Looking Beyond the First Nation Control of First Nations Education Act

LAST WEEK I WAS interviewed for a CBC program on the topic of Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The name of the program is immaterial. If you look it up, you won’t find me. That interview was tossed, and another guest was found.

I’m not surprised. In fact, even as I left the studio I suspected that was going to happen.

Many native people have taken a strong stand against this federal government’s education bill. It may well become the trigger for the next confrontation between Onkwehonwe and Canada. As a Mohawk, and as a human being, I’m concerned by the prospect of an armed confrontation. We had the Oka conflict over twenty years ago, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s more than enough of that for one lifetime.

Sometimes, in this dangerous world, confrontation is unavoidable and even necessary. But I don’t get any satisfaction from the chest thumping of the AFN Confederacy Chiefs who are meeting in Ottawa to plot out their opposition, thinking out loud about shutting down the Canadian economy. I know it’s just posturing. Still, they should weigh that boast carefully, and be under no illusions, because it will be taken as a declaration of war.

Back to my interview. The CBC fellow, like many Canadians, has heard all the criticism of the bill. He wanted someone to come on the radio and say, Look, the bill really isn’t that bad: give it a chance. That’s not what I did. Instead, I tried to contextualize the opposition, provide historical context, and help people better understand the differing points of view. What a mistake. The native person they found to replace me gave them what they wanted: an endorsement of Bill C-33.

There are many reasons I looked at this from all sides. The first is that I’ve heard arguments about the bill from every angle, and I think it’s important for people from all perspectives to understand one another. I don’t mean agree, I mean have an open hearing. I come from a culture that’s big on passing things over the fire. I worked for years at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and although I’m very skeptical and even cynical about things like reconciliation, I think if we want to avoid violent conflict in this country (and we ought to) we need to understand not only issues but people.

Another reason I approach things the way I do is that I know people personally on all sides of this issue. On one side I have friends who are deeply involved in native education. On the other hand, I have some friends who are very much against this bill, and who fall into the oppositional camp. For some casual observers this is an academic matter, a curious conflict between a bunch of Indians. For me, it’s people I know and care about forming battle lines, getting ready for war.

The best thing about being a Mohawk is the power of our culture. The Thanksgiving Address, the Condolence, the Two Row, the League of Nations – these are practical, potent and inspiring. Culturally the Haudenosaunee are rich. We’re also a flinty, aggressive, confident, thick-skinned bunch. We can be first-class in-your-face assholes. Even other Indians sometimes can’t make sense of us, but they can see we’re unique, and we are a force to be reckoned with.

The worst thing about being Mohawk is that we can be pretty hard on one another, in a way that can lead to internal divisions. We often blame this on the “divide and conquer” tactics of the colonizers – and there’s truth in that. But we also are good at dividing ourselves into camps. The reason we talk so much about peace is that it doesn’t come naturally to us. We had to learn it the hard way. Mohawks are often all-or-nothing people, big on principle. The Two Row is quite clear: you’re either in the ship with the White Man, or you’re in the canoe, paddling with the Onkwehonwe. Anyone who is seen to violate this principle, for any reason, can expect to get a rough handling. Like I said, we’re a tough crowd.

Well, what does the Two Row really mean in practice? I’d bet there isn’t an Indian out there who isn’t at least 90% assimilated into Canadian society, for reasons having to do not only with residential schools but dozens of other circumstances beyond individual control. Sure, we can talk about sovereignty and culture and treaties and inherent rights, but to what end? The inconvenient truth is that the Haudenosaunee aren’t in the canoe or the ship, we are treading water. And so are all the other native people. That means in practice the Two Row is yet another way we’ve come to divide ourselves into Us and Them, usually based on nothing more than a difference of opinion on a complex issue we’ve never discussed among ourselves.

As long as we are honest about these facts, accept the logical consequences, and proceed in a no-bullshit way, there’s hope. I’m comfortable with conflict and disagreement. I think it’s natural, normal and healthy. Life is messy and complicated, and we reduce it to slogans and buzzwords at our own expense. Disagreement can only lead to consensus when there is trust, and therefore a willingness to work together. We have zero trust. We don’t trust the Government of Canada – why would we? – but worse than that, we don’t trust one another. Now, I’m not naive: I know some of our people are not trustworthy and really are working for the enemy. Still, most of us want something better for future generations, and we are trying to work out what that better is.

Contemporary life brings to mind the journey of Ayonwatha and the Peacemaker, as they travelled from the eastern lands of the Mohawks to the western territory of the Seneca. The five nations of the future League were engaged in a bloody war of attrition. Ayonwatha was himself a broken man, angry at his own people for the death of his daughters. The Peacemaker took Ayonwatha’s three wampum strings and added his own, performing the first recorded condolence. He understood that political unity and strength would be impossible until the minds of the people were clear and their buried trauma was unburdened through participation in formal healing ceremonies.

This isn’t some romantic notion about holding hands and singing songs. The real power of Haudenosaunee culture lies in its formal, ceremonial mechanisms for fostering and reinforcing Sken:nen, Kariwi:io and Kasasten’sera (usually rendered in English as “peace, a good mind and strength”). It’s pretty difficult to do this under the present circumstances of exile, diaspora and factionalism, but I believe real, positive change will not happen until Haudenosaunee people meet face-to-face in a ceremonial context to finally put the damage of the past to rest.

Until we do this, mistrust, pain, anger, shame, addiction, violence and impoverishment will haunt us. I believe the same is true for all native people who have gone through a similar history of violent, systemic deprivations. If we addressed the historical trauma, disruptions and pain which have brought us to this place (the burrs and thorns that cling to us as we make our way through life, as the Condolence puts it), and if we cleared our minds and ears and eyes and throats, as our ceremonies encourage us to do, we would see the beginning of real political power and community transformation. We would be rich once again.

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