The new indigenous stereotypes

Finding unmarked burial sites outside the former Kamloops residential school more than a year ago ignited global awareness of Indigenous concerns, but it has not left the world with a greater understanding of the lives and aspirations of First Nations people says Geoff Russ, a Haida journalist based in British Columbia.

image: WFUV

“Indigenous people remain as misunderstood today as they were a year ago, or even 60 years go,” says Russ. “Whoever has watched a John Ford Western can see the ignorance, deliberate or not, that accompanies those movies’ portrayal of Indigenous people as the primitively-armed antagonists.”

The new indigenous stereotypes are: “no longer primarily portrayed as intimidating warriors, but as sympathetic characters who require daily apologies (National Post, May 28, 2022),” adds Russ.

The discovery of unmarked burial sites led to a number of church burnings across Canada. This left Canadians thinking that First Nations have a “revolutionary mindset.”

Indigenous people are wrongly characterized as anti-development, says Russ, “the anti-pipeline blockades on Wet’suwet’en land perfectly symbolize the divide between what non-indigenous people think Indigenous people want, and what the latter actually wants.

I have often wondered why Indigenous people continue to be viewed as the “other.” After all, we are all one people.

This is not suggest that the original people of North America, the first settlers, don’t have grievances over treaties broken and land taken.

The stereotype that European colonizers held of First Nations wavered between one of glorification and contempt. At one time they were noble savages, wild human, an “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness.

At the same time, the original people were stereotyped as inferior Europeans in need of rehabilitation; conversion from their primitive cultures and religions into English-speaking Christians.

More recently, Indigenous people are stereotyped as superior managers of the land and environment.

The history of human occupation of the earth reveals how similar we all are.

Given the technologies of clothing, shelter, weapons and tools, we exploit resources wherever we find them.

We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.

There were no indigenous people when we arrived. The animals that lived in North America had no fear of humans. We could just walk up to them and kill them. And we did.

When we entered North America across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the tip of South America.

Along the way, we exterminated many species says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:

“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals. South America lost fifty out of sixty.”

Oh well, some might say, the arrival of humans and the mass extermination of species was just a coincidence. But no, after flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.

We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.

The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.

China tries to take the separatist out of Tibetan children

China could learn from Canada’s mistaken attempt to “take the Indian out of the child,” as John A. Macdonald put it.

image: In search of Sunshine – WordPress

Now China is repeating Canada’s folly by trying to take “the separatist” out of Tibetan children. Those Tibetans who want to preserve their language and traditions have been branded as “criminal gangs connected to the separatist forces of the Dalai Lama (Globe and Mail, Dec. 7, 2021).”

China began to crack down on Tibet in 2008. The traditional ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, is in exile and seen as a threat. Now Tibet is threatened by the repressive measures of the ruling Han people of China and the rise to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012.

Almost 80 per cent of Tibetan children in China have been placed in a vast system of government-run boarding schools, where they are cut off from their families, languages and traditional culture according to a recent report by the Tibet Action Institute.

“Kunchok”, a Tibetan who now lives in exile in New Delhi described being sent to a boarding school in 2000, when he was seven years old.

“We were not allowed to go home on the weekend or holidays,” he said “for the whole of [my first year] I did not see my parents.”

More than 800,000 Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 are now housed in these state-run institutions.

In the past, China’s leaders have promoted and protected Tibetan languages and culture. China’s 1982 constitution states that “the people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.”

A Tibetan who attended one of those early state-run schools said that at least the Tibetan language was used. Now in exile, “Tenzin” said that while instruction was still largely in a Tibetan language, “the content of what we studied was almost all Chinese.”

“The history we studied was all Communist or Chinese-centred,” he said, “even when we studied world history.”

Things are different now with forced Chinese language and content.

The Han people represent 90 per cent of the Chinese population. They are the largest of 56 ethnic groups in China, many of those dwindling in numbers with only a few thousand members. Others, such Tibetans and Uyghurs have healthy populations in the millions.

President Xi wants to make China great again. He has overseen a revival of traditional Chinese culture. Xi calls traditional culture the “soul” of the nation and the “foundation” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) culture. Hanfu, the traditional dress of Han Chinese, has seen a revival under him.

The colonization of China by the Han people parallels the colonization of the Americas by Europeans. The difference is that the Han have lived in China for millennia. The similarity is the attempt by the Han to assimilate ethnic groups into a homogenous Chinese culture.

Canada has prided itself as being a cultural mosaic while ignoring Indigenous treaty rights. The discovery of children buried at the Kamloops Residential School has forced us to confront our hypocrisy.

China will eventually learn Canada’s painful lesson and realize that its strength lies in cultural diversity.

The graves of Indigenous children cry out for justice

The discovery of children’s graves at the Kamloops residential school was not a surprise to many. What made the findings so graphic was the stunning detail of the remains as revealed by ground-penetrating radar.

image: Inside Edition

Deceased children as young as three, sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sometimes just buried in shallow graves, were buried in the grounds around the school.

While the discovery was startling to national and international audiences, it was no surprise to former residents of the school.

“It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools,” said Sol Mamakwa, an Indigenous member of the Ontario legislature.

And the graves were no secret to those who dug them, such the former students of the Edmonton Indian Residential School. One such student, Jackie Williams, remembers being hired to dig some of the graves when he was a child.

As long as the remains of children remained hidden under often grassy fields, out of sight, we didn’t have to face the horror of this open secret.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has brought details of the remains to the surface and to anguished scrutiny.

GPR may be revealing but the process is not as simple as, say, X-rays. First, a GPR machines about the size of a toaster on wheels are pulled around the area to be surveyed. Initial scanning only takes about as long as it does to walk the grounds being searched.

Then data is downloaded and processed by computers. The set-up cost about $35,000 and requires training to interpret the images.

While the GPR images may look like little more than “blobs” to the untrained eye, experienced researchers can recognize details.

A bit like ultrasound images, I imagine. I watched as an ultrasound was done on my abdomen. Fuzzy images floated into to view on the screen. What I saw as fuzzy blobs, the trained health professionals saw as my liver, kidneys and spleen –and measured with great accuracy.

Dr. Terence Clark is skilled in the use of GPR. He used it to discover gravesites at the former residential school on the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan in 2018.

Cark, a University of Saskatchewan researcher and professor who specializes in community-based archeology, said: “It seemed like this was a validation that their memories were real, this really happened, and they wanted to see it on the screen. They wanted to know that what they experienced was true.”

As researchers view the underground images, it must be like an under-earth diver swimming through rocks, bones, and other artifacts. As details emerge, the children come to life and cry out for justice.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer and former judge who is of Cree and Scottish descent said: “To me, the dead children themselves in this Kamloops school, and others, have human rights. We have an obligation to them to provide respect for the deceased and take practical steps to address the indignity that might’ve been done to them and their bodies.”

Kamloops is now the focus of global attention in a way that I would have not have preferred. But there we are, and now we need to cooperate with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to see that justice is not only done but seen by the world to be done.