Book Discussion Night- You’re Invited

By Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud
December 3, 2015

image1Our Book Club is pleased to announce they’d like to host you for a talk with Wab Kinew on reconciliation Dec 8th at 5pm. 

We’ve been reading Inconvenient Indian and we’d love to discuss what we’ve learned with you and reflect on what it means to engage in reconciliation.This even will be in the McNally Bookstore Community Classroom tickets $15 through McNally or at the door.  www.mcnallyrobinson.com/classes
You’ll be able to purchase Wab Kinew’s book The Reason You Walk & ask him questions!
Join the conversation, join the journey to reconciliation in Winnipeg 
You can catch up on summaries of Inconvenient Indian Chapters right here Thanks to Katherine our amazing volunteer!

Chapter 2: The End of The Trail

King begins this chapter by reminiscing on his childhood. He says growing up it was common to play “cowboys and Indians,” yet no one really wanted to play the Indian. His one friend did enjoy dressing up as Straight Arrow, the only show at the time that featured an Indian as a hero, a hero who pretended to be a White in order to mask his secret Indian identity.

As soon as colonies established along the East Coast, Indians began appearing in literature, art, and popular culture. Native people in this early period were a critical part of every day life. Indians were a potent military force, and they were also players in colonial economies. In the beginning, Indians were more difficult to ignore. Explorers who treated with Indians in the early years tended to report on Indian-White relationships in generally positive terms. Colonists, who had to live with Indians, were more disposed to dwell on what they saw as the darker side of Native character.

Colonizers framed Indian attacks not as a consequence of colonial arrogance or mutual understandings, but as God’s way of making sure that his chosen people were paying attention. All different flavours of seventeenth-century Christianity featured a deity who might hurt you as a way of demonstrating his love. While the hardware of civilization – iron pots, blankets, guns – was welcomed by Native people, the software of Protestantism and Catholicism – was not, and the Europeans were perplexed, offended, and incensed that Native peoples had the temerity to take their goods and return their gods. Whites were part of God’s plan. And Indians, who had been here all along, were not.

Colonists did not want to share with the Indians. From the early part of the seventeenth-century until the close of the nineteenth, Indians and Europeans were continuously “not sharing” somewhere in North American. King goes on for the next two pages outline several dates of battles and wars throughout the centuries. From the beginning of the European colonization of North America, Indian-White relations were an itch that both parties scratched until someone broke the skin. Agreements for peace were made. Treaties were signed. But the constant temptation to pick at the scabs was, in the end, just too much to resist.

King segues to the concept of race. Over history the concept of race has evolved. With the Egyptians there was the Vook of Gates, in 1775 the National Varieties of Mankind, Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, in 1841 James Fenimore Cooper was invoking race in the novel The Deerslayer when he brought up the idea of “gifts” and “God.” All in all, in Cooper’s novel, it comes down to a central message that Whites were human while Indians were still working their way up the evolutionary ladder. Cooper did not found these ideas alone, these ideas were part of the air he breathed.

The next couple of pages King goes into the nineteenth century depiction of Indians, where they start to pop up more in paintings, novels, poems, movies, plays, etc. However the role of the Indian was portrayed, it did not stop the dynamics of racism. In the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth century there was the development of the Wild West shows. Indians were more than a staple in the Wild West shows and expositions. They were an essential part of the Western spectacle, the Western myth. It would not be an exaggeration to say, “No Indians, no show.”

James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture The End of the Trail was the single most powerful icon of Indians in North America. Versions of The End of the Trail still appear everywhere. The image and its variations have been slapped in motels, riding stables, restaurants, used-car lots, and rest homes.

Hollywood has had a long-standing love affair with Indians. Between 1894 and 1930, Hollywood made over 100 films that featured Hollywood’s notion of “real” Indian people and the “authentic” Native culture. After 1930, when sound entered the scene, Hollywood knocked off another 300 films, which means that in 116 years between 1894 and 2010 there were about 3.5 films per year; films with Indian people somewhere in frames. The only thing film had to do was to collect such materials and cobble them into a series of functioning clichés. There were certain types: bloodthirsty savage, the noble savage, and the dying savage. The good news in all of these roles is that none of these Indians were a threat. No matter what happened, the question that was asked and answered again and again on the silver screen was: Can Indians survive in a modern world? And the answer is always: No.

King then goes on to talk about currency and Indian iconography. Then he progresses to talk about his personal favourite Indian actor, Will Rogers, who in the 1930s was the most famous man in America, Indian or White, and today is hardly known. King suggests that he would like to see Rogers on a piece of currency, but there is only one problem with that plan… In the fifty-odd films that Rogers made, he never played an Indian. Still, Rogers is one of only two Indians to get a star on the Walk of Fame.

So does who gets cast as what matter? Nope. With regular typecasting, reasonable makeup, and a good voice coach, almost anyone can be a Hollywood Indian. So what’s the problem with casting an Indian actor as a doctor or lawyer or a baseball player or some rich asshole everyone hates? Black actors play a wide range of characters including principal or leading roles. At the same time, Native actors – were cast, and for the most part continue to be cast, with stunning, regularity, as Indians. In mostly minor roles.

If you wanted to, you could break down the Indian roles that Indians get to play into two categories: historical Indians and contemporary Indians. Most Indian actors wind up in historical roles. Provided they look Indian. That’s the catch. If you don’t look Indian, you don’t get historical Indian roles.

Now it is true that in the last twenty years Indian actors have found roles that do not involve the nineteenth century. Canadian broadcasters, in particular, have been good about producing movies that make use of Native actors and that focus on contemporary Native life. As well, Canada has the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN). While the United States has been slow to shift its focus from the 1800s, it has still managed to put together a reasonable modern movie resume, but contributions to series television have been dismal.

In the end, the history of Indians in Hollywood is more a comedy than a tragedy. The Indians that Hollywood shows on the silver screen of North America bear only a passing resemblance to Native people. Native filmmakers are trying to change this, particularly through documentaries that deal with a contemporary Native world. Native artists could well be changing the way the world looks at Native people, but because few of these productions ever get to large commercial venues, no one, outside art theatres and the film festival circuit, will ever see them.

Chapter 3: Too Heavy To Lift

Indians come in all sorts of social and historical configurations. North American popular culture is littered with savage, noble, and dying Indians, while in real life we have Dead Indians, Live Indians, and Legal Indians.

Dead Indians are, sometimes, just that. Dead Indians. But the Dead Indians King talks about are not the deceased sort. They are stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears. North America has had a long association with Native people, but despite the history that the two groups have shared, North America no longer sees Indians. What it sees are the cultural debris – authentic and constructed – cultural signifiers that create “simulacrum” which is something that is never that which conceals the truth. It is the truth, which conceals that there is none. The only truth of the things is the lie itself.

You can find Dead Indians everywhere, Rodeos, powwows movies, television commercials. From the frequency with which Dead Indians appear in advertising, in the names of businesses, as icons for sports teams, as marketing devices for everything from cleaning products to underwear, and as stalking goats for New Age spiritual flimflam, you might think that Native people were a significant target for sales. They’re not of course. Indians don’t buy this crap. At least not enough to support such a bustling market. But there’s really no need to ask whom Dead Indians are aimed at, is there?

Among many new things that Europeans had to deal with upon their arrival in the North American wilderness were Live Indians. Live Indians, from an Old World point of view, were an intriguing, perplexing, and annoying part of life in the New World.

There is no general agreement of how many Indians were in North American when Europeans first arrived, but most scholars are willing to speculate that the new diseases that fisherman and colonists brought with them killed upwards of 80 percent of all Native people along the eastern seaboard. Conflicts and wars did their part as well, and, by the time the nineteenth century rolled around, the death of the Indian was a working part of North American mythology. This dying was not the fault of non-Natives. The demise of Indians was seen as a tenet of natural law, which favoured the strong and eliminated the weak. Problem was, Live Indians didn’t die out. They were supposed to, but they didn’t. Since North America already had the Dead Indian, Live Indians were neither needed nor wanted. They were irrelevant, and as the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth century, Live Indians were forgotten, safely stored away on reservations and reserves or scattered in the rural backwaters and cityscapes of Canada and the United States. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of mind, out of sight.

All Native people living in North America today are Live Indians. People can tell by just looking at them what they want, what should be done to help them, how they feel, and what a real Indian is really like. Indians are invisible. In order to maintain the cult and sanctity of the Dead Indian, North America has decided that Live Indians living today cannot be genuine Indians.

As with the Dead Indian, North America has, for a very long time now, insisted on a collective noun for Live Indians – Indians, Aboriginals, First Nations, Natives, First Peoples – even though there are over 600 recognized nations in Canada and over 550 recognized nations in the United States.

To North Americans Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing. One is a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise.

Legal Indians are considerably more straightforward. Legal Indians are Live Indians, because only Live Indians can be Legal Indians, but not all Live Indians are Legal Indians. Legal Indians are those Indians who are recognized as being Indians by the Canadian and U.S. governments. In Canada, Legal Indians are officially know as “Status Indians,” Indians who are registered with the federal government as Indians under the terms of the Indian Act.

According to the 2006 census, Canada has a population of about 565,000 Status Indians. The census put the total number of Native people in Canada at that time – Indians, Metis, and Inuit – at 1.2 million, but in that year, at least 22 Indian reserves were not counted, and Statistics Canada admitted that it might have missed even more. Add to the fact that many First Nations people refuse to participate in census, seeing it as an affront to sovereignty. Which means slightly less than 50 percent of all Native people in Canada are Status Indians.

This is important because the only Indians that the government of Canada and the United States have any interest in are the Legal ones.

“Interest” is probably too positive a term, for while North America loves the Dead Indian and ignores the Live Indian; North American hates the Legal Indian. Savagely. The Legal Indian was one of those errors in judgment that North America made and has been trying to correct for the last 150 years.

The Legal Indian is a by-product of the treaties that both countries signed with Native nations.

These treaties were, for the most part, peace treaties. Wars were costly, and after a couple of hundred of years of beating up on each other, Whites and Indians decided that peace was more profitable. All in all, it was a smart move. For both sides, and because of the treaties, Legal Indians are entitled to certain rights and privileges. They’re called treaty rights, and – with the exception of certain First Nations bands in British Colombia and some executive order reservations in the States – Legal Indians are the only Indians who are eligible to receive them.

A great many people in North America believe that Canada and the United States, in a moment of inexplicable generosity, gave treaty rights to Native people as a gift. Of course, anyone familiar with the history of Indians in North America knows that the Native people paid for every treaty right, and in some cases, paid more than once. The idea that either country gave First Nations something for free is horseshit.

In Canada, Legal Indians are defined by the Indian Act, a series of pronouncements and regulations, rights and prohibitions, originally struck in 1876, which has wound its snaky way along to the present day. The act itself does more than just define Legal Indians. It has been the main mechanism for controlling the lives and destinies of Legal Indians in Canada, and throughout the life of the act, amendments have been made to the original life of the act, amendments have been made to the original document to fine-tune this control.

Read pages 70 & 71 to find shocking examples of the amendments to the Indian Act.

One thing you can say about Indian hobbyists who simulate the Dead Indian is that they take their fantasies seriously. Still, all of this dress-up, role-playing silliness has as much to do with Indians as an Eskimo Pie has to do with the Inuit. The irony is that these clubs and sentiments of the Dead Indian they espouse would be better served if Live Indians and Legal Indians somehow disappeared, got out of the way. After all, there’s nothing worse than having the original available when you’re trying to sell the counterfeit.

Chapter 6: Like Cowboys and Indians

And here we are: 1887. In Canada, there was a federal election that year, and the Conservatives under John A. Macdonald retained power. By 1887, Native people in North America had already spent the last 280 years laid up with European colonialism, a condition, much like malaria. It’s a remarkable disease. Like colonialism, it can lie dormant for years. And it can flare up at any moment. In 1887, it flared up again.

The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, would be Washington’s new and improved effort at assimilating Indians. Removal and relocation hadn’t been as successful as had been hoped.

Since the arrival of Europeans, private ownership of land has been one of the cornerstones of non-Native society and economy. Land, to the European mind, gave an individual station within society and was a certain source of wealth. Land could be bought, sold, and traded with more assurance than currency.

Indians, through inclination and treaty, held land in common, and when people of goodwill gathered together in Washington and at places as the Lake Mohonk resort in Southern New York to plan the future of Native people, they decided that land was too important to be left in the hands of a community that had no real sense of its value.

All these imperatives, all these insistences, and not one voice in the room took a moment to ask, “Why?” “Why?” was not a question anyone asked of assimilation. The only proper question was, “How?”

And, in 1887, the answer was allotment. Reservations, which had seemed a good idea earlier, were not decried as an affront to Christianity and capitalism. Indian agents and church officials complained that so long as Indians were allowed to live on reservations, they would retain their pagan customs and cultures. So long as Indians were allowed to hold land in common, they would lose advantages that free enterprise offered.

The General Allotment Act directed the government to break reservations into individual pieces. As a general rule, each head of household received an allotment of 160 acres. Single Indians over the age of eighteen and orphans under the age of eighteen got 80 acres, while minors under the age of eighteen got 40 acres. The federal government would hold each allotment in trust for a period of twenty-five years, during which time the allotments could not be sold and were tax-free. Each allotee lost their treaty status but was given U.S. citizenship.

At the end of the twenty-five year trust period, each allotee would own their own allotment free and clear, and Indians, who had been communal members of a tribe, would now be individual, private landowners. Reservations would disappear. Indians would disappear. The “Indian Problem” would disappear.

You might wonder where this “surplus land” came from. After doing the math, the tribe wound up holding onto just one hundred and sixty thousand acres of their original three hundred thousand acres, while the government miraculously came away from the exercise with one hundred and forty thousand acres of “surplus” land.

Then, in 1934, allotment, as U.S. government policy, was repealed, and colonialism went into brief remission. It was under John Collier’s leadership, with Roosevelt’s blessing, that the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), became national policy.

Collier rejected the forced assimilation of Indians and argued instead for a form of cultural pluralism whereby Indians could speak their languages and practise their religions without government interference.

The IRA looked good on paper, and it was a reprieve from the programs that came before it. While the IRA “allowed” that Native people might control their own destinies, the reality was that all of the major decisions were still left firmly in the hands of the government. The IRA was officially in effect for about nineteen years. But that’s misleading. With the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, Indians, both in the U.S. and Canada, vanished from their respective governments’ agendas.

Colonialism, which was dormant, came back in the guise of another new and improved government program. This mid-century version of colonialism was called “termination,” and it became official U.S. government policy in 1953 with the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 108. HCR 108 declared the intent of the U.S. to abrogate all treaties that it had made with Native people and abolish federal supervision over tribes.

No treaties. No reservations. No Indians. Problem solved. Again.

For the next thirteen years, termination worked its way through America like the plague. Before the policy was officially ended in 1966, 109 tribes had been terminated and another million acres of Indian land was lost.

Canada tried its hand in termination three years after the U.S. gave it up. In 1969, Trudeau and then Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chretien released the 1969 White Paper, which, had it become law, would have been a first step in abrogating treaties, eliminating Indian status, and effectively breaking up the land base of every Native tribe in the country. Ottawa decided it was now unwilling to deal with such sovereign nations, even though treaties were the way in which Canada and Native people had always conducted their business.

So, in terms of government action, business as usual. But there was something else afoot. After five hundred years of being legislated, policed, and programmed out of existence, Native people began to say, rather loudly, “Enough.”

King tells a story of his experience at Chico State University and his experience with Native activism. After a survey went out to see students’ ethnicity he was surprised that there were about 60 incoming students who had marked the “Indian” box. After calling the students who had marked “Indian” in the box, it was discovered they were not Indian at all, but marked Indian because they were supporting Indians one hundred percent. That was the way it was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in North America. Everyone wanted to be Indian. Even the Indians. In 1969, many Native people weren’t really aware of what was happening in Indian country.

On November 20, 1969, eighty-nine American Indians from a variety of tribes set sail and took over the defunct federal prison known as Alcatraz. Or “the Rock.” It wasn’t the first time Indians had been to the island. By early 1860s, Alcatraz was a prison, and in 1895 the U.S. government shipped nineteen Hopi Indians to the Rock. Alcatraz and Indians already had a long and mixed history together. Still, the 1969 event was electrifying moment, because the takeover symbolized action. It became and instant cause of celebre. While the Indians were struggling with organizing and outfitting the occupation, while the government was trying to come up with a plan to evict the “pesky redskins,” famous people were lining up to visit the island. Ironically, Alcatraz the media event was, in many ways, more successful than Alcatraz the occupation. In spite of problems with resources, in-fighting, and constantly changing population, the occupation lasted almost nineteen months. There was no consistent plan, no consistent leadership, no continuity. The media quickly tired of the event in the way that the media always tire of such things, and many of the celebrities who had flocked to Alcatraz found other worthy moments and other worthy causes that held the promise of network coverage and camera crews. The occupation turned Alcatraz into an emblem of Native resistance and pride. Alcatraz’s value was largely symbolic. But it also revealed the complex of fault-lines in Native-White relations, and almost before the aftershocks of the occupation had settled, new tremors began rattling doors and breaking windows across North America.

The epicentre for much of this seismic activity was the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM had many demonstrations over the 1970s and 1980s. AIM was, from the beginning, a loosely managed group of Native men and women who had simply had enough, who decided, given the choice between doing nothing or acting, that they would act. One protest in 1972 was against the murder of a Native man, Raymond Yellow Thunder. He was kidnapped by four White men and a White woman, who stripped him of his pants, took him to the Legion Hall, and shoved him, half-naked, out on the dance floor. Yellow Thunder was drunk at the time. So were his assailants. Afterward, they took the older man outside and beat him. The whole thing was supposed to be a joke. Eight days later, Yellow Thunder’s body was found in the cab of a pickup truck on a used car lot. Cause of death was determined to be a cerebral haemorrhage. The Sheridan County Attorney called the affair a cruel practical joke. AIM called it murder, and they demanded and got a full investigation, which included a second autopsy. Melvin and Leslie Hare were arrested, tried, and convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to one year in prison. One Year. It doesn’t seem like much of a sentence, but, according to the oral history in the area, the Hares were the first White men to be convicted of killing an Indian.

King goes on to share other example such as these and other details of AIM’s demonstrations and protests. A large and rather militant demonstration was the one of Wounded Knee. Support was more grassroots. A great many people fixate on AIM as the first truly militant Native organization in North America. And they believe that AIM was concerned primarily with initiating confrontations and occupations at a national level, activities that would garner media coverage, activities that would give AIM an international profile and Aboriginal concerns a public face. However, others led resistance actions long before AIM came along, actions that were far more intense and deadly. King describes some of the organizations and demonstrations. It was, for better or worse, AIM that got most of the media attention.

In Canada, Native political organizations began with the League of Indians of Canada in 1919. The League was founded by F.O. Loft (Mohawk) and was an extension of the American-based Council of Tribes. Its mandate was to encourage Ottawa to recognize Aboriginal land rights and to deal with the various grievances that Native people had with the federal government. While the League may have been a good idea, it wasn’t widely supported by many tribes and was actively discouraged by the government. In fact, Ottawa’s dislike for such ideas was codified in 1927 when a provision was added to the Indian Act that forbade Native people from forming political organizations, along with a provision that prohibited Indians from speaking their Aboriginal languages.

In 1961, the National Indian Council was formed. It was to include Status Indians, non-Status Indians, and the Metis, but when these three groups failed to work together, the organization was split into two forums, the Native Council of Canada, which was to look after the needs of non-Status Indians and the Metis, and the National Indian Brotherhood, which was to look after the needs of Status Indians in Canada. Eventually began the Assembly of First Nations, and made itself over as a more representative organization, even though, in the end, it really only represented Status Indians. Not every band in Canada belongs to the Assembly of First Nations, just as not all tribes are members of the National Congress of American Indians. Still, these two organizations, for better and sometimes for worse, are the main players in North American Native politics.

An after the dust had cleared from this shuffling and restructuring, Native people found themselves in a new millennium with National Congress of American Indians on the American side of the line and the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Metis National Council, and the Assembly of First Nations on the Canadian side.

As for AIM, while its influence was potent, its tenure was short-lived. By 1990, most of the leadership of AIM was either in jail or had had their lives destroyed by government sanctions, legal and illegal.

Over the years, King has sat on panel discussions with such well-meaning people. Their default position is always that organizations such as AIM need to have more faith in the laws of the land and the judicial system. It’s a great theory. Simple and elegant. I can see the attraction. It’s the kind of theory that someone unfamiliar with Native history and the integrity of the justice system might consider proposing.

Native people stopped asking for justice and started demanding it. AIM and other activist groups were tired of begging, tired of being ignored. Were there ways to frame Native concerns other than with demonstrations, confrontations, and, on occasion, violence? No.

The fact is, the primary way Ottawa and Washington deal with Native people is to ignore them. Be good. Play by our rules. Don’t cause a disturbance. It’s a fool’s game. AIM and other Native activist groups knew this. During the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “If the world’s richest and most powerful nations do not deal with the world’s hardest and most intractable problems, they simply will not be dealt with.” Turns out he wasn’t being satiric.

But enough. While pessimism and cynicism have been the salt and pepper in the stew that is Native-White history, there is no reason we cannot change the recipe. We could, if we wanted, put the past behind us. We could say that today is a new day. We could, if we were so inclined, decide to start all over again. Why don’t we do that? What don’t we give that a try?

Chapter 7: Forget About It

Today is a new day. That is a great sentiment. Maybe it is time for Native people to stop complaining about the past. Better yet, maybe it is best to get rid of the past altogether.

King suggests the date of 1985. Let’s draw a line with the year 1985. Gather up all of the North American Indian history prior to 1985, pile it in a field, and set it on fire. Get rid of everything – massacres, deprivations, depredations, broken treaties, government lies.

Although the past has many atrocities between Whites and Indians, King also brings up that Natives have done their fair share of injuring themselves without the help of Non-Natives. For instance, for decades they’ve beaten each other up over who is the better Indian. Full-bloods versus mixed-bloods. Indians on reservations and reserves versus Indians in cities. Status versus non-Status. Those who are enrolled members of the tribe versus those who are not. Those of us who look Indian versus those of us who don’t.

He describes an example in the United States with the Cherokee Nation. They had black slaves in the 19th century and after they were free and named Freedman, the U.S. extended Cherokee citizenship of the Freedman. This example, as King elaborates, continues to be a contentious matter. The Cherokee insist, that, as a sovereign nation, the tribe has the power to set its rules of membership. This is absolutely true, and as it should be. But sovereignty and self-governance come with obligations, some legal, some moral. In the case of the Freedman, while in 2006 vote to change the Nation’s constitution was an affirmation of Cherokee sovereignty, it was also a vote on economics and race.

King also owns up to alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, crime, and corrupt leadership that plague many of the reserves and reservations. The news media have certainly been helpful in bringing these matters to public notice. By now you should have some sense of the history that has made these such complicated problems. Nevertheless, the solutions, in the end, remain Native responsibility.

Contrary to the stories that appear in the news chronicling Native poverty and despair, many of the tribes in North America are managing reasonably well. Some have developed strong economies. Of course, it helps if the tribe has natural resources, oil, or coal or timber. Indians have also become more active in politics and the arts.

King brings us back to 1985 and the new beginnings. He says the idea of sloughing off history is not really his idea alone. It is an approach to North American Native history that has been around for awhile and appears to be gaining in popularity. So its all about ignoring the past and playing in the present.

Bill C-31 is a piece of Canadian legislation passed in 1985 as an amendment to the Indian Act and designed to address the inequity that existed between Status Native men and Status Native women. In Canada, Status Indians are simply those Indians who are recognized as Indians by the federal government. In general, Status Indians are also Treaty Indians, though there are reserves created by legislative action rather than by treaty and members of those bands are Status Indians in the same way that Treaty Indians are Status.

When B C-31 was passed, Native women who had lost Status because of marriage were able to apply to have Status reinstated. The bill also closed the loophole for non-Native women gaining Status through marriage by legislating that no one could gain or lose Status through marriage, though this is slightly disingenuous. While you can’t gain or lose Status through marriage, whom you marry can affect your children. So long as Status Indians marry Status Indians and their children marry Status Indians, then no one loses Status. But if Status Indians begin marrying non-Status Indians or non-Indians, then Status for any offspring is at risk. And once you lose Status, you can never get it back. It is the “two generation cut-off clause.” Marry out of Status for two generations, and the children of the second union are non-Status.

Native leaders and government officials have talked about amending the Indian Act to allow for more local autonomy, and about eliminating the Act altogether. So far, none of the talking has gone anywhere.

There is an alternative, which is to do nothing, leaving the next generations to fend for themselves.

While Bill C-31 gives us a quick glimpse into the metaphysics of federal Indian-hating, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, its reception, and its implementation provide us with a panoramic view.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was formed in 1991, with a blue-ribbon panel of four Aboriginal members and three non-Native members. The report went over budget by $50 million. The commission visited 96 communities, held 178 days of hearings around the country on reserves, in community centres, and in jails where Aboriginal people – who are 4 percent of the Canadian population – make up over 18 percent of the federal prison population.

The final report was the most comprehensive and complete study of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal history, and Aboriginal policy that has ever been done in North America. The last volume of the report contained 440 recommendations, which included recognizing that “Aboriginal people are nations vested with the right of self-determination,” that Aboriginal people in Canada enjoy “a unique form of dual citizenship,” that the government abolish the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and replace it with “two new departments: a Department of Aboriginal Relations and a Department of Indian and Inuit Services,” that the government of Canada meet with First Nations governments and people to “meet the need of First Nations people for adequate housing within ten years,” and that “Representatives of Aboriginal peoples be included in all planning and preparations for any future constitutional conference convened by the government of Canada.” The report went on to make recommendations in areas such as governance, health, housing, education, Native women’s rights, Metis rights, and economic development. The expectation was that the government would see the report as an opportunity to renew, amend, and restructure its relationship with Canada’s First Nations. But that’s not what happened. It was placed on the shelf with all the rest of the reports from Royal Commissions. Royal Commission reports have been an alternative to action.

We cannot ignore the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord. The Meech Lake Accord dealt with many of Quebec’s concerns, but it completely ignored Aboriginal people. Native leaders wanted a place at the table. They wanted official recognition of Indian societies as “distinct societies.” They wanted acknowledgement of Native rights and aspirations. And they wanted guarantees that the veto and opting-out powers that the Accord granted the provinces would not adversely affect Canada’s First Nations. Instead, Native people weren’t even mentioned in the document. In Manitoba, support for the Meech Lake Accord was not unanimous, but the leaders of all three parties agreed to bring it to the floor for a vote. The vote to dispense with public hearings had to be unanimous, and here the Meech Lake Accord ran into Elijah Harper. Harper was Cree, a member of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation in northern Manitoba. When the vote to forgo public hearings on the Accord was called, he stood up and said no. And with that, the Meech Lake Accord died.

Two years later, the Charlottetown Accord was brought forward. This time representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Council of Canada, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, and the Metis National Council participated in the public consultations. The text of the Accord stipulated the rights of Aboriginal peoples to “promote their language, cultures and traditions and to ensure the integrity of their societies,” and acknowledged that Aboriginal governments “constitute one of the three orders of government in Canada.” And it also assured Native people that nothing in the Accord “abrogates or derogates from the aboriginal treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada,” and that the people have the “inherent right to self-government.” The accord even suggested the possibility of guaranteed seats for Aboriginals in a reorganized Canadian Senate.

The Charlottetown Accord was decided by public referendum. It was soundly defeated. Aboriginal people, on the whole, voted against it. Who knows why…King suggests it is perhaps at that point Natives were not convinced that non-Natives and government were there to help. It wasn’t the Aboriginal vote that killed the Charlottetown Accord. In 1992, voters in AB, BC, MB, Nova Scotia, SK, and Quebec voted against it. It was a close vote: 49.6 percent in favour; 50.4 percent against.

And after the dust of the two failed Accords had settled, Native people in Canada were right back to 1985.

King goes on to describe the post-1985 period in the U.S. 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required federal agencies and institutions to return Aboriginal cultural materials and human remains to the appropriate tribes. It was also marked by the settlement of a number of land claims. However, more than anything else, this period was dominated by the rise of Native gaming, and depending on your point of view, gaming could be seen as economic enterprise or economic war.

King goes on to describe the history of the gaming regulations and compromises of gaming regulations in the United States and in Canada. Indian Gaming continues to grow. One-third of the federally recognized tribes in North American have moved into some form of gaming, with more tribes coming on board all the time. It’s hard to argue with money like that and the jobs that such an industry creates. Make no mistake, when states and provinces and municipalities look at Native gaming, all they see is a deep-dish pie. Millions and millions are going toward states, provinces and municipalities.

Post-1985 period isn’t just about legislation and government and politicians with their hands in the Indian till. The present, like the past, also has its fair share of bad behaviour, racism, and murder.

There are people who are genuinely disturbed by what they erroneously perceive to be preferential treatment for Native people. Many of those voices have banned into small groups and local organizations. Bigotry and misinformation feed many of these organizations. King points out an example in 1999 of racist flyers going out in towns in South Dakota and Nebraska trying to “thin out the fucking Indians.”

In 1988, King and his wife lived in Lethbridge, Alberta. A flyer distributed by a realtor at mass in their neighbourhood alerted people that a Treaty Seven family had moved into the neighbourhood. “Treaty Seven” was code for “Indians.” Indians have moved in. Your property values are about to fall. To save your investment and yourself, call me and I’ll sell your home and help you move to a safer – economically and socially speaking – part of town. A number of people, including King complained about the Treaty Seven flyer. He was told by a city official that “you people should calm down,” among other things.

And then there was a sad sign at the Tim Horton’s in Lethbridge taped to the drive-through window in 2007. It read, “No Drunk Natives.” Accusations of racism erupted, Tim Horton’s assured everyone that their coffee shops were not centres for bigotry, but what was most interesting was the public response. For as many people who called in to radio shows or wrote letters to voice their outrage over the sign, there were almost as many who expressed their support for the sentiment. The young woman who posted the sign said it had just been a joke.

The reality is there are probably more White drunks than Native drunks, but White drunks are invisible. The issue is not the race of the drunken person, but the drunken person themselves. More to the point, White people get to make their mistakes as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race.

Racism is endemic in North America. And it’s also systemic. While it affects the general population at large, it’s also buried in the institutions that are supposed to protect us from such abuses.

King brings up the murder of Betty Osborne in The Pas, MB. Although it happened in 1971 it was not until 14 years later, in 1985, that the RCMP investigated her murder. In 1999, the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry concluded that the murder of Betty Osborne was motivated by racism. “It is clear,” the report said, “that Betty Osborne would not have been killed if she had not been Aboriginal.”

As far back as 1976, Saskatoon police officers had been driving young Native men to the outskirts of town and dropping them off. Within the urban mythology of Saskatoon, these rides were known as Starlight Tours. You could argue that this activity was no more than simple harassment, the kind of harassment that police forces around North America have engaged in for centuries, the kind that usually results in inconvenience and bad feelings rather than death. But on the prairies, in the dead of winter, these Starlight Tours were executions. This is what happened to Neil Stonechild, Rodney Naistus, and Lawrence Wegner in the 1990s. In 2000 when this happened to Darrel Night he would have died as well, but he found shelter in time.

In terms of attitudes, in terms of dispossession and intolerance, nothing much as changed; 2012 feels remarkably similar to 1961.

The problem is the history that King offered to forget, the past he offered to burn, turns out to be the present and it may as well be the future.


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