parallel universes

Last year, I lived on Tyendinaga MT as the exit sign on Highway 401 puts it. Why, I would wonder from time to time, don’t they spell out “Mohawk Territory” so people won’t need to ask: “What’s M.T.?” Now you know.

At the time, I wondered why so many people on the territory did not support Shawn Brant. He had his small circle of adherents. Then were those who supported him because they desperately wanted change, and saw Brant doing something, anything. They were tired of watching their lands stolen, their children lose their language and culture, and their collective backbone erode after decades of giving ground.

Personally, he impressed the hell out of me. A couple of years ago, at a community meeting on their land rights around the town of Deseronto, I watched him cut through all the blather from those at the band office that everyone knew was just another dose of do-nothing.

In those few minutes, he summarized the positions of the federal and Ontario governments, the band office, and both the politics and finances of the nextdoor town of Deseronto. He went so far as to propose a solution – take over ownership and administration of the town. It was dying anyway. It was surrounded by Mohawk land and had no means to expand or upgrade. Since the town was under claim, why not? Had not the Seneca done just that in western New York State?

It sounded simple. A lot of people looked up, nodded their heads in agreement. The band council fudged, and then dumped it all onto the lap of Indian Affairs which was conveniently absent. Its officials were at that moment assuring the residents of Deseronto that nothing would happen. Indian Affairs was telling good Canadian citizens that the Mohawks would get nothing. These white citizens could trust Indian Affairs and the Canadian Government to do right by them, and by implication screw the Indians.

Back at Tyendinaga, you could feel the mood deflate. People shook their heads as they headed to the parking lot because they knew that this was how things had been done for decades. Sure they had seen some progress; going from sub-human to “wards of the state,” from denial of human, political and legal rights to “first nation.” It was all the same to them though. The all-powerful Indian agent had evolved into the band council despite claims to the contrary, and they knew that too. In that atmosphere of fog and dark, Shawn Brant stood out.

What most people didn’t realize then was that two parallel universes had crossed boundaries that evening.

Shawn Brant’s proposal to absorb Deseronto and assume administration of the town held real possibilities and mutual advantages to Mohawk and whites alike. They lived side-by-side, shared many services, had both federal and provincial governments supporting them – but separately. Tyendinaga’s businesses were booming for many reasons including a few minor tax advantages (that many whites tried to access on a daily basis). But like many of Brant’s ideas, there was a fundamental reality that he either ignored or failed to recognize.

Ever since contact, there has been a crucial difference between the Indigenous peoples in North America and their philosophical, cultural and legal understandings of land and land ownership, and those of the European settler. Indigenous folks must have been terribly confused by settlers who sunk roots into a piece of ground claiming to own it forever, when everyone knew one could never own Mother Earth. We borrowed time as stewards of the land until our bodies returned to the earth. Still, they understood territory and defended their sovereignty. This is the way things were, at least until the the Indian Act and its reserve system made official the one-sided shift in “nation-to-nation” relations.

So whatever the merits of Brant’s suggestion, and the hope for change that it might hold for some in Tyendinaga, it would require a massive and fundamental shift in not only the attitudes but the economic basis of the surrounding white population – particularly with the staunch conservative and even reactionary rural population in the immediate area around Tyendinaga.

Still, think of the possibilities. Then consider why so many Mohawks view Brant in a very different way than many – if not most – whites.

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2 Comments

Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Canadian politics, Indigenous rights, journalism

2 responses to “parallel universes

  1. Excellent point,In fact I just finished re-reading Adam Howard’s “Prison of Grass”(1989 updated edition).
    Mr Howard points out ..”Within the context of Canadian society,the Indian and Metis liberation problem is complicated by the fact that our social lives and material conditions are bound up with those of the colonizer and his system”…”The native movement cannot avoid tackling the basic problems of the entire Canadian society.In that way our liberation struggle automatically involves the Canadian whites.” (Chapter 16 page 180)

    On Brant I often wondered myself,why Brant seemed unable to attract more support .With that question in mind I e-mailed a well known and respected Mohawk activist/traditional leader ,as the e-mail was a private communication I will not name drop.Here is how this person sees it and I quote..
    “The problem is though that Brant himself has not cultivated any respect or support among other Mohawks (band council or traditional or otherwise) aside from his own family and followers. So, unfortunately, he’s left out in the cold to fight on his own – for better or worse. I think he has some great points to make and obviously has courage, but it’s hard to support and work with someone who doesn’t make any effort to gain allies and compatriots on his side”…

    Combined with Howard’s statement one can begin to understand the difficulties indigenous people face in organizing resistance .Indeed Brant’s difficulties in building support not only become understandable but predictable.

  2. shmohawk

    I think Brant is quite serious when he says he only wants to improve conditions so that his children – the next generation – won’t have to go through what he and others are today. I think he’s very community-focused and understands that he may be able to help his community, wake them up from their self-induced coma. But he would become a “professional activist” if he sought to become involved in every protest, demonstration or conference.

    I also think Howard’s writing inspired a generation of people to try engaging the non-Indian or non-Métis populations. But that critical mass of Canadian educators, who could have made such a difference, never came about. So most Canadians have remained blissfully ignorant about the two parallel existences we talk about. Sadly, I think little will never truly change until this basic education takes place.

    Until then, we will remain known only by generic terms (Aboriginal, native, etc.) and Canadians won’t get to know my Mohawk heritage or culture, or that of the Abenaki, or the eastern Cree. This would be like me calling all people who trace their lineage to eastern Europe as “Euros” and refusing to acknowledge them as French, Italian, Flemish, or Danish. The fact that I can distinguish them, but most Canadians cannot similarly distinguish the individual Indigenous cultures and nations here on this continent speaks volumes.

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