– for Geez Magazine, Winter 2008
So how do we live lives of honour when the land we inhabit has been stolen? Most moments of most days I can ignore the question. I’ve never pointed a gun forcing anyone to vacate their home. It wasn’t my grandparents who delivered small pox infested blankets or used repeater guns to mow down the bison. I can’t imagine my parents ever stealing so much as a candy bar or a Christmas tree from the side of a wilderness road. And yet I feel the unsettling karma that comes from being a knowing beneficiary of horrendous wrong.
“In old days we wore the breechcloth, and aprons made of bark and reeds”, Chiparopai, a Yuma mother is quoted to have said. “We worked all winter in the wind – bare arms, bare legs, and never felt the cold. But now, when the wind blows down from the mountains it makes us cough. Yes – we know that when you come, we die.”
Not that I need you to squirm in guilt. I don’t do guilt well either. It’s way easier to convince myself that I’m not perpetuating the pain of those early settlement days – and to carry on living in modest comfort – with persistent attention to the minutia of scaling down our family’s needs. “Live simply so more can simply live,” is a credo I’ve warmed to. I don’t remember my parents or the church or our school teaching us this – or helping us as kids paint the picture of injustice we live in. I console myself knowing our generation has come a great distance. We at least know that our actions, our daily choices, create either difficulties or opportunities over the horizon and worlds away.
“Oh, yes, I went to the white man’s schools. I learned to read from books, newspapers and the Bible. But in time I found that these were not enough. . . You know, if you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while, there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the animals which include us.” Tanga Mani – of the Stoney/Assiniboine nation.
My grandparents had land and livelihood taken from them in what is now southern Ukraine. They were marched away from the property they cherished. The timing was good though. They were invited to help populate the prairies and with hard work and generous neighbours managed to rebuild and imbue their children with hope. The land they settled had been Assiniboine land. The Assiniboine nation, although from Dakota ancestry, had formed an alliance with the Plains Cree to take it from the larger Dakota family of nations – that was about 400 years before the first European farmer built a house on this landscape. I’m not sure of the history beyond that, but presumably the Dakota took it by force from a people archeologists refer to as the ‘mound builders’.
“The white man does not understand the Indian for the reason that he does not understand America. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and the soil. The white man is still troubled with primitive fears; he still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent, some of its vastness not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes. He shudders still with the memory of the loss of his forefathers. In the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefather’s bones.” Chief Luther Standing Bear – a student of both ‘white’ schools and Lakota elders.
If I try to figure this thing out logically, I can say it’s not about the land. Land is always being taken away. I shouldn’t be attached to any piece in particular. It’s all about how we encourage fairness and equal opportunity in the here and now. But if our ancestors had been herded off to a reserve in Siberia just a day’s journey away from the land of plenty our grandparents told of – damn right I’d be sore and sporting for a fight to reclaim title to a fairly specific piece of land. The heart knows what the head denies.
“The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.” Chief Luther Standing Bear again – love that man.
The reserve system, as well as the idea that ‘people create their own misfortune’, have kept us divided from a natural diversity of neighbours and teachers. We’re fortunate though. We were led to become part of a very rich – in the ways of the heart – world. Even though ignorance and wickedness drove people off of the very land we live on, the Land is still beneath us – and our family and friends are being nourished by it. The other day I was walking around with an Ojibwa friend and elder – showing him the signs we’ve found of other people’s living on the land – presumptuous I know. “Thank-you” he said graciously, “for taking good care of the land.” Healing, teaching and joy are happening. It is about the land after all. I prepare my heart and our world for its surprises.
The quotes were taken from “Touch the Earth – a self portrait of Indian Existence” by T.C. McLuhan.
David Neufeld lives with his family in the Turtle Mountains near Boissevain, Manitoba on a property they call ‘Room To Grow’ where they offer hospitality, learning experiences, great food and a bit of laughter to boot.