Friday, April 21, 2017

Christine Stewart

Dear Brian, you wrote that you were interested in my perspective on the post-crisis period from Treaty 6 Indigenous territory and wanted to know more about what I “feel like needs to happen” as I wrote following our seminar. As you state, connecting various territorial perspectives is a motivation for the series, and so you are interested in my question: “What does it mean to write about a post-crisis poetics from Turtle Island, from Treaty 6? The Arab Spring, the European ‘movement of the squares,’ and the Wisconsin occupation are inextricably part of our context, but do not manifest here with us in the same way.”

I want to address your invitation by considering the labour required for being here, on colonized land, and how might people who are not Indigenous work inside Indigenous intellectual and legal systems, and not only within Eurocentric concepts of resistance and liberty? That is, when colonial governments and rebellions function, as Hupa, Yurok and Karuk scholar Cutcha Risling Baldy writes, in total “ignorance to Indigenous intellectualism and thought” how can we acknowledge and work within Indigenous systems of law, and learn what is required of us to understand where we are when we say we are here?1

I accept that Jeff Derksen’s concept of sincerity as an existing social relation between people might help us work through this ignorance,2 and I am curious why it is that, as Rob Jackson notes, so many North American Marxists don’t see the immediacy of local Indigenous issues as sites of struggle that are also struggles against capitalism and colonialism and as places in which life as a site of existing relations is affirmed.3

I have always wondered about this, but especially after moving to Edmonton, and engaging in the Occupy (2011-2012) movement. Why was Occupy such a white movement? It did not tend to attract other activists who otherwise had a history in socialist activism. It did not, for example, attract the Indigenous activist who so fully engaged and animated the subsequent Idle No More (2012-2013) movement.

What kinds of relations are required here? What kind of militant sincerity? If, as Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald says, colonialism is the denial of relationship than how might we affirm relationship?

Outside of Peterburough, in Eastern Canada, in the province of Ontario, on Pigeon Lake, on Anishinaabe land, there is a wild rice harvest each fall, and settler cottagers in the area attempt to disrupt the harvest. In response to this, Hayden King, a Gcgi’mnissing Anishinaabe writer posts on his twitter feed on Aug 29th, 2016, the latest billboard by the Reclaiming Renaming Project OgimmaMikana: Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha #OgimaaMikana.4 It translates into “wild rice is Anishinaabe law.”5

Thinking through what it might mean for wild rice to be law is difficult from a Eurocentric perspective. But it might be true that until we can, until we are willing to exert the unthinkable labour that learning a very different legal system requires, we cannot know where we or what is expected of us when we are here, and we cannot help but embodying and reproducing the violence of colonization.

Here, where I am, there is no wild rice. There is a different material reality. There is sweet grass, and a few buffalo. There are different nations, and here on Treaty 6, I need to understand different forms of law. This is not social work. It’s not charity, and it’s not community service work. It is paying attention, and being differently educated, listening hard, creating difficult alliances, igniting rare and sometimes awkward moments of solidarity, expending exhausting labour in the hopes of creating new, sometimes, usually, fleeting social subjects.

In my teaching I work collectively with nêhiyaw Elders, knowledge keepers, young Indigenous students and artists and scholars from some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Edmonton. The nêhiyaw make up one of the nations of this place. Their people were at the table when Treaty 6 was negotiated in 1876, and, in 2016, Treaty 6 still matters to the nêhiyaw people—because of housing shortages, incarceration rates, homelessness, endemic illness, high rates of suicide, land theft, water theft, unmitigated resource extraction, poverty, hunger, police brutality, genocidal provincial and federal administrative policies and the ongoing revanchist gentrification of the city of Edmonton that criminalizes the long standing street communities.

As a settler person, living in Edmonton, I need to understand what it means to live on Treaty 6 land. It is a question that I often get asked, do I know that I am on Treaty Land, and do I know what that means? I mostly hear it downtown, outside of the hospitals from folks smoking cigarettes in hospital gowns, from people out on the street, bumming change, from folks who live in the local shelters.

In particular, I am asked to understand the meaning of Treaty 6 as it was negotiated and agreed to by the nêhiyaw, Nakota Sioux, Dene, and Saulteaux—not as it has been interpreted by the Crown (the relationship of the Métis people to treaty is a matter of some debate. See Adam Gaudry’s “Are the Métis treaty people?,” for example). As I have learned, Treaty 6 was and is understood as a necessary nation-to-nation relationship of reciprocity and sharing. According to nêhiyaw oral and written history, there was no surrender of land to the Crown. The treaty negotiations in 1876 were made with the understanding that land sharing and close kinship connections were both possible and essential at that time in history.6 And the nation-to-nation treaty proposed by the Indigenous nations of the area with the Crown is based on thousands of years of treaties that existed between the Indigenous nations.

But I don’t know much, and what I do know I have learned from different elders, knowledge keepers, scholars, students and colleagues. I am indebted to their guidance, and I am grateful for it. From them I have been slowly learning the extent of my obligations to the land I live on. Through them I have been learning about my treaty obligations.

I am learning slowly and painfully that upholding the Treaty agreements is as much my responsibility as it is of the nêhiyaw, Dene and Nakota Sioux nations. I am learning that it is my work to give back what has been taken, to restore the kinships, and the balance that is necessary for all life. I am asked to understand how I continue to contribute to the injury and displacements of Indigenous people here and elsewhere, and how I might instead become a good relation, a good ally to the complex communities of this place. And I am only coming to understand the extreme labour required in this task, that it is uncomfortable work, impossible, painful, necessary and infinite.

I have been taught that the human-to-human Treaty 6 was founded on the original treaties, agreements that existed between the human and the non-human or more-than-human world, agreements on which important legal systems were based. That is, as nêhiyaw Elder Bob Cardinal relates it, Treaty 6 is based on the original agreements of reciprocity that were made and that have existed since the beginning of time, agreements of reciprocation that were made between humans and animals, between humans and air, between humans and water, humans and plants, humans and rocks.7

For Elder Bob Cardinal, this is the most important thing we can know when we begin to consider treaty. That is, that these original treatise are the basis for the survival of all life on this planet, and they lie at the heart of the treaty making process for the nêhiyaw people. That is, that all subsequent treaties between Indigenous nations with Indigenous nations are based on these original and sacred covenants formed by humans and their more-than-human relations.

These original treaties hold the blueprint for all subsequent treaties.

As a result, when it came to the Treaty 6 negotiations with the Crown in 1876, the Indigenous nations were well versed in treaty making and in maintaining the complex and extensive familial alliances that treaties required.

nêhiyaw lawyer, Sharon Venne’s article “Treaties Made in Good Faith” reflects this, and nêhiyaw lawyer and founder of the Idle No More movement, Sylvia McAdam’s description of the negotiations for Treaty 6 illustrates this history and the fact that those primary relationships are embedded in Treaty 6. In her recent book, Nationhood Interrupted: revitalizing nêhiyaw legal systems, McAdam describes how integral the okihcihtwâw iskwêwak, the nêhiyaw women lawmakers, were to the treaty process. She notes how the British representatives could not conceive of women as lawmakers and so the women were not invited to the Treaty 6 negotiations, but that the nêhiyaw men continued to bring the treaty terms to the women for their approval. According to McAdam, traditionally, the women lawmakers made all the decisions about the community. They had jurisdiction over the land and the water. And so the Treaty 6 negotiations could not go on without them. McAdam’s description of the women’s role in the process of Treat 6 reminds us of the original human-to-more-than-human-treaties and their integral role in the more recent process of making Treaty 6.

She writes this:

“During the time of the treaty negotiations, a ceremony was conducted by the women law makers for four days and four nights asking the âtieyôhkanak (spirit keepers) what must be done. During this time the women prayed and some fasted, as is the custom. An understanding was made and was taken to the men.

Further, during the ceremony âtieyôhkanak entered the lodge the women. There were many who entered but five made a declaration. The first âtieyôhkanak that came was pîsim (the sun). The sun told the women, “I will bear witness to this exchange and I will stand by it for all time.” The second and third was the âtayôhkan was the the nipiy (water), but it was the male and the female nipiy that came in and they too stated, “We will bear witness to this exchange and we will stand by it for all time.” The fourth âtayôhkanak was the wihkask (sweetgrass); the grass told the women, “I too will bear witness to this exchange and I will stand by it for all time.” The final âtayôhkanak was the grandfather rock, who stated, “I too will bear witness to this exchange and I will stand by it for all time.” The grandfather rock is the pipe used to seal the exchange in what is now considered a covenant.”8

McAdam explains that this is why the saying “as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow, and the grass grows” from the numbered treaties is so critical.9

Here, in amiskwaci,10 by the river, kisiskāciwanisīpiy,11 on this bend that has always been a meeting place, as a settler person, I am expected to know this story of the treaty and of the story that lies behind the original treaty. I am expected to honour this river and its history, to consider the significance of the river to all life and to this particular place. Despite the shrinking Columbia Glacier that feeds the river, despite the heavy traffic that surrounds it, despite the shit that runs into it, the river flows, and as long as it does, the Treaty holds.

nêhiyaw lawyer Sharon Venne shifts this a little to say that she has been taught that the water refers to the birth waters—as long as the birth waters break, as long as women give birth and the birth waters flow, the Treaty holds.12 For Venne, this is how we are all bound to the totality of water, through our bodies, through our mothers. Its life is our life, and our obligations to it are simple, and infinite.

This understanding of the treaty suggests that if I don’t honour these integral relationships, I am not abiding by my treaty obligations, and I am putting important, life sustaining and familial relationships at risk. That is, I am here illegally, outside of nêhiyaw law, and outside of the original sacred agreements made by humans and the more-than-humans.

In “A phenomenology of the vanguard,” Sara Ahmed argues that “[w]e have to walk differently: it is not that those behind come to the front, but that staying back gives you the time to question, to ask rather than tell. A politics of the rear is still a movement.”13 And here, on Treaty 6 land, non-Indigenous people have been asked to walk differently, to be quiet and to listen to entirely different systems of law.

The Elders and the knowledge keepers of Treaty 6 stress the importance of paying close attention to the extended and particular systems of kinship within which we are imbedded. They stress two central nêhiyaw terms that express these concepts of kinship: wiichitowin and wahkotowin: wiichitowin expresses a human-to-human connection/kinship and miyo wiichitowin means good relations. wahkotowin expresses a wider sense of kinship, one that extends to animals, air, water, rocks, plants, stars. miyo wahkotowin means to be in good relations with all of your relations.14 miyo wiichitowin and miyo wakkotowin also reflect the original treaties and are radical and rooted concepts of respect, interconnectedness and balance.

Here, in Treaty 6 territory, I am called on to be in good relations with these extended kinship systems on a local and global level. I am asked to be rigorously attentive to where I am and how I am here. This requires a rigorous engagement with and respect for Indigenous legal systems across North America and beyond. This is what is being asked of us at Standing Rock.

Without a militant sincerity, without a commitment to these legal systems, any acts of resistance will always, at the very least, reproduce and perpetuate current and devastating systems of colonial violence.

1 “Coyote is not a Metaphor: on decolonizing and renaming coyote.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 4, No 1 (2015), 6.
2 Jeff Derksen, “Militant Sincerity.” Toward. Some. Air. Banff Press (2015).
3 Email (May 2016).
5 Hayden King,
6 See Sylvia McAdam’s Nationhood Interrupted. Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems. Saskatoon: Purich Press, 2015; Sharon Venne’s “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 34.1 (2007): 3-16, and Jim Kâ-Nîpitêhtêws ana kâ-pimwêwêhahk okakêskihkêmowina: The Counselling Speeches of Jim Kâ-Nîpitêhtêw. Freda Ahenakew & H.C. Wolfart eds. Winnepeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press (1998).
7 Elder Bob Cardinal, in conversation (Oct. 17 2014).
8 McAdam 57.
9 Ibid.
10 Edmonton.
11 North Saskatchewan River.
12 Sharon Venne, “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” 3-16.
13 Sara Ahmed, “A phenomenology of the vanguard.” Last modified December 1, 2013.
14 These teachings are from different sources across Treaty 6: Elder Bob Cardinal, Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald, nêhiyaw lawyers and scholars Sylvia McAdam and Sharon Venne, Elder Pauline Paulson, nêhiyaw instructor Dorothy Thunder, Papaschase knowledge keeper Reubin Quinn and nêhiyaw knowledge keeper Gary Moostoos.

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