DECOLONIZING OUR MINDS

Lone Cone ~ Wanačas (photo credit: Sophie L’Homme)

 

Nuučaańuł (Nuu-chah-nulth), Good Advice

I’ve been told it’s time
to decolonize my mind,
that all the places I love
carry the wrong rhymes:
Lone Cone, Frank Island,
Catface, Colnett:
dubbed by and for sloop captains,
traders, missionaries, Kingdom-come,
imposing replacement.

Ts’ix-wat-sats, Chitaape,
Wałyuu: more than pretty names,
words that came up out of the land
with its peoples,
as the loon learns his song from the lake.

Try to cover a mountain in concrete?
Language keeps emerging,
the planet speaking its green poems.
In pavement’s petrifaction
the newcomers postpone mortality
preserve everything in hard grey
stop death by spreading it,
lack logic.
Listen for green,
learn the names.

I’ve been advised not to study
French or Spanish, rather
to stand still, make roots from words,
take in the language of the place
I’ve made my home.

— Christine Lowther, Tofino Poet Laureate (2020 – 2022)
from the anthology Make It True – Poetry from Cascadia

 

By Sherry Marr

In Canada, our white settler mentality, our whitewashed history, and our comfortable assumptions continue to oppress and marginalize minorities, most notably the Indigenous people of this land. The First People are rising now, and are finally being heard. It took a shock to force the rest of us in Canada to listen: the discovery in May 2021 of 217 unmarked graves of First Nation children on a former residential school property in Williams Lake. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates there may be as many as 4,000 such graves on former residential school properties across Canada.

Canadians reeled at the discovery, and many of us were appalled that, at such a time of grief and trauma, Prime Minister Trudeau flew right over Williams Lake and came to Tofino for a surfing holiday, instead of visiting the grieving community. That did not sit well. I shriveled in my white settler skin, the skin of the oppressor of people of colour all over the world. I have always worn it with some discomfort.

“How can reconciliation happen? Where does it begin?” asks Jody Wilson-Raybould, in her book True Reconciliation – How to Be a Force for Change. Wilson-Raybould was the first Indigenous person to hold the office of Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. In her book, she asks a pertinent question: “Can there be reconciliation with one’s oppressor?” Reconciliation implies a positive relationship existed in the past, which has never been the case. She calls for people to meet “in-between”, to try to bridge the gaps that exist by coming together to explore our similarities, as human beings, rather than our differences, to have the difficult conversations that open the way to understanding.

Wilson-Raybould’s Kwak’wala name is Puglaas, which means “woman born of noble people”. She is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation.  She served as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada from 2015 to 2019, and briefly as Veterans Minister and Associate National Defence Minister in 2019.

She resigned from her position, and was expelled from caucus over the SNC-Lavalin affair, because she dared speak truth to power, over an alleged attempt by Prime Minister Trudeau to influence and pressure her regarding prosecution of the corporation. She stood firm, resolute that the Attorney-General’s office has to maintain independence to operate ethically. She had widespread approval and admiration in Canada for taking this stand.

Here in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, across the harbour where the village of Opitsaht stands today, before the Europeans came, I’ve been told there was a village of 20 longhouses, each filled with up to 200 people. Theirs is a rich and ancient culture, and the people thrived, living on the rich bounty of land and sea. How I love imagining that time when the world was young, when animals and people talked to each other and lived as relations, when villagers lived in longhouses, the forests were intact and filled with the wild ones, and the sea was healthy and full of salmon. What a wonderful world that seems to me!

Tragically,  many villagers died of smallpox brought by the Europeans. Some escaped high into the mountains, where they stayed for years, in order to survive. When they came down, their world had changed.

Someone on the news the other day said, “Climate change cannot be solved without Native voices.” I agree. There should be Indigenous input at every level of decision-making. The Indigenous people have so much to teach us, having lived harmoniously and respectfully with the earth for thousands of years.

Indigenous people have been at every blockade and protest, trying to stop the devastation of forests, lands and rivers. The Wet’suwet’en people have been fighting for years to protect their northern B.C. area from being flooded to make way for the Site C dam. They are blockading to stop a gas pipeline from being built across their territory, threatening their fresh water supply. (Why is it always native land these pipelines cross? Remember Standing Rock?)  Elders stood firm at Fairy Creek. In 1984, it was the Tla-o-qui-aht people who led the blockade that saved Meares Island, across the Tofino harbour, from being clearcut. And what is the Tla-o-qui-aht word for Meares Island? I asked, and was told Wah Nah Jus–Hilth-hoo-is.

 

Wah Nah Jus – Hilth-hoo-is (Browning Pass Charters image)

 

I see a need for we settlers to decolonize our minds. We need to change how we live. I believe governments at every level – national, provincial and municipal — should be consulting First Nations about implementing the changes we must make to address climate change. Chiefs and Indigenous community members should have more than token input, especially where projects are proposed that impact their area and way of life.

Reconciliation is just a word, without action and inclusion. Our leaders are good at spinning words. Yet many reserves, especially across northern Canada, have gone decades without clean drinking and bathing water. It amazes me that there is always money to build pipelines for oil,  but not for the basic right to clean drinking water, in a country so rich in lakes and rivers. Capitalism’s resource extractive system exhausts the areas it lays waste, leaving behind dead landscapes. The bill is high and it is coming due.

Wilson-Raybould says she is constantly asked by settlers, “What can I do for reconciliation?” She replies:

We need to be forces of change…Tangible and coherent action is the essence of true reconciliation… It is through action that we address the harms, injustices, disadvantages, and lack of opportunity that are part of the legacy of colonialism.

While there have been years of talks about reconciliation, and a Truth and Reconciliation commission report made 94 calls to action, only 13 of those have been completed. It seems a quicker response to these calls to action has been considered not politically expedient. I imagine all the white men endlessly talking and talking must be making Indigenous people very tired.

Wilson-Raybould explains:

At the core of achieving reconciliation is the belief that the nation-to-nation, government-to-government, Inuit-Crown relationship must be based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.

Recognition as a basis for true reconciliation means that Indigenous people governed and owned the lands that now make up Canada prior to the arrival of Europeans…It means the title and rights of Indigenous people are inherent… It means treaties entered into historically must be fully implemented… consistent with the true meaning of a proper nation-to-nation and government-to-government relationship. It means that the distinct and diverse governments, laws, cultures, societies and ways of life of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit are fully respected and reflected.

For Canada, recognition means resetting our foundation to finish the unfinished business of confederation. For many Indigenous people, recognition is the lifeline that will ensure the survival and rebuilding of their cultures, languages, and governing systems within a stronger Canada.

It saddens me to report that in Canada we are a very long way from achieving this government-to-government relationship.

It boggles my mind that, with the climate breaking down before our eyes, governments are excited about sending another rocket to the moon, yet consider addressing climate change “too expensive.” It costs a lot more to deal with multiple disasters every year. We settlers are very slow learners. Instead of transitioning away from fossil fuels, governments are now budgeting for responding to climate crises. Excuse me while I bang my head against my desk.

In his book, Namwayut, A Pathway to Reconciliation, Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk people, writes about attending St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay as a child and teenager. In those years, I was a young wife and mother living on the “white” half of the same small island, which is situated off the east coast of Vancouver Island. I was shocked at the imposed, systemic poverty I saw in those days on the reserve at the other end of the village. The contrast with white affluence was stark. Putting my baby into bed at night in his fluffy blankets, I thought of the small faces I had seen looking through cabin windows at the other end of town.  All these years later, oppression, marginalization, and poverty under a patriarchal system still exists in many reserves across Canada, notably in the northern communities.

My ex-husband and I visited the longhouse while we lived there and, in the drumming, singing and dancing, I saw a beautiful, strong people, the Kwakwaka’wakw people, their heritage enduring despite the colonial government’s 200 years of oppression. It gladdens my heart to hear the First Peoples’ voices rising now, strong in the beauty of their culture.

 

In Namwayut, whose theme is We Are All One, Chief Joseph relays a vision he had as a young man, during a time of darkness:

What was unfolding before me was supernatural. There was an energy swirling through the water itself. Radiant coral, bright blue, colours I had never seen before – all of the brilliant and dark shades of life together – limitless, unfolding beneath the waves.…The forest was rich and dense, its green foliage shimmering with lightning bolts rippling through it from shadow to light…There was so much energy everywhere, cradled in each leaf.

Finally, I gazed into the heavens. The sky was filled with darkness and light. I saw the moon, the stars and the sun. I had glimpses of the galaxy. For a brief moment, I observed Mother Earth. All of Creation was unfolding before my eyes.

…The vision ended as I heard a voice saying to me, “In spite of what you have done to yourself, you are a part of all this, and I love you.”

This vision had an impact on the rest of his life.

In that sense of belonging, I knew I had responsibilities. The message is simple: Create beauty and power and resilience… [My Granny’s] worldview was all-encompassing. The sky world, animal world, undersea world, spirit world were real for her… That meant we needed to pay homage to all of those elements that made up our lives.

…It was there in my sacred land that I found myself back in our parallel universe, full of magic, full of imagination. It was there in our culture’s embrace that I found myself back in front of an always-sparkling open fire, holding back the darkness, people dancing counter-clockwise around the light.

There were bears, wolves, and others from the forest kingdom. Those who belonged to the undersea world graced us with their presence, along with those that came from celestial places, entities that flew. The ghostly appearances of those from the spirit world enchanted us…I could reach out and almost touch them then. I can reach out and touch them again.

The Potlatch can create a parallel universe in which our children can grow up with a clearer understanding of the universe.

But the same parallels can be created through reconciliation. Whether or not there is a fire roaring on a dark northern night, there can be mystery, there can be wonder, and there can be magic. We can live and breathe the cosmos every day; it can become real in our heart and our mind and our soul. We can meld with our collective wisdom and our deep yearning for a better Earth – a better way of knowing who we are and what we are meant to be. This is what is truly magical.

As one, we can create what we desire between us… We can sustain the environment, the resources, the cultures, the rituals, and the ceremonies of us all.

I feel like we are on the verge of a massive shift because, as of today, the average Canadian has now realized the situation when it comes to Indigenous communities is untenable. The climate situation is untenable. The hate we carry is untenable. The big auto industries and oil companies, in their current practices, are untenable.

All of these mediums are starting to converge. The whole map of man’s inhumanity to man, and the need for reconciliation in Canada, are one and the same.

In reconciliation, we have admitted to our failures. The opposite of fear is called honesty…and trust…and openness… Indigenous language is a language of the land. Everything – the people, the animals, the fish, the birds that fly at the shoreline – is so interconnected, inter-weaving, that our words are connected to the oneness of everybody, every thing…To emerge from the wilderness, we must accept this oneness…To emerge from the wilderness, we must be committed to reconciliation on every level of our lived experience. When we are committed, when we are intentional in being reconciled individually, collectively this will change this whole damn world.

May it be so. How I love that vision of a world of dancing bears, wolves and flying spirits.

 

 

For our challenge: Let’s try to decolonize our minds. We could go in different directions. Do Indigenous people experience an equitable relationship with government in your part of the world? We might write about how the Indigenous folk in your area lived long ago upon the land. Or we could fast forward to the other side of the shift of consciousness and envision how we humans might live as one part of the interconnected whole, rather than dominating it, that better way of living on the earth that the Indigenous people of the land have always known. The sky’s the limit.

 

 

I offer you poems by our two other Tofino Poet Laureates, for inspiration:

 

 

~ Joanna Streetly. Tofino Poet Laureate (2018 to 2020)

 

Tourism Tofino photo

 

SURPRISE BIRTHDAY GUEST

july heat
salt kisses fresh water
in uuqmin bay

sticky fingers
cling to the wet dock
daisy yellow slide

birthday girl
proudly seven
hugged in party laughter

“who hired the kakawin?” 

breaching at the river mouth
pausing the party
breathless

© Heather Hendry, Tofino Poet Laureate (2022-2024)

Inspired by Hanna Grimm (Plam)
(Kakawin are orcas, also known as killer whales)

9 thoughts on “DECOLONIZING OUR MINDS

  1. Good morning, fellow earthlings. I am looking forward to what this conversation sparks in you – and to a brand new year of writing and trying to save this beautiful world.

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  2. Great challenge Sherry! You cover the terrain so well and speak richly for the reconciliation on so many levels. There are only the ghostliest traces of indigenous presence in Florida (some Seminoles are buried in an abandoned black cemetery sequestered in the middle of the golf course of the country club), but the imaginative terrain is ripe with the likes Linda Hogan, Williams Stafford, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Tommy Orange, etc., plus a few honorary natives like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver & Gary Snyder. Haven’t yet figured an entry yet in verse but I’m brooding. Lotta whitewash on the picket fence that guards my middle-class suburban brain.

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    • Not surprising there are graves in your golf course. Golf courses often are located on native burial sites in Canada, too. Sigh. I love all the authors you mention, some of my favourites.

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  3. Thank you Brendan and Sherry for these weekly challenges that help expand our consciousness. The essays are amazing and the poetry you give us to read is always relevant.

    I appreciate all the work that goes into these well thought out projects.

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  4. Hello and belated good wishes for 2023 to all the Earthwealers. Thank you Sherry for your interesting as always prompt. And thanks too Brendan for last weeks challenge that I read but did not have time to respond to. We are going through a more stringent electricity loadshedding schedule at the moment. Be back when I can.

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