As I began to write this piece on First Nations people in the Americas my attention was drawn to current events surrounding the Armenian people in an article in Commondreams.org by Rupert Cornwell.
A Congressional committee last night defied George Bush, voting through a resolution describing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians as a genocide – a move the White House says would severely damage relations with Turkey, a vital ally in the Iraq war. “This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings,” the President told reporters.
Some months after I moved to Canada in 2004, the government here announced a 2 billion dollar legal settlement for native people who experienced abuse while attending government supported residential schools operated by churches over the last century. Depending upon the number of years in school and abuse record, individuals will receive from $10,000 to $27,000. Claims are now being processed across Canada. A little reported part of the settlement is a set-aside of $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to provide opportunities for former students to speak about their Residential School experiences in a safe environment.
All of us have been instructed at an early age about forgiveness and many of us have had parents who led us through a process of apology. Forgiveness is the work that is done by the person or group who is offended. Apologies are offered by the person, group or nation who did the offending. In our childhood minds, these deeply rooted principles of right living are often mushed and confused. Virtually every religion teaches forgiveness. In an important final legacy of his life Jesus said just before he died, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Why do I connect the $2 billion dollar reparations payment to forgiveness and apology? The problem in the Americas is how the children of immigrants can build a healthy relationship with the First Nations peoples. We are living on land from which they were forcibly removed. In a time when we are all stretching for a new relationship to our earth, the world view of indigenous people is a timely gift but are we ready to receive it? While the courts are heavily involved in land claims, and matters such as this residential schools reparations they cannot make us get along. They can mandate rights or compensation, but that will not necessarily cleanse us from suspicions, put downs, and charges of unearned benefits or create healthy relationships. Orders backed up by law can make us do things but force can never complete the work of apology or forgiveness.
One of the first stories I heard about my country came at school recess where I was introduced to the game, cowboys and Indians. I learned to be smart and strong and wanted to be a cowboy so that I could outwit the Indians. Is it too much for us to hope for a new day, a time when we celebrate for one another, even with one another?
I grew up in a home where apology and forgiveness was insisted upon. At an early age I learned the power of three little words, “I am sorry.” When I was about seven years old, a new boy about my age began coming to our church. For some reason I decided I didn’t like the way this boy played and I decided to do something about it. After church one Sunday I goaded the boy into a totally unnecessary fight. I had learned how to fight and trick the opponent while playing cowboys and Indians. The fight went on outside the church in full view of church goers. I think I emerged victorious but like the victories at school, someone got hurt and, and it would take me years to work out the real consequences of the myth of cowboys and Indians that I embraced uncritically.
The Sunday meal at our home was very quiet that Sunday. In another room I could hear hasty consultation between Mom and Dad. I knew that trouble lay ahead but I persisted in convincing myself that it was not about me. After the meal I was escorted from the kitchen by Dad. Now I knew there was trouble. Dad explained to me what a terrible thing I had done. My persistent denials were answered by very clear words from Dad and eventually the application of a paddle, a fairly rare mode of punishment in my growing up. There was more to come. Later that Sunday afternoon we drove to the home of the boy I had beat up where I was told to apologize to him in front of both parents. I was mortified, but told myself I would get through this somehow. How come cowboys and Indians didn’t work in real life, I wondered.
I said the magic words including a very specific sentence about the fight that I had been coached to say. There was long silence in the room. Then the boy’s mother broke the silence by saying, “Oh isn’t that cute.” I remember the cute part because it struck me as stupid. I saw nothing cute about this entire episode. Her son was then coached to say the words of forgiveness and before long we were playing together again like nothing had happened. Through the years I have never been sure when or if my apology became sincere. Like the governments who correct abuse with money I had learned to correct my abusive and dominating behaviour with the currency of ritualized words. To do so I needed a firm nudge from someplace with more experience and power than I had. I now think that my parents did the right thing. It is hard however to dissolve the cowboy and Indian motif in the deep recesses of the mind.
The promise and process of Truth and Reconciliation inherent in the name mandated by government leaves out the awkward actions required of most of us to get over our addiction to games like cowboys and Indians. The paddle of the law can give us a kick start. Actually Canada has commendable record in dealing with non native minorities. But genuine peace has not yet been made with the First Nations.
Canada is not unique. The inclination to use money to treat these deep wounds of abuse and the legacy of unfair negotiations, forced assimilation, even genocide, before a cultural process of apology is fully engaged, is visible in all of the Americas. Those of us who are descendants of immigrants have been living in denial and will need to walk through the pain and deception of our own history to a new plane of truth and acknowledgement of unearned wealth and privilege. Although the settlement with victims of residential schools here suggests reconciliation, the content’s details selectively call for a process that creates a safe space for the school victims to tell their story. It says nothing about a process of transformation for the children of immigrants caught in our own addictions to subdue the earth for our economic benefit.
The spirit behind Truth and Reconciliation goes beyond charity to that place within us where we need to reconstruct our myth of how we got be here, occupying this land. This is not a prescription for charity or therapy. It points us in a new direction. Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal leader has wise words for all of us. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”
I participate in a Right Relations Circle here. We meet monthly to try to reconnect with the hidden clumps of unfinished business in our own personal and cultural history. Last spring we met at one First Nations office where we were joined by local people. Our spokesperson presented a formal apology to First Nations People developed by the United Church of Canada. For the next six hours, amid tears and long silences First Nations people told personal stories of pain related to residential schools. One told of how her parents hid them when the buses came to take them away to the schools.
Another person spoke movingly of the experience of parents who had suffered from cultural stretching and brokenness in the residential schools. She said she would read the apology at her mother’s grave site but was not at liberty to accept the apology at this time without thinking about it and talking to other family members. Several spoke of the loss of parenting skills only now being recovered because they or their parents had been removed from their homes at an early age. Others linked alcohol and drug abuse to the loss of family and long suppressed sexual abuse experienced at residential schools.
The experience of speaking about hard memories in safe settings brings long suppressed pain to the light where their destructive power can be overcome with new personal power. This is the work of those who attended residential schools.
The hard work of coming in touch emotionally with what we actually apologize for is one step along the way to right relationships. Included will be the decimation of whole communities through war, and smallpox spread by diseased blankets. Also included will be the story of the reduction of native population from what some estimate to be as many as 100 million people before Columbus was discovered in the Americas to a tiny percentage of that within a century. Our Circle now meets on a regular basis to learn more of our own ragged history of gaining control of lands through devious promises, treaties and resettlement schemes. We are learning to respond directly to the existing racist culture in every day life. “You know when ‘they’ get this money they will just use it to buy drugs or alcohol.” said one neighbour to me over his fourth beer. As we work our way through this list of those deadly statements and practice our responses we believe we can be signs for a better relationship. Without this work we know that an apology is empty words. Other opportunities for engaging with First Nations may develop as we learn to demonstrate with our actions that we are safe and reliable allies.
Soldiers in Basic Training only spend several weeks training in the way of killing and combat. Some still do not internally comply and use passive or active ways not to kill when placed into combat situations. Our culture has had five hundred years of basic training in the language, attitudes, and moral conscience of disregard for first people’s integrity. It takes skill to undo old habits and moral effort to overcome. I do not assume all the hard work has been done just because there is a legal settlement. I am still learning how to overcome the imprint of the games of my childhood.
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