Tami tleyawin kil: “Where Are You From”?

The space between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in North and Central America, or Australia, or in many other places, might not seem that important to those of us who are not Indigenous to a particular place. As settlers who are in relative positions of occupation and power, we have the luxury of ignorance or indifference. Someone like me might argue that I too have a strong attachment to a specific place – “I’m a Canadian living in my own house on five acres of forest on the northern Sunshine Coast of British Columbia in the Pacific Northwest of North America”. Or I might claim an attachment to an ancestral homeland somewhere else – “I was born in Middleton, on the northeast coast of Nova Scotia” or “My ancestors come from northeastern Scotland (with some also from England, Ireland and Germany). But I definitely feel Scottish, maybe even Pictish!” Or we might say “we’re all human”, or these things are “universal” and their attachment to specific peoples and places “don’t matter”. Indigenous answers to the question “Where are you from?” usually identify someone who has a long history connected to a particular place, to somewhere whose stories reveal deep histories and geographies of “country” – sea, sky, water, ice, people, living creatures, plants, formations of the land, ancestors, spirits – from where they come from. Since many Indigenous peoples around the world have been displaced because of settlers moving onto and taking their land (which is as true of Scotland as it is of anywhere else) many of these stories have become buried or are now told by people who spend little or no time in the places where these stories come from. Or they are written down and read in solitude by unrelated people in strange places, what Thomas King calls “private stories”. But these stories are central to who we are, where we come from, and what we have lost. As the Elders and their languages die, these stories can also become lost.

Stories are the narrative structures that connect people and all life, over time, to specific places.

 As Thomas King retells in The Truth about Stories:

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. The Okanagan storyteller Jeannette Armstrong tells us that “Through my language I understand I am being spoken to, I’m not the one speaking. The words are coming from many tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the language’s stories, and when my words form, I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns.” (p.2) and

The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that “In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. On way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives. (p.153)

The stories we tell may either be stories from the place where we come from, and the people and living creatures who have lived there – “stories planted in us”; or they can be stories we tell ourselves that have no real place, no ancestors we really know, no relationships beyond the trivial, the casual, the imaginary, the temporary, or the neurotic. Meaningful stories take time and many tellings, from generations of tellers. They are by definition communal, not just individual. They can change with each teller, or with the passage of time, because everything changes. Stories connect us to the reality of time and space. Big stories, or very old stories, are almost always sacred because they are about the long-term relationships we all have with life, our lives, and the matter, energy, spirit, and consciousness from which life is created. I am not talking about religion, which is another kind of story.

The answer to the question “Where are you from?” is deeply revealing of who you are.

The answer may point to a very big place through which people traditionally moved throughout the year following animals to hunt, fish or plants to gather, or to reconnect with family and friends. Inuit used to travel hundreds of miles every year by dogsled or boat. They knew the land, the ice, the water, the weather of every place they traveled through or lived in. As Siila Watt-Cloutier introduces us to her life in The Right to Be Cold she begins:

For the first ten years of my life, I travelled only by dog team. As the youngest child of four on our family hunting and ice-fishing trips, I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled. I would view the vast expanses of Arctic sky and feel the crunching of the snow and the ice below me as our dogs, led by my brothers, Charlie and Elijah, carried us safely across the frozen land. I remember just as vividly the Arctic summer scenes that slipped by as I sat in the canoe on the way to our hunting and fishing grounds. The world was blue and white and rocky, and defined by the things that had an immediate bearing on us – the people who helped and cared for us, the dogs that gave us their strength, the water and land that nurtured us. The Arctic may seem cold and dark to those who don’t know it well, but for us a day of hunting and fishing brought the most succulent, nutritious food. Then there would be the intense joy as we gathered together as family and friends, sharing and partaking of the same animal in a communal meal. To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with ice and snow. (pp.vii-viii).

Or, it can be a comparatively small place, like the land of the Tla’amin Nation, the Klahoose and Homalco peoples in and around what is now Powell River, British Columbia, and the K’omoks Nation on Vancouver Island. The places may seem small, but the land itself is still big – a rich world of forest, ocean, mountains, lakes, fiords, and rockbound islands. The stories help to connect people to specific places, but they can also resonate throughout a bigger landscape.

In the first part of Tla’amin Elder Elsie Paul’s book Written as I Remember It, in the chapter “Where I Come From”, she relates one of many “legends” or stories about the land and sea. This story is about how “Twins Are Gifted” in which a healer and his twin brother could “really reach each other so well, they could feel, they could sense what the other one was doing”. In this story the healer’s brother went to fish on the “other side of Texada Island” where he and his companion got trapped by a storm. They were gone for two or three nights when the twins’ mother became very worried. The healer, Felix, “lit his fire and called upon the energy, the spirits around him, and reached out to his brother.” When the brother came home, he said “his brother found him over there” in the shape of lightning from Blubber Bay at the north end of Texada Island towards the two fishermen. “So he said to his travelling companion, ‘That was my brother. He’s looking for me. Now he’s gone. He’s found us.’” “[T]he special way in which twins were regarded” is sometimes generalized by anthropologists across the Coast Salish peoples, but the story looks like it can be traced to Elsie Paul’s great-uncle. (pp.81-83). As Elsie herself says:

And to me I don’t doubt that that happened. That was the story that was always told in our family. So workin’ with things, like, workin’ with nature, that they were able to use the resources – that nature was the resources of the people. Whatever it was, the water, the lightning, the animals, the birds. Everything’s connected. And in that particular case it was the lightning that found a way for them. (p.83, italics from original).

An Indigenous person’s ancestors may have arrived on their land within the last thousand years (such as the Inuit in the Eastern Arctic), or they may have roots going back millennia, such as the peoples of the North American Pacific Coast. Archeological and genetic evidence indicate that many, perhaps all, peoples of the Tla’amin area where I now live are direct descendants of people who arrived here more than 3000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence found on Ahgykson Island, formerly Harwood Island, just off the coast of the Tla’amin Nation’s main village site, Sliammon. Just to north of the Sunshine Coast, on an island in Heiltsuk territory near Bella Bella, archaeologists have uncovered a village site 14,000 years old, confirming oral history of very long-term continuous settlement in the area.

The first Egyptian pyramids were built about 5000 years ago. Han Chinese civilization did not begin to coalesce into the “Celestial Kingdom” until about 3000 years ago. Rome rose and fell in the space of less than 1000 years, and the Western civilizations of Europe and its colonial offshoots are about 500 years old. Given the age of the Heiltsuk and other sites along the Pacific Coast, it is likely that the original settlement of Tla’amin is much older than 3000 years. Indigenous communities in southern Africa, such as the San peoples, have lived near what may have been their original settlements for as long as 170,000 years. The oldest known continuous Indigenous communities in the world are in Australia, going back perhaps as long as 80,000 to 120,000 years.

My own background is typical of most settlers. On my mother’s side my ancestors are Scottish and German. The Scottish half arrived in Canada from the fever-infected slums of Glasgow a little over a hundred years ago. They probably originated in the Northeastern Highlands but, like so many Scots, were forced off their land into menial work on the big estates or into the cities. My Scottish Canadian ancestors settled in Southern Ontario and most of my relatives on that side still live in and around Toronto. My maternal grandmother’s family originally came from Bavaria in southern Germany (with a touch of French thrown in later) and have lived in Southern Ontario since the late 18th century. They moved to Williamsburg, Ontario from New York under the leadership of the Reverend Johann Wilhelm Samuel Schwerdtfeger, my great grandfather many times removed. He was the first Lutheran Minister in Ontario.  He was born in Burgbernheim, Bavaria but emigrated to the American colonies as a young man around 1745. I do not know for sure, but it might be the case that he had to flee because of religious difficulties, being a Lutheran minister in Catholic Bavaria. During the Revolutionary War he and his family remained loyal to the British Crown and, as a result, were forced to move to Upper Canada in 1790. Both my Scottish and German ancestors were refugees – from loss of their land and poverty in the one case, and religious and political persecution in the other.

I know considerably less about my father’s ancestors except that they came from Northern Ireland, were mostly Protestant, and probably originated in Northern England and the Scottish Border country from where they moved to Ireland sometime during or after the late 17th century. After 1680 England consolidated its rule over Catholic Ireland and encouraged Protestant settlement. The Wrights and Gordons moved to Southern Ontario in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, then scattered across Canada.

On both sides of my family my grandparents moved for better opportunities out West. My mother’s family moved to what is now Thunder Bay (Fort William), Ontario where my grandfather worked as an electrician. My paternal grandparents moved to northcentral Saskatchewan where my grandfather Wright worked as a grain elevator inspector for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. Both my grandmothers gave up their jobs (secretarial work and teaching) after marriage. In the case of my father’s mother, married life included raising ten children. Both my grandmothers lost a child to sickness when they were still young. My father was born in Star City, Saskatchewan. Shortly afterwards the Wright family all moved to nearby Tisdale (I suspect I’m related to a very large number of Wright descendants in and from Saskatchewan). The family migrations did not stop in Northwestern Ontario or the Prairies. My father, like most of his brothers, joined the military and moved around North America all his working life. My parents eventually retired in Victoria, British Columbia and, after many years living and working outside of Canada, I have returned to the West Coast where most of my immediate family now also lives.

I was born in Middleton, Nova Scotia not far from the Royal Canadian Air Force Base in Greenwood where my father was stationed at the time. This is in Segepenegatig in the Annapolis Valley, one of the seven divisions of Mi’kmaq Territory. The question “where are you from?” in the language of where I was born is tami tleyawin kil? I have lived in many Indigenous territories while moving around North America with my family, and then on my own to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and then back to Canada by way of Nunavut in the Arctic, finally settling in the Pacific Northwest near Desolation Sound in Tla-amin country.

London, England is probably the only place I have lived where there is no apparent Indigenous presence, unless you count Roman Londinium and its ancient Celtic inhabitants. Celts and Romans are however relatively recent arrivals to Britain, with Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Normans (Norse peoples from Northern France) more recent still. Pre-Celtic hunter-gatherers seem to have occupied Britain as much as 40,000 years ago but were eventually driven out by the advance of ice sheets during the last glacial period. Others returned about 14,000 years ago but were mostly gone by about 3000 years ago, their cultures, languages and possibly their lives replaced by Indo-European Celts coming originally from the Eurasian steppes in what is now Russia. Although Mesolithic and Neolithic sites are common throughout the British Isles, it is not clear who these people were. There appears to be little trace of them now other than a small amount of genetic evidence in surviving British people, and the remains of their villages and magnificent stone rings or henges, as in Stonehenge. Indigenous cultures in Australia, Africa, the Americas, or elsewhere around the world are much older than almost any we can find still surviving in Europe.

European migrants usually have trouble tracking down their origins and have rarely taken the trouble to learn whose territory they were or are on. We may know generally where our ancestors come from, but often the details have gotten lost along the way. After arriving in North America records sometimes went missing, names got changed, relatives went their separate ways, and life usually required a close attention to survival. Attachment to the Old Country became romanticized by many miles and, eventually, years of separation. There may have been deep roots to a specific place somewhere, but those roots were severed by thousands of miles of ocean and no practical way of keeping in touch with relatives who remained at home other than through letters – which some may not have been able to write or read. Many, like my Scottish (or possibly Pictish) ancestors were separated from their land and original homes long before they boarded those ships to the New World. Colonialism existed in Europe well before it was exported to colonies overseas. Ireland and Scotland were both aggressively invaded and colonized by the English beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries, just as Anglo-Saxons were invaded and colonised by Norse and Norman invaders in the 8th to the 11th centuries. Both English and Normans were mostly Germanic peoples. Welsh, Cornish, Pictish and other Brythonic Celtic peoples, as the pre-Germanic inhabitants of Britain were, have been under siege since the Romans first invaded their lands about 2000 years ago. This is also true of Bretons and other minority ethnic groups across Europe. The Welsh managed to shelter themselves for a time in the west of Britain, as did the (Gaelic) Scots and Irish to the north and across the Irish Sea. This enabled them to survive and revive their cultures and languages in the 20th and 21st centuries. Cornish and Breton hang on with a few speakers and the possibility of revival. But Pictish culture and language are gone, long since absorbed into Scots Gaelic, Scottish or English-speaking communities. There is however, a fourth language, or dialect of Scottish, called “Doric” spoken in Northeastern Scotland, and some of its grammar and vocabulary are different from the Scottish or English spoken in other parts of Scotland. Doric is not Scots Gaelic. It is a dialect of Scottish, which is derived from Old (Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English from before the Norman Invasion of England (1066), and is recognized as a separate language. It has been made famous by the poetry of Robert Burns. Doric, as a rural dialect of Scottish, is spoken in areas which used to be Pictish strongholds in the North and East of Scotland, with its base in Aberdeen. Is there an echo of an older Brythonic Celtic language there, that might have been Pictish? No one seems to know. There is a substantial body of stories and poetry told in Doric. In the meantime; “Come awa ben the hoose for a fly an a piece – Come in and I’ll make you a cup of tea and something to eat”.

No matter how hard life was, European migrants in North America and Australia, especially from Great Britain, were welcomed and had opportunities that other migrants and Indigenous peoples did not enjoy. After a generation or two even despised migrant communities such as the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Italians and Jews created much better lives for themselves than they had previously had in Europe. My ancestors were lucky in being English-speaking Britons, for the most part. Even Reverend Schwerdtfeger and his little loyalist flock had the essential requirements of education, the Protestant religion, an ethic of hard work, and white skin.

In Canada, European migrants were rarely subject to racist legislation such as The Chinese Immigration Act 1885, levying a “Head Tax” of $50 on any Chinese coming to Canada. After the 1885 legislation failed to deter Chinese immigration the government of Canada further increased the landing fees by 1903 to $500 per head. In 1923 the Chinese Exclusion Act replaced prohibitive fees with an outright ban on Chinese immigration to Canada (with some exceptions). The Exclusion Act went into effect on July 1, 1923 – Dominion Day, Canada’s National Holiday. Chinese at the time referred to this day as “Humiliation Day” and refused to celebrate it until after the Act was repealed in 1947. Sikhs from the Punjab in India came to Canada to work on the railroads and in other industries from the late 19th century, but were banned in 1908. In 1914 a chartered ship called the Komagata Maru entered Vancouver Harbour with more than 350 mostly Punjabi passengers. They were refused entry and, after many weeks of confrontation and hardship, were forced to sail back across the Pacific. They eventually docked in Kolkata (Calcutta) in India where 20 of them were killed by police and more than two dozen others were arrested and detained. Japanese Canadians started to come to Canada in the 1870’s settling in British Columbia where most Asian migrants lived. In 1942, the federal government under the War Measures Act, branded all Japanese Canadians enemy aliens and security threats. More than 20,000 Japanese were placed in internment camps in British Columbia or prisoner of war camps in Ontario. Families were also sent as forced labourers to farms across the Prairies, especially southern Alberta where a significant Japanese diaspora still lives. Three-quarters of them were Canadian citizens. Citizens of Asian descent were denied the right to vote (with some exceptions) until Japanese Canadians were the last to be enfranchised in 1948.

In the United States and Australia, very similar policies were adopted for Chinese migrants.  Japanese Americans and Australians were also interned during the Second World War. More recently, refugees from Southeast Asia struggled against discrimination after large numbers came to North America and Australia during and after the Vietnam War in the 1970’s. Pacific Islanders were also brought to Australia to work in the sugar plantations of Queensland, and they too have faced racial discrimination. Europeans could also face significant racism and discrimination (Irish, Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans) and some, such as Germans and Italians during the First and Second World Wars, did suffer significant restrictions on their freedoms. But there were no German or Italian internment camps where large numbers of civilians were held as security threats. Mexican and Central American refugees and migrants, and Asian refugees trying to get to Australia, are now facing high levels of government coercion, internment and violence similar to what previous waves of migrants have faced.

The worst treatment of migrants was directed towards the millions of Africans who were shipped across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves. Many died during the voyages on the slave ships, while others faced a future of hardship and violence in the sugar or cotton plantations of the New World. Indentured servants and exiled prisoners from the British Isles, in particular from Ireland, did suffer from difficult conditions when they arrived in North America and Australia. But their living conditions were never as horrific as those of African slaves, nor were they really slaves. Most were set free after seven years or less to make new lives for themselves. Indigenous peoples were also enslaved by the millions throughout the Americas. They were gradually replaced by African slaves who seemed to have greater resistance to the diseases brought by Europeans. The descendants of those African slaves continue to suffer acute levels of racial discrimination, police profiling, imprisonment, poverty, violence, murder, and abuse while Indigenous peoples around the world are still essentially prisoners and exiles on their own land.

European migrants were never subjected to the Indian Act in Canada, or the oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States, or the Aboriginal protection acts passed by states and territories in Australia. The Indian Act was first passed in 1876 and was part of the Canadian federal government’s efforts to push all “Indians” onto reservations, particularly in the West, in order to take their land for railroads and incoming settlers. The situation in the American West was similar but even more violent. “Indian” lives became completely regulated by federal officials. Their access to land, food, clean water, adequate housing, medical care, and other necessities of life was severely curtailed. It still is in both Canada and the United States. Indigenous peoples, including First Nations, Metis, Inuit, Hawaiians and Native Americans were and still are subject to heavy government oppression, ongoing poverty and intense racial discrimination. The situation has only begun to marginally improve in Canada since 1982 when the Canadian Constitution was amended to incorporate the recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights. In the United States some forms of Indigenous self-government and sovereignty are recognized. In Australia, where there are no treaties or constitutional protections as there are in North America, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still subjected to heavy-handed government administration or neglect, or both. Policing and incarceration are major issues in all three of the big white settler countries.

Indigenous people could not be expelled overseas as some migrants were and still are. Rather, they were put into the equivalent of internment camps, otherwise known as reservations or reserves, which have lasted for generations. “Indians” with status under the Indian Act could not vote until 1960 unless they were willing to assimilate, or be “enfranchised”, thus losing any rights they had as “Indians” under the Act. Inuit were enfranchised in 1950 but had few opportunities to vote in federal elections. Again, the situation for Native Americans and Australian Aboriginal peoples was, and is, as bad or worse as in Canada.

Although the Indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America were not moved onto reservations, they were subject to caste restrictions under Spanish colonial rule. The casta system was abolished in 1821 in Mexico when it achieved independence from Spain, but discrimination based on race remained. More recently, neo-liberal policies have severely undermined Indigenous land rights. In the constitutional reforms of 2001, some basic Indigenous rights were reinstated, but poverty and abuse remain huge problems for the pueblos indígenas de México. Many Mexican and Central American refugees are fleeing their homelands because of North American political interference and natural resource extraction, as well as climate-change induced drought, intensifying tropical storms and hurricanes, poverty, and endemic violence. Most of these people are Indigenous. The reasons for their departure are often causally related to American political and military agendas that have included decades of violence in places like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Others are leaving the severe human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by mining and other resource extraction industries, most of which are Canadian-owned. Even in Mexico political and economic priorities set in Washington, Ottawa, Mexico City, and corporate head offices in North America, Europe and Asia have had a deep impact on Indigenous peoples’ lives.

At the same time as my German ancestors were fleeing American independence, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations) of upstate New York were also leaving their land on which they had lived in towns and farmlands and forests, not just for decades, but for thousands of years. The British provided them with a reserve in the south of Upper Canada along the Grand River. Some Kanien’kehá: ka (Mohawks – members of the Six Nations) had moved about 40 years before this to Ahkwesáhsne not far from Kahnawake and Kahnehsatake just outside of Montreal. My German relatives were granted land very close to Ahkwesáhsne. This is now a reserve straddling the border between Cornwall, Ontario and New York State, a border that the Mohawk do not recognize. History has been much less kind to the Kanien’kehá: ka on both sides of the various boundaries where they now live than it has been to myself and my European forebears. But both began their journeys as refugees from American revolutionary violence.


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