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’
All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism
By Tanya Talaga
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.
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