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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Troubling Treaties

According to my electronic OED, a treaty is "a formally concluded and ratified agreement between two countries." It also explains that a country is a "nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory." These are generally uncontested definitions, to my knowledge, and treaties are widely understood as a means for countries to formally record relationships to one another. Europeans and people descended from europeans often share the idea that a treaty is properly conflated with a piece of paper formally drawn up and signed with witnesses present. No piece of paper, witnesses, and signatures, no treaties. This begs the question of how europeans got along and made treaties before there was at least paper and ink around, which they clearly did. In different times and places they resorted to stone, but clearly they did something else before that, and it worked. Europeans have spent a lot of time at war with each other, but there is also plenty of archaeological evidence that they managed to get along and lived in specific territories before paper or a widely shared writing system was in place. As they rediscovered, Indigenous peoples in the americas managed this feat via ceremony and the work of specially trained persons whose task it was to remember the treaties and recite them, together with mnemonic systems to support their memories and enable parties to the treaty to agree in a shared representation of its terms. Unfortunately, by the time europeans started coming to the americas, they were not interested in relearning older ways of treatymaking and keeping they may have forgotten. They were interested in using and abusing treaties to steal land and make unheard of profits. So when all else failed, europeans and their descendants have fallen back on the claim that treaties are written documents, and whatever the written document says goes, regardless of what the other parties to the treaty may know or remember about it.

Over time, settlers insisted that they didn't have to take seriously Indigenous understandings of treaties as relationships that need tending and care, including change. Sometimes, those relationships may even end, just like any other relationship. That part settlers have been all over from the beginning, seeking incessantly for ways to end treaty relationships by ending Indigenous peoples, since the alternative is overt warfare that is impractical and not likely to win or hold wide necessary wide support. The result has been a truly unnerving abuse of treaties, to the point that most treaty relationships with Indigenous nations are more like those between male abusers and the women and children unhappily entangled with them. Just as in those smaller scale cases, the party with the ability to use coercive force and block access to the necessities of life abuses the other party or parties. This continues until others intervene to stop or mitigate the abuse because it has become too obvious or too embarrassing to tolerate any longer. Caught, the abuser weeps and insists he'll never do it again, he'll be better from now on. Then he screws down the coercive control elements tighter and often resorts to higher levels of violence. It is eerie seeing such a similar dynamic between Indigenous nations and settler governments and corporations, as the response to Indigenous resistance and challenges by non-Indigenous persons and communities is ever increasing violence and coercion. There is more literal violence, as police are licensed to attack protesters and use the jail and prison system to do even more violence out of sight. Levels of surveillance keep spiralling upward in the expectation of using it to enable and enforce coercive control.

Map of treaties between the british crown and Indigenous nations in canada courtesy of the manitoba southern chiefs organization. Map of treaties between the british crown and Indigenous nations in canada courtesy of the manitoba southern chiefs organization.
Map of treaties between the british crown and Indigenous nations in canada courtesy of the manitoba southern chiefs organization.

This bears no resemblance to how treaties are properly founded and maintained in Indigenous contexts to my knowledge. Definitely not in the cases that I have direct information on, including when I have been very fortunate, participation in treaty-related ceremony. In Indigenous and originally also in european contexts, treaties involve ceremony, declaring the nature and intent of the treaty, and commitment to uphold it before one or more key Spirit Beings. But, the treaties are not unconditional. There are widely repeated formulae in english about "as long as the water flows and the sun shines" that creepily enough the present settler colonial behaviour is doing a lot to remove from the "effectively forever" column via environmental devastation. Those formulae are emphasized by settlers, but I mistrust them for that very reason as presented. The ongoing existence of flowing water and shining Sun doesn't make the treaties permanent at all, if anything can. The point is that the parties to the treaty are supposed to be solemnly committing to keeping the treaty after it is made, and its keeping consists of the commitments made in the treaty. I highly doubt Nehiyawe or Anishinabeg leaders ever agreed to any invidiously "permanent" treaty, but they did solemnly commit to upholding the peace together with the other treaty parties into the foreseeable future. No treaty can be upheld by one nation alone.

What can happen, when a treaty relationship goes sour, is just the same as what can happen in a human relationship that goes sour. The relationship may not end as such, but the other parties may take step to end the cycle of abuse and reinstate a healthy and constructive relationship that honours the needs and wellbeing of all parties. Honouring the needs and wellbeing of the abuser does not mean doing what the abuser wants. In fact, doing what the abuser wants is harming the abuser too, but those seeking relief from abuse are not responsible for that. They are responsible for ending the abuse cycle and not allowing it to be reinstated. The relationship is going to be very different after the necessary changes to end the abuse.

The key realization that more and more settlers are making is that they are all treaty people, and that includes where there are no recognized paper treaties. If you are a settler, and you are living and working on Indigenous land without having to worry about Indigenous people using the army or police to drive you out and take your home, then guess what? You are benefitting by a peace and friendship treaty to which you have agreed to abide by and support, because that peace and friendship treaty is all that makes it possible to for you to be there. It has not been properly formalized in Indigenous terms either, but for the sake of living in a good way and stopping the abuse cycle of colonialism, Indigenous nations insist on falling back on the original peace and friendship we were born into, life itself. More and more settlers want to formalize the peace and friendship treaty, become conscious treaty people who behave accordingly. By that I don't refer to those hoping for a quick move to innocence that helps them relieve a sense of guilt. I mean those who are seeking to behave according to treaty relationship principles, knowing that this means behaving in non-abusive, non-oppressive ways, including giving up on individual get rich quick schemes in favour of community level, longterm acts that give to everyone in a good way. By "everyone" I do mean everyone, the Earth, the Sky, all the living beings we interact with with however many legs and with or without chlorophyll. We're all on this Earth together, after all.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2020 16:41:50