LaFLECHE: Identity and the First Nations crisis
Members of the Strong Wind women's group took part in a prayer vigil for the First Nations commiunities in crisis Thursday April 21, 2016 outfront of Schmon tower at Brock University. Bob Tymczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network
In many ways, Karl Dockstader’s family history was reduced to ash when a doll was thrown into a bon fire.
In the 1930s, Dockstader’s grandmother was taken from her home and placed in a residential school. Aside from her language, the only thing the eight-year-old Oneida Nation girl had from her home was a traditional corn husk doll.
Other children at the school also had traditional items from home. Rattles. Jewelry. Clothes.
When they arrived at the residential school, the children were brought to a courtyard. Their family keepsakes — their only tangible links to their cultural identities — were set on fire as they stood by helplessly.
“As the doll was engulfed in flames, so too was her connection to our traditional ways,” Dockstader said.
Later, she would be physically abused for speaking her own language.
She learned her lessons well. Although Dockstader can speak some Oneida, he isn’t fluent. He wanted to learn from the best source he knew, but she would not share a language that so often brought her pain.
“She would only speak Onedia to her brothers and sisters. But when we asked her to teach us, she had a look of fear in her eyes,” he said. “She wouldn’t teach us.”
He told his family’s story at the vigil organized by the Indigenous Solidarity Coalition at Brock Thursday.
Celeste Smith, co-chair of the coalition, said the event was originally organized as an act of support for the First Nations community at Cross Lake Manitoba, which is facing a suicide crisis.
As they were pulling the event together, the Attawapiskat crisis made national headlines.
So the vigil also became about Attawapiskat, and other First Nations communities grappling with the same issues.
After traditional prayers, music and dancing, some of those in attendance spoke about what is happening in Canada’s aboriginal communities.
The deliberate and long corrosion of First Nations culture, including the residential schools Dockstader’s grandmother was forced to attend, was a common theme.
Some, who had visited northern communities like Attawapiskat, described places where aboriginal traditions had not just been lost, but were essentially taboo.
These are places where even members of other aboriginal communities who might be able to pass on surviving traditions can be treated as outsiders.
Cross Lake and Attawapiskat face many challenges. Poverty. Substandard housing and public utilities. In come cases, these are communities in dire need of governance reform.
But they also face a crisis of identity, the legacy of generations of assimilation policy in Canada.
A commonly offered solution is the transplanting of these communities to places with more resources and better opportunities.
While there is an undeniable logic to the idea, it would do little to prevent some fundamental problems from migrating right along with the people.
If you do not believe culture is an important piece of the puzzle, consider our reaction when cultural warfare happens in other nations.
When we see fundamentalist zealots like the Taliban or ISIS destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts, from the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan to the Mashqi Gate in Iraq, we’re outraged. We know a piece of what it means to be human has been extinguished.
Now imagine for a moment those artifacts were not relics of ancient cultures, but belonged to people living in the here and now.
If it was your churches, your mother tongue or your cultural totems that were stamped out, how would you react? What impact would that have on your family if that continued over decades? How impoverished would your community be?
The residential schools are gone. The forced Christianization of aboriginal people has stopped. But the legacy lives on.
Maybe communities like Attawapiskat need to be abandoned. Maybe not. I don’t claim to know the answer.
But I think it is reasonable to conclude that unless we can finally face, as a nation, some of deeper causes and grapple with what that means for the future, we’ll have more vigils like the one at Brock because the crises will continue to happen.