Cul­tural geno­cide by any other name

Tanya Talaga in­ves­ti­gates the havoc, de­struc­tion, pro­found loss of iden­tity and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma that in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in Canada and be­yond have suf­fered as a re­sult of a cen­tury of colo­nial ‘as­sim­i­la­tion’

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All Our Re­la­tions: In­dige­nous Trauma in the Shadow of Colo­nial­ism

By Tanya Talaga

TScribe, £9.99

anya Talaga is an award-win­ning Na­tive Cana­dian writer. Her new work, All Our Re­la­tions: In­dige­nous Trauma in the Shadow of Colo­nial­ism, doc­u­ments Cana­dian author­i­ties’ his­tory of cul­tural geno­cide to­wards Na­tive peo­ple in the form of res­i­den­tial des­ig­nated, spe­cial “In­dian Schools”.

These schools were run in part­ner­ship be­tween the church and state, the ul­ti­mate colonis­ers. “The 1800s was a cen­tury of mas­sive ex­pan­sion and land ac­qui­si­tion by the United States of Amer­ica,” she writes. It’s al­ways about land. It’s al­ways about su­pe­ri­or­ity, and fi­nally it’s al­ways about strate­gies of as­sim­i­la­tion.

Her pre­vi­ous, award-win­ning book, Seven Fallen Feath­ers (2018), nar­rated the sui­cide epi­demic among Na­tive Cana­di­ans. Talaga ex­plains the var­i­ous land grabs by Cana­di­ans who wanted the land that Na­tive In­dige­nous peo­ple loved, lived and worked on. When the com­mu­ni­ties and var­i­ous tribes were dis­persed, fam­i­lies were tar­geted and chil­dren were put into spe­cial schools that were in­fe­rior.

These schools, sim­i­lar to the res­i­den­tial or in­dus­trial schools in Ire­land, were dan­ger­ous. Cold, mal­nour­ished chil­dren were ex­posed to phys­i­cal, emo­tional and sex­ual vi­o­lence. Chil­dren as young as six were ex­pected to clean and cook within these in­sti­tu­tions. Many res­i­dents died from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis be­cause of the poor hy­giene and san­i­ta­tion within these en­vi­ron­ments. Very few chil­dren, if any, at­tained ba­sic skills of lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy. Chil­dren were sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies and their cul­ture with the con­stant fear of hav­ing their cul­tural iden­tity beaten out of them.

The knot is com­plex be­tween fam­ily, cul­ture, iden­tity and the de­bris that comes from any break­age from these con­nec­tions. The patho­log­i­cal vi­o­lence to­wards In­dige­nous peo­ple brings with it the psy­cho-emo­tional im­pact of cen­turies of abuse and degra­da­tion.

The jour­ney is painful, bleak and heartwrenc­h­ing.

One book fol­lows another. This re­al­ity is am­pli­fied by fic­tion writ­ers such as Louise Er­drich who de­picts his­to­ries of the Na­tive Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. Sim­i­lar­i­ties don’t need to be fic­tion­alised to un­der­stand the land­scape of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma. There There by a won­der­ful In­dige­nous writer Tommy Or­ange gave me sleep­less nights. His work was painful in that it il­lus­trates what hap­pens when iden­tity is op­pressed, when young Na­tive Amer­i­cans have to look at YouTube to dis­cover their tribe, its colour and dance.

This book was a way into the re­al­ism of Talaga’s work. As­sim­i­la­tion is just a eu­phemism for eth­nic cleansing or geno­cide. The sys­temic fall­out of in­equal­ity and per­ceived sub­or­di­na­tion ex­poses both the frailty of the hu­man con­di­tion, but also the lack of hu­man­ity that be­comes a sys­tem­atic way of killing peo­ple and their cul­ture.

Trav­ellers par­al­lels

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the Na­tive peo­ple is sim­i­lar to that of var­i­ous gov­ern­ment poli­cies through­out the past 30 years for Trav­ellers here in Ire­land. That legacy is one of bru­tal sub­ju­ga­tion. Drug mis­use, al­co­holism, un­em­ploy­ment, de­pres­sion, high prison rates and feud­ing in vary­ing de­grees are re­sponses to a ves­tige of racism and failed as­sim­i­la­tion poli­cies. The waste and de­bris are ag­i­tated within the in­di­vid­ual when there is any at­tempt to re­act. This re­ac­tion is of­ten in­fected by a toxic ker­nel of shame that lies rest­lessly in the residue of an in­jured psy­che.

There are para­graphs in the book that be­came too fa­mil­iar. The trauma that Talaga maps within var­i­ous in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies brought me to a place within my own fam­ily and the wider Trav­eller com­mu­nity. We all know a fam­ily that has two or three young peo­ple who have taken their own lives. That sense of hope­less­ness, pow­er­less­ness and weari­ness is all-en­gulf­ing.

Over-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is dan­ger­ous, yet the univer­sal el­e­ment of racism is al­ways recog­nis­able re­gard­less of con­ti­nent, cul­ture, eth­nic­ity, race or in­dige­nous iden­tity. The in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma stem­ming from years of poverty and ne­glect. Talaga’s ex­pla­na­tion of trauma in the shadow of colo­nial­ism is a con­tin­u­ous his­tory where In­dige­nous Na­tive peo­ple are maimed and harmed. In­ter­nalised op­pres­sion seeps from our genes into the next gen­er­a­tion like a river that has no banks.

Ire­land has its own as­sim­i­la­tion­ist prac­tice, not least the 1963 Com­mis­sion on Itin­er­ancy where the gov­ern­ment of the time stated that there “can be no fi­nal so­lu­tion to the prob­lems cre­ated by itin­er­ants un­til they are absorbed into the gen­eral com­mu­nity”.

Di­rect pro­vi­sion and hold­ing cen­tres through­out Europe are a man­i­fes­ta­tion of bla­tant racism. Trav­ellers sim­i­lar to the Na­tive Peo­ple of Canada are bro­ken and trau­ma­tised. The fall­out of these as­sim­i­la­tion regimes within our com­mu­nity is that the rates of sui­cide is six times higher for Trav­ellers. Sim­i­larly to Canada, var­i­ous re­ports and strate­gies have been writ­ten but very few poli­cies have been im­ple­mented.

The havoc and de­struc­tion that as­sim­i­la­tion causes has yet to be for­mally ac­knowl­edged. The fab­ric of our com­mu­nity sim­i­lar

cer­tain kind of en­ergy. That en­ergy is of­ten trained by the age of 10. Too much dan­ger, too much ex­po­sure to racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion and poverty means your early adult­hood is al­ways un­der duress. A pri­vate ag­i­ta­tion needs to be con­trolled and mon­i­tored.

These are the dan­ger­ous years. Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion needs its el­ders. Tor­ment and an­guish are heavy emo­tions. The dan­ger­ous years of­ten re­quire com­mu­nity and fam­i­lies to reach un­der the arms, lift up and hold our young peo­ple ten­derly, and gen­tly bring them be­yond the point of empti­ness and ex­haus­tion. Very few of us live be­yond 65. In a com­mu­nity like our own which is es­ti­mated at 40,000, there is no way to in­su­late your­self from the preva­lence of trauma and sui­cide.

Your spirit is bro­ken. The im­pe­tus to be in­volved in hu­man rights can be over­shad­owed with the re­al­ity that failed poli­cies and rec­om­men­da­tions for var­i­ous dif­fer­ent re­ports are all part of the de­lay­ing tac­tics by gov­ern­ment. Sub­or­di­na­tion by way of lack of op­por­tu­nity, lack of pos­si­bil­ity and imag­ined lack of po­ten­tial eats away at ev­ery gen­er­a­tion’s sense of self and self-es­teem. The last spe­cial “In­dian School” was closed in 1996. Talaga’s treat­ment and ex­pla­na­tion of In­dige­nous peo­ple’s trauma is es­sen­tial reading.

Ros­aleen McDon­agh is a play­wright, Trav­eller ac­tivist and mem­ber of Aos­dána


Ire­land has its own as­sim­i­la­tion­ist prac­tice. From the 1963 Com­mis­sion on Itin­er­ancy . . . there ‘can be no fi­nal so­lu­tion to the prob­lems cre­ated by itin­er­ants un­til they are absorbed into the gen­eral com­mu­nity’


Stu­dents and a nun pose in a class­room at Cross Lake In­dian Res­i­den­tial School, Man­i­toba, Fe­bru­ary 1940. CANADA. DEPT. IN­DIAN AND NORTH­ERN AF­FAIRS / LI­BRARY AND AR­CHIVES CANADA

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