Five hundred years of colonization have taken an incalculable toll on the Indigenous peoples of the Americas: substance use disorders and shockingly high rates of depression, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions brought on by genocide and colonial control. With passionate logic and chillingly clear prose, author and educator Suzanne Methot uses history, human development, and her own and others’ stories to trace the roots of Indigenous cultural dislocation and community breakdown in an original and provocative examination of the long-term effects of colonization. But all is not lost. Methot also shows how we can come back from this with Indigenous ways of knowing lighting the way.
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About the Author
Suzanne Methot is a Nehiyaw (Cree) writer, editor, educator, and community worker born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and raised in Peace River, Alberta. Her work has been published in anthologies including Steal My Rage: New Native Voices and Let the Drums Be Your Heart. She has worked in the non-profit sector, in the classroom, and in advocacy and direct-service positions in Indigenous community–based agencies. She is co-author of the textbook Aboriginal Beliefs, Values, and Aspirations, and she currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
How Things Work, and Why Stories Matter
Indigenous people do funerals really, really well.
When a young man I know is stabbed and killed in a street fight in Toronto in 2016, there are no fewer than three memorial services: one at the local friendship centre, one at his workplace, and one on his mother's reserve. A vigil is also held at the site of his death. News of his passing filters through the Indigenous community on Tuesday and Wednesday, and by Thursday, the first memorial is in progress. The events come together beautifully: drummers, elders, a photo slideshow, room rentals, social media invitations, a written program, a speakers' list, gifts for the family, a basket of tobacco ties (cobbled together from at least three different urban organizations), platters of food, his favourite music piped into the auditorium, a guestbook, and people gathered to support the family and discuss This Thing That Has Happened.
I have lived in and worked for Indigenous communities in Ontario since 1992, and I can tell you: this kind of co-operation, positive energy, and amenability does not exist on an everyday basis.
If you don't believe me, then believe the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). Between 1998 and 2014, the AHF — a non-profit organization managed by Indigenous peoples — conducted research and supported community-based healing initiatives across the country. These projects were meant to address the legacy of residential schools in Canada, including intergenerational impacts. According to the AHF, as a result of the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse suffered by those who attended residential schools, the capacity of Indigenous peoples to build and sustain healthy families and communities has been compromised and, in some places, completely erased.
The AHF says psychological and emotional abuse in Indigenous communities is common. Rage and anger are widespread at all levels — individual, family, and community. Indigenous peoples carry multiple layers of unresolved grief and loss, and they suffer chronic physical illness related to their emotional and spiritual states. Families, communities, and workplaces suffer from toxic communication patterns. According to the AHF, there is disunity and conflict among individuals, families, and factions within Indigenous communities. Indigenous people in positions of authority often misuse their power to control others. The social structures that hold families and communities together — trust, common ground, shared purpose and direction, a vibrant ceremonial and civic life, co-operative networks and associations — have broken down, and in many families and communities, there are only a few people working for the common good. Many Indigenous people fear personal growth, transformation, and healing.
In addition to those listed above, the AHF has documented 22 other impacts of intergenerational trauma that it says are contributing to dysfunction and negative outcomes in Indigenous communities. These findings have been corroborated by other organizations, including the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, which released a 2015 report on the increased prevalence and root causes of depression among Indigenous peoples in Canada.
The AHF makes a direct connection between residential schools and the challenges we see in Indigenous communities today. In so doing, it delegitimizes the notion that colonization — or "civilization," as some people like to call it — has benefitted Indigenous peoples. It also delegitimizes the notion that current challenges within Indigenous communities are the result of inherent deficiencies in Indigenous peoples and cultures. The AHF list of intergenerational impacts makes it very clear: where Indigenous peoples and communities are dysfunctional and/or in crisis, it is because of colonialism, not because they are Indigenous.
The way in which the Indigenous community in Toronto came together in 2016 to mourn the death and celebrate the life of the murdered young man shows that age-old philosophies — of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships — continue to underpin our communities despite the negative effect of colonization and settler colonialism. These philosophies also support the transformative healing work underway in many Indigenous communities across the country. However, I have seen the dysfunction and negative outcomes described by the AHF at every level of Indigenous society, from my own life and the life of my family, to the people I know, the communities I have worked with, and the Indigenous organizations I have worked for.
Indigenous peoples are more than victims, and they are not defined only by the traumatic events of colonization. As Nehiyaw poet Billy-Ray Belcourt wrote in a blog post after being named a Rhodes Scholar in 2015 (an achievement that was inevitably framed around Belcourt's experiences with racism and the trauma of residential school), "Dear Media: I am more than just violence." Despite the Indigenous desire to leave the past behind, however, the past doesn't seem quite done with us.
This past-as-present reality is reflected in the lives of many Indigenous people in Canada, including the life of Robert Arthur Alexie. Alexie was chief of the Tetlit Gwich'in band council in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, and chief negotiator for the Gwich'in regional land claim in 1992. After serving his people in multiple roles, he was elected president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council in 2012. Alexie was also a musician, a photographer, and the author of two novels including the groundbreaking Porcupines and China Dolls, which deals with the impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous peoples. Alexie was knowledgeable, principled, and funny, and he made enduring contributions to his nation and to the country. And in 2014, at the age of 58, he was found at the side of the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In a 2015 piece about Alexie's contribution to Indigenous and Canadian literature, journalist Noah Richler surmised that Alexie's "terrifying private demons" had finally caught up with him.
These demons are a persistent reality in the lives of all the Indigenous people I know and have known, affecting those on the fringes of society and those in positions of influence and authority. They exist in people who seem to be functioning just fine, thank you — the kind of people who are profiled in good-news media stories that seek to overturn common myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and communities.
The young man whose death brought the Toronto community together in an all-too-familiar ritual of mourning was certainly a success story. He worked at a major cultural institution. He had graduated from high school, studied a trade at the college level, and was registered in another college program when he died. He had pursued his goals, even completing a course to overcome his fear of public speaking. He bicycled to and from work and was trying to quit smoking. He had a girlfriend and he was saving up so they could move out of her father's house. He was well liked and he wanted to work for his community. He did everything the student support workers at his high school and college said he should do. And he still died at age 20, stabbed in the neck and chest, after taking a bar fight outside.
Behind all our goals, our successes, and our attempts at success, there is a story. It is a story of terror, anger, grief, and loss. It is a story that still, after hundreds of years, determines Indigenous lives in Canada. The young man in Toronto carried this story, as all Indigenous peoples do. It is not the only story we tell — there are stories of happiness and achievement, too — but it is the one that sometimes seems to have the most influence. The time has come to understand this story and the mechanisms of its transmission.
European stories usually follow a linear conflict-crisis-resolution format. They are discrete and almost always aim to communicate a central moral or lesson. For Indigenous peoples, however, stories are spirals: they exist in time and space as they happen, and they also exist in each subsequent telling, spiralling off from a common root to become part of the lives of successive generations. There is no separation between "fact" and "fiction" in Indigenous stories, only a distinction between everyday stories and sacred stories, which means that all stories are true. These stories belong to people, families, and communities — and they are as important today as they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and 500 years ago.
For Indigenous peoples, stories are about movement, transition, and change. Instead of being centred on events, Indigenous stories tend to reveal an emotional narrative. The purpose behind Indigenous storytelling is to evoke the same emotions in listeners, so that they can make connections to their own lives — sparking the learning and the transformation that Indigenous peoples consider sacred.
The AHF correctly identifies residential schools as a major part of the story of terror, anger, grief, and loss. But this story actually begins long before the first residential school opened.
So. This story starts here.
In his book The Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale quotes Christopher Columbus's initial impression of the Taíno he encountered in the Bahamas in 1492. Columbus describes them as noble and kind, and says, "They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal ... Your Highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people ... They love their neighbours as themselves ... and are gentle and always laughing."
Columbus's thoughts are echoed by the Spanish historian and missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas. Before his ordination as a Catholic priest in 1513, Las Casas took part in the 1502 conquest of Hispaniola and the 1513 conquest of Cuba. In 1542, he wrote a chapbook entitled "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies," in which he writes that the Taíno of Hispaniola "are devoid of wickedness and duplicity ... by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome ... devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. ... [T]hey are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy ... They are very clean in their persons, with alert, intelligent minds."
Las Casas mentions "the very few Indians who are hardhearted and impetuous" and, as if to assure readers that he is not speaking from a religious bias, also takes care to point out that "[s]ome of the secular Spaniards who have been here for many years say that the goodness of the Indians is undeniable."
The events of the 15th to 20th centuries — the height of European colonial endeavour — have changed Indigenous peoples and communities in political, economic, cultural, and social terms. These events, which Las Casas described as a holocaust, were an attempt to destroy Indigenous systems and societies.
As Las Casas wrote about Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic and Haiti), "[T]he Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes, began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against [the Indigenous people]. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags, or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers ... Other infants they put to the sword ... They made some low, wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground ... then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. ... And because all the people who could do so fled to the mountains, the Spanish captains ... pursued them with the fierce dogs they kept, which attacked the Indians, tearing them to pieces and devouring them."
Writing about Nicaragua, Las Casas said, "Who could exaggerate the felicity, the good health, the amenities of that prosperous and numerous population? Verily it was a joy to behold that admirable province with its big towns ... full of gardens and orchards and prosperous people. ... And since these Indians were by nature very gentle and peace-loving, the tyrants and his comrades (all of whom had aided him in destroying other kingdoms) inflicted such damage, carried out such slaughters, took so many captives, perpetrated so many unjust acts that no human tongue could describe them."
When English colonists entered into what is today known as the United States, the terror continued. During the Pequot Massacre of 1637, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, celebrated the Pilgrim victory in his History of the Plymouth Plantation: "Those [Indigenous people] that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived [the Pilgrims] thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and [the Pilgrims] gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them."
But it wasn't just the English. In New Netherland in 1643, at a site in New York City that is now the home of the National Museum of the American Indian, Governor Willem Kieft ordered his soldiers to destroy two refugee camps filled with displaced Lenape: "Infants were torn from their mother's breast and hacked to death in the presence of their parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and in the water," wrote David Pietersz de Vries, a Dutch witness. "Other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavoured to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown."
Most Canadians think that genocide did not occur in Canada. In fact, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, deliberately starved Indigenous peoples on the Canadian prairies in order to open the west to settlers and clear the way for the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR). After the CPR was built and the bison were hunted to extirpation by settlers — as a result of industrial-scale hunting and the colonial government's plan to destroy the food source of Indigenous peoples on the Plains — Indigenous peoples were left hungry and desperate. When they asked the federal government to honour the treaties, which guaranteed food in times of famine, Macdonald denied their request and ordered the Department of Indian Affairs to withhold food until they moved to designated reserves far from the CPR line.
Once on the reserve, Indigenous peoples were trapped and could leave only with the permission of the Indian Agent. Hunters could not hunt and subsistence farming was impossible on substandard reserve land — especially when the government failed to provide tools as specified in the treaties. If Indigenous peoples complained, their rations were cut. Food was withheld for so long that much of it rotted, while Indigenous peoples fell sick from malnutrition and disease. Thousands died. As James Daschuk, an associate professor at the University of Regina and the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, wrote in the Globe and Mail, "The uncomfortable truth is that modern Canada is founded upon ethnic cleansing and genocide ... Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape."
The genocide continued under the national system of Indian Residential Schools. From the 1870s to 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) states that at least 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities and sent to residential schools funded by the federal government and operated by the Anglican, Catholic, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, where Indigenous children were forced to adhere to European societal and cultural norms, forbidden to speak their own languages, and alienated from their cultures, families, and communities. Parents were threatened with imprisonment or denied treaty rations if they failed to surrender their children. The RCMP were employed to forcibly remove children from their homes. Many students were physically, psychologically, emotionally, and sexually abused in the schools. According to the TRC, more than 3,000 children died in residential schools across the country, but the actual number is believed to be much higher, as the federal government stopped collecting annual death reports after 1917. In fact, former TRC chairman (now senator) Murray Sinclair believes the number could be as much as 10 times higher — which would mean that 30,000 children died in residential schools.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Legacy"
Copyright © 2019 Suzanne Methot.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: How Things Work, and Why Stories Matter
Chapter 2: What It Means To Be Colonized
Chapter 3: Becoming Human
Chapter 4: The Angry Indian
Chapter 5: Invisible Roots
Chapter 6: Fractured Narratives
Chapter 7: What the Body Remembers
Chapter 8: Sacred Being
Chapter 9: Killing the Wittigo
Chapter 10: Re-Creating the Structures of Belonging