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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...

Food for Thought

Late this summer, Shawn Cuthand published an opinion piece on the cbc.ca website, Introducing Yourself As a 'Settler' Creates Division – We Should All Be Focusing On Being Treaty Land Inhabitants. It's a great piece that considers just how terminology continues to impact relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples in canada specifically, but I suspect all over the americas. He observes that non-Indigenous people, at least the ones he meets that introduce themselves as "settlers" seem awfully wed to the term. Indigenous peoples have carried out a whole renaming process to correct and restore their real names. There's a sort of passive aggressive dynamic in these "settler" introductions that Cuthand sends up hilariously. Rather than spoil the funny parts which should be read in context in his original essay, this discussion will spend some time with two of his key ideas.

If we are trying to be on equal ground, why are you pointing out the hierarchy of colonizer and colonized as soon as we meet? Even what defines a settler includes the act of colonizing. Canada is a product of settler colonialism.

If I would suggest we introduce ourselves as anything but our names, why not call ourselves Treaty Land Inhabitants. Everything we experience today is from the treaties and I think we forget that. It's so simple. If there is to be a we in the equation, then we are Treaty Land Inhabitants.

The first point is quite an important one, and Cuthand observed that nobody consulted First Nations about this settler terminology. There is utility in it in some contexts, for example in history books and more socio-politically oriented ones like Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada by Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker. I am not fond of using "settler" as a term even in history books dealing with the european invasion of the americas, because most of what all those europeans did was unsettle people. Themselves, millions of africans who never asked in any way to have their communities torn apart so they could be made slaves and if they came as relatively free people like many europeans, were fleeing unsettling created by warfare let alone the impacts of early capitalism. Unsettling is basically an industry in much of the americas to this day, as older parts of cities and towns abandoned by those who consider themselves elites are pushed into decrepitude by cutting off their access to funds and supplies to keep them going concerns, forcing the rest of the community to scatter. Or if the community pulls together and successfully revives the place, drawing curious visitors, pretty soon the gentrifying profiteers appear to drive away the community, speculate on property values for major profit, then complain that the place no longer has the character it used to. Somehow the "bad part of town" always shows up over time, usually in the direction of major industrial development that entails smells, noise, and landfills. Then the resulting social ills become reason to declare it a slum to be cleared for a different sort of gentrification. In that case the people who lived in the so-called slum had built a community, but were systematically deprived of the tools to resist predatory landlords and other forms of organized crime.

Postcard featuring a view of point pelée in what is currently called southern ontario circa 1928, courtesy of southwestern ontario digital archive, identifier 1098. Postcard featuring a view of point pelée in what is currently called southern ontario circa 1928, courtesy of southwestern ontario digital archive, identifier 1098.
Postcard featuring a view of point pelée in what is currently called southern ontario circa 1928, courtesy of southwestern ontario digital archive, identifier 1098.

To me at least, it has always seemed that when a person introduces themselves to me or a group I am sitting with as "a settler" they are not often performing a guilt gesture. More often their tone gives away that far from feeling guilty, feeling that they are introducing themselves as an at least ignorant and therefore redeemable person, they are quite proud. After all, to their mind, the settlers are the winners, everybody knows from the movies and the comic books and the school books that "the Indians" lost and that's why they are a problem and settlers have to magnanimously soothe their troubled brows. Of course this is grotesque, and in truth the majority of people who are not Indigenous don't think this way at all. Too many of them fled to the americas for reasons ranging from literal war with weapons to economic war and hope of improving the lot of their families. Many of them feel pretty resentful about being roped into this whole "settler" thing when what they wanted was a better future without being pressured to take part in warring on Indigenous peoples in the ways they had just been warred on themselves. So this whole "settler" thing as it has taken off in the mainstream seems to have gotten twisted away from a way to help people understand what colonialism actually entails and how it is necessary to respect the treaties and live together in a good way for all of our sakes to a way to create new settlers. That is, people newly committed to doubling down on the colonial practices, the same ones driving dangerous global warming and general social malaise. I suspect even the people who most aggressively insist that settlers are winners are feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance about that claim in the present conditions.

Cuthand is not the first Indigenous person to point out that we in fact all have something positive in common within canada, being Treaty Land Inhabitants. He is from saskatchewan, so the name is particularly apt there for when as he says, people are not referring to themselves by their specific names. For the many areas where there are still no treaties, I would suggest Seeking to Make Treaty Inhabitants. This would describe a new state for quite a few non-Indigenous people, but it is a highly positive one in principle. By Seeking to Make Treaty in a good way, a whole lot of great work could get done very fast, like actually renaming the ridiculously monickered "british columbia." Contrary to poorly done surveys, I think there is a real appetite for a change in the province, and drawing a name from the Chinook jargon is a profoundly clever idea. The new name from that trade language could be used for the rather strange entity created on the map non-Indigenous people are bound to have some affinity with. There will always be angry complaints at such changes, how supposedly they "destroy history" when they evidently don't, and now it is a point of pride that Haida Gwaii is on the map instead of the colonial name. Other people than Haida still live in Haida Gwaii and Haida and other peoples together are still building communities and retelling the remarkable history of the islands they are still making.

If "we are all here to stay" then it is past time for the non-Indigenous people generally to start acting like it. Striving to leave behind the "settler" label for being Treaty Land Inhabitants or Seeking to Make Treaty Inhabitants who will become Treaty Land Inhabitants is a positive move, not a negative one. Then more and more newcomers could stop unsettling themselves and everyone else, chasing the ever receding will o' the wisp of speculative profit in favour of finding places to put down roots in a good way that respects Indigenous peoples and their lands. For all the "settler" anxiety about history, it's funny how often the people using that term seem to forget how Indigenous peoples welcomed newcomers and treated them as potential friends and allies who were welcome to stay on sensible terms.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:42:55 MDT