Seven Shades of Colonialism: Through the Looking Glass of Cultural Genocide

Posted on June 30, 2016

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My great grandparentsSeven — I have read — is the number of generations that are taken into consideration when indigenous people make a decision. I have read of this teaching here and there, but I don’t remember my grandmother ever sharing it with me.

I do remember her giving me and my Grade 2 class (or was it Grade 3?) a talk at Cambridge Public School. She taught us that Indians always intentionally leave an error in their arts and crafts as an act of humility. To help illustrate the teaching, she let me and my classmates inspect a beaded bracelet, challenging us to find the error in it. No one did. Later, she showed me the intentional flaw and gave me the bracelet.

I’m not sure if she presented herself and her Indianness to my class because it was a “cultural” day or because it was a “bring-a-parent-to-school” day. Both are equally plausible.

Here’s the strange thing. My grandmother was an Indian, she presented herself to my class as an Indian, but it never occurred to me that I was an Indian too.

Much later, I sometimes used my indigenous ancestry as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, to escape the imprisoning routines of ivory tower identity politics. Inevitably, someone would attempt to undercut my credibility by stating the obvious: I am white and male. To which I would reply, “yes, I look pretty white, but my great grandmother was a full-blooded Indian. Am I suddenly more credible now?” Colonized identities come in many shades of grey.

It was my great grandmother, as far as I can tell, who made the decision to embrace Canada’s non-indigenous and colonizing culture. I like to think that she made the decision to integrate into the colonizing culture after weighing the costs and benefits for her future descendants, including me. I like to think she settled on integration because, based on the facts available to her at the time, she thought it was the best choice for her descendants. Cultural assimilation isn’t a foreign concept to indigenous peoples, but she probably had no idea that European assimilation, like its treaty making, was a very different kind of beast.

Nevertheless, in all the pictures of her that I’ve seen, she always wears European clothing and, despite being the towering figure of a sprawling family, I have no memory of any of my relatives telling me that she wanted them to hold onto her indigenous language, culture and traditions. I remember only that my great aunt always mentioned how silent a paddler she was whenever we were out on the lake together.

A few years ago, I was allowed to sit on a catwalk at the back of the National Arts Centre’s studio theatre, to live tweet a dance event. As I tweeted, I watched and, for the first time, something struck home. The piece was about the residential school system and the suffering it had wrought on generations of Indians — not all of whom actually attended the schools. It finally occurred to me that I am connected directly by blood to people who suffered in those genocidal institutions and to those who have also suffered because previous generations had suffered in them. Whatever its shade may be, I had skin deep in the hateful game of colonialism.

Since that first moment of understanding, I have learned much more about Canada’s genocidal history. I have a hunch that my great grandmother’s decision to integrate into Canada’s colonizing culture may have saved her direct descendants — including me — from the sharpest edges of the colonial machine — like the residential schools — because, when she agreed to marry my great grandfather, she ceased to be an Indian in the eyes of the government. By suiciding the “status” Indian in herself and by hiding in plain sight, she hid her descendants from Canada’s more overt attempts to murder the Indian in them. Nevertheless, she had brothers and their children — my relatives — probably ended up in those genocidal schools.

Unquestionably, the shade of my skin, the totalness of my assimilation, and my conventional gender identity and sexuality have all protected me from the most visible abuses of colonialism. Arguably, all things considered, I’ve even done pretty well for myself, considering I grew up surrounded by the aftershocks of cultural genocide. I am also sure that my successes would have been much harder to come by had my skin been darker and my indigeneity more overt.

And yet, from the other side of the mirror, from the perspective of my great grandmother’s parents, my life probably does not count as much of a success because I have no ties to a land, a language, or a family. And, to be honest, without a wife, family, home, car, or conventional career, the few beads and baubles of success I have collected along the way don’t really count as much of an achievement by colonial standards either.

I don’t know if I am what my great grandmother hoped for when she married my great grandfather, but I know I am one of the seven generations she might have taken into consideration when she made her decision to integrate. I know, from the perspective of material well being, I have much more than she could have ever dreamed of at that time. I also suspect she wouldn’t be too concerned about my total integration into the colonizing culture because she seems to have embraced it herself. I suspect, however, that she would be disappointed that I have no connection to the family that she worked so hard to keep together.

The tricky thing about history, as is well known, is that it is always written by the winners to suit their own wants, needs, and agenda. Remembering and memory — the science is showing us — also works much the same way. The “I” that I have become remembers its past to suit its own wants, needs, and agenda and, presumably, the wants, needs, and agenda of those who have written the history I was taught and am trying to unlearn. Having been raised scalp deep in colonial culture, it really should come as no surprise that my memories — what I remember and don’t remember — say much more about my place in that culture and history than they do about my great grandmother’s in hers.

Posted in: Identity