Even Tobacco is Better than Stephen Harper’s Law and Order

Contraband Tobacco

Much of the Indian Country coffee-shop chat in southern Ontario these days concerns Ottawa’s Bill C-10, “Tackling Contraband Tobacco Act,” introduced by the Canadian Government in November 2013. Vocal champions of this bill (apart from the government) include the Canadian Convenience Stores Association and the Retail Council of Canada. So a more plainly descriptive title for this legislation might be “A Bill to Prevent the Mohawks from Cutting Into Our Business.”

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On Going to the Pow Wow

IN ALL CULTURES, social dance figures. The pow wow has, as is the case with so many things indigenous, both its historic (which is to say “pre-contact”) and contemporary manifestation. Without doubt, the pow wow is today an expression of pan-aboriginalism, being a social festival which looks roughly the same across North America. The seasonal and ceremonial dances of long ago varied widely, from culture to culture, so that it is probably of little help to look back more than a couple decades to discern the roots of a modern pow wow.

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Ripples from the War of 1812 are still being felt

IN RECENT MONTHS, there has been debate over the federal government’s decision to spend a yet-undisclosed sum commemorating the War of 1812. The Americans will doubtless overlook this bit of their history, but I’m unable to imagine any Canadian government ignoring the two-hundred-year anniversary of a conflict that could have converted Upper and Lower Canada into two of the coldest states of the Union.

According to the official government website announcing the initiative, “Canadians gave [the Harper Government] a strong mandate to celebrate important historical events”: in this instance a war which — again, from the Government’s website —

… helped establish Canada’s path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown, with respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. Simply put, the War of 1812 helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we honour. Against great odds, it took the combined efforts of Canadians of all ancestries to repel the American invasion and defend Canada in a time of crisis.

A grand feel-good take on the conflict, and who could disagree? Jeffrey Simpson, for one, who on October 7, 2011 characterized the war as horrible and stupid, and “among the dumbest ever fought.” Whether agreeing with this assessment or agreeing not, one should probably award points for the spot-on retort of Dorchester Review editor, C.P. Champion:

Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist at The Globe & Mail, thinks Canada should not celebrate the upcoming 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 because the conflict was “stupid” and “dumb,” with “bad leadership” and “messy battles.” If that is the standard, we had better forget celebrating much of our history. Get out your calendar and scratch off Remembrance Day, November 11. That date commemorates the allied victory in 1918 that marked the end of the First World War — a conflict that presumably fits Simpson’s definition of a stupid and messy war.

A good point. All wars are indeed irrational and vicious and stupid, even when necessary, their accomplishments invariably measured in the numbers of children turned into corpses and summoning to one’s mind these lines of Hamlet:

… to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.

So the question remains, Why commemorate war in general, and the War of 1812 in particular?

Journalist Steven Chase has reported a Department of Canadian Heritage study showing in detail what we should already know, that most Canadians are unfamiliar with the details of the War of 1812 — the countries involved, the causes, the individuals who played prominent roles, the locations of battles, and so on. The figures are as a general rule appalling and culminate in the pronouncement that “only one of the 1,835 respondents correctly identified all six of the historical figures from a list.” Here one should put due emphasis on the cadence from a list, which tells us that the respondents probably didn’t know anything about other historical events either, and therefore were unable to arrive at an answer by means of elimination. This state of collective amnesia is probably as good a reason as any to do some commemorative work, commemorate being a verb meaning “to bring to remembrance.”

An honest and candid assessment of the period 1812-1814 will show that the war was started on false grounds, by American jingoists and super-patriots, as Simpson asserts. However, once started, the people of Upper and Lower Canada had good reason to fight. Also, while the war was lost by the inept and over-confident Americans as much as it was won by the British and the Canadians —and the Canadiens — the character and accomplishments of — for example — Major General Isaac Brock were what they were. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent confirmed the pre-war, and indeed post-Revolution, territories and borders of British North America and the United States, and while the Harper government will tell you that peace followed as a result and ever since, the fact may well be that the Americans would have accomplished at a later date what they could not accomplish in 1812-1814, had they not had vast western and southern frontiers to divert their apparent boundless attention and energy.

In other words, the legacy of the war was neither territorial nor geopolitical, but rather psychological. After 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed “Canadian identity,” which may be summarized in the phrase “not American”. Although there has been peace between Canada and the United States ever since 1814, suspicion and a vague condescension toward the Americans was henceforth a permanent feature of the Canadian psyche. An early example of the Canadian apprehension of Uncle Sam — and of the Canadian habit of arriving at self-understanding by looking south — can be found in Thomas Haliburton’s acerbic 1836 novel The Clockmaker. In this work the satire cuts both ways, reflecting a deeper and uncomfortable awareness that Canada must either side with Britain or else be absorbed by America.

In the preceding paragraph I have stated that “after 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed Canadian identity.” There is of course a large and important exception, the indigenous peoples of this land. One of the principal immediate causes of the war was the growing conflict between a brutal and expansionist settler population and its indigenous resistance, among whose most famous leaders in 1812 was Tecumseh. In the three decades leading up to 1812, the Haudenosaunee (like Tecumseh’s people, and indeed all indigenous groups) had been dispossessed of their land base at an alarming rate. The 1812 war offered an opportunity to extract concessions from Britain and Canada through military alliance, a strategy which had served the League in the past and might do so again. It was a military alliance with Britain, during the American Revolution, which yielded to the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract, in Ontario. Ninety-five percent of this land would eventually revert to Canada through a series of transfers, some of which are held by the Six Nations to have involved deception and outright theft. (The current-day Caledonia dispute is a direct legacy of this period.) Not a promising record, but in 1812 military alliances still counted for something, and then as now there were things for which it was worth fighting.

As it happened, the War of 1812 marked the end of the historical era of British-Indian and French-Indian military alliances. European rivalries having been settled on the continent, the provinces within a couple decades of the war’s conclusion were formulating a new, inward-looking Indian policy at the centre of which was assimilation and absorption of indigenous peoples into the sea-sea-sea body politic. Before the War of 1812, indigenous peoples were viewed by Canadian and American alike either as dangerous enemies or as military allies; after the war, they were increasingly viewed as a problem to be resolved through absorption and legislation. The war probably hastened what would have occurred anyway. Nonetheless, whatever victory Canada may justly claim, it is the case that to the indigenous people who fought alongside the British loyalists, as to the later generations who would do the same on European soil, there fell few of the spoils. An emergent outward-facing nation became after 1814 preponderantly inward-looking, the Indian problem thereafter, and to this day, displacing colonial rivalries of the previous centuries.

The Haudenosaunee | Part Three, That Which Divides Us

The history of the Haudenosaunee (the people who are building a longhouse) is one of unceasing challenges, from without but often also from within. It was no foregone conclusion that the eventual five constituting nations of the “Iroquois League” would accede to the Peacemaker’s vision of unity. Suspicion and hostility posed an enormous impediment to the cause of peace. The impediment obtains to this day.

Continue reading “The Haudenosaunee | Part Three, That Which Divides Us”

The Haudenosaunee | Part Two, Ohentonkariwatehkwen

I suggested in the previous instalment of this series that the improbable unity of the Rotinonsion:ni (Iroquois) arrived as a matter of extraordinary good fortune, in combination with great effort and practical necessity. One is well advised not to take such a thing for granted, and so we arrive at the Ohentonkariwatehkwen, or “the words which come before all others,” also known as the Thanksgiving Address. Continue reading “The Haudenosaunee | Part Two, Ohentonkariwatehkwen”

The Haudenosaunee | Part One, Origins

The image above represents the story of the five founding nations of the Haudenosaunee (pronounced ho-din-oh-show-nay and meaning “the people who are building a longhouse”), in English the “League of Nations.”  This graphic is a stylized digital version of the original Peacemaker belt, a wampum belt made of the purple and white quahog shell, strung onto thread of sinew or plant fibre. There is an enormous amount of information stored in this belt, so let’s begin the story. Continue reading “The Haudenosaunee | Part One, Origins”

The Haudenosaunee

Over the coming weeks, I shall be writing a series of articles concerning the Haudenosaunee, known also by the English renderings, “People of the Longhouse” or the “Six Nations Confederacy,” and by the derogatory Huron term rendered in French as “the Iroquois.” As I am myself a citizen of the Haudenosaunee, I will begin the series with some historical considerations written from my personal point-of-view. Along the way I will present something approaching a narrative of the Haudenosaunee, the intentions of which will be: Continue reading “The Haudenosaunee”

My Grandmother

Among the unwritten and as I understood them incontrovertible laws of life was the cardinal indication never to disregard the wishes of my grandmother.

When I was a teenager my grandmother told me: stay in school and don’t get married until you are thirty. It would be some years before I could appreciate how dearly she’d paid for this wisdom. Seeing my Latin homework, she took the occasion to say, as a matter of fact, she had always been interested in languages and that her generation of Native people had been unable to have an education. She was married at tender age to a man who had befriended her mother, and from that source derived a courtship with my grandmother to-be.

Rhoda Rhodes, whose mother had been a Six Nations Garlow, bore children across four decades — the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. During the Depression and the war the first six came into the world, and following the 1945 surrenders of Japan and Germany, three more would follow, my mother (b. November 1945) being the first. My grandmother was so long at it that she was pregnant concurrently with one of her daughters. I had always assumed that in those days this was just “how it was.” Indeed, but what I did not know were the common reasons. It was only after her death in 1991 that I learned my grandfather, William Johns, “did not like birth control.” In the days before “the pill” a woman had very little power in the matters of sex and sexual reproduction, which went a distance toward ensuring that a man would get his way. This detail said so much, falling as it did into the puzzle, along with other pieces that would emerge in the years after my grandmother was gone.

She had never forgotten from where she had come. “I hate John Wayne,” she once told me. She was proud to be Mohawk, and would not suffer the bellicose ignorance of others. She marshaled all that she had, which was considerable, in furtherance of the family’s dignity and self-respect. She understood that we would be derided as dirty and stupid, but she never gave the haters ground upon which to stand. My mother once came home to recount the slurs. “Look around,” said my grandmother. “Are we dirty? Is our house dirty?” The very fact of her being who she was powerfully repudiated the charge. In this way she lifted us out of depths into which we could have been cast only by ourselves, by surrender to self-doubt, self-hate, and self-disgrace.

One of the last conversations I had with her, in late 1990, took place as they often did at her kitchen table. I don’t know where my grandfather was, but we were alone — an unusual thing in a vast family that considered her kitchen its emotional and gravitational centre. The door was always open, and thirty-five grandchildren (and eventually as many great-grandchildren) could and did come by unexpectedly. That night may have been the only in my life I was alone with my grandmother, and in any case it is the only I can recall.

It was an extraordinary night for another reason. She brought the conversation around to the topic of “what I want to do with my life.” I want to write, I said. Then she told me something I had never known, that in her youth she had been interested in writing and had composed a number of stories. To appreciate the significance of this you need to know that I was a quiet, introverted, and highly imaginative child, which is to say an oddity. For many years I imagined I must have arrived into the world by some sort of magic, surely not by means of descent through the family tree. At eight years old I knew I wanted to be a writer. Clearly my wit and ironic outlook had come from my father. He however had been a high-school athlete of some promise, and it was to sports he had set himself early in life. Nor did my mother show any artistic inclination. Even among the extended family, most of whom were handy at a trade, there was no evidence I’d come by my constitution honestly. In my vocation, I was a singularity.

I suspect this feeling of being the odd one out, which was reinforced in other ways when I entered school, explains my tendency to side with the minority, the opposition, and the underdog. Bookish and uninterested in sport, I grew up in a dying steel town where the hockey rink was the centre of all things and where boys dreamed only of the League. (If you want a sense of how it felt to me growing up there, I can recommend nothing better than Peter Bogdanovich’s portrayal of Anarene in “The Last Picture Show.”) Occupied in the late 1700s by Pennsylvania Dutch, Fort Erie has to this day a Spear Road named for ancestors on my father’s side, which should have meant that I at least half-belonged but never quite did. I was a southpaw in the remnant of an era when people still knew enough Latin to know that sinister means “left” and when conformity was in all things an overriding imperative. A good deal of effort went into the failed attempt of a few teachers to reform me in this and other areas, and it is with some pride that I report their failure. I don’t wish to overstate any of this and leave an impression that my education was harsh. It was only typical of the time, but was nevertheless a good environment to form an oppositional personality.

At the end of her life, my grandmother had disclosed to me a detail which altered everything. In fact, I was not a singularity nor an oddball, at least not in the way I had always imagined. I had indeed come from somewhere, and my grandmother was the living proof. Shortly after she died I wrote a play called The Name Is A Vestige, which was about the many feelings and insights engendered by this revelation. I should also say that I had always felt a connection, and that if you were to look at any photograph of a Johns family gathering, you would see that I am sitting next to my grandmother. But now I had a more definite sense of this connection’s meaning.

Soon she would be gone, but from then on a part of me would feel an obligation to write, and to write well, “for” her. She doubtless had seen who I was and who I might become, with a little luck, and had given me precisely the advice which had perhaps been the obstacles to her own creative fulfillment.

It is rather harsh putting this thought into print. I don’t at all doubt that my grandmother loved her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I never once heard her complain of her lot. When she told me about her desire to be a writer, there was no bitterness or self-indulgence. Yet everything I learned once she was gone contributed to my growing sense that her life could only have been one of great frustration. She had married young and would discover, certain to her horror and disgust, that her husband was a drunk and a lay-about. In his thirties, my grandfather would find the Lord, going from one extreme to another. He was a harsh and obsessive proselytizer. You could not go to his house without getting the sermon, always over the decades the same sermon, focused ever on the vengeance of God and the torments of hell. His God was of the undiluted, high-proof variety, jealous and uncompromising. No one was spared his gospel. My grandmother would tell him to “stop it,” and he would, but not before citing as self-justification Ezekiel 3:18.

When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

Now that I am older, I have come to see this as child abuse. I think my grandmother, who always stood up for us, would have agreed. Her actions suggested as much. I can’t recall his sermonizing without feeling rather ill at the thought of how vicious, ugly, and deforming it all was. She however met him blow for blow, and he was in the end no match. His brand of religion belied the fact that he was deep down self-loathing and self-defeating, no doubt a carry-over from his days of being bullied by priests in an Indian residential school. My understanding of this, gained as has so often been the case too late, prevents me from judging him too harshly and lends a certain compassion to my reflections. I’ll never know what the world looked like through his eyes.

To the end of his life, which arrived in 1996 after a period of dementia, William Johns was attached to the idea of returning to his thirty-three acre Six Nations farm. It was my grandmother who insisted they leave the desperation, poverty, and self-defeat of the reserve in those days. I often wonder how life would have been different for all of us had she not taken that stand and, as she often did, prevailed. I also wonder what she would have made of her life had she been granted the opportunities of my, let’s admit it, pampered generation. She lived at a time when a woman was expected to give up everything as a matter of duty. The idea that a woman had a right to an independent life and to her human fulfillment, to a Room Of Her Own, was only beginning to advance. The way was doubly, even quadruply difficult, for an Indian woman. For this reason I could never be casual about my education or my opportunities. I worked very hard and, as quaint as it may sound, I resolved to hold myself to a certain standard.

My grandparents had little money, and with over seventy descendants, they were not in the habit of acknowledging birthdays and such. I only ever received one card. My grandmother gave it to me after my graduation from university, and inside she has written “I am so proud of you.” She had lived to see me fulfill one of the two guarantors of my betterment, and if she had lived another five years, that is to say beyond my thirtieth birthday, I would have had the joy of introducing her to my partner and best friend. To have had that day I would give, I think, anything.