Our Pristine Island and its Traditional Custodians
Yesterday morning, I received a number of acknowledgements that welcomed my return to writing. One reader suggested that our family island may have been one of the few pristine places of peace in a world that appears to be steeped in conflict. The reader implied that such a retreat may be an important ingredient for restoring one’s spirit.
Given the violent conflict in the world, given the factious situation in Washington that dominates the daily news, this is very difficult. Donald Trump most recently repeatedly dissed and humiliated the Attorney General in his government for not owing fealty to himself personally but, instead, recused himself given his obligations to the rule of law and the constitution. Further, the Republican-dominated Congress approved expanded sanctions against Russia while the Trump government forged agreements that effectively ceded control of Syria to the Russians. Even worse, in the Russian election scandal, that administration possibly was willing to trade sanctions relief for cooperation with the Russians in interfering in the American election. Given the current efforts of the Republican-dominated Congress to take away health insurance from over twenty million people in the supposed name of making up for the acknowledged flaws in Obamacare, it is hard to avoid becoming cynical and despondent.
Even our family island does not escape the troubles and turmoil of the world, though the situation on the surface was much more mundane. After almost fifty years, I have come to recognize that it is time to pass on ownership of the island. It is becoming too difficult to maintain my responsibilities for its upkeep even as I enjoy its beneficence. So I was preparing the cottage for disposition. Further, the island is not as pristine or removed from the current turmoil of our world as one might believe.
About two miles across from our family island, there is another called Grave Island. The local Ojibway claim it as an ancient burial site, though, to the best of my knowledge – which is not very extensive – no evidence has been found to support that claim. In this case, actual ownership for ritual purposes may not be the real issue. There is a much larger one – recognition of the prior custodians of all of the territory, not only where our cottage is located, but even where we live in the city.
Canadians, following the lead of their New Zealand cousins, now begin ceremonial occasions in many places and venues with a statement of acknowledgement, not simply of previous claims, but of its prior custodians. In fact, custodian may be a superior term to ownership because ownership is so specifically linked with the development of modern society. In traditional thought, as in traditional Judaism, land in the end was owned by a world spirit and not specific human beings. We are simply the custodians of the land while we are here.
Though a close friend of mine regards ceremonial statements of such acknowledgement as empty tokenism, “politically correct” utterances and somewhat hypocritical gestures, I find they serve a number of purposes. It reminds Canadians, and new Canadians when they are taking an oath of allegiance and accepting Canadian citizenship, that long before Canada came into existence as a country, there were earlier inhabitants who lived here, “owned” the land, benefited from its bounty and carried the responsibility for continuity and prosperity. Further, the recognition of indigenous cultures and peoples is critical to understanding the history of this land which did not start, as my history books implied, with colonization and European settlement.
As importantly, such recognition is a critical ingredient in the process of transitional justice as part of the reconciliation between the indigenous peoples and Canadians who settled in Canada long after they did. The indigenous peoples were more often than not mistreated and exploited and their cultures deliberately and intentionally overridden. Currently, the infamous residential school system may simply be the best known. Further, and hypocritically, all such efforts were made in the name of bringing civilization to so-called “savages”.
If Canada is truly a multicultural society, then among the most important cultures of this land that deserve a place of honour are those of our indigenous peoples. This is not a patronizing statement, simply a statement of the historical record often, and usually, deliberately ignored by the current dominant culture. If Canada is to be inclusive, then it is crucial that we be inclusive of the original inhabitants of this land.
Public events are one important place and time to do so. And to do so formally. For formality – whether it is singing Oh Canada or acknowledging the ancestral custodians of the land – is a critical step in public education. Further, such acknowledgement fosters the idea of partnerships between a preceding system and a succeeding culture. In Judaism, when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, when the rabbinic system was well on its way to displacing a religion that had Temple worship at the centre, the Levites and the Cohanim of the older cultural system who were central to worship in the Temple, were given a special formal place of honour in the new system in which the Torah rather than the Temple had become the central focus of religious practice. Similarly, the indigenous people must be treated not simply as partners in continuing the challenge of building Canada, but must be ensured a place of honour in that enterprise.
This should not be an empty gesture full of sound and absent of fury and, therefore, signifying nothing. It must be an explicit demonstration of a commitment that we not simply partner in raising the level of material and spiritual status of our indigenous peoples, but ensure that they have an honorary status and significant recognition for being the true historical pioneers in the country. That status must be given substance by ensuring that each and every member of our indigenous peoples be given an opportunity to achieve excellence in whatever they aspire to do, and that we learn from them as much as they benefit from the training and education that must be available to all Canadians.
The health and education of our indigenous peoples must be the top priority in Canadian government policy and not compromised because of other demands. In order for that to be the case, in order for the training, education and health care to be and remain preeminent in actual practice, other Canadians must learn at a very early age, and have that message re-instilled throughout their adult life, through the formal school curricula, through formal occasions in public life, that this is a necessary priority for Canadians. Just as our elders must be cared for and respected, so must our older indigenous cultural heritage.
Further, such acknowledgements, such ritual practices need not be confined to public ceremonial occasions but can be part of meetings, conferences and special functions, particularly those signifying rites of passage. Inclusion of such remarks and acknowledgements at events of a great variety should be used to instill and reinforce the values and respect we owe our indigenous peoples. No matter how small the event, room can and should be made for at least a statement of formal acknowledgement.
The issue is, however, not just formal acknowledgement, not just a ceremonial matter pledging our commitment to our indigenous peoples, but a mode of recognition of the traditional ways in which they served as custodians of this land. Respect for indigenous peoples is part and parcel of demonstrating respect for the land and ensuring that we do not continue to mistreat the environment. Formal words at ceremonial openings are but a beginning of a process of integrating the ceremonies and protocols of indigenous culture that they wish and are eager to share into the wider Canadian experience.
The broader benefits are obvious. Multiculturalism entails mutual respect for differences. Multiculturalism entails cultural engagement with the other. Multiculturalism does not entail surrendering one’s own cultural practices and commitments, except in cases where those practices are demonstrably inimical to the communal values of all Canadians, a just place for wrestling with the politics of differences.
Thus, when we open an occasion, whether it is a school day or a formal ceremony, incorporating the traditional indigenous practice of welcoming people to share the land in peace and prosperity is an important start. This can go beyond a one-paragraph short statement, though that is where it should certainly begin. It could and should develop into incorporating into such ceremonies a traditional song of welcome recited and sung in the original language.
Traditional symbols can be included. The ceremony could even incorporate a traditional ceremonial practice. These are all ways of remembering, acknowledging and offering recognition. However, none of this must be done as appropriation, but only with the full participation and endorsement of our indigenous peoples. This is written in the plural not simply in recognition that Canada consisted of many indigenous peoples with different languages, customs and practices, but in recognition that a local region may have been an area of contention between and among competing peoples. All must become part of the process.
As such processes develop, representatives of indigenous peoples will and should be given places of special honour, just as Cohanim and Levites are acknowledged in Jewish ceremonies. This will include rites of passage – such as bat and bar mitzvahs as well as weddings in my own tradition. The recognition of the time and commitment of an indigenous person is not just a matter of formal status, but compensation should be paid for that time, for the responsibility of conveying and continuing the practices, and for ensuring that the responsibilities for recognition of our full history are validated. Cultures must not simply be replaced by successive ones. Traditions must be elevated and given a place of honour as new cultural expressions become predominant among all of us. Further, such a recital should only be an initial set in integrating indigenous law, non-indigenous and international law.
When we recite at an opening ceremony a simulacrum of the following, do not be embarrassed. Do not be bored. Engage. Welcome and embrace the opportunity. The statement can be as simple as the following with, at the very least, the discovery of the name or the names of the peoples who traditionally owned and occupied the land before the arrival of European and, subsequently, settlers from all over the world.
I or we respectfully acknowledge the (in our case) Anishinaabeg as the original custodians of this land on which we are currently holding this event and consider it a privilege as a Canadian to recognize that tradition and the people(s) who served as its historical custodians. We honour an occasion in which we can express those thanks and give acknowledgement and respect for that which we have inherited.
There are other variations:
I wish to acknowledge the custodians of this land, past and present, the Anishinaabeg people as the original custodians of this land. I recognise and respect that cultural heritage, its beliefs and the protective relationship to the land.
I acknowledge that this meeting (conference, event, wedding, etc.) is being held on the land of the indigenous Anishinaabeg people or nation, the traditional custodians of this land.
Before we begin the proceedings, I would like us to acknowledge and pay our respect to the traditional custodians of the ancestral lands on which we meet, the Anishinaabeg nation.
An Australian poet in New South Wales, Jonathan Hill, wrote:
Today we stand in footsteps millennia old.
May we acknowledge the traditional owners
whose cultures and customs have nurtured,
and continue to nurture, this land,
since men and women awoke from the great dream.
We honour the presence of these ancestors
who reside in the imagination of this land
and whose irrepressible spirituality
flows through all creation.
Embrace tradition. It can make your spirit soar.