TURTLE ISLAND: Reckoning with a past that didn’t go anywhere-a guide for settlers to grapple with allyship


24 August 2020

Top: Mohawk Nation Flag; Bottom: Haudenosaunee Confederacy Flag

by Emily Green

Through this article, we invite our settler constituency to reflect. Get comfortable; grab a pen and paper, and reflect on the questions in the italicized sections journal.

Imagine the history of this content and of the region where you reside. Think of the history lessons that you received in school, the news media, museums, and monuments in your city; think about the books you've read, the conversations that you've shared, and the different ways that your imagination has grappled with notions of the past. What stands out for you? How do you make meaning of your place in these narratives of history?

Since 19 July, Haudenosaunee and ally land defenders have organized a blockade at  1492 Land Back Lane in Caledonia,Ontario, Canada, preventing a new subdivision from going forward.  Through this process they are reclaiming promised them through the Haldimand Proclamation.

When does your narrative of this land's history begin? If you are a settler,  like me, with a public education background, you likely learned a shallow narrative of this continent's history:  sketchy romantic notions of Indigenous peoples (perhaps conceived of as a dying ancient race) and then a big leap forward to a story somewhere in the 1700s when resourceful Europeans began to occupy the land. If you are like me, you are on a journey of self-education, deepening, and unlearning your understanding of history beyond state-sanctioned textbooks.

In the book The Clay We are Made Of: Haudenosaunee land tenure on the Grand River (2017), Haudenosaunee author Susan Hill describes how land is not just a place for the Haudenosaunee people but carries an integral relationship with ancestors and selfhood.  Weaving together Haudenosaunee oral records, wampum strings, and the Euro-Western archives, this book taught me Indigenous history and realities censored, whitewashed, or forgotten from my education.

In school, I learned that land is property for owning and using, and that unused land is waiting for humans to improve it. Hill's book taught me that this Euro-Western sense of place contrasts with and violates Haudenosaunee understandings of land and place. In this diagram from Hill's book, she illustrates how a Haudenosaunee sense of self is grounded within relationships, both with human kin, nonhuman beings, and with land. Hill writes, "[t]hese realms build upon each other in terms of identity and understanding of one's place in the world. These circles of influence have not remained static and were impacted significantly by "contact" and colonization"(p.80).

What were you taught about land and property? How does this understanding impact your perception of land defenders? What have been key learnings on your journey in showing solidarity with Indigenous movements? What questions and tensions remain?

Since the late 1970s, the Haudenosaunee have made 29 land claims to the Federal and Provincial governments; in that time, only one of these claims has been addressed (CanadaLand, episode #337, 22min). The Haudenosaunee land defenders are saying that society needs to halt these systems of land ownership, and governments need to uphold the treaties it made with the First Nations—in this context, the Haldimand Treaty of 1812 and the Silver Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship.

When asked how long they plan to stay at 1492 Land Back Lane, one land defender said, "Our people have been here for 10,000 years, and are planning on being here for 10,000 more." They are committed to securing the land—their Haudenosaunee sense of self and relationship with place—for future generations.

If you are a settler, then consider reckoning with where you are in these spheres of influence for Haudenosaunee people, and with your sense of place in this history. If you are in the region and are able, consider joining the blockade.  Haudenosaunee land defenders have requested that settler allies take to the front lines. If you cannot be present and have financial resources, please send your donations to landback6nations@gmail.com.