Assimilating Canadians into the wisdom of Indigenous ancestors

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Image: Idle No More - Facebook

This year, the Idle No More movement called for Earth Day rallies to focus attention on the links between Indigenous issues and the environmental movement. 

Events leading up to Earth Day included an impressive 'Nation2Nation' (N2N) dialogue between Haudenosaunee and Anishnawbeg leaders like Ellen Gabriel and Leanne Simpson and Canadian activist Naomi Klein in Toronto. (Watch videos of this event here and here.)

 Emphasizing the need for cooperation between Indigenous peoples and "settlers," Russ Diabo, a member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, told N2N, "Nationhood is about our relationship and responsibility for Mother Earth. It's not about drawing lines, because, whichever side you're on, we all have a relationship with our mother the earth."

 Ecologically speaking, Diabo is correct; metaphysically, less so. When it comes to my people, the Non-Indigenous, most of us don't acknowledge Mother Earth, and behave as if we have no responsibility for her.

 It might be flattering to call us "settlers," but it's misleading. We don't settle anywhere. Economic forces compel the average Canadian to move once every six years, cutting multigenerational ties to any particular piece of living earth. Perhaps therein lies the source of much of the trouble we get up to? 

Where do you want to be buried? 

During the build-up to Earth Day, I was invited to give some talks at Ontario universities. Because I lived in Nunavut for 12 years, and worked for the Inuit land claim group there, I sometimes get introduced as an 'expert' on Inuit. That's wrong.  I know very little about Inuit, and certainly wouldn't insult them by calling myself an expert.

I'm a Euro-Canadian, 'Qallunaq' in Inuit terms. I joke with Inuit friends that I've been white most of my life, so if I'm an expert on anything, I'm an expert on Qallunaat.

One of the things my people like to do is fantasize about the future. We concoct comic-book jet-pack Star Trek visions of future civilizations, while treating Indigenous peoples like primitive specimens. "You're always putting us under the microscope," protests my friend, Inuk teacher Tommy Akulukjuk.

Despite our fascination with dissecting Indigenous cultures, we seem to have overlooked the fact that they are actually more focused on the future than we've ever been. In general, Indigenous societies have been mature long-lived civilizations. They've flourished, in part, because they've developed the most practical down-to-earth approaches toward the future. 

I can prove it to you with one simple question: Where do you want to be buried?

Pause for a moment and think about it.

Every Indigenous civilization on earth can answer that question. When I asked an Ottawa university class only one student could answer.

"My traditional territory," replied a woman from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. The Non-Indigenous students sat silent. Just as I did.

Here's another most of us probably can't answer: Where will your grandchildren be buried? And their grandchildren?

That's only going six generations out.

Representatives of almost all Indigenous civilizations that I've come across say that they all have a variation of the axiom that says one must consider one's actions "unto the seventh generation."

We can't even tell you where our third generations will be.

Non-Indigenous studies

Mature Indigenous civilizations are with us and around us now. They are not 'weird' or 'exotic.' The only reason they feel that way to us is because we see so little familiar or recognizable in their way of life. And that's not because they are aberrant; it's because we are.

We non-Indigenous are the weird, exotic ones.

Thanks to the external muscle of fossil fuels and our ideology of possessive individualism (in bulk you might call it 'capitalism'), we are the first civilization not enmeshed within networks of communities and relations with the land. We are the first to try to split ourselves off. This is a "stunning innovation in human affairs, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom," according to anthropologist Wade Davis. "Ours is a new and original culture that celebrates the individual at the expense of family and community."

There has never been a non-Indigenous civilization on planet earth before.

Every civilization throughout human history has been Indigenous. Some of the Host Peoples have continually occupied parts of these lands for over 13,000 years. Ethnologist and poet Gary Snyder describes these long dug-in communities as similar to climax ecosystems. Rooted. Belonging to a particular water and landscape. And those who are embedded tend to look after a place; those who are disembedded do not.

A non-Indigenous civilization is a complete rupture with the entire arc of human history. By the way, that doesn't mean all Indigenous civilizations were saintly or nice; it just means they were rooted. They may have uprooted others, enslaved peoples, created empires, but every human civilization (Inuit, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan, Haudenosaunee, Anishnawbeg, etc.) has had a homeland somewhere.

Until now.

Fake ID?

Haudenosaunee and Anishnawbeg leaders sometimes refer to my people as having arrived here with Jacques Cartier, and Samuel de Champlain in the 15th and 16th centuries; but that is being overly generous.

We Euro-Canadians and Americans tend to falsify our ancestry, bandying on about the "400 or 500 years" that we've been here. Actually most of us cannot trace our arrival further back than four generations. According to historian Gabriel Kolko, the vast majority, 50 million of our ancestors, migrated to Canada, the U.S. and Australia after being uprooted from Europe between 1821-1932, a period ending less than 100 years ago. 50 million in 111 years makes our ancestors the largest concentration of 'displaced persons' in history.

"Colonial" is also a misleadingly flattering term for us; it implies that we occupy the land as servants of a distant power. Whom do we serve?  We have no loyalty to Britain or France anymore. Haudenosaunee and Anishnawbeg elders use the term 'colonial' because, unlike us, they can't forget the beginning of our relationship. They recall that (some of) our ancestors came from previously-rooted and continuous civilizations. They fought and made treaties with our originating civilizations -- Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands -- which were in their last stages of indigeneity before European elites enclosed all the common land and rendered the common people homeless.

But my peoples' loyalties to those lands have evaporated. We don't maintain homelands in Europe, nor here. Jack Turner gives a deft description in The Abstract Wild:

We no longer have a home except in a brute commercial sense: home is where the bills come. To seriously help homeless humans and animals will require a sense of home that is not commercial. The Eskimo, the Aranda, the Sioux -- all belonged to a place. Where is our habitat? Where do I belong?

We know that the historical move from community to society proceeded by destroying unique local structures -- religion, economy, food patterns, custom, possessions, families, traditions -- and replacing these with national, or international, structures that created the modern "individual" and integrated him into society. Modern man lost his home; and in the process everything else did too.

We the de-placed have no idea where we belong. So let's not use such a passive term for us: we aren't a 'Non-Indigenous Civilization', we are the first 'De-Indigenized civilization' in 50,000 years of human society. 

It would be bad enough if this was just existential angst, but this has very practical environmental consequences. "He who is uprooted uproots others," warned French philosopher Simone Weil. "The white man carries this disease with him wherever he goes," she said.

We are not just De-Indigenized, we are De-Indigenizing everyone we meet, because we want to take the stuff under their feet. Our placeless civilization needs more resources than a rooted one. In the 1992 Kari-Oca declaration, Indigenous peoples said: "We must never use the term 'land claim'… It is Non-Indigenous people who are making claims to our lands. We are not making claims to our lands."

That's very true. We covet land claims, deeds and titles -- not so we can stay someplace, but so we can leave it.

No landing gear 

What happens if you create a test-tube Non-Indigenous civilization, and let it parasitize the land and cultures of all the rooted Indigenous civilizations?

War, climate upheaval, environmental destruction.

We are passengers on a soaring De-Indigenized jet plane burning up the accumulated linguistic, cultural and biodiversity of the planet. The mature cultures look on at us in horror. To them our civilization looks like a lumbering juvenile delinquent on a binge. Arrogant, violent, and ignorant, we've stolen their wallet full of accumulated natural and cultural capital and we're spending like drunken sailors.

Only now we're beginning to realize: our plane has no landing gear.

And no parachute.

This system was only made to go up.

We can plead all we like with the sweaty bloated captains of industry, but they don't know how to land the plane. Our 'best and brightest' only know how to go faster and burn more. We have more B.A's, B.Sc.'s, LL.B's, M.B.A.'s and Ph.D.'s than ever before in history; and yet the planet hasn't seen this many plant and animal extinctions since the last ice age. As Gary Snyder has written:

"The last eighty years or so has been like an explosion. Several billion barrels of oil have been burned up. The rate of population growth, resource extraction, destruction of species, is unparalleled. We live in a totally anomalous time. It’s actually quite impossible to make generalizations about history, the past or the future, human nature, or anything else, on the basis of our present experience. It stands outside the mainstream. It’s an anomaly. People say, 'We've got to be realistic, we have to talk about the way things are.' But the way things are for now aren't real. It's a temporary situation."

Fossil fuels and this new value system of possessive individualism allowed this one-time-only experiment: an entirely uprooted civilization with no land-loyalty, and no commitment to the 7th generation.

We're such an unnatural phenomenon you’d think every university would have a Department of De-Indigenized (DI) studies. 

Have any of your teachers ever asked you: Where will you be buried?  What are you doing to protect the seventh generation?

Mine never did. But I do remember reading this question being posed to Gary Snyder: "How do we look after the environment?"

His answer was two words: "Stay put."

That's the shortest most unadorned answer. And it explains why more and more environmentally concerned ordinary Canadians are aligning themselves with Indigenous folks. Not because we want to 'be' Inuit or Cree, or insult First peoples by mimicking some imagined caricature of them. But because we're beginning to realize that we have no landing gear. A De-Indigenized civilization is not designed to land. It's designed to crash. 

Landing will mean asking questions about land. Questions like: what makes a people Indigenous? I believe that the answer is: a Non-Indigenous people believe land belongs to them; an Indigenous people believe they belong to the land.

To what land do you or I owe our bodies?

To what land-water-sky do we owe allegiance?

Can we commit to a place and to each other? Because our current civilization is a one-time only experiment. Once it has failed, we are all going to have to re-braid ourselves back into webs of 'all our relations' -- plant, animal, human. If there are future civilizations, they will be Indigenous.

Why wait?

Why not start now? As B.C. community activist Ann Damude says, "you don't plant community gardens just to save money or guard against future apocalypse: you do it because it's a better way to live -- now."

How about respectful and harmonious relations with our Indigenous neighbors? Any reason why we can't start now?

I concede that it's late in the day. But maybe you also have been amazed by the open and tolerant reception that Indigenous folks give us when we make genuine efforts to reach out and start conversations. Somewhat amazingly, most don't hate us. Despite our taking far too long to wake up, and despite our state-corpocracy continuing to steal their land and strangle their cultures.

"First cease to do evil"

But if we're going be good neighbors, we're going have to quit this business of stealing the neighbors' land and fouling their backyards.  "Cease to do evil, then learn to do good," said the Buddha 2500 years ago. He was on to something: the order is important. As De-Indigenized we tend to think we have some divine right to rush around rescuing the Indigenous, without noticing that we were usually the ones who pushed them overboard to start with. 

The latest attack is Bill C-45 in Canada, which allows a sell-off of Indigenous reserve lands, and guts protections for 2.6 million rivers and lakes down to just eighty-seven. Idle No More initially sprang up as an outcry against this law allowing the selling and soiling of Indigenous land and water.

Since Non-Indigenous government is showing no regard for future generations, "The First Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have for protecting land for food and clean water for the future," says Mi'kmaq professor Pamela Palmeter. "Not just for our people but for Canadians as well. So this country falls or survives on whether they acknowledge or recognize and implement those Aboriginal and treaty rights. So they need to stand with us and protect what is essential."


If we're going to stand with our Indigenous neighbors, we’ll have to start asking questions about whose land we’re standing on. How many of us know that Canada's capital, Ottawa, sits on un-ceded Algonquin territory?

If we're finally going to ask permission to make this place home, then we're going to have to seek out the Elders, earn their trust, give respect, and seek their advice. The Non-Indigenous no longer have an obvious tradition of Elders. Can we relearn how to recognize the wise women and men among us as well as among our Indigenous neighbors? Relating to Elders means re-establishing vibrant oral traditions, seeking out apprenticeships and mentoring, and learning how to be mentors and storytellers ourselves.

When the Buddha was asked, "What is the highest blessing?", 'nirvana' came in at ninth place. His first answer was: "Not to associate with fools; to associate with the wise; and to honour those worthy of honour." "Honour" gets a bad rap these days, but perhaps that's because we've been honoring fools instead of the wise.


One of our honorable Elders is psychiatrist James Hillman. He says, "Nature dies because culture dies."

Or as my friend Tommy Akulukjuk puts it: "You guys don't have a culture, not a real living culture that's in your bones, in your customs and practices, in your Elders, in your language." Tough words, but can you see what he means? We De-Indigenized have created a caricature, a grotesque imitation of a culture, but it’s not one that we sustain through living communally with 'all our relations' (plant and animal included).

A culture is not made of commodities. Culture is not a bunch of static things to buy and sell. We invest a huge amount of time and faith in context-free knowledge frozen into paper and data; but we have almost no experience of the intergenerational wisdom and the oral traditions that have been the mainstay of rooted cultures.

"Everybody else in the world except Canadians, Australians, and Americans," says Gary Snyder, "know where they come from" (Paris Review, 1992). "And if somebody asks you, 'What folk songs do you sing where you come from?' you have a song you can sing to them. Like in Japan, say, where you're always being asked to sing a song from your native place."


Maybe a cure lies in reversing Hillman's warning: Nature thrives if culture thrives.

Not the plastic-purchase thing we call culture, but the examples of real living culture that many of our Indigenous neighbors still maintain -- and some of us have started to build. Stories, songs, and dances that embed us in place. Daily efforts to build our own embodied and embedded living culture. 

What has sustained Indigenous people over the centuries? "Language. Music. Stories," says Anishnawbeg Elder Al Hunter, "That's what has sustained us. It has not been NGOs. It has not been organizations."

Edward Chamberlin described one of the first encounters between Gitksan people and the Canadian government. When surveyors informed them that the government owned their land, the Gitksan replied by asking: "If this is your land, where are your stories?"

"Wisdom sits in places," say the Western Apache. We need to build a loyalty to those places, to their stories, and to the peoples who hold them -- so that the wisdom may someday reveal itself to us as well. That'll mean learning the medicines, the myths, and the mores that arise from abiding in place. 

Speaking to the N2N conference in Toronto, Mohawk elder Ellen Gabriel said: "Our teachings say: we are part of creation, not separate. We need to assimilate Canadians into the wisdom that our ancestors brought us."

"But don’t worry, this assimilation will be a lot gentler than what we experienced!"

While the audience laughed, author Naomi Klein, seated next to Gabriel, leaned into her microphone and replied, "I willingly submit to Ellen's assimilation!" 

Me too. What about you?


Acknowledgements: The ideas in this story were originally inspired by conversations with Tommy Akulukjuk, David Kunuk, Annie Quirke, and Kowesa Etitiq.

Derek Rasmussen lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut for 12 yrs and is a policy advisor to various Inuit organizations. Derek is also a meditation teacher trained in the Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and is affiliated with the Dharma Centre of Canada and the Morin Heights Dharma House, Quebec. He can be reached at dharma_eh[at], and he blogs here.


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