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“The Colonisers stand on guard for their ill-gotten privileges using highly advanced techniques, mainly co-optation, division, and when required, physical repression.” Taiaiake Alfred 2005
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) meeting which took place in Downtown Toronto between May 31 and June 2, 2012 was my first encounter with the experiences of First Nations of Canada during the residential school system. In this meeting, a number of residential school survivors spoke of what happened through candid portraits. I found the narratives on sexual assault and forced abortions imposed on the minors heart-breaking.
These meetings drew attention from and were attended by a number of participants ranging from laymen to technocrats, all in pursuit of reconciliation and a healing process for the survivors of residential school system atrocities. In the meetings participants listened attentively as number of strategies were suggested on how to reconcile the past, and forge a future where true forgiveness and equality would be common to all. The latter was more an ideal. It was out of reach as true reconciliation and the pursuit of peaceful coexistence among the settler community and native people would only be possible if the government was fully engaged in these Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) processes. However, the absence of representation from the federal government was clearly visible in these meetings.
There was nevertheless, a sizeable representation from academics and philanthropists who by and large made somewhat technical or political apologies on behalf of the authorities or tried to justify what happened. To a greater extent, and in my view, the facilitators who were mainly academics or people of political inclination only sought publicity of their works and kept the real issues at bay. Books were sold, friends and business connections were made but no significant topics were covered as to address the injustices of the past (during residential schools) and the continued structural injustices that are still visible among the native peoples of Canada. These meetings also left an impression that the people who were witnesses in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) meetings were by and large regulars at such meetings. From a more extreme angle, one would be under the impression that these meetings were not really to get substantive solutions for the atrocities that were committed against the native peoples of Canada but a source for income for a few leading figures and perhaps, and with a lot of caution, the witnesses themselves.
Nation to Nation Road Bike Tour
After attending this meeting and others which followed, I developed a desire to go to some of the native communities where an opportunity would be availed to talk with the local native community members to hear a different perspective on the atrocities that I heard about in the TRC meetings I attended. I also presumed that I would be able to meet with members of the native communities (in their local context), who in one way or another went through these hard and dehumanising periods.
My desire was fulfilled when I got the opportunity to participate in a road bike tour christened, “Nation to Nation Road Bike Tour 2013” co-organised by The Otesha Project (a youth environmental social mobilisation group) and Kairos Canada (an ecumenical organisation for social justice). This tour ran from July 27 – August 14, 2013. The Nation to Nation tour was a reciprocated/mutual learning activity which brought youthful adults from a number of regions in Canada to ride together, and learn from each other. It was also meant to help native and non-native Canadians have deeper insights from the Mohawk Community members and Leaders and to link native Canadian issues with an academic perspective. There was a meeting between the group and native historians who offered traditional knowledge from an academic point of view and other skilled persons who talked about traditional ways of life among the native people of Canada. Put more directly, the Nation to Nation Tour [was] an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to renew relationships with each other.
Notably, at the reception of the group by the hosts, the Mohawk community of Akwesasne had a different view of this coming together of youthful adults from different backgrounds, nations and race. To them it was more than just a coming together of young adults. In their own words, the elders described the tour as “The fulfilment of a prophecy,” and went further to elaborate that “it was prophesied that one day people of all colours[i] and from all nations would come together. It was further explained that this means accepting each other as part of the same ‘stalk,’ even though we are separated by political, [racial], cultural and economic boundaries[ii]” (Rubara 2013).
Riding 300 kilometres along the St. Lawrence River from Akwesasne to Tyendinaga[iii] was a great opportunity to learn from the communities we visited and from each other. Along the way, the tour members facilitated a theatre-based workshop which was an adaptation of Kairos Canada’s Blanket Exercise[iv] used to raise awareness of the nation to nation relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. The overall goal was to learn about mutual responsibilities human beings have to each other and to the earth, and to gather the courage and skills to live them out.
The Mohawk Community of Akwesasne
To begin the learning journey, the group spent the first four days at Thompson Island with trips to the Traveling College on Cornwall Island. These initial days served as an orientation period for the group on the traditional and cultural beliefs and practices of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne in Cornwall Ontario. The orientation was carried out by leading figures within the community. Giving insights on different topics, the group was taken through a number of historical narratives which were, in my view, both enlightening on the one hand, and on the other hand raised a number of concerns. The concerns here are related to peaceful coexistence among the native communities and between native and non-native community members. The most disturbing of all was the community’s sense of superior nature and their plight for “self-determination.”
The Mohawk community of Akwesasne is an island “nation[v]” along the St. Lawrence River whose territory spreads between the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and New York State in Canada and the United States of America respectively. The Mohawk community of Akwesasne is small but well organised and endowed, compared to other First Nation territories in Canada. Looking at other First Nation communities living in the reserves around Campbellford/Cobourg Ontario, the Mohawk community in Akwesasne is better off materially. This success according to the community members is attributed “to self-determination and being proactive in demanding [their] rights from the federal government.” From various discussions it was evident that the Mohawk community of Akwesasne had less regard for the other First Nations communities who did not share their approach to self-regulation and governance. This notion alluded to the fact that other First Nations community members in other parts of Canada are “timid and easily distracted by the little money the federal government is offering to status bearers.” The Mohawk community of Akwesasne’s success is also attributed to tobacco trading. The latter was not so much talked about by the majority of the members of the community.
Even with such success, it does not take long before one realises that the Mohawk community of Akwesasne is divided. This division is not just by the national (Canada and the United States of America) and provincial (Quebec, Ontario and New York) political boundaries but there are also visible intra-community divisions between status and non-status community members. The political jurisdiction division impacts the community’s easy access to health and other social services, such as energy (hydropower and gas), and education. Even though the community members strive to establish schools to provide for the educational needs of their children by establishing Mohawk immersion schools, there is still the need to have schools which would help the youth to learn from the mainstream – Canadian educational system. A number of youth from the community are forced to travel long distances to access what the community called “the Canadian imperialistic education” system. Besides the distance, the community elders shared their concerns on “the lack of deliberate measures from the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario [in particular] to provide equal education opportunities for all Canadians.” The latter statement is contradictory as the Mohawk community of Akwesasne do not perceive themselves as Canadians but as a nation. This attitude is even stronger among the youth who live in constant denial of having any relationship with Canada of the settler community. What I found interesting is that the majority of youth in Akwesasne would prefer to identify as citizens of the United States of America (USA) than Canada. It was also clear that most of the youth studied in the USA.
The divisions mentioned above and the challenges faced by the Mohawk community in Akwesasne could be said to be the major contributors towards the calls for self-regulation/governance which according to the elders, can only be achieved by engaging in self-determining activities. This concept was prominent in most of the discussions and most of the educators who were selected to educate the tour members divulged much on the role played by the community members in “demanding their rights from the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario, which resulted in securing money for development in the community.” This money, the group was informed, “was used in the construction of a water plant, a hospital, a home for seniors and a radio station” which are all based on the island.
Apart from the political jurisdiction divisions, it was also evident that there was an even deeper division among the members of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne (as I believe could be found in other First Nations communities) which resulted from the entrenched colonial assimilation and the divide and rule tactics. Some community members mentioned much better they were than the rest of the nations which make up the Iroquois Confederacy. Within the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, there were visible divisions between status and non-status community members. Members of the same community seemed to evidence disregard for the community members who are not “full-blood.” The latter refers to the community members who are born of both native parents. In observing the sociopolitical and economic trends among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, families considered to be “full-blood” Mohawks seemed to be doing better socially and materially, and most of them were in leadership roles. The “half-blood” Mohawks seemed not to have much of a say in the day-to-day running of the affairs of the community. Therefore, affairs of the community could be said to be run on nepotistic basis and may pass for neocolonial rule. The terms used here are not far-fetched and in normal circumstances could result in adverse impacts if unchecked. Indeed there are impacts that were readily visible among the community members who are not full-blood. Their lifestyles are completely different from those family units which are regarded as full-blood. In my assessment and out of my interaction with community members from both full-blood and half-blood families, it was clear that the latter struggle to meet both their basic and secondary needs.
Though giving an image of a unified community, the Mohawk community of Akwesasne is faced with class struggle. The community is faced with the elitist politics that are as old as the commencement of the settler community in Turtle Island. This was more crystallised in the 1969 “White Paper” which proposed the assimilation of the Indigenous people on reserves. The divide and rule politics of the colonial regime seem to have not left any stone unturned – with the Mohawk community in Akwesasne just as much as in many parts of my motherland Africa. In the case of Africa, such attitudes have led to a number of civil wars and even worse, to genocide. The greatest division I learnt about which is slowing the progress of the Mohawk community in Akwesasne towards their desire for self-regulation/governance is not the national and provincial political boundaries but the intracommunity division.
The Creation Story
The community arranged for elders who would inform the tour members about some of the legends of the Mohawk community. One of these is the Creation Story. I should quickly state that this story is more than a legend for the community and perhaps it is the most important narrative as it tells about the origins of the First Nations community in its entirety. Narrated by one of the leaders, the creation story traces not only the origin of the First Nations but the origin of the universe, that is to say, the earth, humankind, water bodies, flora and fauna. This story has some similarities with the creation story narrated in the Bible. Both stories talk about the origin of the universe, humankind, water bodies, flora and fauna as from a higher being – the Creator or God. Another similarity is found in the fact that both the creation narratives are focused on one country or region. The creation story focuses on North America (Turtle Island), while the Bible focuses on Israel. Lastly, the creation story as told by the Mohawk community talks about the divine Sky Woman who gave birth to twin sons, one who ends up killing the other in contention for power to decide who would rule the created realm. This story closely relates to the story found in the Bible about Cain and Abel who strove with each other, which ended in the death of Abel (Genesis 4: 1 – 15). In his book, the Mohawk writer and story teller, Darren Bonaparte says:
They say that before the world and the mountains, humans, and animals had come into existence God was with the woman who dwells with him, and no one knows when that was and where they had come from […] they say […] the aforementioned beautiful woman or idol descended from heaven into the water. She was gross and big like a woman who is pregnant of more than one child. (Bonaparte 2006: 17[vi])
According to the Mohawk community of Akwesasne’s Condolled[vii] leader and traditional Mohawk speaker, Aronhiahes Herne, “The narrative about the woman who gave birth is not all that clear as there are some historians who believe that the Sky Woman and the woman who gave birth to the twins famously known as Teharonhiawa (Sappling) and Tawiskaron (Flint) are different, while others claim it is the same person.”
Bonaparte (2006) confirms that there are different versions of this story. He writes that the new versions as narrated by today’s elders, “…say that Sky Woman gave birth […] to a daughter who would later give birth to twin sons,” and goes further to elaborate that “These twins created many of the things on earth but eventually had a great battle to determine who would rule the world” (Bonaparte 2006: 18, 19). Whether the women are different or not, is not the point here. The point I am trying to drive home is the similarity of the two story lines found both in the Mohawk creation story and that found in the Bible. These similarities raise the question as to which story influenced the other. Was this part of the assimilation strategy by the settler community who by and large introduced Christian teachings among the Mohawk communities but wanted an entry point in the community through grafting Christian teachings onto established traditional religious beliefs?
There are also a number of striking differences in the two narratives. First, while the Creation story told by the Mohawk community is matriarchal and glorifies motherhood as the source of all life, wisdom and knowledge; the Bible’s creation narrative is patriarchal – glorifying masculinity. Second, the creation story as told by the Mohawk community is specific about the differences in human race in terms of colour, while the Bible has no specific distinctions about the races and by default gives a picture of ‘accepted’ diversity.
Returning to the racial aspect of the creation story as told by the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, it takes us to the Medicine Wheel. Black, Red, Yellow and White are the colours represented by the Medicine Wheel of the First Nations. According to the narrative that was given by the elder during the introduction to the traditions and legends of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, the Black race was the first to be created. In his narrative the twin brother-creators were sampling their new skill in creating humans. “After creating the first man, the creator decided to throw him in the fire to bake him and continued to add more flame to see what would be the outcome. The result was the Black race.” This was not desired and therefore the first man who was created was thrown away as “unwanted and undesirable.” This sampling was taken several times and the outcome was the Red race, which the narrator described as “cooked to perfection”, the Yellow race which was “cooked moderately – neither perfect nor poorly cooked”, and the last sample was the White race, which in the narrative, “was pale and undercooked.”
According to the elder who was giving the narrative, the black people were the outcast of the creator’s handiwork, representing a “dark world” – a world full of brute strength, “a people who are endowed with physical strength, good for heavy task and servitude.” The red people were described as “the creator’s perfect work, full of beauty and a people whose lives are closely connected to nature – preservers of Mother Earth.” The yellow race is of “rare beauty and presented oriental traditions – a tribe of dance and song.” The last race in the narrative is the white race which was described as “of pale and weak skin complexion but endowed with big brain – able to think and articulate issues better than the other human races created.” I should mention also that the red race was described as “the protector of Mother Earth and other created beings (including flora and fauna)” and as the bearers of the spear of valour and as a warrior tribe. They were to ensure “not only the protection but also the restoration of Mother Earth in the event of degradation.” This story is to be told to the future as it is the blueprint of the origin of the people of the Iroquois.
Plausible as the narrative may sound, it nevertheless presents a number of problematic angles. One of the most poignant is the various distinctions it identifies among human race. The story does not just highlight the racial distinction as represented in the real world. The human universe is made up of different human colour categories, Blacks/Africans, Red Indians, Caucasians and Asians. Increasingly and with the interracial relations, we have another breed – the ones who are born of parents who come from different races. These are not classified by the Medicine Wheel found among the Iroquois Confederacy. The latter were known (though in a derogatory manner) as the coloureds in South Africa during the Apartheid era. In a more civilised language these are people of mixed race.
Going back to the associational life disconnect mentioned earlier, the creation story as told by the Mohawk community of Akwesasne creates boundaries of conflict within the community itself. During the tour and further observations during the visit after the tour, it was clear that there is an increasing number of mixed race children born among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. In the ideal situation and by virtue of birth, these children would be naturally thought of as deserving full recognition as members of the Mohawk community. In reality this is not the case. This nature of things can be traced back to the Indian Act constituted in 1876 which marginalised native women who entered into relationships with non-native or non-status men by taking away their rights as native people. This clause in the Indian Act (1876) did not stop with taking the right of belonging away from such women but extended it to their children. According to the information available online, it is reported that:
Until 1985, section 12(1)(b) of the Act “discriminated against Indian women by stripping them and their descendants of their Indian status if they married a man without Indian status.” Under Section 12(2) of the Act, “‘illegitimate’ children of status Indian women could also lose status if the alleged father was known not to be a status Indian and if the child’s status as an Indian was “protested” by the Indian agent.” Further, Section 12(1)(a)(iv), which Lawrence calls the “double mother” clause, “removed status from children when they reached the age of 21 if their mother and paternal grandmother did not have status before marriage.” Much of the discrimination stems from the Indian Act amendments and modifications in 1951.[viii]
It would be expected that after the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985, whose main point was to amend the Indian Act with regards to the discrimination of native women who chose to have relationship with non-native/status men and their children, that they would have been safe and protected from the imposed exclusion by the Indian Act of 1876. The purpose of Bill C-31’s was to:
Observations of the members of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne only proved the assumption of change 28 years after the Amendment of the Indian Act to be futile if not illogical. It took exactly109 years for such structural injustices to take root and become part and parcel of the native people’s lives. They learnt to hate their own blood. Brutality and extreme measures that were employed by the Indian Act 1876, using assimilation strategies, disenfranchisement, and residential schools to name but a few may require double that amount of pressure from the native people to abolish divisive indoctrination that is still wrecking the lives of children born of mixed race – native and non-native couples. It should be remembered that, “Blood is Blood no matter how thin it runs. Its pathways [should be] jealously watched because it is ordained to run thinner and thinner,” (Hill) and it is indeed “against nature to forsake your own blood and flesh and when you go against nature; nature pays out” (Emmerson).
Regarding the relationship with other people outside the native boundaries, it is clear that native people are increasingly developing relationships with outsiders. Interracial relationships between native people and Asians, or people from Europe – especially Italy and France were said to be on the increase. All this happens against the will and expectation of the elders within the community. One of the elders commenting on this revealed that even now – in the age where one would expect a more open approach to relationships, “the Mohawk community in Akwesasne (and perhaps the majority of the Iroquois Confederacy) do not allow any interracial relationship. Any person found in such a relationship would be requested to leave the Island.” Therefore, the native people in general are still a closed community. This comes as no surprise as this tradition is still widespread in a number of communities. Even in the communities where people are more open, it is still highly possible to find social prejudices against other clans, tribes and races. Conversely, this does not mean that this type of bigotry is acceptable at any rate and level within the human society.
Blacks among the Mohawk Community of Akwesasne
Since we have been discussing relationships, it is imperative to look at the presence and relationship between Blacks and the Mohawk community in Akwesasne. Various discussions with the elders revealed that there was a population of blacks/Afro-Americans who fled to Canada from the American Civil War in the mid-19th century. During the interactions with the elders it was revealed that there was a group of black people who travelled by the St. Lawrence River and “were received by the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.” According to Chief Brian David, “a number of black people were adopted and became part of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.”
Having learnt this, it was only right to verify the facts as they were presented. In the literary work (at least the few looked at for the purposes of this paper), there does not seem to be much said about the Blacks among the Mohawk people of Akwesasne. Actually, there was much said about Blacks in Upper Canada which is basically modern Ontario along the St. Lawrence River. David Hill (1981) in his book records that:
In the year 1628 a British ship sailed up the St. Lawrence River to New France. It carried in its cargo a lone Black child from Madagascar. This six-year-old was the property of David Kirke, a famous privateer […] the child from Africa was the first known Black resident of Canada. He came as a slave, (Hill 1981: 3[x]).
Hill (1981) goes further to reveal from the records which were available to him at the time of his writing that the early cited presence of Blacks in Ontario was in the town of Brockville. Quoting an excerpt from Adiel Sherwood written in 1868, he notes the following:
I only recollect two or three which settled in the district of Johnstown; One in particular named Caesar Congo, owned by Captain Justus Sherwood, who came with his family in the same brigade of boats that my father and family did, and located miles above Prescott[xi] (Hill 1981: 12).
Other sources state that African Americans were enlisted during the American civil war (1861–1865) over and against concerns, “that if slaves had access to fire arms, the blacks would turn against them and use those firearms to kill whites[xii].” The same sources record that, “Many blacks fled to the north to achieve freedom and fight against their southern oppressors.[xiii] The latter statement tallies with the narrative that was given by the elders of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.
If the information that was shared is correct, one would only assume that, under normal circumstances adoption of persons into a family unit or a community gives the adopted the right of belonging hand in hand with associational rights within such a community. Unless this adoption was of the nature of a slave-to-slave-owner relationship, it would also be [ideally] assumed that these adopted persons would have had the right to mingle, intermarry and leave a visible lineage. This would resonate with the narratives told about the Meti community in Manitoba, and Creole and Cajun communities in Louisiana, United States of America. Taking this a bit outside North America, the same offspring of mixed race are found in South Africa – the Coloureds, and the descendants of Arabs and Blacks of Somalia respectively. This in normal circumstances would be the only way to verify that there had been a proper integration between one community and another, even more so when the word “adoption” is used.
In the case of the relationship between the Mohawk community in Akwesasne there is no visible trace of intermarriage. Queries made about this evident lack of veracity of the presence of Black people among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne were unproductive. One of the elders said that, “it is difficult to understand why there is no visible lineage [mixed race] among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, or blacks who identify as the Mohawk people of Akwesasne.” In trying to find out what measures would be taken if a sexual relationship occurred between a Black person and a Native resulting in childbirth, one of the elders said the following:
I cannot explain why we do not have mixed race groups among us [the Mohawk community of Akwesasne] – a group of community members born of mixed parents, Blacks and Mohawks. The Blacks were with us in our community for a long time. As to your thinking as to the possibility of killing unborn children or at birth, why should we do that? Why should someone think of killing a new life – just born into the world? I cannot think of anyone doing such a thing. As bears, we adopt and care for cubs who do not belong to us, regardless of colour and race. This is also how we are with the environment around us.
At this point, we should perhaps turn to the initial mention of measures taken by the Mohawk community of Akwesasne (and perhaps the majority of the First Nations communities in North America) on the protection of bloodline. A more practical view to rationalise this absence of Blacks who were supposedly “adopted” among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne would assume that both members of the black and Mohawk communities were barred from developing any form of a relationship which would have resulted in procreation of a mixed race. The other angle to look at this situation would be racial prejudice. Hill states in his book that, “The roots of racial prejudice in Upper Canada were older than the province itself: they could be traced to the early acceptance of slavery along the St. Lawrence River and Lower Great lakes” (Hill 1981: 96). With this in mind it would be safe to speculate that Blacks who were “adopted” among the Mohawk community in Akwesasne were “adopted” as slaves and not as part and parcel of the community with equal standing.
The Mohawk Community of Akwesasne and the Environment
Taking our thoughts away from human relations, a topic which is highly emotive, I want to turn our attention to a subject I personally found fascinating. This is about the teachings that were given about the cultural practices relating to the protection of the environment among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. The teachings and beliefs of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne personify nature. They call her “Mother Earth” as an endearment. The narratives from the Elders highlighted how all the created realm “has a soul” or should be considered as “an organism with a living spirit.” Elder Eddie Gray said that “trees, plantations, herbs and vegetation used to support human life have souls. When humans harvest trees for shelter, plantations/herbs for medicinal purposes and vegetation for food, these give their lives that human beings may live comfortably.” This is not far from home. In my tradition and in a number of African communities, and indeed among native communities the world over, there was reverence for other created ‘bodies’. This tradition sadly is dying, if not already dead. One important thing in this is the fact that the Mohawk community of Akwesasne is still holding to this belief which I find to be fundamental. In an age where the Mother Earth is struggling with a number of environmental woes, it is only proper that humanity see the rest of the created realm as one and the same organism which needs to be protected, for the human life support system, which depends highly on nature, to be secure.
It baffles our limited human minds to think of trees and other non-human animals as having a soul and as equals. Actually the teachings received from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne led me to start thinking seriously about my own relationship with the world outside human circles. It is true that for many years, there has been an egoistic attitude among humans who believe that all nature is given for the service and upkeep of human animals. This theory suggests that human beings are superior to all other created organisms. This belief is mainly supported by religious teachings, especially in the Judeo-Christian school of thought. In his writings, Hans Jonas says that:
There remained, then, the time-honored–Stoic as well as Christian–idea that plants and animals are for the benefit of Man. Indeed, since the existence of a living world is the necessary condition for the existence of any of its members, the self-justifying nature of at least one such member (= species) would justify the existence of the whole. In Stoicism, Man provided this end by his possession of reason, which makes him the culmination of a terrestrial scale of being that is also self-justifying throughout all its grades (the end as the best of many that are good in degrees) ; in Christianity, by his possession of an immortal soul[xiv], (Jonas 2008: 44).
But he doesn’t stop at that; Jonas goes on to state that:
The essence of organic being is seen, not in the functioning of a machine as a closed system, but in the sustained sequence of states of a unified plurality, with only the form of its union enduring while the parts come and go. Substantial identity is thus replaced by formal identity, and the relation of parts to whole, so crucial for the nature of organism, is the converse of what it is in the mechanistic view, (Jonas 2008: 50)
The Mohawk community in sharing their beliefs in simple layman terms were in actual fact talking about the deep philosophical arguments which took academics and scientists years to articulate. In their minds and lifestyles, all created organisms are part of the mechanism that makes the universe whole. It is interesting that in the sharing of their traditional beliefs, they showed that nature can take care of itself without any assistance from human beings. In the teachings also, it was clear that human beings have only so far managed to introduce forces of destruction on the environment. One of the most interesting things is that this belief of plurality of ecology is enshrined in their Rotinoshonni thanksgiving address. This supplication invoked all elements of nature. The opening of the prayer begins in this way, “We gather together and see that the circle of life continues. As human beings, we have been given the responsibility to live in balance and harmony with each other and with all the creation[xv],” (Alfred 2005: 13). The indigenous people’s teachings and traditional ways of life reflect the interdependence of all created organisms. This should invoke a sense of urgency among human beings to shun the selfish and egoistic ambitions geared to ‘better’ human lifestyle seeing that even trees, herbs and vegetation give up life to support another [human] life. I cannot put this better than Taiaiake Alfred who writes that:
The holistic view leads to an implicit assumption that everything is interrelated. Interrelatedness leads to an implicit idea of equality among all creation. Equality is brought about by the implicit belief that, everything – humans, animals and inorganic matter – has spirit, (Alfred 2005: 9, 10).
Before closing this section, I would like to point out that the Mohawk community of Akwesasne also believes in moderate living. On my follow-up visit after the road bike tour my host and I went fishing on the St. Lawrence River. The first day we had a good catch of bass which was sufficient for a couple of days but for the love of fishing, we went for a second time. The catch was good too. The reason why I am bringing this story into this narrative is that when I suggested we take the second day’s catch home, I was told that, “we cannot take more fish home today as we have not yet eaten up the previous day’s catch. Our community do not believe in such practices.”
Self-Determination and Self-Governance
In the discussion above we have discussed equality among community members in the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, equality of the races and equality of the created organisms. The Mohawk community of Akwesasne is striking in their militant character. Throughout the four days spent learning about their traditions and mingling with members, the importance of self-determination to the community was evident. The discussions with the tour team members from the community also evidenced pride in the ability of the community members of the Akwesasne Mohawk territory to demand their rights from the governing authorities at the provincial and federal levels. Even though this is a good thing, it is also worth noting that, it is expressed in an accusing manner towards other First Nations within the Confederacy suggesting that the latter are lazy and in some ways timid. The discussion on the reasons as to why other native people living in the reserves do not evidence material wealth is condescending. The latter are being blamed for their own misfortune due to their lack of will to self-determination. With the acclaimed material success and the established political space, the Mohawk community of Akwesasne is also pushing towards self-regulation discussions with the provincial governments (Quebec and Ontario) and the Canadian federal government. The way they see this happening is through acts of self-determination. In considering this, it is proper to ask the following questions: Who in the community has benefited from the current self-determining activities and who will benefit from the proposed self-determining activities geared towards autonomy? And is it realistic for the Mohawk community of Akwesasne to call for autonomy?
To start with, leadership among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne is in the hands of a selected few. These are people who in my assessment have strategic positions within the provincial and federal government structures, the same governing authorities from whom they seek autonomy. Because of their involvement with the provincial and federal government authorities, they ‘do not recognise’ that the leaders who are in the forefront on the calls for autonomous rule have been made rich by the same federal and provincial governments. Their influence within the Mohawk community of Akwesasne could be attributed not to how strong they oppose the provincial and federal governments but on how much money they coerce out of the established provincial and federal government agencies for development within the Akwesasne Mohawk territory. The chosen path of self-determination among the community could be therefore regarded as a means to get support for social service facility development rather than a means towards autonomy. This way of thinking lacks the pillars that could be attributed to an independent body of citizens or community members who are devoted to true liberation. It is more of a “make believe” discourse; a hypocritical gesture made by a people who appear to be genuinely involved in activities aimed at liberating a community living under oppression but in the real sense, are in service of the oppressor. This imposes impediments to true self-governance of the community. This is not something that could be said to be found only among the leaders in the Akwesasne Mohawk territory. A number of countries that were under colonial oppression went and are still going through this postcolonial cancerous wound.
With respect to material wealth, unlike most of the community members, the leaders in the community seem to thrive far and beyond their earnings. The self-determining activities in the past have benefited the leaders materially. Their lives are lived aping the lifestyle of the settler community who were regarded by these leaders as “lacking cultural values that are in progressive communities.” These cultural values were described as “being considerate of others, taking care of the environment, and living in moderation by acquiring only what one needs.” It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that the current self-determination discourse focuses on producing a younger generation of leaders who will protect the current leaders, in case, opposing voices from the marginalised members of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne arise. These leaders therefore, are, to use the words of Alfred (2005) “a cultural blank.” They are not in leadership to protect the interest of the community at large but to further their own interest. Self-determination in this case therefore is strictly confined within the boundaries of self-advancement. Talking about this type of hegemonic and comprador relations, Alfred (2005) says the following:
These state and settler-serving institutions are useless to the cause of our [native people’s] survival, and if we are to free ourselves from the grip of colonialism, we must reconfigure our politics and replace all of the strategies, institutions and leaders in place today. The transformation will start inside each one of us as a personal change, but decolonisation will become a reality only when we collectively both commit to a movement based on an ethical and political vision and consciously reject the colonial postures of weak submission, victimry and raging violence, (Alfred 2005: 20).
In other words, to establish a true anti-hegemonic movement that will serve the interest of a larger community, the leadership of the self-determining groups among the Mohawk community of Akwesasne must rid themselves of the entrenched white privileges to realise true autonomy.
As to the question of whether it is realistic for the Mohawk community of Akwesasne to call for autonomy, the answer is simply, yes. However, there is a problem. First, the leadership and structures within which self-governance is proposed are, as already mentioned above, under the supervision of the authorities from whom the breakaway is proposed. This is more like “biting the arm that feeds you.” With the comfortable lifestyles in which the leaders and a selected few members of the community live, it would be difficult to join the struggle with the most sincere and needy members of the community. The other problem observed is that the calls for self-determination do not come from the majority of the community members. These calls are echoed more by those in leadership, the group which is deep into comprador relationship with the mainstream provincial and federal government authorities. For these calls for self-determination to be solid, the rest of the community must be involved.
In conclusion, the Nation to Nation road bike tour was a timely opportunity to learn new things. Apart from getting the rare opportunity to learn how connected traditional and cultural values and practices are around the globe among the native communities, it served as an opportunity to see the similarity of the impact colonial rule has had among former colonies. Hand in hand with this, the interactions during the tour and subsequent visit after the tour with the community members of the Akwesasne Mohawk territory highlighted the challenges faced by former colonial subjects when trying to formulate their own social and political values. It gave a stronger sense of how deeply affected the native communities of Canada were (and still are) by the domination of the settler community. The community is not just divided against itself but has lost their cultural and traditional ways of life[xvi], sense of belonging, and cultural political pathways.
It occurred to me for the first time, that the term “self-determination” has been used to mean completely different things when used by social justice groups and communities whose lives have been characterised by domination from outsiders. The hegemonic systems identifiable in a number of communities bring the words “self-determination” readily to the minds and utterances of individuals, groups and or community members who are involved in fighting structural, social, political and economic injustices. It could be contended that “self-determination” as a terminology has different meanings in different contexts of usage. In one community this term may be employed to mean, a genuine pursuit to formulate ethical values towards emancipating and democratic discourse within a community or aimed at a certain group or individuals’ success.
The experience served as a great reminder of the fact that self-determining activities by any minority group anywhere in the world must take into account, the proactive nature of the forces of neoliberal market-led economy. With or without material success the neocolonial forces will employ all powers at their disposal to continue the enslavement of communities who would rather reclaim traditional pathways of life through acts of benevolence or force. In the case of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, discourses on self-determination are allowed [in my view] by the oppressor as a means to keep conflict at bay while continuing to oppress the community members through ‘neutral’ forces – the local leaders. To use Alfred’s words, “Self-government and economic development are being offered precisely because they are useless [to the native communities’] struggle to survive as peoples and so are no threats to settlers and, specifically, the interest of the people who control the settler state. This is assimilation’s end game” (Alfred 2005: 37).
[i] This accomplishment in the language of colour is also found in the representation of the medicine wheel on which black, red, yellow and white colours are superimposed
[ii] Rubara 2013: The Nation to Nation Tour: the fulfilment of a prophesy; Accesses at: http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/otesha-project/2013/08/nation-to-nation-tour-fulfilment-prophecy on January 18, 2014.
[iii] The tour started in Cornwall on July 26, 2013 when members of the group met before setting out on July 27, 2013 and ended in Bellevile on August 15, 2013. During the tour, the group members visited Thompson Island in Akwesasne, Cornwall Island, Mille Roches, Morrisburg, Prescott, Brockville, Gananoque, Kingston, Tyendinaga and Belleville.
[iv] The Blanket Exercise was developed by Kairos Canada over a decade ago and has been useful in awareness creation on social justice issues that relate to the indigenous/native Canadians. The exercise uses blankets to represent the lands of what is now called Canada, and the distinct cultures and nations which live on those lands to this day. http://www.kairoscanada.org/blanketexercise/BlanketExercise.pdf; http://www.kairoscanada.org/dignity-rights/indigenous-rights/blanket-exercise
[v] The Mohawk Community of Akwesasne see themselves as a nation
[vi] Bonaparte, Darren 2006: Creation and Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois. The Wampum Chronicles; Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Territory – Canada
[vii] According to the Mohawk Elders of Akwesasne, “A Condolled” leader is a male traditional leader who is set apart and observed from childhood under a god-mother and instructed in the ways of the Mohawk people. He has to be humble, moderate and a person deemed to have good judgement.
[x] Hill, David 1981: The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. The Book Society of Canada Limited
[xi] Both Brockville and Prescott were communities the road bike tour group visited and were hosted
[xii] Blacks in the Confederate Army: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slaves_and_the_American_Civil_War#Blacks_in_the_Confederate_Army
[xiii] Slaves and the American Civil war: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slaves_and_the_American_Civil_War
[xiv] Hans Jonas 2008: Spinoza and the Theory of Organism: Journal of the History of Philosophy, Volume 3, Number 1, April 1965. The Johns Hopkins University Press: http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_philosophy/toc/hph3.1.html
[xv] Alfred, Taiaiake 2005: Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Broadview Press Ltd – Canada
[xvi] Cultural and traditional practices remaining within the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and other native territories visited are now more for commercial purposes as opposed to the belief that they serve as a reintroduction of a more vibrant traditional life.