here who want normal lives and to live in peace with our neighbors. I will not apologise for existing and I want nothing more than to co-exist quietly with neighbors who accept me here.”