In Canada, June 21st is recognized as Indigenous Peoples Day. Aside from this recognition, Indigenous issues have been front and centre in the news these past weeks, since the remains of 215 children were found at the site of the Kamloops residential school (which closed in 1978). This news ignited conversations about Indian Residential Schools and the legacy of genocide they represent. One question that’s come up in my community is around what non-Native settlers knew. Did they know what was going on? What did they know? This question sits close to home for me; my own family lived just down the highway from the largest residential school in Ontario, which operated from 1913 to 1965.
My family’s settler narrative is complicated, as I’m sure they all are. My great-great-Grandparents, Henry & Rose Sadowski, left Russia in the 1880s and made their way to Pennsylvania. But shortly after, they moved again, up to Massey, Ontario on the North Shore of Lake Huron. Henry and Rose set up a general store, which ran for generations, until my grandparents closed up shop in 1951.
Why did my ancestors make that secondary trek, leaving the relative comforts of urban America to move to a tiny, remote town in the North? While I don’t know what was in their minds, we do know that they accepted an offer made by the Canadian government of 50 acres, to anyone willing to settle these ‘less populated’ areas. Do you see what I’m getting at?
A couple of summers ago, I looked up the treaty that governs the Massey, Ontario area (If you’re in Ontario, you can look up treaties here: https://www.ontario.ca/page/map-ontario-treaties-and-reserves), and I found out about the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. The treaty, made between the Crown and four local chiefs, states that the First Nations will maintain stewardship over the land, with free use for hunting etc, as long as the government maintains ownership of the land. But then, a few decades later, the government was giving this land away – including to people like Henry & Rose.
My great-grandparents and then grandparents had lovely, meaningful relationships with their neighbours, including members of the Sagamok First Nation. But as far as I can tell, they didn’t realize that their neighbours’ children were literally down the road, suffering from oppression under the guise of learning. ‘They didn’t know’ is not an excuse, but it does add to my own commitment to participate in decolonization, and figuring out what that means for me.
When it wrapped up in 2015, Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Committee (TRC) made 94 recommendations (‘Calls to Action’), and if you’re interested in contributing to reconciliation, you can start here, by choosing an action that makes sense for your own sphere of influence, and taking it on.
A major justification for the residential schools was to inculcate settler (especially, Christian) beliefs and values. And while the TRC doesn’t address this specifically, I’m thinking about how to reckon with the aspect of colonization that entails de-legitimizing Indigenous ways of knowing and being. While many non-native people appreciate and even take up modes of Indigenous spirituality (and other ‘borrowed’ practices) they don’t often make the connection to the politics of justice that is really called for and needed.
Indigenous Studies 101 usually begins with learning about worldviews. Worldviews affect every part of a life; what we do, what we believe, how we see, and how we explain the world to ourselves. Everyone has a worldview, which is usually invisible to ourselves, because we live inside it. Our worldview extends to the metaphysical choices we make in deciphering what we think of as ‘real.’ And it seems important to think about, now (and always), since the refusal to recognize an Indigenous worldview as legitimate is a powerful form of dehumanization that continues to inform Indigenous-settler relationships.
The anthropologist Wade Davis tells a compelling story of his upbringing in British Columbia, where the mountains were understood by his people as resources; sources of lumber to be cut and sold. He learned later that his Indigenous neighbours, looking to the same mountain, recognize a sacred relative; for them, the idea of felling its trees for profit is a foreign concept. That’s the short version, but it makes the point, which is something I know to be true from my studies in intuition: What we believe matters to what we know, how we feel, and how we act. And so making our own metaphysical choices visible to ourselves can help us to change how we act and engage.
For reflection, here are some questions that might help you to uncover aspects of your own worldview:
- Do you believe that only humans are conscious?
- Have you ever thought about animals being imbued with a spirit? How about trees? Or rocks?
- Do you think that natural resources exist for human consumption and comfort?
- Do you believe that the economy is more important that clean air and water?
- Is the written word is more trustworthy than spoken?
Do you know your own family’s settler narrative?