The history of Indigenous Peoples as told through blankets
The history of Indigenous peoples on the northern part of Turtle Island, what is now known as Canada, was told through a Kairo Blanket Exercise at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Southampton on June 21.
Reverend Graham Bland of St. George’s in Owen Sound said it was a Deanery event with churches from Walkerton, Point Clark, Kincardine, Kingarf, Markdale, Hanover, Durham, Owen Sound, Tara, Chatsworth, Port Elgin and Southampton represented.
Reverend Carrie Irwin of the Regional Ministry of Saugeen Shores, Tara and Chatsworth said that the Anglican Bishop had asked the Deanery to consider a motion that would put the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on the table. “Last year we read the UN Declaration… and then to follow up this year the Bishop said find something to do,” she said, later adding, “Graham really spent a lot of time connecting with Kairos just clearing the path for us to be able to do this.”
From their website, Kairos is a collective of churches and organizations working together “in faithful action for ecological justice and human rights.”
Elena Luna, Kairos Promotions Associate, Central Region, said the Blanket Exercise was a collaborative effort as “there needed to be a focus on re-education or expanding our current knowledge of Indigenous history in Canada.”
Bland opened the event with a welcome to the approximately 50 people in attendance. “We are pleased to be here on this territory which is the territory of Saugeen Ojibway First Nation (SON),” he said, adding that territory consists of Ojibway, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples.
Neyaashiinigmiing Chippewas of Nawash Elder Ogimaabinesiikwe (Chief Thunderbird Woman) said she was reclaiming her own story and that on the SON territory, villages were tens of thousands of people, “not just the little reserves that you see now.”
She continued. “We are so glad that you are here, we waited for you for a long time… what is happening today, this is part of prophecy… some see it as a reconciliation process, for us it’s a conciliation, the beginning of getting to know each other and know the stories about this land and what happened to the land and people and waters.”
Kairos Facilitator Diem Marchand-Lafortune said her prayer was “that your spirits give you strength to sit in what could be very uncomfortable for you… and that you’re willing to be open and authentic in that.”
She asked those in attendance to remove their shoes and occupy the 20 or so blankets that had been laid out in the middle of the room. The blankets, Marchand-Lafortune explained, represented the northern part of Turtle Island and participants represented the Indigneous population who occupied the land for more than 10,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans.
“You fished and hunted and farmed, each community had its own language, culture, traditions, laws and governments,” she said. “The land is very important to you, all of your needs – food, clothing, shelter, culture, your spirituality – are taken care of by the land… and in return you take very seriously your responsibility to take care of the land.”
As the exercise got underway, Luna, acting as the European settler and Marchand-Lafortune, acting as the narrator, read from a script, in tandem, that went through the history of colonization of Indigenous territory.
The script was punctuated by scrolls, which were read by participants in the exercise. Some contained quotes written by Indigenous youth, activists or prominent figures; some highlighted Indigenous traditions and connection to the land, while some expressed key pieces in the shared history.
The exercise began in the east, when settlers relied on the Indigenous population for survival and their leaders recognized the First Peoples as independent nations.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III, stated Indigenous nations owned their land and the only legal way newcomers could gain control was by making treaties between the two nations, Luna explained.
Marchand-Lafortune said that when the Government of Canada was later formed, the Royal Proclamation became part of Canadian law. “For you, the Indigenous peoples, the treaties were very special and sacred agreements, they were statements of peace, friendship and sharing.”
It was at this point, the European settler began to move around the room, gradually folding in the edges of the blankets, making the surface smaller.
Marchand-Lafortune asked participants to stay on the blankets and reminded them that the Indigenous population has always resisted when someone tried to take their land. “But don’t resist too much,” she said jokingly. “Don’t make my friend’s job too hard.”
When the War of 1812 ended and the fur trade was drying up, Europeans turned more to farming and needed more land. Soon the Europeans outnumbered the Indigenous population and with them came disease such as small pox, measles, turbuculosis and influenza.
“Millions of you died,” said Marchand-Lafortune. “In fact there were some people who believed that half the Indigenous people alive at the time died from these diseases. In some communities, nine out of 10 people died.”
Luna handed participant Jan Briggs-McGowan a folded blanket and said, “In some places blankets infected with the deadly small pox virus were given or traded to the Indigenous peoples by settlers and supported by military leaders such as Lord Jeffrey Amherst. You represent the many Indigenous people who died from small pox after having come into contact with such blankets. Please step off the blanket.”
Participants who had been handed a white index card at the beginning of the exercise were then asked to step off the blankets as they represented the people who died from various diseases. Any empty blankets were removed and a moment of silence was observed.
Luna then approached a person in the east. “You represent the Beothuk, one of the original people of what is now the island of Newfoundland. You also died from diseases you had never seen before. Because Europeans over-hunted, some of you starved. Some of you died in violent encounters with others trying to take your lands. Some of you were hunted down and killed. In 1829 the last person recognized by the Europeans as your people, Shanawdithit, died in St. John’s. Your language and culture became extinct. Please step off the blankets.”
Then participants in the south were divided when the border between the United States and British Columbia was created.
Luna headed west and approached a person who represented the Métis, Cree and Blackfoot who resisted and fought for their land during the Red River Rebellion and North West Resistance when construction of the railway opened up the prairies to settlements. Many died in battle, were put in jail or were executed.
Marchand-Lafortune explained that following these acts of resistance the Métis people entered a period of dispersion. “These were dark times for the Métis, a time of persecution and extreme poverty due to their landlessness and general lack of formal education,” she said.
A small group in the north represented Inuit communities that were moved to unfamiliar and barren lands. By 1956 one seventh of the entire Inuit population was being treated for tuberculosis (TB) and today incidents of TB among the Inuit is 185 times higher than for Canadian born non-aboriginal people.
Blankets got smaller or disappeared as participants who had been given blue index cards were asked to step off the blankets as they represented those who died of starvation after being moved away from their original lands and hunting grounds.
The idea of Terra Nullius, which in Latin translates to empty land, meant European countries could claim land as their own, read one of the scrolls.
Luna went onto say that Europeans knew the land wasn’t empty so the idea changed to include lands not being used by “civilized” people or lands not being put to “civilized” use.
“It was us who decided what it meant to be civilized and we decided that because you and your people were not using the land in a civilized way we could take it and it was almost impossible to stop us,” explained the settler.
“As Indigenous people you lost more than just your land. Because the land is so important to you, when it was taken away some of you also lost your way of living, your culture and in some cases your reason to live,” added the narrator.
Indigenous people were left out of the creation of the British North America Act that came in 1867, despite the impact it would have on their lives. “More and more, the plan was to make you like the Europeans,” said Marchand-Lafortune.
Then came the Indian Act in 1876. One scroll read, “As long as our cultures are strong it was difficult for the government to take our lands so the government used the Indian Act to attack who we were as peoples. Hunting and fishing were now limited and our spiritual ceremonies like the Potlatch, Pow Wow and Sundance were now against the law. This didn’t change until the 1950s.”
“Now hear this,” read Marchand-Lafortune. “You and all your territories are now under the direct control of the Canadian federal government. You will now be placed on reserves. Please fold your blankets until they are just large enough to stand on.”
She continued. “You went from being strong, independent First Nations with your own governments to isolated poor “bands” that depended on the government for almost everything. You were treated like you knew nothing and you couldn’t run your own lives.”
Through the Indian Act, the federal government continued to deny basic rights such as healthy schools, proper housing and clean running water,” Marchand-Lafortune said.
Luna added that permits were required to leave reserve, voting was not permitted, spirituality and traditional forms of government could not be practiced. “If you did any of these things, you will be put in jail.”
It was also against the law to raise money to fight for land rights in the courts until the 1950s, added Marchand-Lafortune.
Through something called enfranchisement, First Nations people who became doctors, teachers, lawyers, soldiers, or who went to university lost their Indian status, read one scroll.
“This cut you off from your communities,” added the narrator.
Assimilation meant that the “Indian problem” would sort itself out as more and more Indigenous people died from diseases or became part of the larger Canadian society, read another scroll.
At this time, one of the blankets was replaced on what was now plentiful empty space on the floor. This blanket represented residential schools that operated from the mid 1800s to the late 1990s, the last one closing in 1996.
One of the participants was asked to read a scroll, “The federal government took First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from our home and community and put them in boarding schools that were run by churches. As parents we didn’t have a choice about this, sometimes police arrived to take away our children. These schools were often very far from our homes and they had to stay at them all or most of the year. Mostly they were not allowed to speak our languages and they were punished if they did. Often our children weren’t given enough food.”
Participants holding a yellow card were moved to the residential school blanket. Marchand-Lafortune said, “While some students say they had positive experiences at the school, most of you say that you suffered from very bad conditions and from different kinds of abuse. Many of you lost family connections and didn’t learn your language, culture and traditions because you grew up in the schools and rarely went home. Many of you never learned how to be good parents. Some students died at the schools. Many of you never returned home or had trouble reintegrating if you did.”
One person held a yellow card marked with an X. “Please step off the blanket… you represent one of the thousands of children who died at the schools or who later died as a result of your experience,” said Marchand-Lafortune.
Of the children who survived, some made it home and had trouble fitting in or experienced lateral violence due to intergenerational impacts, some ended up in urban centres or incarcerated, she continued.
“Thanks to the courage of survivors, Canadians started to find out about residential schools. Former students negotiated a settlement agreement that included the Truth and Reconciliation Commission[http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=905],” said Marchand-Lafortune, adding that in 2008 the Prime Minister issued an official apology to the then approximately 80,000 living former students.
Luna read an excerpt from that apology. “The Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions and we apologize for having done this. Not only did you suffer these abuses as children but as you became parents you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience and for this we are sorry.”
Marchand-Lafortune continued. “But apologizing means you have to change what you’re doing. Many people are still waiting to see if Canada will change how it treats Indigenous children. The residential schools are not just part of our history, children and grandchildren of people who went to the schools feel the impacts… Indigenous children are still treated differently, your schools don’t get as much money. Today you are even more likely to be taken from your communities but this time you are being placed in foster care,” she said.
A scroll was read, “From the 1960s to the 1980s, thousands of First Nations and Métis children were forced illegally from our homes and adopted or fostered, usually by non-Aboriginal people. This period is known as the 60s Scoop. Many of these kids experienced violence, racism and abuse and lost connection to their identity and culture. Like residential schools, the purpose of the 60s Scoop was assimilation.”
Another scroll, Shannen’s Dream, written by Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation who died in a car accident when she was 15 years old, in part read, “We want our younger brothers and sisters to go to school thinking that school is a time for hopes and dreams of the future. Every kid deserves this.”
Marchand-Lafortune asked for a round of applause for the young Indigenous leaders bringing about positive change.
Over the years more than 70 percent of the land that had been set aside in treaties has been lost or stolen with big companies making significant amounts of money from Indigenous lands and natural resources. “We, the Indigenous peoples, get little but the pollution from any of the companies that don’t respect the Earth and future generations are left to clean up the mess,” read one scroll.
Under existing legislation treaty people are sovereign nations and during the 1700s and 1800s, over 300 treaties were signed with the Europeans, which agreed to share the lands and the resources with the immigrants. “Today, the sons of the immigrants have the largest treaty rights in Canada. The Indians have become the poorest peoples in Canada,” read a scroll, a quote from Chief Pascall Bighetty, Pukatawagan First Nation.
Marchand-Lafortune explained that one way the Canadian government pressures Indigenous peoples to leave their lands is by failing to provide enough funds for basic services. The Office of the Auditor General in 2011 stated that over half of the drinking water systems on reserve pose a significant risk to human health.
Assembly of First Nations in 2012 declared that 85,000 new housing units were needed on reserve and 60 percent of existing houses are in need of repair.
A 2011 Public Health Agency of Canada report said that suicide rates among First Nations communities are twice the national average with the rates among Inuit six to 11 times the national average.
One scroll read, “For many of us, women are the carriers of culture. By targeting women, you target the heart of the nation.”
In 2009 Statistics Canada reported that Indigenous women are at least 3.5 times as likely to experience violence as non-Indigenous women in Canada. A 2014 report from the RCMP stated there are 1,400 documented cases of Indigenous women who have gone missing or who have been murdered since the 1970s. Undocumented cases likely make that number much higher.
Due to gender inequality in the Indian Act Indigenous women and children lost or were never granted status.
In 2007 the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples became part of international law to ensure Indigenous peoples survived and thrived. Canada was one of the last countries to agree to the Declaration, said Marchand-Lafortune.
“Despite the Government of Canada’s centuries of efforts to take away your identity, as Indigenous peoples you have continued to exist and to pass down your languages, ceremonies and much more,” she said.
A participant was asked to read the next scroll. “We have language immersion programs and healing initiatives based on our traditional values. Our elders are passing on land-based skills to our youth and mothers and grandmothers are working to address violence in our nations by reinstating ceremonies that honour women. Our leaders are using the courts to have our rights recognized and many of our nations are growing. We see treaties as living agreements that, if respected, will allow people from all backgrounds to share the land peacefully and respectfully. We are strong and resilient having survived centuries of efforts to make us disappear.”
Another scroll echoed words of Christi Belcourt, a Métis artist and stated that despite direct assimilation attempts, the residential school systems and not having a land base, “We are still able to say we are proud to be Métis, we are resilient as a weed, and as beautiful as a wildflower, we have much to celebrate and be proud of.”
The next scroll contained the words of Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “It is in our daily conversations and interactions that our success as a nation in forging a better place will ultimately be measured.”
Participants were then asked to look around the room. Blankets were sparse and few inhabitants remained.
A circle was formed and those in attendance had an opportunity to reflect on their experience.
Many people were surprised and saddened by how little they knew of the history and everyone was impacted by enacting the dialogue through the exercise.
“I’m shocked growing up in this country that I didn’t learn about… the effect that colonization had,” said one participant.
“When you see it all together like that and the effects of one act had for generations, I think we lost that understanding and we need to get it back,” said another.
“What struck me was the visual of the shrinking blankets.”
One woman reflected on the part of the exercise where children were removed from one blanket and moved to another and said she imagined herself and her siblings. “What if that happened to us,” she asked.
Some expressed anger while some expressed sadness. A few spoke through tears as they shared their thoughts.
One such woman said she was struck by how much passion the Indigenous people must have for the land. “We’re here because we want to learn and we want to hear the truth and we want to have more understanding and it’s frustrating to know that so many people that we live beside and work with and have interactions with in lots of ways hide behind not knowing the truth and that colours how they think and things that are said and things that are understood.”
Another woman said she would be sure to take what she had learned back to her family.
Reverend Carrie Irwin said she experienced a “tsunami of emotions.” From “deep bone brief” for the violence and disrespect, to shame for “those times when conversations were happening around me and not knowing enough and not choosing to find out more, to become proactive in being part of the change;” to frustration and anger, and finally to humility. “In the midst of these atrocities, genocide that was happening, the incredible strength that was being shown by Indigenous people and this incredible strength in the willingness to help us learn.”
Sarah Irwin said the experience was something she was going to carry with her for a very long time. When she was in high school she said Indigenous history was glossed over and she took it upon herself to do her own research and presented an essay to her class on residential schools. “The shock that went through my class and my classmates having no idea,” she recalled, adding that she felt cheated during the exercise because even though she had done the research and knew the numbers and the statistics, “going through it and having each person represent a number or a statistic or a person, if we had that in our classroom, if we had that in our communities, I feel like I wouldn’t have felt such a weight as a teenager to try and explain this.”
Sarah expressed hope that educational opportunities such as the Blanket Exercise will be used in the education system, in communities and in families “and that it will be discussed more openly and that each of us going forward tonight will be more willing to, when they hear remarks or something they don’t agree with, being part of this exercise, have the strength to stand up [and say] ‘that is not something fair to say when you do not know the history.’”
Jan Briggs-McGowan, the participant who had been granted with the small pox blanket, said as the keeper of the geneology and history in her family “to be chosen [in the exercise] to be murdered with small pox and not be able to pass down information about my First Nations roots to generations yet born was a terrible grief for me.”
Attention then turned to Ogimaabinesiikwe who shared the story of her mother who endured a two day car ride with two men who had dragged her out of her home, away from her family to take her to residential school. A line on the floor separated older children from younger children. They were told not to cross the line but when they were alone, they would come up to the line and although they wouldn’t cross it, they would sit, shoulder to shoulder.
Ogimaabinesiikwe said she has worked 15 years creating cross culture relationships, “inviting people like you who want to learn.”
Luna said that despite First Nations roots, she was “acutely aware” that she walks through the world with white privilege and added that although she was there in a professional capacity, she was awed and humbled and grateful for having the spirit “break me open that much more.”
Marchand-Lafortune said she was taken away from her mother at 7 days old. Her mother had been in 16 foster homes from the age of 5 to 16 years.
She said that we all have to do our own work and our own healing in order to be open to others and be grateful for other people’s gifts and gifts of spirit; that it is healing that will get us all to the point where we listen to each other’s stories and let the light in. “By other people’s stories, then we can love, reconcile, repair and transform.”
For more information about the Kairos Blanket Exercise visit www.kairosblanketexercise.org.
Originally published on July 17, 2017 in Saugeen Shores Hub.