Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.
As part of NICHE’s 2017 Canadian History of Environment Summer School, we were gifted with Anishinaabe/Ojibwa Bonnie Devine’s knowledge in her keynote presentation, “Claims, Names and Allegories.” Her paper questioned if increasingly popular land acknowledgements made at the beginning of presentations are becoming somewhat redundant; mere words being spoken that are void of any deeper meaning. She concluded that in order to advance reconciliation in this country, there is a need for those who are making these acknowledgements to not only learn more about the Indigenous people they are acknowledging, but to have an animate memory in our mind when acknowledging spaces. Elmer Ghostkeeper, Elder from Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta, taught me, “When we talk in our language, either in Bushland Cree or Michif, we think in pictures. Not in words. You must visualize the song bird that is singing that song in the tree. Picture that in your mind. We speak in verbs – living moving words”(2017).
As Bonnie spoke, I wondered if it was indeed possible that land acknowledgements are becoming decimated to an expectation at events and not something that is more deeply understood and reflected upon. Does reconciliation rely on a series of expected words in which we should begin our proceedings at conferences and meetings in academia? As Bonnie Devine noted: for a deeper sense of reconciliation, one must become aware of the histories of the people living in the region. They must recognize the importance of land to Indigenous ontologies and the connections to spirits, animals, plants, waterways, and with Mother Earth. I agree that one must become attuned to the histories of the people living in the regions that they are speaking in, but this historical knowledge must include the acknowledgment of something much darker and far less comfortable. It is imperative that we understand how colonialism has been responsible for the contemporary Indigenous identities on the land. The social, political and economic histories of colonial power have resulted in severed connections to land by those who did not enter into treaty or by those who were scooped for adoption into settler families or were taken from their communities to attend residential schools. Connections to land have been disrupted due to forced alienation from familial communities and due to historic gendered laws, choice of education, or choice of employment. Also, the movement of First Nations people onto lands that were intentionally less productive, that today become exploited and decimated by industry, continue to limit traditional land use activities and land epistemologies. Furthermore, social misconstructions of Indigenous identity continue to romanticize or delegitimize Indigenous people in this country. The historic relationships between the Canadian state and Indigenous groups were responsible for the uncomfortable moments that we had over the three-day summer school. These moments included standing outside of the residential school at Woodland Cultural Centre reading the names of past students etched into the brick, the inaccurate re-creation of longhouses at Crawford Lake designed without adequate consultation of local Indigenous people, and the repeated evidence of how land has become abstract because its ownership has remained dependant on who has been given the privilege to name and define the spaces.
CHESS 2017 made evident that the power relationships in Canada have not only shaped but continue to influence the experiences of Indigenous people. This fact was recounted by those who shared their stories with us. As a Metis person with complex attachments to self, and the only social anthropologist who attended CHESS 2017, I was unable to detach myself from this reflexivity. There were moments that I became acutely aware of our privilege as academics – privileged by an education taught in our first languages using Western theories that have been given more credibility over Indigenous ways of knowing.
Our final stop during the summer school took us to the office of New Credit. Here, bees had taken residence in the building’s attic to live and work alongside the office staff. Despite their efforts to naturally quell the population, the bees continued to grow in their numbers. The symbolism of these bees resonated with me during my flight back to Calgary that day. Bees are a significant contributor to our ecosystems and environment because they pollinate the plants that sustain us both physically and spiritually. However, the bees were there to teach us the lessons of a cooperating society. Power over others is not a Cree/Metis Indigenous belief, specifically, however, the communal strength that can be developed by feeling powerful is. These bees were there to remind us that we must know one another in our society. We must teach what we can to others even if we only have two moments in a land acknowledgement to do so.
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