Off The Book Shelf – originally published in the Brentwood Cares newsletter
By Rosemary Brown
Many of us want to learn more about Indigenous Issues and Racism but don’t always know where to start . So I thought I would share with you what I have been reading in two book clubs: Indigenous Book Discussion Group (formerly Chapters and Chat) facilitated by Indigenous activist Michelle Robinson and the Settlers’ Book Club facilitated by Cat Schick, a Calgary artist. Both book clubs can be searched for online (Chapters and Chat through the Calgary Public Library, called Indigenous Book Discussion Group: https://calgarylibrary.ca/events-and-programs/programs/indigenous-book-discussion-group/ and http://settlersbookclub.com)
In Indigenous Book Discussion Group (Chapters and Chat) we have alternated reading books with studying The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The 94 Calls to Action (available online) are a blueprint of what Indigenous peoples want to see action on in many areas including but not limited to child welfare, education, health, public services, and justice. One can track the progress being made on the Calls by googling Beyond 94. One can also get much more information on the issues that gave rise to the 94 Calls by checking out the Truth and Reconciliation Report Volumes from the public library.
The last book we read is a must read – 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph. In just over 100 pages of fast paced but detailed writing Joseph summarizes the history that different sections of the Indian Act have had on Indigenous Peoples in so many aspects of their lives. He ends with a discussion of how the Indian Act could be dismantled. There are also several appendices including one terminology, a classroom guide and the TRC’s Calls to Action.
Off the Bookshelf (2)
by Rosemary Brown
Last month I introduced readers to two book clubs: Indigenous Book Discussion Group (Chapters and Chat) and the Settlers’ Book Club, both of which can be found online. One book which has been read in both clubs is Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. Vowel, a Métis lawyer based in Edmonton, makes it clear that she is not speaking for all Indigenous peoples. On the other hand the issues and analyses she presents echo those of many of the other books we have read. In this book Vowel uses humour and a well-documented research to explore a range of issues including but not limited to terminology, identity to residential schools and the 60’s Scoop, water, justice, the treaties, education. As such this is an excellent book to read alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions 94 Calls to Action. Vowel also has an extensive section challenging prevalent myths around Indigenous peoples.
One of the themes running through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action is the need for anti-racism education among health care professionals, child care workers, educators, the police, members of the justice system, etc. So in the Settlers’ Book Club we have also been reading several books about racism. The first was White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. This was written by the white American author and anti-racism facilitator Robin Diangelo, White Fragility explores the myriad reactions that we as white people often experience when either discussing racism or being challenged for racist comments and behaviours. These include everything from anger, and denial, to withdrawal, tears and or silence.
While I had been aware of these typical reactions before I read the book, I appreciated how Diangelo locates them within the context of white supremacy and what she calls the “good/bad binary”. She unpacks what white supremacy is and how as white people we are socialized into racism. Because we often are unconscious of this process and because we have bought into the notion that good people cannot be racist – that the racists are only those radical white supremacists. She ends with a discussion of how we can build resiliency when talking about racism so that we do not fall into typical reactive behaviours. This book has given me and others a lot to think about, as well as a list of very useful resources for further learning.
Off the Book Shelf (3)
By Rosemary Brown
One of the first and most impactful books we read in Indigenous Book Disscussion Group (Chapters and Chat) was Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.The author is James Daschuk, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Regina. The question motivating the research for this book was what were the root causes of the gap in health outcomes for Indigenous peoples as compared to mainstream society in Canada. Using a range of sources including government documents, reports from Indian agents, the RCMP and the Hudson Bay company, Daschuk locates the origins of the gap in health outcomes for Indigenous peoples on the prairies in the impact of the fur trade economy, the destruction of the buffalo herds and harsh government policies.
I was deeply disturbed to learn that the Canadian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, deliberately withheld food relief as a means to force treaties and reserves upon Indigenous peoples in order to clear the way for the railroad and settlement. Even after treaties were signed food relief, which was most often not only inadequate but spoiled, continued to be a means for control. Previous to the late 1870s and despite fatal diseases introduced through the fur trade, the Indigenous population was quite healthy. Now malnourished and crowded onto reserves they were not able to withstand the impact of tuberculosis which spread dramatically, killing a significant number of people and making others more susceptible to other diseases. A more recent example of the link between malnourishment, overcrowding and the spread of tuberculosis was a tuberculosis outbreak in the 1980s among the Lubicon Nation in northern Alberta after the disruption of their traditional economy by imposed oil and gas development.
While I found the content of Clearing the Plains difficult and upsetting to read I strongly recommend this book to others. It encompasses an important part of our history here in Alberta one that we cannot continue to ignore if we are serious abut the Truth and Reconciliation process.
This past summer the Settlers’ Book Club read Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining insights into the relationship between black communities and urban police forces. A black investigative journalist in Toronto, Cole recounts events from the year
of 2016 on a month to month basis. He describes in chilling detail incidents of police brutality as well as interactions with immigration and child welfare. Cole is also an activist who speaks up at hearings and other public events. He describes these as well as the community organizing efforts of everyday people. Cole weaves in stories from other provinces, including the visit he made to cities in Alberta to meet with communities concerned about the issues of carding and racial profiling by the police. This book was a timely read shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests held across the world and. It continues to be significant for understanding the experiences of Black people in this
country at the hands of the authorities, and the need for change. As Cole states “Some of us have decided that policing as it exists today will never contribute to our safety or freedom”.
Off the Book Shelf (4)
by Rosemary Brown
In Indigenous Book Discussion Group (Chapters and Chat) we read Clifford, Harold R. Johnson’s poignant memoir of his older brother. The story is related through a melange of memories as Johnson spends a day and night camping outside the long-ago abandoned home where he had lived with his Swedish father and Cree mother and siblings, at Montreal Lake in northern Saskatchewan. These memories range from escapades into which Clifford led Harold to discussions of scientific theories and allusions to astral travel.
The memoir offers insights into the critical role his mother played in securing a livelihood for the family through trapping, as well as the impact on the family of a forced move from the bush and trap lines into an urban area. The memories of Clifford extend into adulthood and the tensions that sometimes existed between Harold and Clifford. The conversations they had as adults continued to fascinate me, as did Clifford’s analysis of the difference between looking and seeing when discussing internalized racism, and stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. The book left me wishing I could have met and had a chat with Clifford and with the desire to read more by Harold R. Johnson.
To honor Black History Month, the Settler’s Book Club read Cheryl Foggo’s Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West. Foggo is a Calgary-based award-winning author, playwright and filmmaker. Written thirty years ago and recently republished, Pourin’ Down Rain combines personal memoir and family history, all contextualized within the larger story of the migration of Black settlers into Canada around 1910.
Foggo was born in Calgary in 1956, and she describes what it was like to grow up in Bowness as part of the small close-knit community of Black families who also lived in her neighbourhood. She also recounts the long but much anticipated road trips to visit grandparents and other relatives in Winnipeg. The close bonds between Cheryl and her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents gave her a sense of identity and pride which helped her deal with the racism she encountered growing up.
She explains that she grew up into a consciousness of racism based on the experiences around her and the stories she heard from friends and family, especially when it came to finding work in Canada. There were the comments of classmates and the sudden shunning by a white boyfriend in high school. She describes the first anti-racism march she participated in and the continued evolution of her thinking when it came to racism.
Then there were the family stories told by her aunts and great aunts that related the conditions that led to the migration of hundreds of Black settlers from the U.S. into Canada. These included Foggo’s great-grandfather, who left Oklahoma for Saskatchewan in 1910.
Interspersed with the stories and vignettes of family life are numerous and wonderful photos of family, friends, and neighbours. These all contribute to a powerful depiction of what it was like to grow up Black in Calgary and in Canada in the 60’s and 70’s.
Off the Book Shelf (5)
by Rosemary Brown
Every other session of Indigenous Book Discussion Group (Chapters and Chat) focuses upon a different section of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Last December marked the 5 Year Anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation report. One of the most informative evaluations of the progress that has or has not been made on the Calls to Action was issued by the Indigenous-led Yellowhead Institute. Entitled Calls to Action Accountability: A 2020 Status Update on Reconciliation, the full report is only 21 pages long and definitely worth reading.
It is packed with useful information and thought-provoking analysis. The report explains that the first 42 Calls are the Legacy Calls “that seek to address the ongoing structural inequalities that marginalize Indigenous peoples — intentionally or not — in contemporary Canadian society”. These-include the calls related to child welfare, health, justice and education. Calls 43-94 come under the umbrella of Reconciliation and deal with the inclusion of Indigenous peoples, the education of those of us who are not Indigenous and the recognition of Indigenous rights.
The report states that only two of the Legacy Calls have been completed and only six of the Reconciliation Calls. The writers of the report made a decision not to use the category “in progress” for this status update, only “completed” and “not completed”. I understand why they feel that the term “in progress” can be misleading. In one of our Chapters and Chat sessions we studied the calls around Missing Children and Burial Information. The government has allocated funds for the implementation of some of these calls and says that it is in negotiations to set up processes with Indigenous communities for collecting burial information and erecting memorials on residential school sites. There were nine Indian residential schools in Treaty 7 territory. Yet when I wrote last fall asking the government if they had entered into negotiations with Nations in this area they replied they had not.
The report details how the different calls have been or not been addressed and discusses what still needs to be done. The writers analyze why more progress has not been made and highlight the urgent need for all levels of government to move to “meaningful action”. If we are serious about reconciliation we need to keep abreast of what progress has or has not been made so that we can support meaningful change. This report is one way to do that.
The Right to be Cold by Sheila (pronounced Seela) Watt-Cloutier, was the March selection for the Settlers’ Book Club. This inspiring book is both a personal memoir beginning with her childhood in Inuvik in northern Quebec, and an impassioned accounting of the negative impact of the outside world on Inuit communities in the Canadian north, and on their traditional hunting culture. The hunting way of life was the foundation of the culture and the training ground in the skills and mental attributes needed to survive on the land.
These outside influences included the introduction of the trapping economy by the Hudson Bay Company, the collapse of the market for fox furs in the 40s, the 60s anti-sealing campaign, increasing dependence on government assistance and the associated pressure to move into permanent communities, the introduction of a non traditional education system the forced relocation of some Inuit communities to the far North, and the 1960s slaughter of the Inuit dog sled teams by the RCMP.
Over time these have led to social dislocation and an increase in many social problem such as poverty, alcoholism, crime, and violence. Watt-Cloutier believes that the way forward for Inuit communities in the North and a key means of breaking dependency lies in building and integrating those aspects, including spirituality, of what still remains of the hunting culture into new ways of doing things.
The capacity to do this, however, is diminishing as rapidly as the ice and the permafrost in the north due to global warming . As a result Watt-cloudier has spent much of her adult life addressing environmental issues through her role as Canadian President and then as the International Chair of the ICC or Inuit Circumpolar Conference. On the one hand she details the complex and interconnected ways in which global warming impacts the ice and permafrost and Inuit communities.
On the other she recounts the intense international campaigns and the ins and outs of negotiating with all stakeholders such as Inuit and environmental organizations, various industries and governments to create international agreements to protect the environment and the communities impacted by harmful environmental practices.
Watt-Cloutier was instrumental in bringing the world and the UN Human Rights Council to an understanding that environmental rights are also human rights. And as Watt-cloudier s eloquently demonstrates, one of these human rights is “the right to be cold”.
Off The Book Shelf (6)
by Rosemary Brown
I am writing this column only a few days after the discovery of the graves of 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Residential School. The news has been deeply distressful for Indigenous communities and residential school survivors. Indigenous colleagues have also expressed their frustration and dismay that many settler Canadians were surprised at this discovery and continue to be unaware of the impact of historical and ongoing colonization today.
Therefore, Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations (read in Indigenous Book Discussion Group) would be a timely read for many of us. Talaga, an Indigenous investigative reporter with the Toronto Star, delivers a powerful analysis of youth suicide in Indigenous communities in Canada. What is unique to her approach is that she locates this crisis within the context of a dramatic rise in suicide rates among Indigenous youth around the globe: North and South America, Scandinavia and Australia. She also lays the blame for this suicide crisis squarely on past and current aspects of colonization: residential schools and child welfare systems and other policies common to these countries.
She also describes the different strategies to address youth suicide, ones based on traditional knowledge and a holistic approach, that are being advanced by local Indigenous communities in all of these countries. No matter where you look these strategies are either ignored or insufficiently funded by governments, including our own.
Talaga is also the author of Seven Fallen Feathers, which we read much earlier on in the book club. Here she discusses and analyzes the deaths/murders of seven Indigenous students from communities in northern Ontario who had come to Thunder Bay to continue their education. Besides describing the details of each situation Talaga places them within larger contexts. One is the history of residential schools in Ontario. Another is the system or lack thereof for supporting students far from their home communities. A critical one is the lack of action on the part of local policing authorities and the other is the mobilization of the communities from which these students came. Community members went to Thunder Bay to search for their children and to push for more responsible policing when it came to the murder of Indigenous youths.
In the Settlers’ Book Club we read A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Alicia Elliott, the author, spent most of her childhood on the Six Nations reserve of Grand River in Ontario with her Tuscarora father and white mother and several siblings.
The title of her book is drawn from the Mohawk word for depression. It is an apt title as she creates a moving portrayal of what it was like to grow up in an impoverished family with a mentally ill mother and a sometimes abusive loving father.
The book is a series of interrelated essays ranging from personal stories to reflections on the impact if colonization, the nature of racism, the agricultural industry, literature and writing and photography.
She covers a lot of ground. She critiques the social services who seemed more intent on pulling the family apart rather than providing the supports they needed. She describes how the children were coached not to say to much at school or in front of care workers so that they would not be taken away. She talks about what it was like to grow up with a mixed heritage and her journey to find herself and to become proud of her Indigenous roots. She discusses racism and compares it to our perceptions of dark matter – we can’t always see it but it is there.
She moves from a description of the lack of nutritious food available because of a limited income to an analysis of agricultural subsidies which stimulate the production of corn and soy beans which are key ingredients in the junk food that was eastern. She speaks poignantly of her conflicted feelings towards a mother whose moods swing from loving, engaging and entertaining to sullen withdrawal and inactivity. They were also conflicted towards her father. He worked hard to support the family and was committed to keeping them together but he was emotionally abusive to his wife and there were instances of physical abuse towards his children. The theme that connects many of these essays is Elliott’s analysis of the ongoing impact of colonization.
Off The Book Shelf (7)
by Rosemary Brown
Before beginning I would like to note that in the June column I incorrectly used the term child care instead of child welfare when discussing one of the TRC’s Calls to Action.
Red River Girl: the Life and Death of Tina Fontaine was written by Joanna Jolly a London based BBC journalist. Tina was only 15 years old in August 2014, when her corpse was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The outcry caused by Tina’s disappearance and murder was instrumental in the establishment of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada.
As far as I know this is the only book that has been published about Tina, the circumstances surrounding her murder and the trial of Raymond Cormier, the man who was acquitted of murdering her. So it is worth reading for that fact alone. Jolly carried out interviews with members of Tina’s family, child welfare workers and police, lawyers, Cormier, as well as with activists around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in order to write this book.
However, there were times when I felt that I was reading a police procedural that was focused on detailing how the investigation of Tina’s murder was approached and on John O’Donovan, the detective who led that investigation.
I kept wondering if an Indigenous author would have developed a more fully rounded portrait of Tina and a more comprehensive and coherent analysis of issues that surfaced in the book: intergenerational trauma; the failure of the child welfare system; racism, and the sexual exploitation of young Indigenous women in urban centres. Despite what I perceive to be its shortcomings this book should still be read as if offers a moving context for the 2020 final report from the Enquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada with its 231 calls for Justice.
Off the Book Shelf (8)
by Rosemary Brown
Until I read From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle I was often quite judgemental about those who used drugs. This book selection for Indigenous Book Discussion Group led to a deeper understanding of the nature of addiction and the pain that leads to addiction, and also to an unexpectedly more compassionate attitude.
Thistle offers an unvarnished account of his life. Born into a Cree Métis family in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. At a young age Jesse and his brothers were transplanted to Brampton, Ontario to live with his father’s parents. His grandparents were loving but Jesse was negatively impacted by the move to such a different community and very much lost his way. Furthermore, his grandfather was quite strict and as a teen Jesse often rebelled until he finally quit school and left home.
What Thistle narrates next makes for a painful read. Often on the street Jesse slid into addiction and homelessness and made many poor choices as a result, including engaging in criminal activities. During this time, he also made attempts to go clean but they almost always failed and his health deteriorated so severely that his survival was at stake.
At this point he ended up in a long term rehabilitation program. And here the narrative took a hopeful turn. In this rehabilitation program a very long and difficult struggle ensued. With the loving support of the few people who did not give up on him, the quality of the program he was in, and sheer grit and determination Jesse finally overcame his addiction and continued his education. So in the end Thistle’s story is also one of hope for all of those experiencing addiction and for the families who love them.
The Settlers’ Book Club continued it’s examination of racism with How To Be An Anti-Racist by Black university professor Ibram X. Kendi.
While the title might lead one to believe this was a prescriptive manual, the book is in fact an interesting weave of personal experiences and patterns of thinking with broader analyses of a range of concepts relevant to antiracist struggle. It’s an account of how Kendi’s thinking evolved over time, from his childhood and youth to today. He considers internalized racist attitudes and ideas, and the intersecting issues of class, gender, sexuality. He also discusses power, colour, the environment and the source of racism in society.
In the process Kendi challenges the idea of colour blindness and the belief that one can be a non-racist or not racist. He argues that one is either racist or anti-racist. His definition of anti-racist treats the term not as a noun but as a verb, entailing the necessity to actively counter racist ideas, policies and practices.
He locates the source of racism not in ignorance and hate but the policies and practices that produce hate and ignorance. Further he argues that these policies and practices are not designed by those in power because they hold racist ideas, but that racist policies, practices and ideology are designed to benefit those in power – whether economically, politically or socially.
This then leads to an analysis of the viability of traditional anti-racist strategies which rely on education and moral persuasion. He argues that these have their place in the struggle, but if they are not linked to the work of actively challenging racist policies and practices they will fail in effectively challenging racism. For Kendi the essence of being an anti-racist is to work towards the elimination of racist policies and practices head on, which means taking on power. As such Kendi’s book is a critical and thought provoking addition to the literature on anti-racism. It is well worth reading.
Off the Book Shelf (9)
by Rosemary Brown
Outside the context of the book clubs I have been reading Braiding Sweetgrass:: Indigenous Wisdom , Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a trained botanist who teaches at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.
Syracuse, where I was born and raised, is on the traditional lands of the Onondaga Nation, one of the members of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois nations. Kimmerer was also born and raised in upstate New York in a rural area. Her fascination with and love of plant life emerged from her experiences in the countryside.
Braiding Sweetgrass consists of a series of interconnected vignettes about various plants and trees, intermingled with experiences of Kimmerer’s childhood, post secondary education and teaching career.
Throughout runs the theme of the relationship between Indigenous ways of knowing and western science. As a botanist she draws on both and in the process of writing of her experiences, ignites our sense of wonder about the natural world around us and our relationships as humans within this world.
Indigenous peoples understand at a deep spiritual level that this is a relationship of reciprocity: plants will take care of us if we take care of plants. And this understanding is infused with a sense of our responsibilities to all with whom we are in relationship and also gratitude to the natural world which sustains us.
Kimmerer recounts the experience of one of her graduate students who carried out research about the efficacy of different harvesting techniques of Sweetgrass. One technique is to snap the Sweetgrass stem off above the root, the other is to pull part of the Sweetgrass plant up by the root. Her control group was to be one that was not harvested at all
Informing this research was the wisdom of Indigenous grandmothers who taught that if the sweetgrass was harvested (in a respectful manner detailed in the book) that the sweetgrass would thrive, but that this was not the case if it was not harvested.
Some members of the committee set up to review the student’s thesis proposal dismissed the wisdom of the grandmothers, and the value of the research project, saying that everyone knew that if you broke off part of a plant or pulled some of it up by the roots you would damage the plant. Meticulous research following a western research protocol was carried out for two years. The results were that both harvesting methods were equally efficacious but the control group which was not harvested did very poorly as it became overgrown. When the student defended her thesis, committee members acknowledged the error of their thinking and the validity of Indigenous knowledge based on centuries of observation and learning from plant life.
When I was growing up we spent summers on a small property on Cross Lake. The approach to the lake led through a swath of marvellous cattails. They stand out vividly in my memories of childhood. Little did I know how many gifts are offered by cattails. Kimmerer relates these through a retelling of taking a class of students out to live by a marsh. They spent time in the water harvesting cattails and learning how to separate the layers of leaves making up the stem and using these to create thread and twine, and the mats which are used for sitting, and sleeping and to cover the walls of a round house made from maple saplings. At the centre of the leaves is a long pith and at the base, a rhizome, both of which are starchy food sources and the pollen and seeds provide protein. The plant also contains a gel that is used as an ointment for insect bites. The inside of the brown tails can be used to stuff mats etc.
For me this chapter fully illustrated the gifts that are offered to us by nature and why a key part of Indigenous cultures is the expression of gratitude for these gifts.
Kimmerer has spent a lot of time building relations with members of the Onondaga Nation, learning not only about their relationship with plants but also the animals around them. She shares a wonderful expression of gratitude that is used to open meetings, ceremonies and other activities It’s called the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. I will end with an excerpt from the Address. You can google the Thanksgiving Address for the rest. It is Kimmerer’s hope that if we all learn to understand the natural world through an Indigenous lens of knowing, we will take better care of this world for the sake of generations to come and of the world itself.
Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.
Now our minds are one.
The Earth Mother
We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.
Now our minds are one. “
We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms- waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water.
Now our minds are one.…….
This book is a Settlers’ Book Club selection in June 2022.
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by Rosemary Brown
Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi is a must read for those of us who want to develop a better relationship with and understanding of the people on whose land we now live, work and play.
The author, Dr. Betty Bastien, is Blackfoot (a member of the Piikani Nation), a University of Calgary Social Work Professor Emeritus and currently the Director of the Indigenous Bachelor of Social Work degree programme at Red Crow Community college in Lethbridge.
Bastien has written this book for other Blackfoot . At the same time the book offers insights into a worldview that contains lessons for all of us in regards to how we conduct our own lives and how we interact with the natural world around us.
The book is a challenging and enlightening one. It is with humility that I write this review, recognizing that as a settler, I most likely do not totally grasp the scope of the ideas that Bastien presents and discusses.
Bastien begins with a presentation of key concepts and a brief historical overview of pre and post contact Blackfoot society and the consequences of colonization.
In the two middle sections of the book, Bastien paints a multilayered portrait of what it meant and means to be Blackfoot and how this meaning is taught and learned. According to Bastien the worldview of the Blackfoot encompasses a cosmos of spiritual energies where everything in the natural world including humans, is infused with spirit and everything exists in relationship with each other. The Blackfoot recognized the natural world as a generous one which provided many gifts. Therefore, respect and gratitude were the basis upon which the Blackfoot developed and maintained reciprocal alliances with these different relations. This was essential to creating balance, the key to harmony and survival.
This understanding of the universe was based on thousands of years of observation and this understanding has been transmitted from generation to generation through ceremonies with their associated medicine pipes and bundles, prayers, stories and songs. In the process Blackfoot individuals learn what their roles and responsibilities are in building and maintaining alliances. This learning is an experiential and evolving process led by “grandparents” and ceremonialists. The stories were not prescriptive but were offered for individuals to reflect upon and apply to their own lives and situations. Bastien shares several of these stories, as well as statements by grandparents” throughout her discussion.
Bastien comments that it is difficult to use the English language to adequately explain these concepts. This is due to the fact that the Blackfoot language embodies these sacred and spiritual understandings of the natural world, while English is a language of a culture that became increasingly disassociated from nature over the centuries.
Bastien’s discussion of the Blackfoot language and how integral it is to the transfer of Blackfoot ways of knowing makes abundantly clear to the reader how devastating the stripping of language from Indigenous children in residential schools was. Residential schools were but one aspect of colonization which Bastien defines as a system of policies and practices which have resulted in cultural genocide-a concerted disruption of what it meant to be Blackfoot. She also argues that cultural genocide is genocide, and after reading this book I agree.
Bastien also makes the point that not all knowledge was lost as there were Indigenous peoples who resisted the impact of colonization by continuing to live by and engage in ceremonial practice.
Bastien believes strongly that the capacity to resist the genocidal consequences of colonization is to be found in reclaiming. Blackfoot ways of knowing and relating to the world around us.She refers to these ways of knowing as sacred science and compares and contrasts it to western science, while at the same time pointing out that many aspects of this sacred science resonate with many understandings and discoveries of modern physicists.
Therefore, If we as non-Indigenous peoples can begin to see the world in holistic rather than binary terms; if we can grasp how we are part of a web of continually interactive relationships that require reciprocity to remain in balance, and if we accept our roles and responsibilities in maintaining this balance, we might see our way forward to addressing the severe imbalances we are experiencing in the natural world today.
To sum up I will conclude with the response made by Indigenous author Lee Miracle in an Orange Shirt Day webinar She was asked about whether or not it was appropriate for non-Indigenous people to embrace the spiritual practices of Indigenous peoples to support themselves on their spiritual journey. Lee replied, “Don’t be a pretend Indian. Fall in love with the land and the land will teach you”.
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The Indigenous Book Discussion Group (formerly Chapters and Chat) last read Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq. Tagaq is a world renowned and award winning Inuit throat singer, as well as an artist, activist and now author. She was born and raised in Cambridge Bay in the far north. Split Tooth is her first novel and it resonates with the same power and sensibilities of her album Animism which won the Polaris Prize in 2014.
For over 20 years, Tagaq, who is now in her 40s, jotted down snippets of prose and poetry inspired by her memories and dreams. Split Tooth, both memoir and fiction, incorporates these along with black and white illustrations by Jaime Fernandez. In some ways to distinguish between prose and poetry feels like a false dichotomy as Tagaq’s prose is very poetic. She also has a compelling reading voice and I would strongly suggest that one access the audio version of her book.
Against alternating cycles of 6 months of daylight and 6 months of night, Tagaq relates anecdotes from childhood, especially her friendships and adventures with other children.
Running through these fictional and real memories are strong allusions to unseen spirits and to sexual abuse committed by the adults in her world
For me some of the most powerful passages focused on Inuit folklore and the main character’s sensual relationship with the animals and other natural phenomenon around her. Some of these encounters, with fox and with the northern lights are almost erotic in nature. It is in these stories and accounts that her concerns about the future of Inuit culture and the natural world upon which it is based are expressed.
If you look up “Tanya Tagaq and Split Tooth” on You Tube you can hear her read excerpts from her book, as well as some throat singing and her views on the environmental crisis the North is experiencing.
NB: Chapters and Chat has continued under the auspices of the Calgary Public Library and the Indigenous Book Discussion Group. These discussions are still led by Michelle Robinson and can be joined at the following link:
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Many of us may have heard of Indian Horse, the novel by Richard Wagamese that was later turned into a film. However we will be less familiar with the fact that Wagamese drew inspiration from the true life story of Fred Sasakamoose whose memoir was published posthumously in May 2021.
Entitled Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player, this first hand account packs a powerful punch. And so did the words of Fred’s son Neil whom we were privileged to hear from in the last Calgary Public Library discussion group.
Fred born in 1933, was torn at the age of 7 from his loving and safe home and family on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation (formerly Sandy Lake Reserve) in Saskatchewan, to attend residential school. Here he experienced not only physical and sexual abuse but the demeaning of his culture and the loss of his language.He recounts how the school “destroyed parts of us. We were taught shame at who we were.”
Although Fred’s grandfather taught him to skate at the age of 5 it was not until he turned 12 that he learned to play hockey at the school.
In 1950 he began playing for the Moose Jaw Junior A team and by 1953 he signed with the Chicago Black Hawks for whom he played 11 games in the 53-54 season. Thereafter he played in the Minors in Western Canada until 1960-61 when he left professional hockey altogether in order to be home in his community with his wife Loretta whom he married in 1955 and their growing family. He farmed, trapped and hunted and volunteered many hours to creating and supporting sports programs and opportunities for youth.
A critical theme detailed by Sasakamoose was the ever present racism experienced while playing hockey from the time he was at residential school, playing teams from white schools, through his career as a professional. There were the racist taunts and jokes, the playing of ‘warpath’ music in the stadiums, the reluctance of white players to pass the puck and the ways in which even the honours he received were “tainted by publicity stunts”.
Another thread is the impact that his experiences at residential school, reinforced by the racism he encountered, had on his psyche. Despite his success at hockey he began abusing alcohol to numb the pain and anger. He struggle with his addiction from 1953 until 1980 and unfortunately he often took his anger out on his children whom he mistreated. Neil’s accounting of this was very painful to hear.
The turning point came in 1980 when Fred was elected to the position of Chief. He served until 1984. This is when he stopped drinking, and began reconnecting with his culture and learning Cree. He went on to serve as a band councillor for 35 years and then as a Senator on the Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations. Among his many other contributions was the time spent on the NHL Ethnic Diversity Task force.
Fred died from Covid 19 in November 2020. His legacy is a powerful one. Not only did his brief time in the NHL motivate younger Indigenous hockey players, but his ongoing contributions to community and his capacity for self transformation and healing provide inspiration for all of us.
It was hard to put down, Tilly and the Crazy Eights, which was December’s read for the Settlers’ Book Club. The author, Monique Gray Smith, of Cree, Lakota and Scots ancestry, takes us on a road trip with eight Indigenous Elders from Kamloops, and Tilly, their younger driver.
They travel by van to Albuquerque, New Mexico in order to fulfill the bucket list wish of Sarah, who has always dreamed of dancing at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow. Travelling with Sarah are her sister Anne from Toronto, four other members of her sewing or “stitch and bitch” circle: Rose, Bea, Lucy, Mable as well two men, Rose’s husband Poncho and Bea’s ex-husband Chuck. All have their own bucket wishes which the trip incorporates, whether it’s a stop in Las Vegas, a visit to the red rocks of Sedona to spread a sister’s ashes, seeing the Grand Canyon, or hugging a tree in the Redwood Forest .
At first the group does not believe that they will be able to take the trip but after months of hard work raising the necessary funds, arranging for travel documents and permission to use one of the Band Council’s large vans, they are finally ready to go.
What follows is not only a recounting of their trip but an exploration into their diverse personalities: from irrepressible Lucy to curmudgeonly Rose, as well as the stories of what has made these elders who they are. These stories are often poignant and many deal with healing from residential school experiences to losing a daughter on the Highway of Tears, marital discord and break ups, loss of culture and struggling with alcohol addiction. The interplay among the elders is often humorous and sometimes very sweet as relationships heal and strengthen and journeys of self discovery are made. All in all this was a very enjoyable, heartwarming and worthwhile read.