Decolonizing Dialogues & Historical Conflicts

Decolonizing Dialogues & Historical Conflicts

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December 3, 2006

Here is something recently added to the Wasase website:
Decolonizing Dialogues & Historical Conflicts
© Paulette Yvonne Lynette Regan, PhD. 2006

Presented at First Nations Symposium, Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC. Nov. 22, 2006

I begin by acknowledging that I stand today on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples, and I will conduct myself as a respectful visitor while I am here. In thinking about how to engage in decolonizing dialogues with Indigenous peoples as a necessary step towards addressing historical conflicts and fostering transformative social change, I turn to the words of Okanagan author Jeanette Armstrong. She challenges non-Indigenous writers, and indeed, all of us who are Settlers on Indigenous lands, to learn to communicate differently.

Imagine how you as writers from the dominant society might turn over some
of the rocks in your own garden for examination. Imagine…courageously
questioning and examining the values that allow the de-humanizing of
peoples through domination…Imagine writing in honesty, free from the
romantic bias about the courageous ‘pioneering spirit’ of colonialist practise
and imperialist process. Imagine interpreting for us your own people’s
thinking towards us, instead of interpreting for us , our thinking, our lives,
our stories. 1

Armstrong asks the non-Indigenous to cast a critical eye on the imperial garden we have cultivated with our colonial tools , on the lands and in the lives of Indigenous peoples. To turn over the rocks. To face whatever ugly colonial creatures slither out from beneath, and to examine them honestly and unflinchingly. To challenge the romantic myths we believe about ourselves. To focus our energies on questioning our own identity, values and experience as colonizers. And to share honestly with Indigenous peoples, what we learn about ourselves in the process, and more importantly, how we are going to change our attitudes and actions. This morning, I’m going to turn over some of those rocks to unearth one of the colonial creatures that still inhabit our Settler garden—the benevolent peacemaker. In doing so, I challenge a popular Canadian historical myth that characterizes Settlers as benevolent peacemakers, not perpetrators of violence, in our relations with Indigenous peoples. I will talk briefly about how decolonizing dialogues—as intercultural communicative acts of testimony and truth-telling—might make space for Indigenous history, law and peacemaking practices that we have denied, suppressed and ignored as part of the colonial enterprise.

In our rush to focus on the future—negotiating treaties, settling historical claims, and building partnerships—we tend to gloss over those parts of our history that are at odds with this benevolent peacemaker persona. We comfort ourselves with a story about how we, unlike our American counterparts, made treaties, not war, with Indigenous peoples, during the settlement period. As historian Elizabeth Furniss points out, in this version of our national story:

Canadian heroes do not inflict violence; instead they impose peace, order
and good government…This theme of conquest through
benevolence…weaves in and out of Canadian literature and popular
history…(silencing)…the realities of Canada’s own repression of Aboriginal
people and …cloaking…forms of domination and power as paternalistic
expressions of goodwill. 2

Of course there have been moments in our history that disrupt this story; Oka, Ipperwash Park, Burnt Church and more recently, Caledonia. In Victoria, there is currently a conflict at Bear Mountain concerning a sacred site of the Songhees and Tsartlip peoples that is threatened by local land development. These are sites of historical conflict, places where development and history clash head-on. We recognize these as violent encounters. What we do not question are the more subtle acts of violence that occur in everyday encounters at negotiating tables, and in corporate board rooms and community meeting halls . Places where we, as Settlers, communicate through our words and actions , that there is no substantive room, no space, for Indigenous histories to take their rightful place.

Theorists call this symbolic violence.3 It is not overt, but it is equally deadly. It exists in the laws, bureaucratic policies and practices that have been instituted over the years— the Indian Act, Indian residential schools, the denial of veterans’ benefits to Indigenous warriors who fought for Canada during the war, the failure to honour treaties, or to make them in the first place, and so on. Canadians only know about these particular parts of the story because Indigenous peoples’ activism and resistance have made it harder for us to ignore them. But, not surprisingly, we are much more comfortable with the stories of cooperation that are also part of our shared history together.

Decolonizing dialogues compel us to rethink our ideas about what constitutes violence, recognize our own power and privilege, and find concrete ways to address unequal power relations. Therefore, decolonizing dialogues about our relationship with Indigenous peoples are necessarily unsettling dialogues. To my mind, there are four themes that we, as non-Indigenous people, as Settlers, must examine more closely—a pedagogical process that I call “unsettling the Settler within.” 4

1. Responsibility: Canadians are still on a misguided, obsessive, and mythical quest to “fix” the so-called “Indian problem.” In this way, we avoid looking too closely at ourselves and the responsibility we bear for the colonial status quo. The question we should really be asking ourselves is this—how do we fix the Settler problem? 5

2. Identity and Myth: Canadians don’t question a cherished national myth in which we cast ourselves as benevolent, neutral peacemakers. We haven’t begun to examine or grapple with those aspects of our identity that are morally repugnant. To do so would create our own identity crisis, exposing us to the trauma of admitting that we have built a relationship based not on violence, not peace. How do we deconstruct the myth to explore more fully, what it means to carry the identity of colonizer?

3. The third theme—history—is at the heart of Indigenous-Settler relations. Not the sanitized, romantic, mythic version of pioneers and peacemakers, but an unjust history that is still alive in ongoing injustices, racism and a deep denial of the presence and humanity of Indigenous peoples. It tells us a very different story about our relationship— a history of dispossession and violence that is profoundly unsettling for us to hear. At the same time, we have erased from our historical consciousness, a rich history of Indigenous diplomacy, law, and peacemaking practices, expressed in the stories, ceremonies, and rituals of nations throughout Turtle Island.6 The history of the Indigenous diplomat is at odds with the benevolent peacemaker myth. We thought we knew our history. Now, we are unsure. How do we, as Settlers, confront the unscrutinized, uglier parts of our own history, making substantive space for Indigenous counternarratives?

4. Truth-telling : If non-Indigenous people have not explored the myths upon which our identity is based, or fully plumbed the depths of our repressed history, then we lack a foundation for the truth. What we have ins tead is a foundation of untruths, upon which we have built a flawed discourse of reconciliation that promises to transform Indigenous -Settler relations, but will actually do just the opposite. How do we stop hiding behind our false mask of neutrality, to risk engaging differently with Indigenous peoples— with vulnerability, humility and a willingness to stay in the struggle of our own

Keeping these themes in mind, we can then ask ourselves different questions. Are unsettling stories necessarily “bad?” What if we were to embrace unsettling stories as powerful teachings— pedagogical moments of discomfort 7 —of unsettling the Settler within? What can we learn from our intellectual, emotional and physical responses to Indigenous testimonies? What can we learn from the uncomfortable questions that we ask ourselves in response to Indigenous histories—stories of identity, place, and belonging; and stories of loss, survival and regeneration? What if, as Roger Simon
suggests, we were to ask ourselves questions about our own questions, reflecting critically on the stories and our responses to them? 8

We are often reluctant to engage in dialogues about this history that is still alive – that sits with all of us—Indigenous and non-Indigenous— as we try to find ways to repair relations and interact more constructively together. Yet we intuitively know that this past is still present. But as non-Indigenous people, we often rationalize our denial, guilt and moral indifference to the ongoing impacts of colonialism that continue to reverberate through the lives of Indigenous peoples today. We tell ourselves that because we cannot change the past, we should just think about the future. As a result, our attempts to communicate across cultures more often resemble a monologue. In this morning’s edition of the Times Colonist, Adam Olsen, from the Tsartlip First Nation, expressed his concerns about the conflict at Bear Mountain. He reminds us that
a deeply respectful recognition of Indigenous presence on these lands is key to repairing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

I appreciate that it is a difficult job to reconcile the past, but reconciliation will only
be possible through recognition…until the population of this city, this province
and this country give true recognition to the fact that there was a people who
came before—and that we are still here—these issues will continue to arise.9

I’m convinced, after 20 years of working on various aspects of the historical conflicts that are still unresolved between Indigenous peoples and ourselves, that unless we, as non-Indigenous people, undertake to turn over the rocks in our colonial garden, we will never achieve what we claim to want so badly—that is, to transform and reconcile our relationship with Indigenous peoples. Rather we will remain benevolent peacemakers, bearing the false gift of a cheap and meaningless reconciliation that costs us so little and Indigenous peoples so much. 10

I now understand that my own deepest learning has always come from those times in my interactions with Indigenous peoples, when I was in unfamiliar territory—culturally, intellectually and emotionally. For Settlers, there is power in this place of not knowing, of unsettling, that is key to our decolonization. Being in this place of not knowing and working through our own discomfort, opens us to deep transformative learning. The kind of experiential learning that engages our whole being— our heads, our hearts, our spirits. Decolonizing dialogues are places of encounter where we learn to listen deeply to Indigenous testimonies and to engage in acts of truth-telling, restitution and apology. This exchange is integral to righting our relations.

Viewed in this way, intercultural communication requires much more than learning cultural sensitivity skills. It requires us to identify and work with principles that serve as touchstones—respect, recognition and responsibility. It involves nothing less than a paradigm shift that moves us from a culture of denial—the hallmark of perpetrators of violence— towards an ethics of recognition that guides our attempts to become more authentic peacemakers and Indigenous allies. I ask non-Indigenous listeners to resist denying, dismissing or rationalizing my unsettling words. I invite you instead to question the myth, to name the violence, to face the history— to turn over your own rocks in the Settler garden that we have cultivated with such care.
Social activist Anne Bishop reminds us that as we struggle with forces much larger than ourselves— globalization, global warming, ethnic conflict, poverty and injustice— we must envision the kind of world we want to live in. We must take heart in knowing that “(t)here are small, courageous experiments happening everywhere, based in and on local conditions, but aware of the whole world… Our recovery of hope—full-colour, three-dimensional, hard working, clearly thinking, wildly radical, living hope—is our key to liberation.” 11

Unsettling the Settler within necessarily involves critical self-reflection and action in our everyday lives—a difficult learning that is part of the struggle that non-Indigenous people must undertake. At the same time, we must also work in respectful partnership with Indigenous peoples to generate a kind of critical hope— vision that is neither cynical nor utopian— but is rooted in truth as an ethical quality in the struggle for human dignity and freedom. We can then understand the act of turning over the rocks in our Settler garden, as an act of wildly radical, living hope.

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