Acknowledgment, reconciliation and reckoning JON WELLS
Are we experiencing an ‘Indigenous moment,’ where awareness, understanding and reckoning is gaining momentum like never before? Or are things like territorial acknowledgments, teaching circles and urban Indigenous strategies mere blips on a very long cont
IT WAS THE SPRING OF 2016 when perhaps the first local public declaration was made.
It was this: What most Hamiltonians think of as their home, is in one sense, not.
It was McMaster University convocation, at Hamilton Place, named after founding father George Hamilton — he of Scottish blood and Queenston Heights birthplace — and the ceremony began with a man carrying a silver mace on stage, the symbol of the authority of the Queen.
The incongruity of the colonial themed setting was not lost on cerebral McMaster president Patrick Deane, who announced:
“I will end where at future convocations I intend us to start, by recognizing and acknowledging that we meet on the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations, and within the lands protected by the Dish With One Spoon wampum agreement.”
Similarly worded territorial acknowledgments now open city council meetings and community events ranging from a YMCA peace medal breakfast to a celebration of the Baha’i faith.
Since September, it has been the prelude to the school day for many Hamilton students during morning announcements — a “best practice” urged by the public school board, although not yet the Catholic board, which has confined the acknowledgment to board meetings.
(It perhaps brings into question the fate of another morning ritual for students, singing “O Canada,” and the lyrics “Our home and native land.”)
Does the ubiquity of these acknowledgments, along with developments in education, art and culture, suggest we are in the midst of a powerful Indigenous moment of reconciliation, and reckoning; history clearing its throat when considering the long and often painful relationship between two peoples?
Or is it all much less than meets the eye?
“How far back do you go? You can’t capture who lived here in a sentence or two.” RICK MONTURE PROFESSOR, INDIGENOUS STUDIES, MCMASTER UNIVERSITY
“It’s just, ‘this is the land of people who lived here,’ and they stop … But I understand the value of the gesture toward real change.” RICK MONTURE PROFESSOR, INDIGENOUS STUDIES, MCMASTER UNIVERSITY
THE JADED SECOND VIEW was how Rick Monture reacted in 2014 when the Six Nations resident and Indigenous studies professor at McMaster University was asked to help craft a territorial acknowledgment for the school.
“I quietly sort of didn’t answer back,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a hollow thing that gives people the sense that all is forgiven, and I told them as much.”
He knew they weren’t looking for him to offer wording that suggested land be given back, moreover, the history is complex.
“How far back do you go? You can’t capture who lived here in a sentence or two.”
His position was borne out recently when historical references in the City of Hamilton’s statement were debated in The Spectator, with Chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit and Chief Ava Hill of Six Nations offering competing views over who should be acknowledged as “the treaty peoples of these lands.”
But the sentiment in the acknowledgments is clear: that this land, all of it, was, and is, the homeland of natives dating back perhaps 12,000 years before European settlers arrived.
Offering public territorial acknowledgments was not, as is commonly assumed, one of the 94 “Calls to Action” issued in 2015 after eight years of work from the $72-million Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
LAND ACKNOWLEDGMENT gained attention at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when it was made a centrepiece of the opening ceremonies — a concession to B.C. natives who vigorously opposed hosting the games on “unceded” land where treaties were never signed (“No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”)
The Vancouver Olympics was the first time the International Olympic Committee recognized Indigenous people as official host partners.
That same year the Canadian Association of University Teachers created an Indigenous peoples working group and developed a guide for land acknowledgment statements tailored to every university in the country: from acknowledging the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq peoples in Newfoundland, to the “unceded traditional territory” of the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island.
The Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League got in on the campaign: At the start of the 2016 season, they began offering acknowledgments in their arenas before the national anthem.
(Don’t expect to see such developments in the U.S., where territorial acknowledgments offered from nonindigenous people do not happen, says Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs. She adds that “public education about American Indian people is quite minimal in schools.”
From an Indigenous perspective, the concept of territorial acknowledgment is one that has always been practised among First Nations peoples.
It happened at ceremonies, or when one tribal member would light a small fire on the outskirts of territory he was visiting, wait for someone to meet him, smoke a peace pipe, acknowledge whose land it was, discuss intentions.
“It’s an Indigenous protocol, we’ve always done that,” says Shylo Elmayan, who directs the City of Hamilton’s urban Indigenous strategy. “But now everyone is noticing it because nonindigenous organizations are saying it.”
Monture eventually came around and helped draft McMaster’s statement. Still, Monture, who in interviews alternately conveys hope and despair, is not all-in.
“I wouldn’t call them an empty gesture, but there is no teeth. Politicians and university presidents can give the statement, and it raises awareness in the listener a bit, but doesn’t mention how the land was taken way. It’s just, ‘this is the land of people who lived here,’ and they stop … But I understand the value of the gesture toward real change.”
For her part, Six Nations band council Chief Ava Hill believes acknowledgments are one sign of a powerful moment of reconciliation we are now experiencing, and that credit belongs to survivors of residential schools who came forward to tell their stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It’s because of them these issues are at the forefront, not only in Hamilton, but elsewhere. Hopefully, it will continue, and I think it will … I’ve been telling people in my speeches: What can you do, what part can you play in this reconciliation?”
THE RECENT Our Future Hamilton summit at LiUNA Station, Mayor Fred Eisenberger opened with the statement, but more noteworthy was Indigenous content that followed.
First, there was native music and dance, followed by Shylo Elmayan from the city (wearing moccasins for “rock your moccasins week”) and Chelsea Gabel, a professor of Indigenous studies at Mac and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Well-Being, Community Engagement and Innovation, who spoke on electoral reform to better involve native peoples through online voting.
A few days after the summit, Elmayan sat for an interview at Mulberry café on James North near her office in the Lister Block.
Out the window, a poster on a utility pole promoted Cree musician Iskwé, who recently moved to Hamilton and tweeted “I’m really loving this city! Hamilton is home.” A couple of blocks south hung a huge mural of Indigenous artist Shelley Niro, whose work is featured at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
And Elmayan pointed out that near the Mulberry is the boutique of renowned Indigenous fashion designer Angela DeMontigny.
Elmayan has experience acting as a bridge between two peoples: she has worked as a tenants’ rights advocate for Indigenous people and for Hydro One as a liaison between the company and natives.
But she holds no illusions about the size of her task with the city, helping raise awareness of Indigenous history and culture and advance the cause of reconciliation.
The Indigenous way, she says, is to forever be aware of the seven generations who came before, and the seven generations to come. At the same time, to prevent feeling overwhelmed by the job, she approaches it Western-style: one day at a time.
She hopes to develop a policy on Indigenous medicines, which was the focus recently at the first national Indigenous Health Practice and Research Conference in Hamilton.
For example, she’d like to see such things as a smudging ceremony accommodated in city facilities (burning medicinal plants to make a smudge or cleansing smoke).
She was pleased that, at the end of the summit, several participants approached her and asked if she would help inject Indigenous themes into projects their organizations were launching.
Elmayan, an Anishinaabe native, is a reminder that when it comes to heritage, there are few straight lines.
She grew up in Hamilton and attended Westdale high school. Her mother is Indigenous from the Long Lake first nation up north; her father, whose surname is Summers, is nonindigenous from Hamilton’s North End.
Elmayan’s married name is Armenian, and her first name may sound exotic, but her parents named her after a song by pop singer Neil Diamond, who they listened to while dating.
But her Indigenous heritage, she says, is fundamental. And being Canadian? “‘Canadian’ is complicated. Many Indigenous people do not identify as Canadian. On my father’s side, I’m Canadian. It’s important to honour him, too.”
THE MOST fertile ground for influencing hearts and minds toward reconciliation is education — a point emphasized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Patrick Deane is proud to point to steps taken at McMaster: the school has unveiled new buildings and facilities for Indigenous learning including an outdoor classroom overlooking Cootes Paradise, and created the McMaster Indigenous Research Institute.
Last spring, the university appointed a curator of Indigenous art for the McMaster Museum of Art. In the summer, it was a hub site for the North American Indigenous Games and flew the flag of the Six Nations Confederacy on National Aboriginal Day.
Rick Monture praises Deane’s focus on Indigenous issues, calling him a humanist. (Deane’s intellectual DNA was wired spending the first 22 years of his life in apartheid-era South Africa.)
And yet some call on universities to go much further than that to “indigenize the academy,” which means infusing all aspects of post-secondary education with Indigenous content, including mandatory courses in Indigenous study for undergraduates.
Some universities have taken this step already, such as the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
Deane said the concept has been discussed at McMaster, but the consensus among educators and students is that compulsory learning is not the way to go.
“It would not make people take (Indigenous learning) more seriously or engage in a more thoughtful way.”
He has support on that position from Rebecca Jamieson, president of Six Nations Polytechnic (SNP), an institution with a campus on the reserve and in Brantford that offers a university degree in Indigenous lan-
Rebecca Jamieson, president of the Six Nations Polytechnic, holds a two row wampum — a belt that symbolizes two separate peoples coexisting through mutual respect and understanding.
“Unity,” by Shelley Niro. Inkjet print. From the collection of the artist. Her work is featured at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Right: An art installation called “Abnormally Aboriginal” by Six Nations photographer Shelley Niro was part of last September’s Supercrawl. Niro is known for photographs that challenge stereotypes of Indigenous women.