Unlearn and Relearn

I thought I knew a fair bit about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. I lived in Labrador for three years and went to school with Indigenous students, although it was as a teenager.

I was married to an Inuit man. I did my grad project at AST on Residential Schools.

NOTHING however, prepared me for a book I read this summer entitled, “21 Things You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act.”

Here’s just one thing: # 15: Lease uncultivated reserve lands to non-Indians – 1918-1985

“We would be only too glad to have the Indian use this land, if he would… But he will not cultivate this land, and we want to cultivate it; that is all.” ARTHUR MEIGHEN, Minister of the Interior and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 19186

In the late 1800s settlers were flooding into the Prairies and their demand for land put pressure on the government to open up unused (uncultivated) land.

In 1894, the Indian Act was amended to allow for reserve land held by physically disabled Indians, widows, orphans, or others who could not cultivate their lands to be leased out, and to do so without band approval or surrender of title.

What the government ignored, or failed to understand, was that just because land was not cultivated did not mean it was not being used. Uncultivated land provided crucial habitat for the animals and plants that had sustained Indians for generations. (21 Things You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act, Page 69)

What this book made me realize what was almost everything I learned about Indigenous people, I learned from white man’s perspective. Think about that for a minute. Those of us who are a certain age, if we learned anything about the ‘Indians’ in school, certainly learned them from textbooks written by white people. Mainstream media is still controlled by white people, in most cases white men.

Jesse Wente, In Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance,writes, “In fact, most non-Indigenous people’s entire understanding of Indigenous life and personhood is an invention of Hollywood, from the war whoop to the sense that colonialism is inevitable, that the land and its original inhabitants are simply impediments to the birthright of the newcomers, that we are objects to be either used or destroyed on a white man’s path to destiny. This has been the dominant portrait of Indigenous life at least as far back as the birth of moving pictures. Our expendability on screen is so written into Hollywood that it was common for many years for a group of extras to be called “a bunch of Indians” by those on set. A group of Star Wars stormtroopers waiting in the wings is a bunch of Indians.

We are marking Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Weaving it with the biblical text for today. My hope and my prayer for today is that you will leave with a little knowledge, a little humility, a little hope and perhaps one or two concrete actions we can made to support reconciliation efforts. First, let’s listen to the biblical text, it’s from Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23:

27When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.”

2He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. 3Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. 4Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.” 

15Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; 16and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

18So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” 

19Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” 

20But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 

21Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 

22So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 

23He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.

I love Genesis! The family is SO dysfunctional! And yet, God still works through them.

Jacob and Esau once again… you may remember an earlier story in which Esau is very hungry after hunting all day and Jacob has a red lentil stew ready, but won’t give any to Esau, until Esau gives up his birthright. This time, Jacob, by disguising himself to his almost blind father, and pretending to be Esau, takes the blessing that belongs to the oldest son.

There are some parallels I can draw from our current relationship with Indigenous Peoples.  Our Peace and Friendship Treaties are different from many other treaties across Canada, especially the western provinces, which dealt specifically with surrendering land.

William Wicken writes, “On the one hand, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet agreed not to molest His Majesty’s subject in their settlements ‘already made or lawfully to be made.’

By this clause, both communities formally accepted the legality of existing settlements. They also agreed that the British might establish future settlements, though such settlements could only be made ‘lawfully.’

In the reciprocal portion of the treaty, the British agreed not to molest the communities’ fishing, hunting, planting and ‘other lawful activities.’ https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100028599/1539609517566)

And yet, later treaties pushed them into smaller spaces, often two small to support the community and then started to restrict when they could hunt, fish and trap.

Birthright, taken by trickery.

Now, you may be saying or thinking, this is all in the past… or I didn’t have anything to do with it… and you are right, you did not have anything to do with it. I did not. But most of us benefit from our white settler status. We benefit from land that was given to our ancestors. My ancestors on my mother’s side were Ukrainian Mennonites, persecuted in their homeland for their religion. They found religious freedom here in Canada, in Manitoba, but must have displaced Indigenous people when they were given farmland by the Canadian government. Farmland that was not theirs to give. So my ancestry is one of both persecuted and settler.  

Who is familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? The commission was officially established on June 1, 2008, with the purpose of documenting the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system on Indigenous students and their families. It provided residential school survivorsan opportunity to share their experiences during public and private meetings held across the country.

The TRC emphasizes that it has a priority of displaying the impacts of the residential schools to the Canadians who have been kept in the dark from these matters. (Wikipedia)

Some of the meetings were held here in Halifax, did any of you attend?

Out of the TRC, came 94 calls to action, six of which apply directly to churches.

Call to Action # 59:

We call upon church parties to the Settlement Agreement to develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.

So, let’s start with Orange Shirt Day, which beganwith Phyllis (Jack) Webstad’s story, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) woman from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation who went to St. Joseph Mission Residential School.

Phyllis Jack Webstad from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation went to St. Joseph Mission Residential School. On her first day of school, Phyllis wore an orange shirt that her grandmother had given her. It was immediately taken away, and that marked the beginning of Phyllis’s long separation from her family and community, a separation caused by actions of the church and federal government.

Orange Shirt Day is a time for us all to remember those events, their ongoing impact, and just as importantly the continuing strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples.

Like Jacob and Esau and Isaac and Rebekah and that whole family in Genesis, we are dysfunctional. We are part of a system that has benefited some and injured others. But like Jacob and Esau were able to be instruments of God’s work at times, so can we. I can take comfort that we, the church family, not just this congregation, but the bigger church in general, can still be instruments of God’s work even in our dysfunction.

We need to unlearn and relearn the history of this land.

There are multiple ways to do that:

  • Go to the Millbrook Heritage and Cultural Centre like Susan Kolesar and I did on Thursday.
  • Listen to Indigenous podcasts like Unsettled: Journeys in Truth and Conciliation
  • Read books like 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act.
  • Go to events such as the ones taking place on September 30 as a humble observer.

When the first 215 graves were uncovered in June, I participated in some discussions on Facebook as my colleagues wrestled with how to speak to it.

I suggested that a small, but meaningful, gesture would be to give $215 to The Healing Fund of the United Church, which supports healing initiatives for survivors of the residential school system and its ongoing intergenerational impacts and many congregations across the country did just that.

There are now 1898 graves of children that have been uncovered. What will our response be? Are we willing to give $1898?And before you all gasp and say we can’t afford it, that is ONE PERCENT of our church’s investments!

One percent for some healing.

One percent that acknowledges harm down.

One percent that is one step on the road to reconciliation.

It doesn’t seem like very much. 

Amen.

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