human baggage, human bondage

My dinnermates wanted to know more about INPUT, the international public television conference held early May in Johannesburg, and what I did, saw, heard there. I mentioned a workshop organized by Sylvia Vollenhoven about slavery called “The Human Bondage Project.” Sylvia thinks huge, and plans a global examination about the basis of historic forms of slavery and its contemporary effects upon the world.

I mentioned some of the comments from the mostly African audience. One man rose to tell our shocked group that he had been bought and sold nine times as a farm worker in South Africa. He was not an ancient man. His comments sparked others to insist that the Project, therefore, must be “an African project, with African stories and only African perspectives.” I then told my tablemates that I made a contribution to the workshop, a confession really, to show that slavery must be a truly global story.

I told the audience that I came from a “people who practised slavery.” I explained that my Kanienke:haka (Mohawk) nation waged wars for territory, defence, domination, or trade. In the process, my people took male, female and child captives as slaves. In this way we replenished the genetic pool, learned about other groups and societies, extended our diplomatic relations far beyond our national boundaries, and through work and intelligence our slaves helped us establish the Mohawk nation as a dominant military and trading society in eastern North America.

“They (the slaves) could become full citizens of the Mohawk nation,” I explained, “if they learned our language, adopted our customs, followed our laws, accepted our religion and spiritual beliefs. We absorbed or assimilated them into our people. Some became leaders of our people, valued for their knowledge of other languages, laws and customs.” I explained that this was not a one-way street because other nations took Mohawks and others as slaves too.

“What I didn’t tell that audience in South Africa, and Sylvia wished I had, was that we also took a lot of Dutch, French and English as slaves. Very often, they did not want to return to their own people,” I said, “especially many of the female slaves. They had more rights and status in Mohawk society than they would ever enjoy in their own European societies.”

It is a fact that most European captives preferred to remain with their Indigenous American owners. I mentioned the on-going controversies with the Cherokee Nation’s attempt to deny citizenship to the Freedmen. The Freedmen are former slaves who decided to stay with the Cherokee after the U.S. Civil War. The Freedmen chose to endure the death march called the Trail of Tears along with the Cherokee; an ethnic cleansing carried out by the U.S. Army after President Andrew Jackson ordered the removal at gun-point of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to “Indian country” in the Oklahomas.

With our little group was a CBC editor and my former producer in radio. She sat there muttering almost chant-like throughout: “Slavery is bad. It is never good.”

Now, this wasn’t a discussion about the merits for or against slavery. It was an attempt to explain that historically, slavery was never a simple matter. Even today, discussion about slavery cannot be limited to “slavery bad… never good.” It was and is a much more complex subject that goes to the heart of human endeavor; social, political, religious and economic interaction and how societies evolve and grow.

Slavery has many overt and ugly facets, which we rightly condemn. We know that the export of millions of Africans to the Americas and Europe was one of humanities great holocausts. It bled the African continent and robbed its nations of almost any chance of social, cultural or economic stability even to this day. Slavery also has many not-so-obvious and even benign forms of human bondage that occur in every society.

For example, a few years ago, an advocate against child sexual exploitation named Cherry Kingley blew me away as she described the legalized and licenced operations that make such exploitation possible and even profitable. We permit pimps in their various forms to own male and female, adult and child sex slaves. Hotel, motel and bar managers know what’s really going on in those rented rooms of theirs. So do taxi drivers who transport johns to and from these establishments, often acting as tour guides for the sexual predator. Except for the pimps, all are legally licenced by elected city councils. Those sitting on city and town councils are neither stupid nor ignorant about the part they play in this trade. This is but one example where the supposedly moral and upright citizenry meet and collaborate with the ugly underworld in an ages-old dance in social commerce.

What are sweat shops in Toronto or Montreal if not slave shops? Aren’t migrant farm workers in the cabbage fields of southern Quebec not a part of an agricultural and economic slave trade? What are one-company or one-industry towns, if the inhabitants have little or no other choice for employment. Why is it that nearly every mine, drilling or logging operation in northern Canada has its own comfort girls made available for the use of workers?

It is not a simple matter, as my former producer would have it, of drawing a line in the sand with those on one side instantly and unreservedly evil while on the other is the pristine good. To me, that is absolute hypocrisy; turning a blind eye to the various forms of human bondage that occur in everyday life in Canada and around the world, pretending it doesn’t exist, or condemning the reality of other peoples lives.

A man in Indonesia takes money to feed his large, starving family in exchange for one of his daughters to serve a family in Malaysia. She will likely end up a prostitute in Thailand. A young Cree boy his early teens in north end Winnipeg signs up with an escort agency because he needs the money to survive. It isn’t right. But these types of transactions take place everyday. It is reality.

In my opinion, my former producer refused to accept that the world is a complicated place; that every society and group has practised obvious and not-so-obvious forms of slavery in the past and continue to do so today. To her, the world is reduced into those two simple phrases, “slavery bad… never good.” By refusing to consider degrees of human bondage, other perspectives, other realities, my former producer was imposing her own morals, values, and her situation upon everyone else. She set a standard on morality using her own life as the yardstick by which others will be judged.

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2 Comments

Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Canadian politics

2 responses to “human baggage, human bondage

  1. Dale Ratcliffe

    Working in news in the late 80s/early 90s we often talked about ‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’… of course it was a debate about thinking about the language we used; the language that went on the airwaves, the responsibility to present facts, analysis, and not judge. I thought back to that reading your post. Thank you for your analysis — clear, thoughtful and provocative.

  2. shmohawk

    Having been condemned as a terrorist, for the apparent crime of being born Mohawk, I can appreciate that discussion in your newsrooms about the use of loaded terms that impose bias into stories.

    It has been my experience that too few people question – challenge – the use of language used by reporters in all forms of news media. I think that is because there is just so much that is simply churned out without much discussion beforehand or thought at the time about the message or the effect.

    I find that the trouble begins with the reporters themselves who, in my experience and as a generalization, rarely challenge or question the mush coming out of the mouths of politicians, or the carefully crafted statements issued by public relations firms. As a result, this mush ends up far too often reproduced word-for-word in the media as “news.”

    My friend at the table that evening is not evil or lazy. But I think that discussions, such as the one you mentioned, don’t happen as often as they once did – or still should in Canadian newsrooms. Even, I hate to say, at the CBC.

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