The country we call Canada began as illusion: with the story that Canada was an empty space. A space to be opened up and taken over by settlers looking for new homes; by traders looking for riches. Canada rests upon a surface of illusion and disinformation. Beneath that surface is another place. It has survived the force our lies. A place we’ve damaged and disregarded.
I say this next part tentatively: Canadians need to learn the Indigenous stories and ceremonies and make them our own. Or better said: We must allow ourselves to be overtaken by the deepest part of this place, its ways and stories. If not, we shuffle and slip along a hard and brittle surface that prevents us from sinking down. Under the hardest ice are seeds waiting for spring; roots lying dormant; old leaves turning into new soil.
When we came, we brought stories with us, our plants and medicines too. But they are fading and dying off. They belonged to another place and time. My ancestors were poor Irish Catholics 200 years ago, but that doesn’t help me now. Some drops of the old time still cling to me, evaporating, long passed.
To know what this place is, its deepest roots, its oldest stories, what must we strip away? How do we arrive at the beginning?
At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Assassin,” Producer Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
When I was a student, I was an Indigenous rights activist. I made friends with people from nations across Canada, and got to hear their stories. That’s how I learned about residential schools more than 25 years ago, and about the sixties scoop. I met people who experienced these things and told me about it.
Our student group organized demonstrations, panel discussions, film presentations, fund-raisers; even poetry readings. I wrote for the student newspaper on local and national Indigenous issues.
The goal was to DO something. To make a difference and get the broader society to recognize and respect Indigenous people and their rights. Our activist group had lots of success when it came to doing things. We put up posters and organized events. Raised funds, screened films, attended demonstrations, signed petitions.
After a few years however, I began to see that “doing” things wasn’t having the effect I expected. Strangely, the sum total of everything I did to “help” or make a “difference” seemed to have been handed back to me one-hundredfold as gifts, both tangible and spiritual.
These gifts were in the form of kindness and trust. People who had been hurt, sometimes deeply, by Canadians, offered me their trust and friendship and told me their stories; people with little money and humble means offered me meals and made me welcome in their homes. I was given thank you gifts: a Haudenosaunee flag; a hand-made Abenaki basket. To be honoured and trusted outshone everything I had ever “done”.
Mainstream Canadian society believes, deeply and unconsciously, that we are most important in this country. We tot up our accomplishments as if they will change the world. We want to solve problems, even if we have to invent them. We invented the Aboriginal problem so we could be helping and fixing. It is so much easier to be doing than it is just to be here, in this place we call Canada.
And anyway, how do we solve the problem of ourselves?
“To the extent that the Indian was on his way out, [colonial society] created reserves, they created little wardship statuses, they created situations to manage the problem while it went away. In the meantime, the colonial society arrogantly assumed everything that the Indian had. Her land, his power, all of these things. In Canada in the 1950’s, the people and their rights were assumed to be…fading away, the vanishing Indian. But then, you had this boomerang effect where the Indian comes back, and it was ‘Indian’ at that time. The Indian comes back, physically, culturally, intellectually: that culture, that society, that power begins to re-emerge.”
The myth of the vanishing Indian is the story about what’s left over as the people die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light going out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. We look down through a narrow space of the present and see only worn-down reserve houses; broken bottles of booze; grey, cold streets with old men hunched on city sidewalks.
In this story, you don’t hear the piercing sound of singing around pow wow drums coming towards you under the earth, through the soles of your feet and up into your guts. Drums you hear all summer long on the pow wow trail, or in night clubs, where the electric pow wow beats of A Tribe Called Red bounce off the walls, and voices like high wailing wind swirl across the dance floor. In that story, you can’t feel the intense heat of sacred fires, burning all over this land. Where you can sit with tobacco and cedar in your hand before tossing the medicine into the fire, sending your prayers to your creator.
Mark how the face and voice of Charlie Wenjack’s sister Pearl rise in stark relief against that faded and tattered story of the Indian. Hear her voice travel to us across CBC’s airwaves as she retells how her little brother died escaping residential school. Ever since she started speaking to us, Pearl’s voice has been whispering in our hearts, whether we hear it or not. She has the voice of my grandmother and your grandmother. She had a brother who could have been my brother or yours. Feel it, a connection growing, deep within your sense of country.
It is time for you to find your roots in this land, to let yourself be changed. To let the spirit into your blood.
Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.
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.
The US government has asked the court to force Apple to create a “back door” that bypasses its iPhone encryption technology, making it easier for spy and police agencies to access information stored on password-protected phones. The FBI is specifically seeking access to information on an iPhone 5c used by the San Bernardino shooter.
Right now, the information stored on password-protected iphones is effectively encrypted, and if the user configures it, all information on the phone can be made inaccessible after 10 failed password attempts.
This does not meant that organizations like the FBI, with their extensive technological knowledge and resources, can’t get access to the information stored on an iPhone. By copying the phone’s flash memory before trying to hack the phone’s password, anyone trying to hack an iPhone would then be able to retry the password indefinitely.
So why is the FBI fighting Apple in court when it can already access the information it needs? The FBI wants Apple to make its job easier by building into Apple technology ways to circumvent iPhone security. If it wins the case, what technology companies will be next on the FBI’s list?
Some might think that it’s okay to give the FBI access to personal information, because the FBI can be trusted not to use the information in harmful ways. Even if this is true (and it probably isn’t), once iPhone security is compromised, the back door will opened to any hacker who understands the technology. Hacking into iPhones will then be much easier and quicker.
Imagine if the government went to court to ask a judge to force a safe manufacturer to make its safes weaker so that the FBI can get into them more easily. Everyone would know that doing so would weaken the safe’s security for everyone, and thieves could potentially get into those safes much more easily. I wonder how the public would react to such a case?
If I were the judge in this case, I would tell the FBI to find another way to get the information it needs (or use the means already at its disposal). Making the work of spy agencies easier is not Apple’s job, and it does not benefit citizens of the United States, much less citizens of other countries, who have no say at all in the outcome of this case, even though their personal information may be at stake.
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.
This week’s word is wakatshenón:ni, which means “I am happy.” My cousin Mike asked me to do a post on the Mohawk word for happiness, so I did some research, and learned that although there isn’t specifically a word for “happiness,” Mohawk/Haudenosaunee culture has a powerful tradition that supports people in leading good and happy lives.
I thought it would be nice to talk about the concept of happiness in Mohawk culture, but I didn’t manage to get any answers from the people I contacted about it. Perhaps I would have had more luck in person than over email.
In any case, I did some reading, both online and in book form. One of the books I read recently was The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was co-written by psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. The discussion of happiness in this book includes some reflection on the root of the concept of happiness in western culture:
The concept of achieving true happiness has, in the West, always seemed ill defined, elusive, ungraspable. Even the word “happy” is derived from the Icelandic word happ, meaning luck or chance. Most of us, it seems, share this view of the mysterious nature of happiness. In those moments of joy that life brings, happiness feels like something that comes out of the blue.”
Robertson Davies may have summed up the western idea of happiness best: “Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.”
Rather than simply “getting on with it,” from the point of view of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, happiness is the inevitable outcome of training the mind and of cultivating those things that promote happiness, while eliminating those that cause trouble, strife and unhappiness.
So simple! This is a new perspective to me, since I had always seen happiness as being the result of chance or luck, and not something that you could actually bring about intentionally. Living a good life seems like an attainable goal, since you can choose how you behave and treat others, at least to some extent. But I can’t choose how I feel, can I? I can’t will myself to be happy.
I guess the Tibetan tradition offers a path leading to happiness. I can walk along this path, growing a bit wiser and more peaceful with each passing day.
In my readings, I learned about the three principles that guide Haudenosaunee life: skennen (peace) kasatstensera (strength or power) and kanikonriio (good mind). This principles are the foundation of a good, happy life:
The Peacemaker brought three principles of peace. The first principle is that peace comes inside of us as an individual. And if we accept that peace within us, then we become a human being that loves themselves, and is confident about themselves. That’s the first principle, to maintain the peace within. The second principle arrives when the peace is put to work, and how that peace emits from the human individual, and how it will affect the other people around them. Because that’s what happens when you come next to a peaceful person. it kind of rubs off on you. And you will say to yourself, ‘Gee, I want to be that way too.’
So the Peacemaker had a very brilliant way of doing it. There were five warring nations that were murdering one another, and in the end they were able to come together and accept the three principles. And that’s how they obtained the power of a good mind, which is the third principle. And the power of a good mind was experienced this morning when we did the opening and we said, ‘Let us put our minds together,’ and we created a great power. That special spirit came among us to give us the strength to carry on our day and whatever we are going to be accomplishing today, that whatever comes to us will be beneficial to our future generations.
Kanikonriio, good mind, is having a clear, reasonable and gentle mind, that cares for all those around you and emerges from inner peace. A good mind is a mind that is compassionate.
This is similar to the Buddhist view, in which happiness is arrived at when we connect with our fundamental human nature – a nature that is essentially compassionate and gentle. Those who are happy are more concerned with the well-being of others; they are more generous and more kind.
So if you strive to be happy, do you try to exemplify kanikonriio (good mind)? Do you cultivate this good mind by developing skennen (peace) within, until it is felt by all those around you as kasatstensera (strength)? And then, perhaps we will we bring our minds together, and become a single good mind, with good and powerful goals.
In case you would like to express your happiness, here is the full conjugation of the verb to be happy:
wakatshenón:ni=I am happy
satshennon:ni = you are happy
rotshennon:ni = he is happy
iakotshennon:ni = she is happy
iotshennon:ni = she/it is happy (neutral)
ionkwatshennon:ni = we are happy
sewatshennon:ni = you are happy (plural)
ronatshennon:ni = they are happy (masculine, plural)
ionatshennon:ni = they are happy (feminine, plural)
ionatshennon:ni = they are happy (neutral, plural)
This week’s word is Shé:kon: Hello. I have probably done this word before, but I thought I would post it again, because it is the one Mohawk word that I actually use on a regular basis. At work, I greet my Mohawk colleague this way almost every day, and it has become a natural part of my vocabulary, much like “Hi” or “Salut.”
But it hasn’t yet become a natural part of daily speech.
I think simple words like “Hello” are really important, because if we can learn each other’s words for this simple greeting, we can come closer together in friendship and show that we care about each other’s way of seeing the world.
In light of the 25,000-strong climate change demonstration in Quebec City this past weekend, and the major impact of Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, will have on our civil liberties, using words that bring us closer together is more important than ever.
I first learned this word when I was a student in Montreal. I was helping to organize a fund-raiser for the Mohawk warriors who had been arrested during the Oka Crisis. We had invited a Mohawk rock band to perform, and one of the band members wrote the word on the wall in the dressing room. I asked what it meant, and ever since, it’s stayed with me.
Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow in 1991, the year following the Oka Crisis.
When I was younger, I was involved with people who were part of the Oka Crisis. At my university, I met Indigenous people from every part of Canada, and many of them told me their stories. Many were too angry for story-telling, or too traumatized. They were veterans of the siege at Kanehsatake: survivors who spent two-and-a-half months surrounded by the Canadian Army, razor wire, military helicopters, soldiers, and the constant threat of imminent death.
During the winter following the Oka Crisis, I travelled with friends to northern Quebec and visited Cree,Innu, Abenaki and Huron communities – stood in a chief’s house in the middle in winter. It was the size of my kitchen and was heated by an oil barrel in the middle of the room. I also sat with friends in a wigwam, eating beaver, ptarmigan and bannock, passing around the salt and a tub of grease – ptarmigan is a dry meat.
Then, just last summer, I sat by the blazing hot sacred fire in Kanehsatake, and said a prayer for my friend’s son, sending it up to God with tobacco and cedar. I walked around greeting old friends, fingering jewellery and beadwork, doing the round dance, sitting in the shade of the Pines, cooling down after the heat.
Being in Indian country gets into your blood. When I meet people who have been there, I can feel it, the way I feel the cold on a person’s skin when they come inside on a winter’s day. Indian country’s such a big place; it’s as powerful as an earthquake, strong as a hurricane. From out of nowhere, it changes everything; it rearranges the earth and stirs up the winds. It doesn’t need anything from you. There is nothing you can do for Indian country. It flows on, day and night, under stars and the sun. I hear it asking me how it can help me. Where is my heart? Do I hear it beating? You won’t ever put it behind you now.